“The News: A User’s Manual” by Alain de Botton

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Alain de Botton is uniquely about to write about the peculiarities of the modern age with the utmost compassion. His writing has a deep sympathy (not without humor) for what it means to be a human being. He’s written books about travel, status anxiety, religion, and the ways in which architecture and our jobs affect our well-being. Here he turns his attention to the daily news.

Here, he examines the political, world news, economic, celebrity gossip, disaster, and advertising pages. He dissects their intentions and subsequent effects on our psyches, and has some suggestions to make each section more useful and enlightening to the reader. A better news service will help us all keep our anxieties in check, as well as provide us with consolation for our failures. 

After all, each of us want to live a fulfilling life while being a well-informed citizen.

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The news, however dire it may be and perhaps especially when it is at its worst, can come as a relief from the claustrophobic burden of living with ourselves, of forever trying to do justice to our own potential and of struggling to persuade a few people in our limited orbit to take our ideas and needs seriously. To consult the news is to raise a seashell to our ears and to be overpowered by the roar of humanity.

The most significant fact of political life, which almost no news organization will dare to acknowledge—because it would at a stroke exclude half of its speculations and disappointments—is that in some key areas of politics, nothing can be achieved very quickly by any one person or party; it would be impossible for anyone—not simply this fool or that group of cretins—to change matters at a pace that would flatter the expectations of the news cycle; and that in the case of certain problems, the only so-called ‘solutions’ will have to await a hundred years or more of incremental change, rather than a messianic leader, an international conference or a quick war.

The only honest purpose of unearthing and publicizing error is to make it less prevalent. Faced with corruption, idiocy and mediocrity, rather than remaining stuck at the level of gleeful fault finding in the present, the news should seek instead always to nurture greater competence in the future. However satisfying and important it can be to bring down the powerful, journalistic investigation should start with a subtly different and not invariably overlapping goal: the desire to try to improve things.

Their headlines don’t constitute an ultimate account of reality so much as some first hunches as to what might matter by mortals prey to the same prejudices, errors and frailties as the rest of us, hunches plucked out of a pool of several billion potential events that daily befall our species.

Art may most usefully be defined as the discipline devoted to trying to get concepts powerfully into people’s heads.

At a much deeper, more metaphysical level, foreign news should offer us a means by which to humanize the Other—that is, the outsider from over the mountains or beyond the seas who instinctively repels, bores or frightens us and with whom we can’t, without help, imagine having anything in common. Foreign news should find ways to make us all more human in one another’s eyes, so that the apparently insuperable barriers of geography, culture, race and class could be transcended and fellow feeling might develop across chasms.

We haven’t lost all our appetite for elsewhere. We are creatures who, in previous ages, stood in queues to hear tales about so-called exotic lands. The problem is that the reporting methodologies developed by the modern news media—which privilege factually accurate, technologically speedy, impersonal, crisis-focused coverage to the near exclusion of any other kind—have by error led to a sort of globalized provincialism, whereby we at once know a good deal and don’t care very much; whereby a little knowledge of the wrong kind has managed to narrow rather than expand the compass of our curiosity.

To assess a nation through its economic data is a little like re-envisaging oneself via the results of a blood test, whereby the traditional markers of personality and character are set aside and it is made clear that one is at base, where it really counts, a creatinine level of 3.2, a lactate dehydrogenase of 927, a leukocyte (per field) of 2 and a C-reactive protein of 2.42.

Economic data can rupture the sense of scale we ordinarily rely on to make our lives feel meaningful or hopeful. Our sense of purpose can be crushed by the unimaginable dimensions of the system in which economics reveals us to exist: one where world GDP stands at $70,000,000,000,000, where the global bond market is worth $100 trillion and the derivatives market $791 trillion, where world debt is measured at $50 trillion, EU debt at $17 trillion and US debt at $16 trillion (spending a dollar a second, a trillion dollars would take 31,000 years to run through); where a billion people live in poverty while an elite made up of the wealthiest 2 percent owns more than half of all the wealth. Such figures have some of the numbing quality of the statistics of astronomy, when it informs us that the Milky Way contains 400 billion stars or that it would take 93 billion light years to cross the universe. Our minds are not well fitted to contemplate our condition from such perspectives. Our aspirations become laughable, if not absurd, played out against such a canvas. We grow newly humble and supine before a sense of our utter nothingness.

