I can’t remember exactly why I bought this book but several years ago I picked up a collection of Saul Bellow’s essays, It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future. The title of an essay caught my eye — “The Distracted Public” — so I read it last night. Bellow’s comment on the news could have been written yesterday:
I confess that like millions of others, I still need my news fix daily. Civilized people evidently find it necessary to maintain, inwardly, a high level of excitement and are apt to feel that their vital forces must be replenished by headlines.
So it’s politics and murder, famine, planes exploding in flight, drug wars, hostage taking, the latest developments in the superpower drama. The average duration of a scandal or a disaster is not long, and since terrible events are presented by networks whose main focus is diversion, entertainment, quick change, we are always en route to the next shock. It is the agitation level that matters, not this or that enormity. And because we can’t beat distraction, we are inclined to join it. A state of dispersed attention seems to offer certain advantages. It may be compared to a sport like hand gliding. In distraction we are suspended, we hover, we reserve our options.
It’s a good essay largely about the role of the writer in lifting the rest of us above the “moronic inferno” (what an evocative phrase!) of modern life. Notably, this essay was written as a speech that was delivered in 1990, long before Twitter, long before Fox News, and long before the commercial Internet we know today. A lot has changed since then but maybe not as much has changed as we thought.