On the menu today: Something of a stream-of-consciousness Jolt this morning, starting with contemplating how we can consume bad news in a troubled world and still keep our sanity and good cheer; what cults offer their members and how that relates to our current political environment; and Attorney General William Barr heads for the exit.
If It Bleeds, It Leads
One cliché about journalism is, “they don’t write articles about all the planes that land safely.” Another is that news is defined by what is unusual and surprising — when a man bites a dog, not when a dog bites a man.
But if every time you tune into the news you hear about men biting dogs, and you never hear about dogs biting men, you start to think you live in a society with a scourge of men running around trying to chomp on canines, and that dogs rarely if ever bite men. If your news sources aren’t being careful to maintain perspective, the process of trying to be more informed about the world around you can lead to you being less informed, or more misinformed, than if you didn’t pay attention at all.
Whether or not Antifa always exists, we will always have people who think the way they do. Whether or not the Proud Boys always exist, we will always have people who think the way they do. The best we can realistically hope for is to minimize the damage that extremists do in our society. A lot of folks responded pretty negatively to this Corner post yesterday. The observation, “Hey, we didn’t have nearly as much violence before, during, and after Election Day as some people predicted,” sounds almost blasphemous. It sounds as if it’s downplaying events such as the violent clashes in Washington, D.C., Saturday night. Every act of unjust violence, political or otherwise, is wrong. But for the overwhelming majority of the 328 million or so Americans, the 2020 election came and went without incident.
Even before 2020, news was a pessimism machine. Tune in on a regular basis, and you will constantly hear about natural disasters, wars, crimes, indictments, and scandals. What’s worse, in most cases, you’ll be hearing about bad problems that you can’t do much about. You can send money to a charity to help the people who lost their homes to the tornado, but the victims’ lives are already turned upside down. Social media puts a separate and arguably even more powerful spotlight on people who are desperate for attention and willing to say and do outrageous things to get it. Society starts to look like a hideous freakshow of coarse narcissists.
Oddly, judging from one study that occurred around the time of the Boston Marathon bombing, it appears that watching a lot of coverage of a shocking and troubling event can be even more stressful than witnessing it in person:
And so it happened that Holman and colleagues from the University of California, Irvine, found themselves in the midst of a national crisis, sitting on data about the mental wellbeing of nearly 5,000 people just before it happened. They decided to find out if that had changed in the weeks afterwards.
It’s intuitively obvious that being physically present for — or personally affected by — a terrorist incident is likely to be bad for your mental health. By chance, there were some people in the study who had first-hand experience of the bombings, and it was indeed true that their mental health suffered. But there was also a twist.
Another group had been even more badly shaken: those who had not seen the explosion in person, but had consumed six or more hours of news coverage per day in the week afterwards. Bizarrely, knowing someone who had been injured or died, or having been in the vicinity as the bombs went off, were not as predictive of high acute stress.
“It was a big ‘aha’ moment for us,” says Holman. “I think people really strongly, deeply underestimate the impact the news can have.”
This is where some might argue that those of us in journalism should focus more on good news and remind people of what’s going right in the world. And yet . . . there is considerable evidence that this is not what news consumers want, and that offering a steady look at the worst of humanity is a big part of what keeps news institutions in business:
One potential reason the news affects us so much is the so-called “negativity bias”, a well-known psychological quirk which means we pay more attention to all the worst things happening around us.
It’s thought to have evolved to protect us from danger and helps to explain why a person’s flaws are often more noticeable than their assets, why losses weigh on us more heavily than gains, and why fear is more motivating than opportunity. Governments even build it into their policies – torn between providing a positive or negative incentive for the general public, the latter is much more likely to work.
The bias may also be responsible for the fact that the news is rarely a light-hearted affair. When one website – the City Reporter, based in Russia – decided to report exclusively good news for a day in 2014, they lost two-thirds of their readership. As the science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke put it, the newspapers of Utopia would be terribly dull.
The only thing I would note is that Russians have raised pessimism to an art form and might be particularly allergic to good news.
This Is More or Less Why People Join Cults
But there’s an odd flip side to this notion that we tune in to the news to get our regular serving of bad news, pessimism, despair, depression, and outrage.
Where do people go to feel uplifted? Not long ago, the obvious answer would have been, “churches, synagogues, community organizations, and other gatherings of large groups.” At a sports event, grown adult strangers will high-five and hug each other in jubilant euphoria. At the movies, everyone in the raucous opening-night crowd cheers the heroes as they triumph over the villains. In live theater, groups cry as the dying protagonist completes her monologue. We gather in groups to be around people who are feeling the same emotions we are. (How much do you think the inability to connect to each other in large groups is a factor in our current troubled national mental health? How important was the ability to gather in a large group to everyone who was upset or outraged about the death of George Floyd?)
