Trump’s Firing of Sessions: A Test of Our Attention

Remember a week ago, when Trump fired Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Attorney General, in an attempt to impede the Mueller investigation?

Sorry, that was a trick question. Trump fired Sessions fewer than 72 hours ago, but you could be forgiven for having the sense that more time had passed.

A quick check of various digital front pages this morning reveals that the story of Sessions’ firing and the appointment of Trump crony Matthew G. Whittaker as acting Attorney General has already fallen below the fold and off our collective radar.

What has been called Trump’s “slow motion Saturday Night Massacre,” (a reference to Richard Nixon’s firing of multiple Justice Department officials in a single night to impede the Watergate investigation) is on the verge of being ignored, a failure of attention that will weaken our democracy. Nixon’s massacre inspired mass, sustained, bipartisan umbrage, while Trump’s is already being forgotten.

This is an occasion where analog media would help us. The time scarcity of appointment television and the limited space of newsprint had the effect of focusing our collective attention on a single issue long enough to appreciate its significance and organize mind and body to act on it. The promiscuous allocation of attention that digital media spurs us to, both by journalists reporting the news and people consuming it, doesn’t give us enough time even to form thoughts, much less opinions. There are indeed many stories worthy of occupying our attention, not least among them the tragic deaths of 11 people in the most recent mass shooting in California, or the wildfires there. But if we are to combat our promiscuous attention spans, we have to be chaste about what we choose to pay attention to.

In the battle to keep our democracy healthy, what we choose to pay attention to from moment to moment is decisive. And right now, the President’s attempt to corrode the rule of law is what demands our undivided national attention, no matter how worthy other topics may be.

How media reshapes our consciousness

“All of us have become the unwitting workforce for social change.” -Marshall McLuhan

Lincoln Douglas Debates (source: wikimedia commons)

In nineteenth century America, it was common for citizens to gather and listen to dense political oratory for hours at a time.  At the first of the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln proposed that the debate be split in half to make it easier on the audience.  The two men would share the podium for just four hours before lunch and three hours after—even with the break, an excruciating stretch of time by today’s standards.  Yet the crowd that day reportedly listened with rapt attention for the full seven hours, only breaking their silence to express support or disagreement, or to applaud a well-turned phrase.  Nineteenth century audiences regularly gathered by the thousands to perform similar feats of sustained attention.[1]  Neither Lincoln nor Douglas were considered prolix, yet just one of Lincoln’s responses that day ran to over sixteen thousand spoken words.

In contrast, the entire televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in September of 1960 ran to fewer than ten thousand words. (more…)