Tuning out an incessant assault of evil

Richard Cohen

 

Syndicated Columnist

I recently cut the cord. I did so because my cable bill was sky high and I knew I was paying for channels I never watched. So I called in Leo, who is my personal help desk, and he figured out what he could do, and then asked if I wanted him to de-cable me then and there. Impulsively, I said yes, and so for a week I had no television at all. I felt like Thoreau at Walden Pond.

Let me tell you, seven days without Wolf Blitzer is heaven. A week outside “The Situation Room” is downright calming. No “breaking news!” No hype. Blitzer is a first-class journalist and I mention him only by way of acknowledging his fame. I could have chosen Rachel Maddow, who could turn the long-range weather forecast into a half-hour jeremiad against Donald Trump, or almost anyone else on any cable network. What I came to realize is that I had come to see the news as an assault. It made me anxious.

Nowadays, so much of the news is either terrifying or anxiety-producing. We have a president who has been called a “moron” by his own secretary of state — truth in labeling, no doubt — and who trades insults with a North Korean despot who keeps threatening nuclear Armageddon.

When Rex Tillerson acts to reassure us by saying he has established lines of communications with Kim Jong Un, the president tweets his disparagement: “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done.” What Trump thinks “has to be done” has me staring at the ceiling in the dead of night.

The news tells us that a madman in Las Vegas assembled an arsenal of heavy weaponry in his hotel room and murdered 58 people who were attending a music festival 32 floors below. Bad luck. In Paris, something similar happened in a single night — 130 dead. More bad luck. It’s random, and therefore almost unavoidable.

Evil comes in through the cable and through the Internet. We look forward to the advent of driverless cars. But they can be hacked. You could be riding along and some 14-year-old in Romania can take over your car so you run the lights and lose your brakes or, worse, make you listen to Eminem. What’s the purpose?

Equifax has been hacked. Your personal information is gone. Where? Who’s got your Social Security number? No one knows yet. What about your Yahoo account? Hacked also. By whom? For what purpose? How are these things done? I have no idea. Do you?

“Waves of anger and fear circulate, obsessing our private lives.” W.H. Auden wrote those words the day World War II began. They are truer today than they were for me during the Vietnam War draft. The incessant waves of bad news came with the Internet. Before then, serenity could be found in the home, the fields, the farm and the family. Now, only the offline can be serene.

There was a time when the average American could close the door and keep the world at bay. Now the world comes elbowing in every time you go online. Pandora tells me I’ve listened to 638 hours of music. What’s it their business? A certain pair of shoes I considered buying stalks me all over the Internet, popping up in the margins of unrelated web pages. The same holds for the Nicole Krauss book, “Forest Dark,” which has been following me around for about a month. I may buy it anyway.

The Earth is warming. Storms are surging. The ocean is coming our way.

My president does not care. He pulls the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. He dismantles environmental protections. He slyly and not so slyly stokes the fury of white goons. He appears anti-black, anti-Mexican and a misogynist. In short, he’s a bigot. If you look at him long enough on television, the picture goes from color to black and white — Europe in the 1930s. Trump has all the tics. He’s a colorized newsreel. Get your Milk Duds. This is a sequel.

Auden would undoubtedly have recognized ours as an age of anxiety. We fear war. We fear rising seas. We fear ordinary men with extraordinary guns murdering utter strangers not even out of hate.

We fear hackers lifting our digital wallet, a public accounting of our private lives, and we wonder if the shoes that follow us around the internet will someday, with the click of a distant mouse, look like the jackboots of old.

 

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