Dulling the Mind: A Protest by Richard Sale

Newspapers daily retail the abruptly horrific, the superficial, the instantly shocking, the bizarre and the unstable, and in so doing, they smother any attempt at personal observation or personal thought.  If a bucket of water is constantly poured over your head, you will soon find it hard to breathe. If your ambition is to want to half-learn something that is not really essential to your own life and your individual consciousness, but it happens to be popular with the dull mass, read newspapers or go to the web. News is the opium of the people.

All of us harbor a growing need to be startled, to be shocked, outraged or made curious by the horrible, distorted and the morbid.  This need grows in us all the time as our lives contracts and the mind becomes more bored with itself and shuns the discipline of learning something valuable.  I suffer from this myself.  I daily read articles on Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, the war on terror, the collapse of Iraq, but how much of these do I remember after I put them down?  I read things about teacher’s salaries, the stock market, fracking, the profiles of successful companies, etc, but the inescapable fact of life is that memorization is required to learn anything. What is left in the mind after you put such things down? To read something and afterwards not stage and pass a mental quiz is to have totally wasted your time. Why read something if you cannot remember what it said? Mental progress above all requires having to war with your own lazy inclinations. Reading something and not being able to recall what it said, reminds one of intelligent people who lightly toss off, “Oh, I read that in high school,” as if that is all that could be said on the matter.  Is their mind the same as it was in high school? Hasn’t their sense of taste, the appreciation of structure, the growth of their inner critic that sorts the good from the bad, the mediocre from the excellent — have those things not changed drastically since then?


Newspapers war with our personal life. Crude articles tend to make us weak-minded, stupid or unthinkingly credulous.  They weaken our powers. The observations of your own personal experience form the basis of your thought. It means noticing things. It means seeing.  I look out my window and see large patches of blue sky, large, standing leafless trees, curled up dead leaves covering the ground; I see the flick and dart of yard birds.  I see that a lovely, spreading yellow green tree is still blooming, and the drab decay of the summer foliage makes it stand out more starkly.  It is beautiful and reassures.

What is the first emotion I feel as I look out? Wonder.  I rejoice in life, my spirits boosted by the darting and flicking of the little birds.  What thoughts do I have? That life is precious. It is limited, so enjoy it day by day. If the trees and birds can get through winter, than so can I.  Winter is, after all, nature sleeping and at rest. If the birds and the blooming tree can get through winter, than so can I. 

But reading newspapers is something very impersonal. Basically, the newspaper and the web present us with a structure whose purpose is to prevent ordinary people like me from minding their own business. Readers of newspapers are actually people who have only a moderate interest in what they read. (The exception being the members of the chattering classes of politicians and pundits.) My spiritual investment in studying newspaper facts is very small even though I slog through mountains of them each day.  This is because the value of a newspaper rests on the moment. Popular accounts engage only a meager sphere of life. They loose our ties to the valuable past, so that the vital interest of the reader is frustrated and mislaid. 

Newspaper articles remind me of signal fires placed on very distant peaks. The fires throw off a garish light, but it is a distracting light that blinds or obliterates or disfigures the truly important things of intellectual or spiritual life. Thanks to today’s heaving sea of infinite data, real and solid knowledge is debased, wasted, squandered, ignored, or even blotted out, as we get lost in the thickets of the current and topical. To choose to spend hours reading various newspapers involves an assessment of the values involved. On the web or in a newspaper, the matter-of-fact details smother and derail the mind of the reader. Articles dull it because the web/newspaper conforms to the taste of the time. It retails what is popular, current, and typical. Its policies are that of the owners. It floats on the frivolous and inane. Trivial life devours real life.

