the case for america first

The past two years have been a certifiable nightmare. And for the past two years, I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of my friends that pay attention to the news, most of them citing the same desire to “stay informed.” This desire is based on two distinct premises: that it’s our civic duty to be well-versed in global news, and that it’s “privileged” to be ignorant, because it means that you have the luxury of being unaffected by radical change. Both are technically correct; however, factors of the current sociopolitical climate should be taken into consideration—the heightened pace of the news cycle, the easy access to information, the monetization of journalism, the absurd incompetency of this administration, and last but not least, the social pressure to portray yourself as a morally good and knowledgeable person.

All of these factors affect the way we consume news, and they are important, because being outraged has become a guilty pleasure and we’ve fallen into the trap of what I once referred to as “crisis whiplash”—being overwhelmed with so many distressing events that you don’t know where to look. It’s tempting to read everything. But it’s more self-gratifying than informative.

It’s the same reason I turn off CNN whenever I catch my parents watching it—it’s not good journalism. Good journalism means reporting the facts, the context, and the potential implications. It does not mean having several questionably-qualified “political experts” arguing back and forth for an hour. It’s not productive. It doesn’t change the story. It’s drama specifically engineered to catch your attention. It’s reality TV’s unscripted and only marginally more intelligent cousin.

There’s a psychological behavior called “social signaling” and it essentially means subconsciously behaving in a way that you think will be perceived most positively by others (there’s a whole other blog post coming on this, so I won’t go into any more detail here). In short, optics. I’m reminded of this particularly when I see people retweeting things. We retweet things because we want other people to know that we have seen them, that we are conscious of them, that we care. It’s what this Medium author calls “faux activism.”

The most contemporary example that comes to mind is the Jamal Kashoggi murder. Saudi Arabia has had a rocky relationship with the United States forever. But it was only after his murder that Americans publicly expressed outrage. The New York Times’ “The Interpreter” explains the phenomenon of a “tipping point,” an emotional threshold that adjusts according to the number of people involved in a tragedy:

Psychologists have repeatedly found that people experience a greater emotional reaction to one death than to many, even if the circumstances are identical. Perversely, the more victims, the less sympathy that people feel.

Reading every news story “hot off the presses” and failing to make the distinction between signal and noise—what’s important and what’s clickbait—leads to responding emotionally rather than critically, which does less to inform your decision-making than it does to assert your personal outrage and to publicly establish your own morality.

Which brings me to my point: it’s time to put America first. Let me be very clear that I don’t support our administration’s disgraceful version of nationalism. That’s how you get Nazis. But I’m an advocate for solving America’s problems first, rather than being preoccupied by what’s happening in third world countries and putting our resources into foreign intervention efforts (re: “White Savior Complex”).

It’s a potentially controversial take, because a lot of people think this is selfish—other people don’t have the luxury of being removed from tragedy, in cases like Puerto Rico or Yemen or Syria or Myanmar. But again we have to consider intent. Why do we have to know about things as they’re happening? Is it simply to check our privilege? And does being bombarded with tragedies accomplish this, or does it instead create a numbness to horror and a propensity for grief porn?

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t be informed or that we shouldn’t care. But rather than obsessively following the news cycle, it’s best to read stories after they’re “hot,” giving you the distance to process them rationally and determine whether or not they’re actually relevant. Lifestyle profiles on politicians and debates about presidential tweets aren’t useful; they’re distractions that only reward immediate moral outrage. And unless you’re working on the ground for the UNHCR or the IRC, your outrage doesn’t do any good.

Here’s what you can do that will make an immediate difference: you can vote in the midterms. It’s absolutely not too late to be informed. Click here to find out who and what you’re voting on and here or here to learn about your candidates. Go out and vote on Tuesday. Encourage everyone you know that’s registered to go vote. It’s more crucial than ever to know what’s going on, but that’s admittedly difficult when there’s so much noise. You cannot do anything about the war in Syria or the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. But you can vote. There are so many things broken about America; we should focus on our own problems first.

Edit: This historian I follow on Twitter wrote an excellent thread about the hard-won American right to vote, and why we should do it.

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