I am not on Twitter. I am not a snob about it. Some of my best friends tweet. Nor do I believe that my absence from the lists makes me pure; I suffer from other forms of digital narcosis. But the interminable hectoring of Twitter, its infinite discharge of emotion and promotion, holds no attraction for me. It is a medium of communication in which nothing intellectually or linguistically substantial can be accomplished. I refuse to operate mentally at its speed: I have already been sufficiently accelerated, thank you. And I hate the din. Yet I am here to defend the well-named technology (Chirp, Squawk, Cackle, or Honk would have been just as accurate) against one of its cultured despisers. In The Washington Post the other day, Alain de Botton, who boasts 444,000 followers on Twitter, proclaimed that “we need Twitter sabbaths.” De Botton is the celebrated author of a series of books that flatten great literature into self-help literature and philosophy into tasty little homilies for the haute bourgeoisie. He is what Oprah Winfrey would have been if she had read The World as Will and Representation. His books may be the most complacent books I have ever read. In his many accounts of the struggle for existence there is no evidence of the struggle, not a shred. Instead there is a TED-like self-congratulation: a brush with an idea followed by an overwhelming sensation of coolness and depth. In London he has established an institution called the School of Life, which offers its paying students the opportunity to feel as lovely and as psychologically integrated as its founder. Its website must be seen to be believed. Woody Allen’s people would have graduated from the School of Life with honors.
Thoreau is back at the pond and the cabin has WiFi.
Anyway, when the Post asked de Botton for his opinion of social media, it found that “what he had to say was, frankly, pretty compelling,” and published it all. The paper was unaware that what he had to say was largely lifted from his recent book, The News: A User’s Manual. Here was his wisdom: “We need relief from the Twitter-fueled impression that we are living in an age of unparalleled importance, with our wars, our debts, our riots, our missing children, our after-premiere parties, our IPOs and our rogue missiles. We need, on occasion, to be able to go to a quieter place, where that particular conference and this particular epidemic, that new phone and this shocking wildfire, will lose a little of their power to affect us—and where even the most intractable problems will seem to dissolve against the backdrop of the stars above us. We should at times forego the Twitter feed in order to pick up on the far stranger, more wondrous headlines of those less eloquent species that surround us: kestrels and snow geese, spider beetles and black-faced leafhoppers, lemurs and small children ... periods when we should refuse imaginative connection with strangers and hashtags ... in the knowledge that we have our own priorities to honor in the brief time still allotted to us.”
Thoreau is back at the pond and the cabin has WiFi. Never mind that earlier in his book de Botton declared that “the task of foreign news ... [is] to facilitate imaginative contact, practical assistance, and mutual understanding between us and other populations.” Finally he does not wish to be overly troubled by other populations. They distract him from the more primary duty of personal cultivation. He also believes that journalism should be more like art. “If Tolstoy, Flaubert, or Sophocles were in the newsroom, the medium might well give us rather more of what we need.” Or: “We might interpret the news according to the distinctive biased perspectives of Walt Whitman or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or the Buddha.” You will agree that the comic possibilities are endless, except that the delinquency being proposed is not at all funny. De Botton’s analysis of journalism—and of citizenship—is another one of his exercises in the religion of sensibility, in putting art where art does not belong. (No, art does not belong everywhere.) His Twitter sabbath is a sabbatical from more than Twitter. He espouses a more general disconnection, a severance from the historical world. The purpose of this withdrawal, which is the work of the chic and superior soul, is “to catch up on ‘updates’ from the person you really need to keep close to you: yourself.” De Botton does not grasp that this introversion is the mirror image of the extroversion that he deplores. Its god is still the self. Is quiet self-absorption better than noisy self- absorption? Perhaps not: the noise may provoke a criticism, a correction. Nobody was ever castigated by a kestrel.
The ironic consequence of all this opening of the heart is a closing of the heart. Consider this astonishing passage, in de Botton’s complaint about the inexquisiteness of the news: “A bombing that kills thirty people is thought more newsworthy than a quiet day in a fishing village, an outbreak of a tropical disease that tears its victims’ lungs apart in three hours is considered to be of greater interest than the peaceful collection of the harvest, and revelations of torture by the security services are deemed more significant than a collective lunchtime ritual of eating tabbouleh and stuffed vine leaves in a bucolic field overlooking the River Jordan.” A more perfectly apolitical sentence would be hard to find; or a sentence more corrosive of the sense of solidarity. Is conscience in such fine shape in our time, is compassion so sturdy, that we may all wander off to the satisfactions of private experience? And is it really the case that the satisfactions of private experience are thwarted by ethical obligations and political commitments? We are not such simple beings, either aesthetes or ideologues. We are, rather, beings in many realms who within the confines of a single existence know beauty and misery, and seek the one even as we resist the other. As someone who has eaten tabbouleh and stuffed vine leaves in view of the Jordan River, I wish to testify that torture by the security services is more significant, though I had a wonderful day. And I wish to concede that there are ends for which even the frenzied connections of Twitter are better than no connection at all. Count me out, but carry on. Where there are wars, debts, riots, and missing children, there is no shame in making the snow geese wait.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.