The great fortunes of our day have rarely been accumulated through the sale of the most meaningful items and services, such as poetry or relationship counseling.

While envy has always been a target of fierce and moralistic criticism, it is also an indispensable feature of a decent life. It is a call to action that should be heeded, for it contains garbled messages sent by muddled but important parts of our personalities about what we should be doing with the rest of our lives. Listening to envy should help us to take painful yet necessary steps toward becoming who we really are.’

The news should also help us by reminding us of statistical realities. While the supplements may be continuously be filled with success stories, success itself will always remain highly anomalous, achieved by no more than a few thousand out of many millions—a detail that the editors of the news carefully (and sadistically) keep carefully out of our imaginations.

In contrast to what the news suggests, most businesses in fact fail, most films don’t get made, most careers are not stellar, most people’s faces and bodies are less than perfectly beautiful and almost everyone is sad and worried a lot of the time. We shouldn’t lament our own condition just because it doesn’t measure up against a deeply unrealistic benchmark or hate ourselves solely for our inability to defy some breathtaking odds.

[In Ancient Greece, dramatic] Tragedy’s task was to demonstrate the ease with which an essentially decent and likable person could end up generating hell. They remind us how badly we need to keep controlling ourselves by showing us what happens when people don’t.

Our fascination with crimes may be part of an unconscious effort to make sure we never commit them.

How likely we are to be sympathetic to someone who kills their spouse or children depends in large part on how their story happens to be told to us: what information we are given about them, how we are introduced to their motives and with what degree of insight and complexity their psyches are laid before us.

When reporting on a tragedy, the news tends to make dreadful conduct seem unique to a particular person. It resists the wider resonance and the more helpful conclusion: that we are all a hair’s breadth away from catastrophe. This knowledge should, if properly absorbed, sink us into a mood of reflective, mature sadness. We are more implicated than we might like to believe in the misdeeds of other members of our species. A lack of a serious criminal record is in large measure a matter of luck and good circumstance, not proof of an incorruptible nature. A clean conscience is the preserve of those without sufficient imagination. Were life, or what the Greeks termed the gods, ever really to test us, we would almost surely be found wanting—an awareness upon which a measure of understanding towards the guilty should be founded.

News of accidents humbles us into acknowledging that, if life is as fragile as this, if we really have no guarantee that there are decades left ahead, then we don’t want to be people who spent an afternoon arguing with a beloved, who refused to forgive a friend for a minor transgression or who neglected a genuine talent in favor of an unhappy sinecure. The thought of death has the power to rearrange our priorities, returning to the surface the more valuable parts of us which have a tendency to get submerged in the everyday struggles. Evidence of what there is really to fear has the chance to scare us into leading our lives as we know, in the core of our beings, that we properly should.

A balanced life requires a curious combination of inner and outer concern: we have to internalize the general message that emerges from others’ accidents—that we are highly fragile and temporary—without, however, getting so deeply immersed in their particulars that we allow the disasters of strangers to become excuses or means by which we avoid our responsibilities to ourselves.

Nature puts us all in our places. Being made to feel small isn’t something we welcome when it’s done to us by another person, but to be apprised of our essential nothingness by something so much greater than ourselves in in no sense humiliating. Our egos, exhaustingly aware of every slight they receive and prone relentlessly to compare their advantages with those enjoyed by others, may even be relieved to find themselves finally humbled by forces so much more powerful than any human being could ever muster.

Because we have allowed ourselves to divorce consumption from our deeper needs, our purchases have become unsupportive of our psyches.

We live in an era of unparalleled cultural richness. Every year, humanity produces some 30,000 films, 2 million books and 100,000 albums, and 95 million people visit a museum or art gallery.

But we will have nothing substantial to offer anyone else so long as we have not first mastered the art of being patient midwives to our own thoughts.

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