It should be noted that newspaper readers are often not good conversationalists, mainly because we are so addicted to reading in brief snap shots, in easily digested short bits. Since we all learn a bit of the same thing from the same sources, what is likely to be the result? Often we cannot give an account of what we have learned because newspapers give voluminous details, leaving their readers with neither the will nor the intelligence to try and discern what these cumulative details mean.  Any narrative that isn’t brief makes our attention wander. We are not to be interested in depth of any kind. We are not interested in another’s thoughts if they are not topical.  When another tries to explain something that isn’t in the newspaper, the newspaper reader-listener starts to get their foot tapping, waiting for the comments to end because they are off the subject at hand, and because our minds manifest no broad or persistent interests. Asking newspaper reader to comprehensively retail the knowledge of what he has read and you get only gists, half formed and half remembered knowledge. You learn little and so have they.

The concept of a sound, conscious mind implies the ability, the energy, the discernment to separate mounds of news data from each other, assign a value to them, even while we try develop thoughts which are not “useful” — not essential to improving the economy or the level of political discourse or the better functioning of government and any other pressing civic topics. Real “use” in reading consists of building cultural capital. It consists of respecting the valuable, not the fleeting, in the hierarchy of man’s needs. When we read newspapers, the will to try and assimilate and cultivate intelligent thought and the ability to articulate the spiritually essential, is missing. To really learn what matters in life requires a lot of self control. It takes searching, energetic alertness. It requires that you wait and absorb patiently and not allow yourself to be swept away by a flood of the commonplaces. In the newspaper, nothing lasting is done because nothing was done with a view to lasting.

All of these smart phones and other “clever” devices are a means of weakening the ability to remember and recall. Such machines to spare the brain labor, reducing a whole science to a handful of visual symbols and signs, making us see at the expense of being able to deeply understand. Today’s infinite sea of data and information depresses thought and is a cause for disquiet. Or it should be.

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20 Responses to Dulling the Mind: A Protest by Richard Sale

  1. jdgalvez says:


  2. Charles I says:

    Thanks Richard.
    I agree to a great extent, but I can’t memorize how to construct this computer every time I wish to engage here. Nor can I recall every single technical fact on fracking or on Alawite tribal structure. But I have it all cited and available somewhere, and for the most part, its more broadly accessible than my paper archive and memory.
    This Committee and the DOL proves that tremendous arguments and data calls considerably above the level of memorable water cooler discussion can be mounted using research and citation beyond the capacity of one or all to completely master, yet well within the ability of one or all to expansively posit and disseminate. Perhaps to the single minded soul who will master it to the authoritative benefit of us all. Not remembering everything does not preclude trying to think about everything. Machines can be a boost to our abilities not just sappers of attentiveness and consideration.
    That’s no small thing.
    On the other hand, I don’t own a smartphone (except for a Blackbery that I only turn used to turn on to do a quick trade, hasn’t been on in months.) I can do the math faster than any teller or cashier and the level of popular AND elite ignorance, never mind firmly held false conceits, simultaneously occasions my despair and schadenfreude.
    The big broad discussions raise my hopes that more people can be led to care about all this. One hopeful sign is rumblings in our local school boards that the old math – and memorization, may be perforce coming back.

  3. Is technology bringing a new dark age?

  4. rf_in_va@yahoo.com says:

    With all of the special interests grabbing time in the media and all of the various issues that bubble up each day for a crisis du jour, one has to wonder if this is not all intentional to distract us from what is really happening around us. I subscribe to several twitter members who touch on the bigger issues and find I no loner need print or video journalism as it is usually echoing the powers resident in the body politic without bringing up the views of normal citizens.

  5. Kieran says:

    Brilliant piece. I often think – while continuing to trawl the freshest mound of news – that half the time spent reading superficialities about this time, devoted instead to reading insightful works on other times, would conduce to a superior understanding of this time. But the electric thrill of the ‘current’ is hard to stop chasing, it is addictive…

  6. Walrus says:

    I will eschew the obvious remark about the self referential nature of this article and instead suggest that there is a great difference between facts, opinion, knowledge and wisdom. Newspapers attempt to merely satisfy the first Two cravings. Newspapers are to knowledge as McDonalds is to nutrition.

