I just spent a blissful week in Adirondack splendor, during which, save for a quick trip to town on Tuesday, I was entirely without any internet connection. My phone stayed in my bag, dead as Dillinger, unmoored from the world and silent. Along with the clean fresh air, the endless trees, and the quietude of the lake, it made for a week of incredible relaxation.
That’s not to say that we were entirely disconnected. The week was spent with my wife’s extended family, a more wonderful group of people you’ll likely never meet, and papers were brought back anytime someone went into town for supplies (i.e. beer and wine). So there were local papers, but also the NYTimes.
Now, I know that the Times isn’t exactly the go-to paper of the so-called common man or anything, but it is still a print edition, finite in what it can cover. While it may or may not be “all the news that’s fit to print” (spoiler: nope), it can literally only fit so much. The local papers, concerned as the should be with local news and weather, with farming updates and conservation debates, with the day-to-day fabric of what directly impacts people’s lives, can fit even less.
I haven’t consumed news this way in years, not for any extended time, anyway. Looking at the papers, we didn’t see every latest Twitter war, every uttering of every two-bit grifter, every take and counter-take and thinkpiece on what counter-takes meant, jokes about what different memes initiating from the original counter-take mean, etc.
Then, when I came back on Saturday night, and reluctantly, but with fingers doing so almost autonomically, like a just-quit smoker flicking an imagined Bic, checked Twitter, it was to find that people were debating whether Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez should debate Ben Shapiro.
There is a world in which this matters. Bad-faith half-bright trolls like Shapiro, who is plumped up as the intellectual future of conservatism, which tells you all you need to know, do sort of matter. They are shaping the way we talk about things and the way the right reacts. That matters. The sneering attacks on AOC for not debating a Twitter troll trying to pump up his brand tells you everything you need to know about their dishonesty.
No one can honestly think that every political candidate should debate every jumped-up avatar with a book to sell. And there can’t be anyone who thinks that Shaprio would debate in good faith. He’s made a living off of not doing so, because he’s talented enough to spin any point into a “crushing” set of pre-determined talking points. Winning debates isn’t about being honest, it is about scoring points.
So this was never, ever going to happen. There was zero reason for AOC to do so. It was offered entirely so that she would look bad when ignoring it (“Why is socialist COWARD afraid to debate?”) and that Shapiro could go on Fox a few more times. It was a perfect example of the empty reality of our times.
It didn’t, as far as I could tell, make any of the local papers I was reading. There wasn’t a concern with these inane week-long nothings. That’s not to say that the locals never hear of this. They aren’t offline; they are busy living their lives in an economically challenged area, not there just for the raw and rugged beauty. They don’t have the luxury of a week off. And as we see in Qanon or any of Trump’s little Nitwit Nuremburgs, the ginned-up nonsense online seeps into the real world.
But on a daily basis, a very small number of people actually care about this, much less debate it. Twitter, and being Very Online in general, warps your perception about the things that matter, and the things that matter only to the Very Online. It turns out that not everyone knows who Ben Shapiro is. And not everyone has an opinion on whether AOC is or is not the future of the Democratic Party.
But there are other things that most people in this country don’t know and don’t care about.
Dozens were killed and wounded in an airstrike on a bus carrying children in Yemen’s northern Saada province, according to the International Committee for the Red Cross and eyewitnesses.
On Thursday, a Saudi missile or bomb slammed into a school bus filled with Yemeni children, killing 40 of them, and ripping them from childhood into death or something different, a world of pain and terror, of disfigurement and nightmares, and shattering families already pulverized by war and famine and disease.
There’s more, though. While it is not yet confirmed, there is evidence that the bomb was a Raytheon Mark-82, American-made, and sold to the Saudis who are only in one war. This bomb was manufactured and sold to be dropped on Yemen by Saudi Arabia, who since the start of their Yemeni invasion have shown no concern whatsoever for avoiding civilian casualties.
(Even if it turns out this wasn’t a Mark-82, they have consistently been used to kill civilians at weddings and in school and at the market.)
I’m not saying this didn’t make the Times. I don’t remember seeing it, but we might not have gotten it on Thursday or Friday. I certainly don’t remember seeing it elsewhere, in the local papers. I’m sure it was covered. I’m sure as well that, like the Yemeni wedding which Raytheon crashed, it will quickly go away.
This also matters. Our involvement in that war is a crime, unjustifiable except by the most twisted and bad-faith and hysterical and violence-wrecked interpretation of the AUMF, which people barely even bother to invoke, so used to war we all are. But in any reasonable world, this would be front page for days. The US is directly complicit with a sickening act of violence deliberately perpetrated against children, designed to shatter resistance.
I saw most coverage of this on Twitter. I saw scores of activists forcing us to pay attention, to understand. I saw consistent updates, outrage, and sober reporting of what was happening. I saw real journalism, in real time, interrupting the hourly inanity.
So getting unplugged can be great. Being not online can keep you away from having to have an opinion on Ben Shapiro, or even rudimentary knowledge of what exactly a “Ben Shapiro” is. But you can also miss the stories that matter. You can let US crimes slip by unnoticed. You can be wholly unaware of what a destabilizing presence we have become in this world. And that lets more crimes like this pass by unnoticed, become routine, become even unremarkable, for they are unremarked upon. It is brutalization by silence.
There’s obviously no prescription here. Being Online can wreck your brain and turn it into regurgitated, always-anxious mush. Ignoring local concerns makes everything national and has destroyed our politics. And local journalism is the true bulwark of democracy and accountability.
It’s just to say we still don’t know how to handle the times in which we live, and the way we consume information. It is altering our lives and politics in ways that are still not fully known, and are moving faster and faster, borne along by its own growing momentum. Getting unplugged for a week, and breathing the clean air, won’t ever change that.