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Michelle Obama's 'news-free zone'

The first lady's remark about avoiding the news at home is an unfortunate example of suburban escapism.

March 22, 2010|Gregory Rodriguez

When Michelle Obama told Mike Huckabee a few weeks ago in an interview on Fox News Channel that her home was a "news-free zone," she wasn't just reflecting a desire to filter and ignore news we don't want to hear. Her statement, to my ear, also represented the culmination of the suburbanization of the American mind. And that's bad news for our future.

I'm not about to launch into a righteous diatribe against the intellectual shallowness or soullessness of suburbia. I won't play the role of sophisticated urbanite, not least because I couldn't pull it off. I'm a proud product of suburbia. I know its charms and its demons, and all in all, I'm pleased to have spent my childhood there.

What I'm not so fond of is the suburban dream. I know that part of the reason my parents raised me and my brothers in a leafy foothill Southern California community is that they wanted to spare us the indignities and rough edges of the city and farm, the places where they were raised. I'm grateful for that. But implicit in the suburban ideal is the notion that families must be at odds with the realities of the big bad world.

The suburban ideal is associated with a particular vision of family life: Members of the single family unit are their only allies, best suited to look after each other's physical and emotional needs.

That vision also assumes that family members prefer to be around each other more than anyone else. This explains the conspicuous absence of public places in so many suburbs. Gone are the plazas, the central parks, the gathering places for strangers. As Brandeis University sociologist Laura J. Miller has written: "The geography of suburbia makes it relatively difficult, during non-work hours, to associate with people who are not members of one's household." If that weren't enough, suburban architecture -- the detached single-family home -- draws a sharp line between family and public space. Trademark lawns serve as modern-day moats.

So what does this have to do with Michelle Obama's news-free zone? Well, the suburban ideal includes the notion that the temptations of the world lure people away from familial togetherness. It stresses the need to guard against the world of nonfamily members. And isn't that what Obama is implying? Her husband sought the most powerful office on Earth, yet like a suburban mother warning her children of the city, she speaks as if the world were an unwanted intrusion. She told Huckabee that she stays away from news because she wants to formulate her own opinions based on her experiences. That's comforting. When it comes to news, the first lady just says no.

You don't believe that where you choose to live affects the way you interact with the world? If it didn't, you probably wouldn't choose to live where you do. In Harper's magazine in 1946, writer Carl von Rohe suggested that the "separation of the sphere of livelihood from that of the home inevitably affects a man's outlook on the affairs of the city, the suburb and the country at large; and unless he is perpetually on guard, it instills in him a subtle but all-the-more-damaging mood of escapism."

The triumph of suburbia in the post-World War II years -- the rise of Levittowns, the migration to bedroom communities -- made escapism part of the national worldview. Like any triumphant ideology, the notion that we should arrange our world so we don't have to deal with the volatility of urban extremes began to influence how we process the rest of the world. The suburban dream is no longer just about physical escape. Today it's intellectual as well.

It helps explain why the number of Americans going "newsless" is rising. In 2008, a study from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed that about a third of those younger than 25 said they got no news on a typical day, up from about 25% in 1998. Other studies have shown that more and more of those who do follow the news are tuning in only to their preferred subjects.

Media analysts like to talk about "news burnout" and "information overload," and surely those phenomena are part of the equation. But there's a deeper phenomenon at work here. Too many citizens in what is still the world's most powerful nation are trying to hide from the harshness of reality. This escapism isn't teaching us what we need to know about how to grapple with the world.

grodriguez@ latimescolumnists.com

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