  7. Bandolero says:

    “Today’s infinite sea of data and information depresses thought and is a cause for disquiet. Or it should be.”
    I disagree, but well, I’m probably naive, so please don’t laugh at me.
    My model of the limited information space of newspapers is so far, that in a modern society they have a role like a tamer who domesticates a bunch of monkeys to go along with the policies of the ruler, and while the tamer is doing so he rerequested to use all means in his arsenal from slight distortions over omissions to plain lies. I thought that newspaper role was consensus since the days of John Swinton, Edward L. Bernays and Operation Mockingbird, and almost everyone with a bit more than highschool education agrees to that.
    And further I thought, what’s new in the flood of new online media is, that it enables interested people to compare the propaganda of their rulers with the propaganda of the enemies of their rulers, so that people who want to look behind the curtain of the propaganda of their rulers are able to do so.
    So, I think, the current seemingly “infinite sea of data and information” doesn’t depress thought, but it enlightens it. But, however, maybe I am naive, with respect to the recently disclosed activities of the NSA regarding up-to-date information management, where we all expect more disclosures in the near futures, I confess that it may well be that I’m quite naive.

  8. nick b says:

    Would that I could separate the wheat from the chaff in the news I read in advance.
    I pour over news regularly because I enjoy it and equate it with learning. Figuring out what is worth reading and what is garbage is a skill learned over time, and maybe never fully mastered. Like a muscle, the more I use this skill the stronger and more honed it becomes. Should I stop or slow down, I have no doubt that conversely it would atrophy. I don’t see a danger to my mind dulling by the amount of information and data available to me, in fact, quite the opposite. I endeavor to seek out new avenues of information and opinion, especially that which I would never come in contact with in my day to day existence. To me this is part of the richness of life and only seeks to contribute to my Sisyphean quest to understand ‘the big picture’.
    The bigger danger, in my eyes, is with of so many outlets competing for our attention, in an attempt to simplify, we constrict the flow of news/info/opinion in our lives to sources that only seek to inform our own prejudices. That is surely the off ramp to a lazy or dulled mind.
    I’ll never be able to read or know everything, but I hope to never stop trying.

  9. CK says:

    Tools do not bring on dark ages or enlightenments.
    Years ago in another place I watched a very fine guitarist use his high e string to silently eliminate several people. All tools are weapons. Any good weapon is a tool. Technology is both, as are guitar strings, hammers, computer viruses, bone drills, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum.
    Oh woe is we; our newspapers should be used to wrap turds, our internet allows ideas to pass unfiltered, uncensored from one brain to another. The internet also allows what someone else defines as crap to surface and have a hearing. Television allows clowns to suggest that a woman should be fed fecal matter because someone doesn’t like her style. William you are an adult, from what I have read here you are probably about 5 years older than I, do you truly see a new dark age around you? You might see hypocrisy, polite little omissions and lies, political correctness
    and unhappily irrelevant ex-gatekeepers whining — but a dark age? Really?

  10. CK says:

    Thank you.
    You are not a naïf.

  11. Mark Kolmar says:

    I’ve had to skim I don’t know how many MB of web application logs, act on how many requests for moves/adds/changes, problem reports, and so on. Even on an average day, that duty can cut heavily into my capacity to absorb and analyze other information about people in faraway places who fight ’til death about issues of no immediate, personal concern to me. And yet… If the amount of so-called news has grown to a level that you can’t digest it, then start with the amount of aggregation that is right for you. Find something to read that is closer to the source of the raw talking points, and read a quicker scan of the color commentary.

