Maybe it’s different for you, especially if you’re reading this in an actual newspaper. But if you’re online with me right now (trust me, I am at the computer as you’re reading — that’s what I do), you’re probably in need of some silence. Desperate for it, and maybe even terrified of it. Like the end of “The Social Network,” where Jesse Eisenberg just keeps hitting “refresh.” As if there were really anything rejuvenating about the act.
Listening to MSNBC anchors reference “so-called” White House scandals involving the IRS and Benghazi, I had to admire for a moment once again the adept political skill at work; they know their audience. Not MSNBC’s particularly, but the culture we’re living in. We have limited attention spans.
Elizabeth Scalia’s new book, “Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life,” has a brilliant cover. It shows the window of a cathedral looking into rows of app icons. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, shoes, sports, alcohol, gambling, a political party. None of these are intrinsically bad. But in excess, outside of a healthy order, they can poison our lives and relationships.
In “Strange Gods,” Scalia, known online as “The Anchoress” from the title of her blog, announces that ours is a “culture that is over-connected, media saturated, and weirdly obsessed with the fake glamour of ‘reality’ exhibitionism.”
Illusions are all around us. Some of them are presented by advertisers (as Google adjusts to our conversations!), and “can keep us recklessly careening about in search of some elusive idea of perfection. When we listen to these voices, our pride and ego are neither acknowledged nor reined in.” Instead, she observes, “they run wild, urging that we assert ourselves, pursue the notice of others — that we control our environments and even insert ourselves into conversations and life stories that are actually none of our business.”
Our vision is “bedazzled by our fears, insecurities, egos,” she suggests. We find ourselves “mesmerized by our favorite iThis and eThat and how much we love our favorite artist, our favorite politician, and our favorite sports figure.”
We attribute to all of these things, all of these people, expectations that aren’t fair to — or good for — anyone. Even in our cynicism about politics, we look to personalities and legislation for salvation.
Sitting at a conference on religious freedom — far from my first — this past week, I reflected on these alternative realities. Here the Ethics and Public Policy Center had gathered Sikhs, Muslims, Pentecostals, Jews and Catholics, among others, to discuss the urgency of the threats that are eroding religious freedom in America.
One of these threats, the Department of Health and Human Services insurance mandate that has forced business owners and religious leaders to court for relief is about protecting basic conscience rights that the late Ted Kennedy, as well as Hillary Clinton, when marketing her health-care reform plan as first lady, were not long ago in favor of. It’s about basic freedom.
Family life is on the decline. Researchers and commentators tell us what we can see every time we get on an elevator or wait in a checkout line: People are connected, but they’re not connecting. Good luck building families and communities, kids, in a culture of looking down at your iWhatever. Add to this an increase in Americans who believe that anything goes spiritually — who needs organized religion anyway? — when we actually do look up from our gadgets, we may just find that the mediating institutions that have buttressed our pluralistic, democratic republic have become relics.
We need to do more than just hit “refresh.”
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