By Tom Robotham
During a recent trip to Paris, as I noted last month in this space, I was reminded of Woody Allen’s observation that no single work of art can ever compare with a great city—for in great cities, “every street…is its own special art form.” Since then, I’ve been reminded that encountering such artistic magnificence can have a profound impact on the psyche.
I’m not suggesting that Paris changed me fundamentally. But its effect has been clear in one specific way: Upon my return, I had no desire whatsoever to initiate or engage in political arguments on Facebook. A month later, I still feel that way.
This is striking to me. Throughout the campaign, and in the weeks after the election, I found myself embroiled in online political debate virtually every evening. I justified it on several counts. First, it seemed to me a good way to sharpen my thinking about politics. Second, I told myself, it was giving me fodder for my columns. Finally, it felt cathartic.
I still think those points have merit. I continue to believe that it’s important to stay abreast of current affairs—and to stay involved. Facebook can help us do both. It remains a valuable news source, so long as it’s met with skepticism and fact-checking. It can also be valuable tool for political action. The Women’s March on Washington, for example, would not have happened without social media.
So why have I disengaged from political debate on the site?
While I still recognize the value of Facebook, I’ve also come to see that it can also be toxic—especially in these unsettling times. Indeed, in a lecture I delivered recently at Tidewater Community College, I suggested that “social media” is a misnomer. A more accurate label might be “antisocial media.”
Think about it. Many people, hiding behind their screens, say horrible things that they would never utter to someone’s face. As we consider this, it’s important to remember that the phenomenon predates social media. Long before Facebook exisited, people were expressing viciousness in the comments section of Pilotonline, for example. When I became editor of Port Folio Weekly in the late ‘90s, moreover, I received many hateful emails. There’s something about the nature of all electronic communications that makes it easy to toss civility aside and express one’s innermost rage at another individual. It’s akin to road rage, I think. In the subconscious mind, we’re not raging at another human being. We’re raging at an object.
All that said, the situation has grown much worse with the rise of social media. Cable-television “news” has gotten worse as well. My Facebook posts, in fact, were often fueled by something I’d heard on CNN—and it took my time in Paris to make me realize that I’d been watching far-too much televised vitriol as well.
I’ve also come to realize that the problem goes beyond vitriol. Immersion in political news has a disorienting effect, even when it doesn’t particularly upset us. Both cable-TV news and social media, after all, hurl at us torrents of facts and opinions, without much context. They invite reaction but discourage reflection. There’s simply no time for the latter. For if you begin to reflect on something you’ve just heard or read, they’ll quickly jar you from your contemplation with something unrelated.
Unless of course you unplug.
In Paris I had no choice but to do so. Walking the streets during the day I had no access to the Internet because I hadn’t purchased an international data plan. Some of the cafés may have had free wireless, but I didn’t inquire. The truth is, even if I had had easy access to Facebook, I wouldn’t have checked it very often. The city itself was far more engaging—especially the art and architecture.
Now, as I replay these scenes in my mind’s eye, I’m struck by a singular fact: The beauty of great art and architecture lies not merely in its aesthetic qualities, nor in its impressive craftsmanship. The beauty lies ultimately in its invitation to quiet reflection.
I don’t mean to suggest that all art is designed to make us feel good. Some is, certainly. While in Paris I gazed upon a fair number of paintings by Renoir, one of my favorite artists, and was lulled into contemplation of their sensuality. Other works of art, however—Picasso’s Guernica, for example—are designed to shake us from our complacencies. In spite of this, they still invite us to pause and think. Architecture can have a similar effect on anyone with even a passing knowledge of history. Gazing upon the grandeur of Notre Dame, for example, I couldn’t help thinking of it as a paradox. On the one hand, it is sublime. On the other hand, one cannot dissociate it from the Catholic Church’s legacy of oppression. But this, to my mind, makes it all the more beautiful, for it invites us to grapple with the contradictions of the human condition.
American culture, all too often, seems to discourage this kind of quiet reflection. As exhibit A in support of my assertion, I point to our gross national indifference to architecture. True, some beautiful buildings remain. But for the most part, especially here in Norfolk, we’ve demolished one great building after another and replaced them with cheap, utilitarian boxes, whether in the form of stores, offices or condos.
By and large, Americans don’t seem to care much about art, either—a fact that’s reinforced by Trump’s expressed desire to eliminate funding for the NEA. Given that the agency receives only a tiny fraction of the federal budget, it’s not about cutting costs. It’s a political maneuver, designed to exploit the widespread perception that art is of value only to the “liberal elite.” But I think there’s more to it than that. I suspect that Trump truly hates the NEA because his sensibilities are at odds with the very essences of art itself—beauty, truth, subtlety, the importance of detail, and the virtue of patience.
Thinking about all this has led me to reevaluate the nature of “the resistance,” as it’s come to be called. Yes, we need to resist Trump’s egregious proposals with political action. And for my part, I fully intend to keep speaking out on political matters in my columns.
But there is another kind of resistance we can mount—and that is the commitment to living more mindfully. Donald Trump doesn’t want us to do this. He wants us to live in fear and anger. He wants us to feel off balance and disoriented. He wants us, in short, to live reactively. And in spite of all his rants about the “evils” of the media, he wants us to stay immersed in Facebook, Twitter and cable-TV news. For he knows that if we do it will fuel the negative energies that propelled him to power in the first place.
As I said earlier, I want to continue to stay abreast of current affairs. But since I’ve been back I’ve found greater peace of mind in getting most of my news and opinion from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Harper’s and other publications that call on us to engage in thoughtful reflection rather than the white-noise of televised punditry or social-media rants. Moreover, I have a renewed desire to do so the old-fashioned way—by reading articles in print. Doing so helps quiet the mind.
At any rate, I’ve lost interest in checking news apps a dozen times a day. There’s so much more that life has to offer: reading literature and history; playing musical instruments; enjoying good food, wine and beer; engaging in meaningful in-person conversation; contemplating the beauty of nature in this time of renewal. And savoring the arts.
Doing these things will, at the very least, help keep us sane. But if enough of us do them, we may, too, be able to check or even reverse the degradation of culture that Trump has come to personify.