Put down your phone and stop and smell the flowers

How I admire Andy Crouch. The Christian author recently took a vacation from the hardest thing to escape: the digital realm. For two months, he eschewed the screens that keep us permanently attached to the internet. He didn’t succumb to the fear of “missing out.” Rather, he was able to live more fully in the moment, enjoy himself, and focus on much-neglected hobbies. He even experienced a real rarity in the hyper-connected world: “just quiet and an absence of hurry to get to the next thing.”

I thought about Crouch’s sojourn away from modernity while paying visit to D.C.’s annual blooming of the cherry blossoms. Situated around the Tidal Basin, the springtime event is a tradition that goes back over a century when Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki gifted our country with prunus serrulata (Japanese cherry) trees to signify improving relations between the U.S. and Japan. Clearly, Franklin Roosevelt didn’t get the memo when he interned nearly 100,000 Japanese citizens and non-citizens following the Pearl Harbor attacks. But that’s neither here nor there.

Visiting the cherry blossoms trees is a pleasant experience if you can ignore one thing: rude, absentminded crowds. I can’t stand them. Running around without regard for rules, or basic decency, the typical tourist to the National Mall is the embodiment of modern America. Crude, self-centered, and wholly unconcerned with the well-being of everyone around them – this is the American ethos. Some call it a “me me me” pathology. I call it mass consumerism and individualism run amok.

Paradoxically, the total focus on self amidst the beautiful foliage is increased by the obsession over social media. Cherry blossom petals may fill the air around our national monuments but so do the bright screens of tens of thousands of smartphones. In 2015, smart devices are everywhere. IPhones, iPads, and laptops (and soon Apple Watches) dominate public spaces. And of course there now exists the pinnacle of narcissism: the “selfie stick.” How I wish to impale every user of the selfie stick upon their obelisk of vanity. Alas, our Lord’s decree to love one another stays my hand.

But seriously, the sheer amount of selfie-taking around monuments signifies the downward trajectory of the West. Instead of experiencing things for their own sake, we take pictures. A moment that could be spent in prosaic enjoyment turns into a moment to show off to digital pals on Facebook. Dr. Theodore Dalrymple was right when he said social media should be referred to as “anti-social media.” The more focus on we put on our handheld screens, the less we put on things and people around us.

On a more fundamental level, the diminution of the National Mall into a virtual jungle gym says a lot about America’s character. Somewhere along the line, our freedom stopped being a natural responsibility and turned into an excuse to do anything without limits. An everyday trip to the monument circuit is plagued by a rash of disrespectful teenagers. Instead of reflecting upon our country’s history, dirty kids use monuments as props from which to take pictures with retarded grins. They jump around in fountains meant to add tranquil beauty to the surroundings. They disregard barriers and line tape that cut off areas under construction. Our national symbols are a free-for-all for the circus beasts known as American tourists.

I don’t often agree with New York Times columnist David Brooks, but on the ennui of the American character I find common cause. The country, to say it lightly, is at a loss for shared purpose. Our values are base. Our faith is non-existent. If America had a national goal at one point, surely it has been lost to the deafening sound of mindless Youtube videos. Brooks warned about this downward slope into “nihilistic mediocrity” over a decade ago in his preeminent article “A Return to National Greatness.” “If [the American people] think of nothing but their narrow self-interest, of their commercial activities,” he wrote, “they lose a sense of grand aspiration and noble purpose.”

Amen to that. Now for national greatness, Brooks most frequently appeals to empire and American global might. I have something different in mind. Great countries don’t earn their reputation through strength alone. They earn admiration through the character of the people. That character fuels the innovations that better the world. Art, music, philosophy, religion, literature, science are all embraced by distinguished nations. These countries don’t bury their history and traditions. They celebrate the foundations upon which success grew.

If America is to become a country full of bumbling, obnoxious tourists obsessed over their phones, then God help us. A nation that put a man on the moon and won two world wars is now focused on getting a high score in Angry Birds. How much longer will we pretend to be exceptional?

There once was a time when you could take in the sights without the constant buzzing in your pocket. You could admire the clouds, and the gentle permeation of the sun through tall buildings without the interruption of work emails. That time is now gone. Nowadays, any job that pays the bills requires constant attention. And with a smartphone comes the near-mandate to never leave the online world. The act of being incommunicado is now a luxury.

Who’s the culprit behind our inability to disconnect? Ourselves, of course. For all our mewling over being tethered at all times to the internet, we still embrace it. Selfies, status updates, picture postings, tweets, cyber voyeurism – these are daily routines for many Americans. To millennials, they are basically oxygen.

I’ve been critical of the National Mall in the past, and its housing of grand testimonials to the power and endurance of the federal government. I’ve tried to gather some perspective since then. I’ve come to this conclusion: the symbols of our country should be respected insomuch as that they are symbols. They are a means of identifying with the past as we forge, both cautiously and recklessly, into the future. And even Japanese cherry trees play a role in our heritage.

When Mr. Crouch reached the end of his abstinence from the digital space, he was in Florence enjoying Easter holiday. He and his wife made their way to Piazza del Duomo to witness “Il Scoppio del Carro,” or the “explosion of the cart.” As an antiquated wooden cart full of fireworks awaited the day’s sermon, he inadvertently witnessed a possible miracle. A rogue golden dove flew out of the church and smashed right into the cart, igniting a sea of explosions. Crouch explains the rest:

“And this being 2015, a sea of smartphones, held aloft on selfie sticks, mediated the moment. A thousand screens bobbed over the heads in front of us. Go to YouTube or Flickr and see for yourself—all of them captured it.”

Indeed, you can witness a serendipitous explosion on the day that marks the conquering of death. But, as Crouch says, no one “captured it.” The essence existed in that time and place for just a moment. Smartphones can’t replicate that experience. Just as they can’t replicate what it’s like to look upon the Tidal Basin, a smooth breeze in the air, and cherry petals falling around you as young children giggle with their parents. They can’t replicate a tinge of pride in the history of their country. It can be recorded. But it’s something just beyond what our eyes can see.

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