We’ve been distraction-shaming each other since day one of the chaos presidency. But how can we find focus with an unprecedented onslaught of never-ending headlines?
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Reader, I want you to take a good, hard look in the mirror. Don’t have a mirror close by? Maybe use your selfie camera, since you probably care a lot about your face, which is of course, an awful and bad thing to care about these days. After all, don’t you realize that planet Earth is crumbling into the sea?
In fact, there are a lot of things you’re not caring about properly, and no shortage of attendant finger-wagging tailored to foment the Facebook arguments that separate the good people from the ones who didn’t see that new Times piece about immigration. You know the one—the one you read and got righteously mad about while your woefully distracted friends and family were still raging about that silly opioid epidemic.
In a horrifying and hilarious Washington Post column last week, Catherine Rampell brilliantly parodied the growing attention-trolling zeitgeist of the Trump era, dubbing 2017 the “ouroboros of distractions.” Every new revelation about Trump, his administration and the trickle-down awfulness of the MAGA monster is simultaneously urgent and insignificant, depending on which flavor of scold you’re particularly partial to.
Concerned about Trump’s diplomatic disgraces? Then perhaps it’s your fault that the latest doomsday climate science didn’t get more play. Appalled by the president’s wholesale incompetence on Twitter? You’re probably single-handedly relegating news about his campaign’s collusion with Russia to the internal depths of those newspapers that nobody reads any more. But of course you nitwits who do care about that whole Russia thing would do well to focus on what’s really important: The fact that 45 eats his steaks well done. Unless, of course, you’re one of those dolts who gave the barest shit about that business with Trump firing the FBI director for failing to do the bidding of the executive office, which means you necessarily must be wholly unconcerned with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s reignition of the war on drugs.
It’s bizarre indeed to suggest that it’s a bad thing when vast swaths of Americans are falling all over themselves to find the right C-SPAN feed on which to watch the fireworks of encroaching fascism, and yet here we are. Attention-policing is hardly new, but now that every day—and on some days, every hour—brings a barrage of news that under any other administration would have dominated the media cycle for months, the sheer volume of appalling revelations does indeed make it hard to put all those headlines in focus.
But every minute we spend worrying about whether we’re worrying about the right agent of democracy’s destruction is a minute we’re not worrying about any agent of democracy’s destruction, but instead worrying about whether we’re worrying correctly about the destruction of democracy.
Reader, I release you from this burden. Because I believe you are capable of caring about more than one thing at a time, maybe even capable of caring about multiple things at a time. The fact that there’s so much to care about doesn’t mean you have to care about all of it. If anything is truly a distraction in this era of unprecedented political tomfoolery, it’s a lengthy harangue about the way you choose to parcel out your emotional and intellectual energy.
Self-important scolds about the “real” problems are hardly inspirational. Mostly, they’re exhausting and boring and disheartening, because nobody has the power to manipulate the time-space continuum in such a way that would satisfy these many and various writers and tweeters. “Don’t be distracted,” indeed. Don’t be distracted by somebody telling you that the thing that affects your family, that grabs your interest, that motivates you to stay plugged into the political and news cycle, isn’t worthwhile.
Because there absolutely is a surefire way to ensure that people really don’t pay attention to the goings-on in the government, and that’s to make them feel like they’re helpless, stupid, or politically impotent. Voter exhaustion is real, and we need look no further than our own low-turnout red-state backyards to see its effect. When left-leaning people believe that they can’t do the right thing, or that doing the right thing won’t meaningfully matter, they become harder and harder to convince to do anything at all. This is an uphill fight all too familiar to progressives, liberals, and Democrats in states dominated by right-wing politicians who have taken advantage of this long-term brow-beating effort to further disenfranchise—and disenchant—voters by passing voter-ID laws and gerrymandering districts.
We’re only halfway through this year, and already we have more than enough bullshit to keep everyone’s first-priority plates full. If you want to put most of your energy into protesting the Trump administration’s appalling treatment of immigrants, keep it up. If reproductive justice stokes your fire, stoke away. If the Republicans’ innumerable attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare keeps you up at night, let it.
Let whatever engages you keep engaging you so that whatever enrages you can keep enraging you—in healthy, sustainable doses. Those massive Inauguration Day and Women’s March protests happened because tens of thousands of people were ready to give a shit about something, and we can’t let hand-wringing opinion writers dampen that flame. The resistance needs fighters at all stations, and no one fighter can man them all. Together, however, we can put up a formidable defense, and if enough of us stay involved on the issues we care about, it might just become an offense, instead.
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