The real war in America isn't between liberals and conservatives. It's between silence and noise — and noise is winning.
Donald Trump is president of the United States because long before he was elected, he had become our noisemaker-in-chief, the inescapable, obnoxious, occasionally funny, syntactically challenged voice on every news program, in every newspaper and magazine, on every website, in every social media post, on the lips of every American at dinner tables and breakrooms and parties everywhere. His unrelenting stream of verbiage, much of it banal, some of it hideous, virtually all of it forgettable, could not be avoided.
Nor could the responses: the exaggerated condemnation, the pointless fact-checking, the anti-anti-ing contextual defenses, the ill-considered full-throated praise, the counter-cycles in which the purveyors of each of these reactions were treated to interpolation or correction from one or more of the other groups. In the two years since Trump announced his presidential campaign, hundreds of thousands of words have been spilled on the subject of individual 140-character messages he uploads to a micro-blogging platform in the middle of the night. I have spilled some myself.
But noise's illimitable dominion extends far beyond this presidency.
All of politics is a digital cacophony of invective, cynicism, glibness, and despair. The Senate and the House are the world's most boring carnivals. The events of two weeks ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, were but a real-life continuation of the online screaming matches between yelping adolescent Nazis and the people who find heroism in shouting back at them.
All of life itself is crowded out by loud electronic devices. Joggers wear headphones. Fathers stream sporting events on their phones at dinner. Even priests are increasingly expected to wear microphones when they celebrate Mass.
Nor by "noise" am I referring to a strictly aural phenomenon. Noise is in front of our faces and in our heads as much as it is in our ears. It is the voice telling you to check your notifications again or open another tab or send that funny tweet. Our noise is the noise of computer screens and debit card chip readers and touchscreen gas-station payment consoles and digital billboards — of the interminable pandemonium of analytics and marketing and optimization, the low static hum of 24/7 commerce clearly audible behind everything we do.
Let me tell you some of the things that I am "doing" right now: reading an essay by Stephen Metcalf in The Guardian, a story about President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in The New York Times, a piece about the implosion of a website called Mic in another publication called The Outline (halfway through), the text of Pope Pius XI's encyclical Divini redemptoris (two-thirds done); checking out the college football section of a new sports website called The Athletic; finding a quote in volume IX of The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman; pulling up the directions to La Grange, Indiana, in Google Maps; trying to learn more about the life of Julian Watts-Russell, a young English convert to Catholicism who died fighting for the Papal States; deciding whether I should re-subscribe to the London Review of Books ("There is still time!"); seeing whether there are any new messages in Slack or in either of my two email accounts, or any notifications on Twitter; filling out health insurance forms; flipping over a Shirelles record; smoking; eating a roast-beef sandwich; drinking tea; thinking about a book review and a fellowship project and a long essay that need finishing; writing this column.
I need to stop doing these things. Or rather I need to do some of them, each in their sequence, with long breaks in between for being quiet.
Everyone, in fact, needs to be quiet. By "everyone" I mean President Trump, who should quit Twitter and stop traveling to hold rallies for the purpose of abusing opponents; other politicians; entertainers; journalists; and the anime Nazis, Stalinist furries, and anarcho-capitalist bronies born of the internet.
The rhythm of modern life — which is to say, the rhythm by which we perform ordinary tasks like purchasing food and consuming "media" in its various forms — is basically unbearable. But this is not the fault of Google or Wells Fargo or Amazon or CNN; we have all been swept up in a seemingly inexorable process of technologization, which has in turn engendered an unremitting appetite for random stimulation and an insatiable corporate desire to profit from it.
The most consoling thing I have read about the problem of noise is The Power of Silence, a book-length interview with Robert Cardinal Sarah, the prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Noise, Sarah says, is a "sad drug" to which we are all addicted. Our eyes "are sick, intoxicated, they can no longer close"; they are "red" from staring at screens, the walls of our "brightly lit prison" and the stages of our "theater of shadows." But there is a road to freedom, a means by which what he calls "the dictatorship of noise" might be resisted: silence.
For Sarah silence means, above all, prayer, a surrender to the silence in which the voice of God can be heard quietly but unmistakably. But it also means disengagement — not only politically, but culturally, commercially, and socially.
Most things do not matter nearly as much as we are encouraged to think they do — indeed, from the perspective of eternity, most of them don't matter much at all — but a handful matter a great deal more than we ever admit.