Taking a Step Back From the News Cycle

Dear Reader/ Cher lecteur (including my minders from the Ministry of Canadian Security and Bilingualism/ Y compris mes tuteurs du ministère de la Sécurité canadienne et du bilinguisme),

I’m writing this from a bench on McGill Street, just down from Victoria Square in Montreal. The Canadians here seem friendly enough, but I try not to make any sudden movements. They may be a stoic people, slow to anger. But the coiled viper never seems a threat—until it’s too late.

I’ve been playing a mental game. Think of a noun that has a rough or edgy connotation to it, and then put the word “Canadian” in front of it. Canadian prison. Canadian bikers. Canadian pornography—so many shouts of “eh!” and “is this okay?”

Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s funny how the word Canadian just drenches everything it touches with irony or drains the grittiness away. Walk into a saloon, pound the bar, and growl “Whiskey.” The saloonkeeper will give you a wary eye. Then say, “Canadian whiskey.” His whole body language relaxes, and you’ll hear the distinct sound of Colts being un-cocked as all the hired toughs tip their hats back over their eyes for some shuteye as the piano player starts back up.

Of course, it’s all unfair. But that’s the role assigned to our neighbors to the North. The weird thing is, given the way we talk about Canada, you’d expect it to turn out to be a serial killer one day. I mean, that’s the way neighbors always talk about the stalker next door. After the grisly horror is revealed and Canada’s massive sex dungeon is exposed, Americans will be interviewed. “I’m shocked. Canada was a really quiet neighbor. Kept to itself. Whenever we asked them to turn down the music, they did. Really the last country I’d expect to do this kind of thing. I guess it’s always the quiet ones.”

“I knew Canada in high school. Everyone liked it, but I can’t say it had a huge amount of friends. It was just sort of ‘there.’”

Outside, Looking In

It’s been a really interesting week to be out of the news cycle and largely off Twitter. From a distance, it seems like this may the worst week ever for the Jungian cacophony that is social media and cable news.

Of course, the distance is virtual. It’s always virtual, because the news cycle isn’t really a place but a state of mind, a realm of quasi-entertainment. It’s like some VR setup in Ready Player One or—for old schoolers— Brainstorm, or THX1138, where the events almost entirely take place in your head. Whether it’s a mass shooting, a stock market crash, or a dog being rescued from the ice, if you’re physically involved in the events that form the narrative of the news cycle, you’re not in the news cycle, you’re in the event itself. It’s the difference between being at the table and being part of the meal.

And if you push away the Twitter or walk away from the TV, suddenly the world doesn’t seem so bleak. Again, I mean for the spectators, not the victims of mass shootings or anything like that. Their horror is all-too-real. But as I travelled around New Hampshire and Maine earlier this week, or as I sit here watching all of the Canadian pedestrians (wow, that sounds redundant) heading to work at Tim Hortons industrial-scale sweatshops, I don’t see all of the rage and virtue-signaling—which is often just another form of performative rage-sparking. I see people living their lives and generally being pleasant with each other. It’s like the news cycle is some horrible, gladiatorial chatroom, a magical wardrobe that takes travelers not to Narnia but to a Hieronymus Bosch version of an EST seminar, where everyone takes turns hating on each other to get to some deeper truth that is always just beyond our fingertips, like a precious heirloom, dropped in a murky lake, that sinks slightly faster than we can swim down to catch it.

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