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I am none the wiser after reading an article



commentary • 25.10.14

Since newspapers became virtually free to access I’ve been increasingly attentive to their reportage. Previously I rarely read any of it, an occasional Sunday rag being the extent of my current affairs intake. There were times, even working in radio with journalists in the next room, when I was quite oblivious to the entire news agenda. And that seemed about right: life events were to be lived in their actuality, less read about several times removed.

Given that thought I’d say my increased news consumption of recent times hasn’t been very constructive. After reading articles a dozen a day it hardly feels that anything has been learned beyond an awareness of what the talk is. It’s like junk food: it does a job but is detrimental to health. With newspapers that means intellectual health. Journalism is invariably negative and overly concerned with selling a story. A skewed impression of the world is the consequence.

Obviously I’m not saying journalists themselves are devoid of intellect. Many are articulate and well researched with esteemed books to their name. It’s just that their day job - two thousand words on a given subject probably at an editor’s behest - is material that gets dashed off essentially for a pay-cheque. Yes they have to eat but I don’t have to swallow their produce.

And I’m not so much referring to the trash tabloids which are a whole other matter but to the so called quality press. Although some of them are impressive institutions with accomplished reputations internationally, I do get tired of the “broken society” themes that too often fill their pages. We are told repeatedly how disillusioned with the system everyone is and that it has become dysfunctional.

I may be sceptical about politics but question if everything is really so broken. I suppose the idea is drawn from a notion that at some point in the past things were much better than they are now. As such that would be a variant of the biblical Garden, the hallowed space humanity is supposed to have fallen from. Most broadsheet readers don’t believe in that anymore. There never was a Garden from whence we fell. Likewise never was there a golden age or anything of the sort in politics. Yet there lingers a like mentality in the minds of the sorely disillusioned.

I might ask the broken society folk what they think the world is about. I might remind them we are a bunch of animals roaming around the surface of an old rock, that we will soon be passed over for a fresh crop, that in time entropy wins. I might point out that for now the level of facility we access - social, technological and structural, our rich inheritance from generations past - is hugely fortuitous, the technology alone verging on miraculous. I might suggest that we are deeply privileged and not actually living in some terrible dystopia brought on by corrupt and incompetent leaders. I might say that how it is for us is about as good as it gets. Those enduring the horrors of 1916 or 1942 could not have said the same.

I would flag all these things and more were I involved in the discourse but alas I’m not. That’s a prospect too awful to contemplate. I might then have to participate. I’d have to visit websites with dreadful comment sections populated by angry men in their pyjamas, the kind who got that way by ingesting too much news. I wonder about them and political types generally. I wonder what being "political" actually means. I think it means you subscribe to a narrative, preferably a pissed-off one. You don’t have to actually do anything. Then you’d be an activist. All you have to do after subscribing is read the relevant stuff and parrot the pissed-off arguments.

That much renders you political in a society rich with inherited advantage. But the polemics don't sit well with the high material standards of the complainers. Go into the home of a considered Guardian reader for example and you will see a veritable palace of comforts, the kids having every possible opportunity, benefits hardly dreamed of a few decades earlier. The parents may still be sticking it to the man, still being political, yet utterly conformed at every turn.

Writers pander to such affectations and have honed instincts for what to serve up. Together with mainstream politicians they uphold a narrative steeped in references most of us don’t process intelligently. Their words are so coded as to be virtually indecipherable to an onlooker. That’s why I am none the wiser after reading a piece or listening to an interview. And that’s why I’ve had enough. I’ve been attentive to newspapers and politics over the last decade or so out of a misplaced sense of duty.

Though I appreciate the need for a vigilant press holding power to account etc., I also respect a person’s right to be disengaged from the process. This is one of the boons of a big society: choosing to be invisible, living by one’s own conditions less swayed by convention. It may seem counter-intuitive but for a non-conformist like me social and political conservatism is actually a favourable context in which to do that. I can then let others, the media and those barking at the television, worry about broken stuff. They seem to have pretty much got that covered with or without my assent. I hereby thank them for their endeavours and graciously move on.