New Year's Resolution: Pay Less Attention to the Latest News

by Michael C. Dorf

Among my resolutions for 2020--both personally and professionally--is to pay less attention to the latest news, especially horse-racy political news. As a personal matter, such a resolution is probably a good idea for just about everyone who has felt drained by the seemingly never-ending escalation of outrages since 2016. Mental health professionals have been advising that we not exactly tune out but that we try to focus on what really matters. That strikes me as very sound advice, even if I often fail to follow it.

On the personal side, avoiding media (especially including social media) that fan the flames of outrage is a good idea but probably not sufficient to prevent mental exhaustion/depression/anxiety. Even relatively sedate shows like NPR's Politics Podcast encourage an obsession with political ephemera. I've been a listener since it launched. As a New Year's resolution, I'm going to skip it most of the time it shows up in my NPR One feed. That's a baby step, to be sure, but one that I hope to combine with other baby steps, like not reading Twitter or Facebook threads that focus on questions that are probably unanswerable in real time or that simply generate outrage for which there is no productive outlet.

Moving away from political ephemera is valuable in its own right, but it should also free up time and mental energy to focus on other, more rewarding and worthwhile matters. For me, that will mean reading more books and long-form scholarship, while reading fewer stories about politics, broadly defined, including some important news items that are not purely political.

Before coming to my explanation, let me say unequivocally that I have no intention of reducing my attention to news below what is needed to be a responsible citizen or to keep up in my field, broadly defined. I shall probably pay a great deal of attention to matters like the looming war with Iran. So what will I be tuning out?

Here's an example of the sort of material on which I will try to spend less of my time in the coming year and beyond: Following the ins and outs of the on-again/off-again trade war between Donald Trump and China. If I were a wholesale buyer of Chinese goods, an exporter to China of US products, or an investment banker trying to predict how the trading relationship with China will fare in the next few months, then sure, I'd have a reason to follow the minutiae closely. But I'm not any of those things. The trade war will undoubtedly affect me--as it will everyone--but not in ways that I can competently predict or do much about, so I see no good reason to continue filling my brain with minor facts about it.

Why not? Mostly to make room for other kinds of facts, of which I am constantly reminded there are a great many.

Consider that on a very recent family vacation in Italy, I discovered that my high-school-sophomore daughter knew quite a bit more about Renaissance art than I do. I was, of course, pleased with the quality of her education, but also somewhat disturbed with a gap in my own. My point isn't that it's somehow a moral failing not to know how Raphael borrowed from or arguably improved upon Michelangelo's style; obviously one can lead a perfectly satisfying and virtuous life without such knowledge; but for me, as for many others (though admittedly not everyone), there is something transcendent about appreciating great works of art. I don't expect or even aspire to be an expert; yet, I'd like the degree to which I fall short of knowing as much as I'd like to know to be the result of some sort of informed choice, rather than unreflected and indeed obsessive interests in politics.

My former colleague Prof Kent Greenawalt once described to me (in what context I cannot remember) that there was a time when he was very focused on training to run a marathon but that even as he found it important to train for the marathon he did not think it meta-important--that is, he did not think it important that he value marathon running. Put differently, if he woke up one morning and discovered he had lost the urge to run the marathon, he would feel no sense of regret.

There is a kind of profound wisdom in the attitude Prof Greenawalt was describing, one that resonates with the Buddhist ideal of detachment, even as it avoids the sometimes-difficult path of asceticism to which Buddhist detachment often leads. I think that in many contexts we do best to throw ourselves into whatever projects we find interesting at the moment without over-thinking whether they are the right projects.

Yet it is also possible to under-think our projects. The unexamined life is surely worth living but it may not be as satisfying, productive, or virtuous as the examined one. My resolution, therefore, is to be a bit more careful in the curation of my projects.

Readers who have indulged me this far may by now be wondering what any of these personal thoughts have to do with the blog. The short answer is that I'm not quite sure. I certainly shall not be imposing any restrictions on the content that my co-bloggers post. Meanwhile, as for myself, I continue to expect to use news stories involving law and politics as "hooks" for my writing, but I hope to intensify a tendency I think I already have -- to use a news angle only as a hook, that is, as an occasion for reflecting upon some issue or problem that will be salient in other contexts and at other times.

In addition, however, and especially if I succeed in paying less attention to ephemera, I shall try to write more about subjects for which there is no news hook but I just find interesting. Speaking of that sort of thing, this is probably a good opportunity for me to plug Prof Colb's recent Verdict column, in which she offers a new and arresting hypothesis to explain the common behavior of dogs when they are reunited with their people, even after a brief absence.