Common Knowledge

At 10:55 AM on Ash Wednesday, February 28, 2001, I bolted out of my bedroom in a haste normally reserved for the announcement of lunch when a 6.8 quake sent the biggest seismic shock wave through the Seattle area (and my house) in 50-odd years and (think about this for a moment) moved the entire Seattle region about 3 millimeters from its previous position.

Standing on the floor felt like standing in a small boat in choppy waters. I swayed back and forth, listening to the glass in our chandelier tinkle. I prayed fervently that the house would not fall down on our heads. It was more a thrill than a fright. Then the adrenaline kicked in and life was quite delightfully exciting for the rest of the day. My wife Jan and I walked round the house, inspecting for damage (nothing there), had the presence of mind to call my mom (she was fine) and my sister-in-law in Olympia (ditto) and send emails to friends out of state to tell them all was well. By evening, we had swapped earthquake stories with friends and family all over the Seattle area. Nobody was hurt. No property damage for anybody I knew (though the cost came to around $2 billion, paid largely by insurance companies which neither laugh, grieve nor feel excitement). In short, the whole thing was, for the vast majority of people, an occasion of conviviality and storytelling. It was, on the whole, big fun that our children and we will remember for the rest of our lives.

This is not, however, common knowledge to most people outside Seattle. That’s because, for better or (usually) for worse, what is “common knowledge” in our culture is usually dictated to us by media which are the playthings of a few rich people and which exist, not to inform, but to sell shampoo by ginning up excitement. And so, from the way the Tube told it, you’d have thought by the live reports that day that the entire Seattle region was a heap of rubble and that cannibalism in the streets was rampant. All the language was violent and apocalyptic: “struck”, “shock”, “reeling”, etc. From the overwrought way the Tube told it to the rest of the country, you’d think we Seattleites were wandering about in a daze, searching for the bleeding corpses of loved ones in the shattered ruins of the Space Needle. Significantly, the Tube kept broadcasting pictures of the same old collapsed building in Pioneer Square and the same smashed red car from about 50 different angles. For the next few days, we Seattleites heard again and again how we were “struggling” to recover, to “pick up the pieces” and “return to normal life” after the quake. For us here in the area, it was hilarious to have the nation think of us as a vast population of walking wounded as we sipped our lattes and chatted amiably about all the excitement. It was like being awarded a Purple Heart for braving a roller coaster.

It all reminded me of Garrison Keillor’s discussion of Midwest snowstorms long ago on his delightful show A Prairie Home Companion. He also observed that the media unfailingly use violent language to describe them: “struck”, “crippled”, “paralyzed”, “monster storm”. He also noted that the lived reality for most people is much happier. You put on your warm socks. You mix a cup of hot chocolate, quietly rejoicing that you don’t have to go to work. You read a book. I remember in particular his remark that we’d never see a news report which said, “Authorities are unable to determine how many babies were conceived in today’s storm.”

It all helped me make sense of my eerie feeling of disconnection from so much media “common knowledge”. For example, when Princess Diana died my personal feeling was “How sad” followed quickly by a return to the more pressing matters of existence such as what my kids were doing and how I was going to get my work done that day. But as media hype pressed on I began to wonder whether every person in the world was personally struck to the very marrow with some world-historical anguish-except for me and everyone people I knew. Now I know better. As time has worn on, I’ve never met a soul who underwent paroxysms of grief, shock and sobbing for Princess Diana. I don’t know anybody who knows anybody who did. Sure, people felt bad-just like you feel bad when you hear of any sad event. But the disconnect between that and the portrayal of a Humanity Paralyzed by Grief that was “common knowledge” according to CNNABCNBCCNSFOXTIMENEWSWEEK was rather stark.

I think understanding this disconnect between “common knowledge” as the media dictates it and our daily experience is salutary. After all, it’s also “common knowledge” that Nobody Cares about God Anymore, that Everybody Cheats and that the way to be happy is through Sex, Money and Power. Imagine what the world might really be like if the media, by some incredible fluke, is just as wrong here as they were about the Trauma of the Seattle Earthquake or the Worldwide Orgy of Grief for Diana. It might mean that our knowledge of ourselves and what we think important (such as God, family, and ordinary love and life) is, in fact, more accurate than that of a Talking Hairdo reading breathlessly from a cue card and telling us how we feel and what we think. Acting on such knowledge could really shake the world.


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