11 August 2008

On the News

Somewhere, Thoreau wrote that one might read a newspaper once to discover some news, but that further reading is merely indulging in gossip. The Rabbis condemn those who engage in gossip to Gehinnom in perpetuity. On March 7, 1852 Henry David said “The news I hear for the most part is not news to my genius. It is the stalest repetition. . . . We should wash ourselves clean of such news.”

The news today is such. Wars continue to be fought and other wars begin; issues of global warming persist; Brett Favre is a big hit for New York Jet Fans; and the American 400 meter relay beat the French by .08 seconds. I think losing at the Olympics is just as beautiful as winning. And this news of the numbers steals my time.

I read the newspapers nonetheless. As I said elsewhere (a phrase popular among academics and use for shameless self-promotion), I daily check the headlines online from the New York Times, peruse them periodically during the day, and the news weighs heavily on my consciousness. Despite his bravura, Thoreau knew the daily events, and often responded to them in writing. For example, you might read his vicious reporting in his journal of the hanging of John Brown in 1859. It was, I think, his ideal to stay uninformed, but it was his fate not to remain so.

I read the news, but I don’t have to do so to know that wars are taking place and are being even now planned; I don’t have to read the papers to know about the horrors of Darfur, or the injustices of people and governments. Oh, I don’t dismiss the details though the total picture is clear.

There is nothing more important than the end of the horror, the horror, but I grow so weary and depressed constantly hearing about it. And so much time is spent on the hundredths of a second. Tomorrow the order would all be reversed. It is like 1984: the events stay the same but the names change, as I’ve said elsewhere.

Thoreau bemoaned the time spent on the news and such. He says, “In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.” Thoreau knew only too well how the world oppresses and subverts our purposes. Hillel knew the conflict; he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I?” And neither Thoreau nor Hillel had to deal with the Olympics!


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