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My Time Among The Normies
"A side-effect of my current living situation is that I’ve started to indirectly consume large amounts of mainstream media for the first time in maybe 15 years. It explains a lot."
People who read my Twitter will be aware that myself and my wife had to move in with my parents for a couple of months while we get our new house ready.
My parents are wonderful people - tolerant, helpful and accommodating beyond all reason, and they get all their news from radio, TV and newspapers; zero from online and zero from non-mainstream sources. So a side-effect of this move is that I’ve started to indirectly consume large amounts of mainstream media in legacy formats for the first time in maybe 15 years.
I had noted before that consuming all my news through twitter meant I struggled to find any ground on which to relate to people who don’t spend a lot of time online. I’m familiar with the flaws of my own media consumption habits, but I wondered what people were seeing that were causing such a disconnect on their end. What kind of opinions would you have if you just consumed that stuff?
In winter 2021/22 consuming mainstream news in Ireland basically means being force-fed alarmist stuff about Covid several times a day.
Now, an uncontrolled conversation about Covid could spread into all kinds of difficult terrain. What are the implications of endemicity? Since we can’t keep living as we’ve been living, how do we restructure our world to enable us to live normally in spite of the disease? Are we doing that? How can we address ICU capacity? How do the dismal predictions of last week compare with what we are told this week? How come we don’t focus on deaths anymore, only admissions and cases? How should we account for the material interests of the press and pharma companies in keeping this thing going as long as possible; and of the government in keeping the pressure on the public rather than themselves?
I’ve noticed with legacy media that they often used a particular tactic when dealing with dangerous topics - they collapse discussion into a single controllable point of argument in order to keep it trapped on friendly ground. I asked what a catchy description of this tactic might be and @gearoidmurphy_ suggested “pinch and zoom”.
You could go whole days watching bulletins without hearing any of the questions I listed above. Pinch and Zoom, pinch and zoom, pinch and zoom. everything is reduced to the next ten minutes, and the panic-friendly crisis frame of cases and boosters and tests. The goal is to be as good as possible at following the plan for the next day. Getting past the plan isn’t on the radar.
Get your booster. Have you got your BOOSTER? Or are you putting everyone in DANGER as COVID RUNS RAMPANT IN OUR COMMUNITY? What’s the RECORD number of CASES today? What’s the number of BOOSTERS? What’s the number of CASES vs the number of BOOSTERS vs the number of TESTS? Where can we get TESTED so we know how many CASES we have and how many BOOSTERS we need? How much WORSE will it get in the COMING DAYS as the CRISIS in STAFFING starts to BITE? Are we running out of TESTS? Are we running our of BOOSTERS?
When something is on fire directly in front of you, you help put out the fire. You don’t stand around asking “is this even really a fire” or “what is fire, really, when you get down to it”. It feels unpatriotic, crazy and self-indulgent to do anything but listen to the directions of the fire chief.
Ireland is a small media market. Outside of the biggest newspapers and RTE there aren’t a great variety of places to get your news and the ones that do exist you have to actively go looking for. In that light the question is not why people are so docile but how they find the find the energy to express any skepticism or resistance at all. No wonder people have the opinions they do about Covid.
As a point of comparison, on the advice of someone who knew I’d be appalled, I also checked out Sky News, which my parents don’t watch.
I tuned in on two successive days and caught two bulletins and two special reports. On both days the top story was Covid, which was covered in the same breathless and brainless style as on RTE, with some regional variation to account for the slightly differing priorities of Irish and British elites.
On both days the second story was about Russia. One report focused on the closure of a Russian NGO, and the other was a refresher on the Skirpal poisoning. This ended with the presenter portentously intoning that “every British citizen has a duty to be viligant as possible (for the activity of Russian spies).. if not, in the words on one British agent we spoke to, “enjoy the gathering storm”… because things are only going to get worse”. (I didn’t note it word for word, but that was very much the gist.)
The mix of paranoia and jingoism - the presenter may as well have been talking about white slavers, or the opium dens of Chinatown - conceals the totally abitrary nature of what passes for news. I can accept that if a couple of British people meet in a pub they talk first about COVID; but is Russia really the number two concern most people have? Do they care about the fate of western-funded NGOs? If not, then what’s going on here?
Of the special reports, one was a presenter-less segment about the impact of climate change in the third world, with a focus on the cost of producing palm oil, followed by a tour around a slum with it’s mosque partially submerged due to rising sea-levels. The second was a Kidz-News type segment that began with a humanising portraits of child migrants (actual and prospective) from the middle-east, segueing into more climate change discussion, with the kids throwing questions about farming and renewable plastics to Boris Johnson at the COP.
My summary of Sky is that I was prepared for how shrill, stupid and manipulative it was; but not how nakedly activist. That really was shocking to me. No wonder the most avowedly progressive people seem so angry all the time. You want to identify as the cultural underdog but multinational media conglomerates keep earnestly agreeing with you, and promoting your world-view.
Aside from the fact that what I hear on TV or radio is often such bullshit I physically have to get up and leave the room, my summary of this safari would be that it’s important to stay in contact with the mainstream because it helps you be a little more patient with the people in your life. You can see where they’re coming from and what they’re contending with.
And in any case, the truth about twitter and alternative media sources is that they are heavily reactive - they are mostly useful to the extent that they provide a correction to how the mainstream media potrays the world. Counter-narratives are useless without a master narrative to rebound off.
Covid, and a couple of other stories aside, watching the Irish news had a pleasant effect of making me think that we’re slightly less pozzed than I thought we are. The size of our country works in our favour for once. Mainstream news here is forced to cover an awful lot of small scale stories that are hard to impose an ideological slant on. The things I used to find most embarrassing about the Irish news growing up - the Angelus; stories about a car crash that killed three people in Mayo or the installation of a new wheelchair ramp in a retirement home in in Carlow - are actually the most worthwhile stories, and the times when RTE comes closest to providing a public service. The parochial nature is the thing that sets us at odds with the modern world, and anything that does that is a source of hope.
Anyway, rant over; if anyone wants me I’ll be in my room.