So Many Needful Things

Shortly after Simeon Stylites chose to abstain from shelter and set up housekeeping atop the pillar where he would spend 47 years as Syria’s most famous tourist attraction, the local religious authorities—suspecting him of unholy attention-seeking motives—tested his obedience. He passed, and was permitted to stay atop his perch. But when St. Wulflaicus tried the same stunt more than a century later, his bishop told him to knock off his nonsense and shinny right back down.

Abstainers have always had their motives questioned and their resolve tested, as any vegan or teetotaler can attest. Even St. Paul famously poked his good friend Timothy to mix a little wine with his water, and Gautama Buddha chucked hardline asceticism in favor of the moderate zone between self-denial and self-indulgence.

I can understand this. It’s pretty easy for abnegation to spill over the shallow threshold into proselytizing, and no one loves a nag—especially a self-righteous one. Slightly more difficult to comprehend, though, is the animosity shown toward people like Erik Hagerman.

Hagerman’s total abstinence from Trump-era news was the subject of a recent New York Times article. The fact that I know this, and that I am acquainted with the criticism his story prompted, is evidence that my own Lenten observance has been far less radical. While Hagerman has blocked all news media consumption for more than a year—hushing friends and family who mention current events and plugging his ears with white noise whenever he’s in public—I am merely avoiding direct and intentional consumption until after Easter. For 47 days from Valentine’s Day through April Fool’s Day, I just don’t read, watch, or listen to the news, unless one of my trusted filter friends sends me a link.

Most of the comments (as far as I read) seemed to pin on Hagerman all the rotten epithets of 21st-century America: elitist, affluent, complicit, liberal. By turning off the news so that he could retreat from the blazing daylight into the sandy sett that his wealth provides, Hagerman is a traitor to democracy, they say, a shirker of his patriotic duty. As an afterthought, a few of the comments made passing reference to how Mr. No News has decided to spend his fortune as well as the time and energy he once squandered on voracious news consumption: he is trying to reclaim an endangered piece of Ohio’s natural heritage.

Hagerman sets himself up for censure by agreeing to provide the material for a news story that he won’t read, which does seem a little like the strict vegetarian who roasts a turkey for Thanksgiving. But setting aside that inconsistency, what has Hagerman done wrong? He hasn’t called for the abolition of the news media, but merely acknowledged that the news is not presently part of his own citizenship toolbox. He’s among good historic company.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Both of these quotes flowed from the same pen—Thomas Jefferson’s. Both are repeated frequently, though not that often side-by-side. The dramatic shift in Jefferson’s attitude over a twenty year period illustrates the unavoidable extremes that come along with freedom of the press. We can’t govern with it; we can’t govern without it.

But there’s more to governance than reading the paper every day. There’s picking up the trash in the park, teaching the illiterate, caring for the sick and elderly, studying the history, making the art, growing the food, advocating for the oppressed, praying the prayers, reclaiming the strip mines. Many of these tasks are undertaken by people who not only do not read the news, but cannot, for a wide variety of reasons.

The outraged commenters are the Marthas to Hagerman’s Mary. Having chosen for themselves the cumbersome task of trying to keep pace with the data and analysis churned out from thousands of outlets every day, they resent anyone who has chosen a better part.

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