January 30, 2015
This is where we have come to.
In the past week, the government of Yemen collapsed, which has serious ramifications in any one of a number of areas: the growth of al-Qaeda, Shia versus Sunni relations, the interrupted rebuilding of a fractured society. The president gave a state of the union address that highlighted his decision to take on the GOP controlled Congress. Kurdish fighters drove ISIS out of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border. North Dakota says three million gallons of potentially toxic salt water, created by a fracking operation, spilled into a creek, reigniting the debate about the safety of these operations. Legislators in Alabama are threatening to arrest any one performing a marriage of any kind as a protest against a recent ruling that found its ban on gay marriage unconstitutional.
But America is obsessed with a story about deflated footballs. One of the teams in the upcoming super Bowl,the New England Patriots, has been accused of slightly lowering the pressure in the footballs to make it slightly softer and provide a better grip for the quarterback, Tom Brady. The topic of how many pounds per square inch a professional football needs to be inflated has focused the attention of a large section of the country in a way that talk about the deficit, or health care or the closing of Guantanamo Bay never could. At one point this week, the story lead the national evening news broadcast of the major networks, and was ubiquitous on cable channels.
You could blame the country’s preoccupation with the football story on a number of factors – it’s January and people are bored after the holiday season, or perhaps the popularity of the game with many Americans especially during Super Bowl week.
But there is different force operating here. We have, as a society, become obsessed with trivial pursuits. Not that this is necessarily a new development. As journalist H.L. Mencken said , you”ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. We have always been rather easily baffled by bullshit. But the advent of the Internet and social media has kicked this cultural trait into hyper-drive.
In such a diverse society, with a million different news outlets on air, online and even still in print, and social media like Twitter and Facebook allowing everybody to opinionate about everything, it’s a real chore to focus the attention of people on any issue of public importance. But let Kim Kardashian put a picture of her butt on twitter, or post a video on YouTube of a cat doing something humorous, or as in this case, deflate a football, and it grabs the attention of multitudes.
People everywhere are guilty of a reverence for the trivial to some degree, but in America, we have raised the predominance of nothing over something to an art form of sorts. You can find the answer is several places: it’s hard for Americans to think as a collectively about important issues instead of as individuals – it’s just the way the country has worked since its inception – national tragedies can focus the country on one topic but not for very long; the idea of government as a positive force in people’s lives and the theme of ‘the public good’ has been successfully undermined in the past two decades by conservative media outlets, as well as by the politicians of both major parties, intentionally so by the GOP; and what you might call the new economy of click-bait capitalism – sites online whose only purpose is to get you to click to the next screen. Chock-a-block with useless information and trivia, they strive to occupy your hours with the kind of material once saved for bathroom reading.
And it’s hard not to fall into being a spectator to this flood of the inconsequential. I’m a New England Partiots fan and for days, I followed the story religiously, until I reach a point where I said to myself “What the hell am I doing? Do I really care about this stuff?”
I reached the conclusion no, I didn’t. But as our days increasingly become stuffed with digital bric-a-brac that will tell us who we were in another life, or 19 ways we can tell if we had a bad-ass mom, or a mainsteam media desperate to keep up with the social media Jones, it get harder and harder to not be sucked into the miasma of the importance of nothing.
Copyright Tom Regan 2015
Contact Tom Regan: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board in Canada, and for the Christian Science Monitor and Boston Globe newspapers, and National Public Radio, in the United States. A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.
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