In fact, as we hear people fuming about the state of our politics, comparing various factions to cults . . . we should recognize that these “cults” are offering people a sense of connection to others and, in many cases, a particular form of good news. (This is not an endorsement of cults, just a recognition of why they appeal to people.) In the infamous NXIVM cult, did you ever watch the video of actress Allison Mack interviewing Keith Raniere? She’s thrilled to be in his presence, and his comments move her to the point of tears. Her reaction is probably comparable to what many of us would feel if Jesus Christ Himself came down from the heavens and said, “My child, you’re doing just fine. Let’s sit down and talk about what really matters in life.” The NXIVM crowd were a bunch of psychotic manipulative abusive lunatics. But as they were sucking people into their vortex of madness, they made their followers, at least briefly, feel terrific.
Even the craziest and most dangerous cults generally offer their members some form of good news. Salvation is at hand. Utopia is just around the corner. The Hale-Bopp comet is bringing “graduation” from the Human Evolutionary Level.
If you haven’t read Rod Dreher’s account of the “Jericho March” in Washington this weekend, you should do so. You can vehemently oppose the participants and what that march stands for, and still see why it appeals to its adherents. (In fact, if you oppose it, it’s probably particularly important to understand why it appeals to its adherents.) That worldview offers certainty. It offers clarity — people are good or bad, no complicated and murky shades of gray. It offers hope. It gives people a role to play — they’re saving the country! Stopping a stolen election! They’re standing up to evildoers.
And it’s exciting! A fiction-writing aphorism is that every villain is convinced he’s the hero of his own story. Just about every human being thinks they are the hero of their own story. No one likes to think of themselves as being just a background character in other people’s more important, more consequential lives.
If you want people to buy into a particular worldview, it needs to offer them a way to feel important and consequential, and reassure them that their lives and choices have meaning.
In many corners of elite American society, the dominant worldview is secular, progressive, credentialist (notice how many people are still arguing about who should be called “Dr.”), focused upon the “knowledge economy,” wealthy but never openly pursuing wealth, and increasingly intolerant of dissent. For vast swaths of America, that worldview offers them nothing and has no place for them — much less sees any value in them. If your worldview offers people no place to see themselves, they will reject it and find another one.
Closing Time for the Barr
Attorney General William Barr is departing the Department of Justice. This is not surprising. Trump called Barr “a big disappointment” in a tweet on Saturday, and reportedly had discussed firing Barr the day before. CNN quoted an unnamed source “familiar with the dynamic between the two men” who said, “Barr cannot be intimidated by Trump. This is the real story. None of this matters — it’s the deposed king ranting. Irrelevant to the course of justice and to Trump’s election loss.” Whatever the relationship between Trump and Barr is like behind closed doors, it seems clear that the president’s team and the attorney general’s team have little or no respect for one another.
Last week I wrote that Barr’s critics seriously misjudged him. After nearly two years of insisting Barr was an unscrupulous partisan hatchet man who was eager to turn the U.S. Department of Justice into an extension of the Trump reelection campaign, the world now knows that Barr refused to pretend he saw massive-scale election fraud that wasn’t there, and that federal law enforcement was in the early stages of a criminal investigation of Hunter Biden all along, and Barr kept it under wraps.
Our old friend Mona Charen, while still critical of Barr, at least recognizes that the dominant narrative is not as cut and dried as it seemed a month ago:
He intervened in Roger Stone’s case to decrease his sentence — a favor not offered to any non-Donald Trump friend. He intervened in the Michael Flynn case as well.
But there were lines he would not cross. He didn’t participate in the latest and most damaging of Trump’s assaults on America’s democracy — the stolen election fraud. He pushed back. And he didn’t hand over dirt on Hunter Biden.
Had he never joined the Trump administration, Barr would be remembered as a completely honorable man. As it is, his legacy is badly tarnished. Still, Barr had some standards. How much worse could things have been if he had none?
Meanwhile, Barr’s critics on the left have a simple narrative, and they’re sticking to it. CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder cannot give Barr even the slightest credit:
Barr has done tremendous damage to the Department of Justice and to the American people’s very faith in our justice system. Barr has repeatedly used the DOJ for the benefit of President Trump–protecting Trump’s friends and allies, attacking his perceived enemies and furthering his personal interests and agendas. Barr has shown again and again that ‘law and order’ for this administration is anything but equal, benefiting those who are white and well-connected while endangering others. It is beyond ironic that Barr seems to have been pushed out for not going quite far enough to abuse his position for Trump’s benefit, however unconscionably far he did go. The reason may be ridiculous, but good riddance.
ADDENDA: Holy smokes, it is ten days until Christmas. Better order those gifts soon if you want them under the tree by Christmas morning! The Cyber Monday shopping guide is always there if you need it.