Distracted to Death

Short-term thinking promotes panic.

To disregard the ebbs and flows of history is to see each downturn as an unprecedented apocalypse. To ignore the economic and social cycles in our country's history, along with the cycles in the histories of other prominent developing nations, is like exploring a vast hall with a single flashlight and expecting to see all its contents at once.

I complain about the state of the media often. I regret the way that stories have become more sensational, the way that sound bites, misinformation, and false perception underlining the headlines we encounter. That said, one who examines the history of the media sees that this is not a new phenomenon. Nowadays, our news cycles run through an exponentially larger series of conduits and filters than they once did, so the confusion has increased. There is more noise and distraction in the way we process the news around us. It longer belongs to a series of monolithic networks, but rather to a ragtag collection of interests, all digitally camped, some artfully deceptive at hiding their interests, others blustery and bold about their intentions, those who blur the lines between opinion and news.

The contents of our information age - news, politics, advertising, economic information - perhaps none of it has gotten worse! There is simply more of it, and it's coming from more directions over a larger variety of mediums. We live in a hoarder's house of information overload, and we are forced to settle on the items that either have sentimental value, or the furniture we feel most comfortable in, and it's incredibly tough to sell the items we don't need, even tougher to settle on the items we need but don't have room for. It's even tougher, in this hoarder's paradise of ideas, to determine what is truly right for us. Sometimes we pick wrong and are too prideful to move our positions once we realize it.

This metaphor is appropriate because I think the sicknesses in the cultures of the world - poverty, lack of nourishing food and drinkable water, extremism, violence and other basic problems - cast a deep shadow over what I feel is America's underlying sickness: distraction. We're distracting ourselves to death. This distraction is becoming an an enemy to reason. This distraction is the reason we need sensational politicians with dangerously simplistic views to tell us what to do. This distraction is the reason we ignore calls to action to improve society and wait for something irretrievably horrible to happen to us before we react. This distraction is forcing mainstream news organizations to seriously consider politicians who are not merely inadequate, not merely ineffectual, but actively fanatical, wrongheaded, bigoted, intolerant, and ignorant.

I think somewhere deep down inside, the swath of America that launched the 2010 Tea Party Congress into the House of Representatives was spurred on by a deep fear of poverty, but not a true understanding of where poverty originates and what perpetuates and worsens it. What we witnessed, specifically with the relationship between Tea Party candidates and the voters whose loyalty they earned, is a fundamentally tenuous arrangement, one that could be disrupted if the nature and origins of poverty were better understood and explained.

On one hand, Tea Party representatives' ideologies, while no more dangerous than those of any extreme movement, derive from success and privilege - achieved through bare industriousness, luck, skin color, family history, or a combination of all. They have fortified a belief system that trusts the privileged few have gotten there by being wiser, smarter, more capable, and more trustworthy. The benefits, subsequently, of the fruits of these hard earned labors derived from intellectual superiority, is then passed down to the rest of society by virtue of supply side economics and trickle down theory, along with the usual Randian beliefs in the inherent Godlike nature of greed and unbridled, unregulated success. In this worldview, there is no exploitation; there are only those who are willing to do what it takes to get ahead, and those who are too weak, stupid, undisciplined, or lazy to do so.

Thrown in with this underlying belief is also a smattering of assumptions about human nature - that is, that many people are layabout louts in general. The feeling, which in recent days has become less taboo to express outright, is that that poor people are fundamentally lazy and not willing to help themselves unless they have everything done for them. This so-called "learned helplessness," it is a real phenomenon, but it is perpetuated by exploitation, and not by some genetic defect (the 'poor' gene or the 'race' gene).

Curing this sickness of distraction in one element of our society involves exploring these origins of poverty more carefully. But curing the sickness does not stop there. It also starts with communicating the solutions in a clear, goal-oriented, persuasive and unapologetic way.

Truthiness, coined by Stephen Colbert, is something that evokes a vague feeling that it is true, without proof, without the need for evidence or thinking. If you state something, and it sounds true, it no longer matters how full of shit you are. It gives you credibility to merely have mastered truthiness. People are ordinarily not so stupid to believe things that are untrue or derived from simple bigotry. However, poverty, under-representation and inequality, throughout history, has had a way of divorcing us from our common sense. If we are distracted too, then we are particularly susceptible. In such an age, its easy for even the most dangerous and ignorant to enter the atmosphere of common dialog solely on the merit of the truthiness evoked, and many of our alarms will fail to go off. To add to the confusion, this somewhat overused 'Germany in the 1930s' analogy is being used by both sides of the ideological spectrum to explain the dangers of the encroaching legislation on the other side. Knowing what's true becomes doubly difficult on top of what is already a frustrating endeavor to engage in rational, informed, long-term thinking.


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