It may be different for those who are reading this in an actual paper newspaper. But for those of you who are online with me right now (trust me, I am online as you’re reading — that’s what I do), you’re probably a bit lost for silence. Even desperate for it. Or maybe terrified of it. Like the end of The Social Network, where Jesse Eisenberg just keeps hitting refresh. As if there were really anything refreshing about the act.
As I listened to MSNBC anchors refer to the “so-called” White House scandals involving the IRS and Benghazi, I had to admire for a moment once again the political adeptness at work; the White House and its allies know their audience. Not MSNBC’s, particularly, but the culture we’re living in. We have limited attention spans. We hit refresh. We set alerts so we’ll always know what’s new without doing any additional work. We’ll move on to the next new thing, thank you. That’s how the experienced talent Judith gets voted off The Voice, leaving fresher faces behind and judge Adam Levine announcing under his breath that he hates this country on account of the way the viewers of the show voted. A wee bit dramatic, but when he channels his angst into the next Maroon 5 album, it just might resonate.
The new book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life has a brilliant cover. It’s a cathedral window with the stained glass replaced by rows of app icons. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, shoes, sports, alcohol, gambling, a political party. None of these are intrinsically bad. But in excess, outside of a healthy order, they can poison our lives and our relationships. And the strangeness doesn’t even get into Snapchat, which the kids explain to me is for those photos and thoughts you don’t want to ever have to answer for.
Talk about adapting to a new normal, a new amorality.
In Strange Gods, Elizabeth Scalia, known online as “The Anchoress” (the name of her blog), announces that ours is a “culture that is over-connected, media saturated, and weirdly obsessed with the fake glamour of ‘reality’ exhibitionism.” Ours is now a “can’t get enough of our favorite website or Twitter feed” existence. Illusions are all around us. Some of them are presented by advertisers (as Google adjusts to our searches, transactions, and conversations) and “can keep us recklessly careening about in search of some elusive idea of perfection. When we listen to these voices, our pride and ego are neither acknowledged nor reined in.” Instead, she observes, “they run wild, urging that we assert ourselves, pursue the notice of others — that we control our environments and even insert ourselves into conversations and life stories that are actually none of our business.” (That Pippa should be royal godmother, shouldn’t she? Who’s in rehab now? Is she really going out with him?)
Our vision is “bedazzled by our fears, insecurities, egos,” Scalia suggests, and as we watch “all the pretty people paraded before us wearing all the newest clothes and owning all the latest gadgets,” these “distractions cease to look like pale imitations of love, but instead, become reasonable facsimiles.” We find ourselves “mesmerized by our favorite iThis and eThat and how much we love our favorite artist, our favorite politician, and our favorite sports figure.”
We attribute to all of these things, all of these people, expectations that aren’t fair to — or good for — anyone. Even in our cynicism about politics, we look to personalities and legislation as salvific.
We’re so overstimulated, we buy into these delusions. We have so much information in our purses and back pockets — literally — that we lose sight of details and don’t have time to clear our lens to have a shot at seeing anything like common sense. It’s what the smart marketers — in advertising and in politics — run with.
Sitting at a conference on religious freedom — far from my first — this past week — and watching Harrison Ford walk by our Georgetown-hotel meeting room, as it happened — I reflected on these alternative realities. Here the Ethics and Public Policy Center had gathered Sikhs, Muslims, Pentecostals, Jews, and Catholics, among others, to discuss the urgency of the threats to religious freedom in America. Outside, a news story sought to dismiss critics of what it described as an Obama birth-control initiative. The “birth control” focus is brilliant — no one wants the government to make a woman’s decisions about her fertility for her — but it’s also dishonest. The controversy over the Department of Health and Human Services employer insurance mandate — which has forced business owners and religious leaders to go to court seeking relief — is not about birth control. It is about protecting basic conscience rights that the late Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, when marketing her health-care reform plan as First Lady, were not long ago for. It’s about basic freedom. The Obama policy and the manipulation bolstering it are harmful for another reason as well: Treating women’s fertility as a disease and abortion-inducing drugs as a “preventive service,” as Obamacare does, might just exacerbate our disconnectedness. Our culture, it can be argued, already pressures women into a particular posture toward their fertility, with contraception expected and abortion preferred if the timing isn’t exactly right.
Family life is on the decline. Whether we’re “Bowling Alone” or “Coming Apart,” researchers and commentators tell us what we can see every time we step into an elevator or wait on a check-out line: People are connected, but they’re not connecting. Good luck building families and communities when yours is a culture of looking down at your iWhatever. Add to this an increase in Americans believing anything goes spiritually — who needs organized religion anyway? — and when we actually do look up (when the battery on the phone needs recharging, say), we may just find that those mediating institutions that have buttressed our pluralistic democratic republic’s healthy functioning, have become relics.
I don’t think we actually want that. I don’t think we’d actually, actively choose that. Strange if we did. God help us if we happen to — while, without thinking, we simply hit refresh again.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association; a correction had been made since posting.