  12. The Twisted Genius says:

    Richard Sale,
    You make excellent points. I am pleased to see you find such joy, beauty and wonder just looking out your window. I enjoy similar emotions on my deck. I never tire of watching my murder of crows patrolling the crowns of the sycamores keeping the occasional hawk to of the backyard. They provide a safe haven for the other birds feeding at my bird feeder or on the many berries on the holly and hawthorne trees. Whenever the cardinals appear, I recall passages in Colonel Lang’s trilogy when a male cardinal appears to mark significant events. Time on the deck is always time well spent. I think A.A. Milne said it best through Winnie the Pooh, “Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits.”
    On the subject of newspapers, I have always enjoyed the local paper wherever I happened to live. I have now made reading the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star into a kind of tea ceremony. I put the kettle on for tea and then walk out to the mailbox to grab the paper observing any wildlife in my front yard. Young mourning doves often hide in the peonies and roses. This Spring, I had to give the robin’s nest in the blue spruce a wide berth. I return to make my tea and, weather allowing, sit on my deck to enjoy the paper. Local community news and the comics are what most interest me, stories like the Virginia deer whisperer or Christmas in Fredericksburg.

  13. optimax says:

    I read our local paper, The Oregonian, down to 4 days a week delivery, mostly for the local news and funnies. I’ve already read the international news I’m interested in on the interweb. Depending on one source for news is too limiting but most people I meet don’t read newspapers and aren’t concerned with our domestic or foreign policies, so we usually end up talking about movies or sometimes music or books or our dogs or work. I meet a lot of people at the dog park. I try to follow Jefferson’s advice to his nephew when walking my dog off-leash in the woods by thinking of nothing. It’s harder than you think, or don’t think.
    The people who really drive me crazy are the Bible Thumpers who never read any book besides the Bible and relate everything in the world to scripture, where everything points to their promised salvation and my willful damnation.
    There’s more wisdom in old episodes of “Leave It to Beaver” than most of today’s media.

  14. Peter C says:

    Richard, very well written! I do recall how TV was to be a communication medium where Symphonies, debates both political and academic, the furtherance of effective governance, and cultural information would be accessible universally.

  15. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Richard Sale:
    I do recall the high quality of reporting in NPR.
    I believe Reagan destroyed it.
    And Murdoch has done the same in the Wall Street Journal.
    On a brighter side, there is excellent reporting on the Internet in specialized sites.
    [By the way, in UK, most people read tabloids – it has been the case for decades.]

  16. Charles I says:

    No, its politics, economics and history, the current technology architecture reflecting this.
    Consider if Tesla had triumphed over Edison and we were all running on locally produced low voltage DC instead of 120 AC, for example. The robber barons would still be robber barons. Pols would still be polls and the hoi polloi and the msm would still be as well.

  17. ked says:

    Very good point – one best avoid conflation of tools with applications… though a close examination of the derivation of tools, their development & usage (as well as their complex 2nd & 3rd order interactions) is illuminating of much in civilization.
    … just a small point, you reversed polarity on Tesla & Edison. interesting contrast between them.

  18. CK says:

    It was Tesla who triumphed. Edison was the chief supporter of the inefficient DC.
    Tesla invented, supported and developed 120 volt AC. Thanks to Tesla, there is not an inefficient generating station for every 6 square miles of electricity usage.

  19. Ulenspiegel says:

    “So, I think, the current seemingly “infinite sea of data and information” doesn’t depress thought, but it enlightens it.”
    In principle yes. However, the vast amount of data waste delutes the useful pieces of information. I as ruling class would not suppress data, but add much more junk.

  20. Charles I says:

    thanks, never mind getting my mords wixed!, I reversed historical polarity entirely! The bastardized point stands.
    Still, if dc had prevailed, our entire energy architecture might have led to the early invention of photovoltaic paint to the point it became incorporated into the landscape like, say, paint. Every structure itself would be a generator. And every pol still a pol.
    Another riff on your reply is that thanks to Ford, there’s a gas station on many, many many corners within my city six square miles, and most of the rest is paved over. But thanks to him too, I can drive to my other unpaved six miles.

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