How Much News Is Too Much News?

Today: that debate, my own news consuming habits, and the negativity bias. Then: more about wokeness, and the relationship between conservatism, liberalism, wokeness, and equality; and between teaching values and indoctrination.

The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid, 13 Mar 2023: You’re Better Off Not Knowing, subtitled “The problem with dwelling on news about things you can’t control”

Also, Hamid was on KQED’s Forum radio program this morning, which can be listened to here: Shadi Hamid on Political News: Sometimes It’s ‘Better Not to Know’

His point overlaps the thesis of Rolf Dobelli’s book Stop Reading the News (reviewed here, right about a year ago). But Hamid’s point is more about the mental stress caused by worrying things you have no control over. (His example this morning: the details of the possible indictment of Donald Trump.) From his Atlantic piece:

For many Americans, these claims sound self-evidently true: Information is good; knowledge is power; awareness of social ills is the mark of the responsible citizen. But what if they aren’t correct? Recent studies on the link between political awareness and individual well-being have gestured toward a liberating, if dark, alternative. Sometimes—perhaps even most of the time—it is better not to know.

Like taking a drug, learning about politics and following the news can become addictive, yet Americans are encouraged to do more of it, lest we become uninformed. Unless you have a job that requires you to know things, however, it’s unclear what the news—good or bad—actually does for you, beyond making you aware of things you have no real control over. Most of the things we could know are a distraction from the most important things that we already know: family, faith, friendship, and community. If our time on Earth is finite—on average, we have only about 4,000 weeks—we should choose wisely what to do with it.

As the phoned-in comments from radio listeners to the KQED program indicated, there are good arguments on both sides. Shouldn’t people be aware of what’s going on with potential presidential candidates? Yet again, listening to too much news reinforces the negativity bias that makes so many people think the world is worse off than it actually is, by orders of magnitude.

As The Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz recently put it on Twitter, “We’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape.” But this is not true, at least not the hellscape part. Despite claims to the contrary, the United States is not experiencing civil war, nor is it under a dictatorship. It is a democracy, and one of the wealthiest that has ever existed. Although far from ideal, the American safety net has grown more rather than less generous, as measured by public social spending as a percentage of GDP. Unemployment is at its lowest rate since the 1950s. Child poverty, according to one comprehensive analysis, has declined by 59 percent in the past three decades.

With more about the ongoing progressive shift in American history.

Meanwhile, on cultural questions, the 2010s and ’20s have witnessed one of the most striking progressive shifts in American history. Conservative views are not hegemonic. In major cities and mainstream institutions, the cultural left has established a dominance that would have been unimaginable decades ago. New norms around social justice—or, more pejoratively, “wokeness”—now prevail in the medical profession, in the U.S. government bureaucracy, and in universities. What my colleague Helen Lewis calls “woke capitalism” has spread through corporations that might have otherwise been indifferent to justice, social or otherwise. The rapid acceptance of gay marriage has been nothing short of remarkable. Progress comes gradually and then suddenly. In an influential 2021 essay, the writer Richard Hanania laid out an exhaustive case for why “almost every major institution in America that is not explicitly conservative leans left.”

To pay too much attention to wingnuts like DT and TC and MTG and other MAGAites is, I suspect, even though I pay too much attention to them myself, too much like assessing the current state of the world by watching local news that focuses on car thefts and gang shootings. The world is bigger than that.


So I’m somewhere in the middle of this debate. I spend an hour or two a day consuming news in one form or another. I watch the first 20 minutes of the Today Show each morning (before it turns to shopping and heartwarming anecdotes for which they happen to have video footage); I read the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle; I spend usually a full hour, from about 9am to 10am, checking my standard list of websites, from Slate and Salon to CNN and Google News to Jerry Coyne and Joe.My.God., for anything that’s interesting.

What I don’t do, of course, is read every article in any of these venues. I skim. Even skimming gives me the gist of what’s going on in the world. And I do pass over local events of no significant importance (the car crashes on the 880; I hit mute on the remote) and remote events, however significant to the locals, about which I can do nothing (the many articles in NYT about political crises in faraway countries). But I keep checking these same sites because, every once in a while, there’s something on them of deep interest, and significance. And those are the ones I capture on this blog.


