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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner

Posted: November 8, 2010 09:53 AM

Shut-Up Wednesdays: A Plea

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Never before have we had so many means to communicate. Never before has there been more clatter and clamor. Never before have we communicated less. Especially in our political life. The shrillness of this year's overwrought electoral campaign is a powerful reminder of the difference. It's all about feeling rather than thought -- either emoting to stimulate the feelings of sympathizers or emoting to grate upon the feelings of enemies. That certainly is true of most Republicans and their Tea Party hit men. Thought and ideas be damned. It's the primal scream -- twisted by fear, anger and confusion.

Today, speech as self-affirmation is replacing speech intended to convey something. It's the "I" in each phrase that counts -- certainly not the "you." Public figures seemingly follow the imperative: "I sound off, therefore I am." Silence is tantamount to death in the celebrity age. The storm of static in our public space is invasive. It destroys the ability to reflect, to assess, to ponder, to imagine. We have come to "think" in soundbites as well as to talk in soundbites. This is the ultimate endpoint of a culture dominated by the noisy hunt of anxious egos for self-justification, one where we spend more time trying to sort ourselves out than actually doing anything.

America as a country is struggling in an inchoate way to sort out who and what it still is in a world that no longer aligns itself according to the expectations that have been ingrained in us. Where is that American identity we prize so highly when we are manifestly incompetent -- at home and abroad; when others surpass or outpace us; when others stack piles of our money in their bank vaults like cordwood; when those others are Asian? Where is that American prowess when we can't protect ourselves from attack by aliens -- especially those in robes and turbans? Why don't I feel free when I live in the most permissive society ever known? Why do I feel hedged in? Why do I have so little control over my life? Where is the security and contentment that is supposed to come from earnest effort -- when banks rob us, politicians deceive us, and I don't have the means to figure out any of this. I'm an independent, individualist American who is a can-do, self-starting person. But I'm confused, at a loss, and need some help -- of some kind. But from whom? what kind? Surely not from any of "them."

So I'll scream and shout and yell -- in the street, at the televised images of the politicians I dread, at the televised images of the sporting tribes I give my passionate support. The noise is my cocoon and my security blanket. I want as much of it as possible, as loud as possible -- in the bar, in the restaurant, in the airport, in my earphones, on the talk shows, from the hungry haranguing maybe good guys who are against "them." At home, six people and four conversations -- that's the ticket. That way we all get more than our share of time to emote, to let loose our barely contained primal screams.

We are nearly all caught up in this whirlwind of mindless blather, of incessant motion masquerading as action. We desperately need some quiet -- everywhere. On the tube, in Washington, among our voluble diplomats and loquacious generals, among the celebrities of all stripes, among the so-called pundits -- especially the pundits.

So here's a proposal. A national vow of silence from all of the above. Let's call it "Shut-up Wednesdays." One day of the week, one of seven, devoted to whatever, but all ranting and raving prohibited. Admittedly, at first it will be tough going, cold turkey -- even for just 24 hours. The silence will be deafening. Many proudly self-reliant Americans will make the dismaying discovery that what there is to rely on is a lot flimsier than they ever thought. Politicos may suffer lockjaw from the enforced inactivity. Imagine, though, the potential benefits if the holiday expands! A nation capable of deliberation in a reasoned and reasonable way. It's worth a try. After all, isn't it time to question how much more of what we've been experiencing this republic can take?