The Atlantic, Adam Serwer, 21 Mar 2023: Woke Is Just Another Word for Liberal, subtitled “What many conservative critics of wokeness actually oppose is the pursuit of equality.”

This is like another puzzle piece that fits together cleanly with the other pieces we’ve seen in recent days. Liberalism involves pursuing equality; ‘wokeism’ is about being aware of inequality and injustice; conservatives don’t care about inequality, wanting only to maintain established hierarchies, and so oppose wokeism, and (of course) aren’t liberal.

Again, this piece cites Bethany Mandel’s inability to define “wokeness” beyond whatever it is liberals are doing.

Serwer makes this pointed about the origin of the word that I don’t think I’ve cited before.

A few years ago, I wrote, “Woke is a nebulous term stolen from Black American English, repurposed by conservatives as an epithet to express opposition to forms of egalitarianism they find ridiculous or distasteful.” This is what people mean when they refer to “woke banks” or “woke capital,” when they complain that the new Lord of the Rings series or the new Little Mermaid is “woke” because it includes Black actors, or when they argue for a “great unwokening” that would roll back civil-rights laws. Part of the utility of the term is that it can displace the criticism onto white liberals who are insincere about their egalitarianism, rather than appearing to be an attack on egalitarianism itself. In fact, woke has become so popular as a political epithet that providing an exhaustive list of definitions would be difficult. It is a slippery enough term that you can use it to sound like you are criticizing behavior most people think is silly, even if you are really referring to things most people think of as good or necessary.

A further point echoes that of Robert Reich in yesterday’s post, about how the wealthy justify themselves as superior people.

[T]he claim that “American institutions are built around discrimination” is just a straightforward account of history.


To claim the reverse, that people who are rich or white or male are just better than everyone else—to object to “equality of group result” as a goal, as if it’s absurd to believe that people from across the boundaries of the biological fiction of race could be equal—reveals a prejudice so overt that it practically affirms the “woke side of the argument. The “radical redefinition of society” that many of the so-called woke seek is simply that it lives up to its stated commitments. And one really could, I suppose, describe that as radical—the abolition of slavery, the ratification of women’s suffrage, and the end of Jim Crow were all once genuinely radical positions whose adoption redefined American society.

That is, conservative opposition to the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, and the end of Jim Crow were attitudes now being described as opposition to being woke. And now conservatives downplay these aspects of American history as best they can, as they rewrite history books for children in Florida. The article goes on to detail this. Then,

I could go on, but I think you get the point. These things are real; they happened. To believe that the disadvantages of race, class, and gender imposed lawfully over centuries never occurred or entirely disappeared in just a few decades is genuinely “radical” in a negative way; to believe that creating those disadvantages was wrong and that they should be rectified is not. The idea that no one ever succeeds based on advantages unrelated to their personal abilities is likewise radical, and also ludicrous. But you can, perhaps, understand why one of the richest men in the world would consider the opposing idea—that where many people end up in life is the result of unearned advantages—to be a “woke mind virus” that should be eradicated. That kind of thinking leads to higher marginal tax rates for people with private planes.

And Serwer concludes,

To say that traditional hierarchies are just and good, well, that’s simply conservatism. It has been since the 18th century. And to say that those hierarchies do not reflect justice and that people should be equal under the law—all the people, not only propertied white men—well, that’s more or less just liberalism. But if you don’t like it, you’d probably call it woke.


Anything new here?

Washington Post, Molly Roberts, 20 Mar 2023: Opinion | The right wing’s ‘woke’ obsession could come back to haunt it

What, pray tell, is a “woke” bank?

Somehow, when House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) suggested that Silicon Valley Bank had collapsed because it was “one of the most woke banks,” his point, while nonsensical, was entirely clear.

After all, woke has turned into conservatives’ favorite word for anything they dislike.

We’ve noted this. With the example of blaming the bank failures on, without a scintilla of evidence, “wokeness.” Mostly more of the same. But with this interesting observation.

[O]f course, solving the problem isn’t the goal. The goal is to blame the libs. Case in shameless point: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) insisted wokeness was to blame for the massacre of 19 young children in Uvalde, Tex. Apparently, we’ve stopped teaching “values” in our schools, and we’re teaching “indoctrination” instead. Really, indoctrination? In Texas?

See it’s “values” when teaching kids what you believe in, “indoctrination” if anything different.

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