Monday, January 05, 2004

A case against frivolity,

A few posts back I railed against the obsession of the news media with Michael Jackson. To be fair, the preoccupation with scandal is hardly a new phenomena. Yellow jounralism afterall propelled Pulitzer to the fortune with which he would attempt to redeem his reputation later with by establishing the most famous prize for journalistic high-mindedness and excellence anywhere. Nor is it a particularly bad thing that human beings have a streak of tabloid fever in them. I am not against vicarious and voyeuristic prurient interest in the affairs of others per se.

The problem is that when this sort of fascination crowds out higher priorities. If afterall a spouse was about to go to the hospital to deliver a child, one might expect a person to reasonably put all thought of reading the tabloid story regarding Michael Jackson's relationship with children for more personal and relevant concerns regarding their own impending child. This would be only natural and right, and any person who acted contrary to this expectation would be questioned most likely as to the correctness of their personal priorities.

True frivolity is not merely goofing off. Play-time whether for adults or children is a healthy and even necessary part of life. All work and no play makes not only dull people but worse ones as well. There is however a time and a place for things. Entertainment is recognized as pathological when it becomes an obsessive concern that crowds out other important components to a balanced lifestyle.

Recently Penn of Penn and Taylor the famous team of magicians wrote an op-ed piece for the LAT. He related that he had been asked to comment on the relationship between the principles employed in stage magic and those in politics. Most of the article was devoted to the discussion of misdirection. The audience is never lied to, but instead given distracting or misleading perceptual cues and then left to speculate whatever they wish. The audience rarely comes to the simplest possible and logically necessary conclusion, that it is a simple bait-and-switch job but even educated and intelligent observers often try to create complicated explanations for rather straightforward illusions. Penn directly compares this to how politicians perform their own craft.

The analysis is brilliant and correct. By framing the issues to their advantage, by suggesting more complicated reasons than in fact exist, by encouraging people to rationalize the policies, and by distracting the public with impressive-seeming but empty displays politicians are able to "magically" entrance and "trick" their audience into agreeing and carrying out their agendas. The most recent incarnation of this methodology is the so-called divisive social wedge issue. In reality this sort of thing has been around for a long time in public discussion. Demonizing opponents and scapegoating them is a time honored technique in demagogery.

Dante Chinni of the Christian Science Monitor has written recently an excellent opinion peice on the likely use of legalized gay-unions in the upcoming 2004 elections as precisely one of these divisive social wedge issue. His analysis neatly sums up the frustration of a sense of priorities gone wrong and a sense of outrage that politicians on any side of an issue would use what is essentially a matter of lesser importance to divide people from what should be their own best interest on matters of greater import.

For the homosexual and alternate-sexual identity citizens of this country, as well as for those strongly opposed to such practices no doubt it is a matter of consuming personal importance to resolve this issue. However if a theatre is burning down, I'm not really concerned if the couple next to me is homosexual or even joined in legally sanctioned matrimony but my most burning concern would be whether or not it would be possible to avoid being burned to a crisp. My assertion is that even those who believe strongly one way or another regarding the issue of gay-marriage should subordinate their personal concerns when discussing and supporting politics if other issues of greater life-and-death value are on the table.

This is only possible however if frivolity, or the inappropriate priority of concerns, has not taken hold. A people willing to be obsessed by the Michael Jackson drama, not as a fascinating commentary on the human condition, but as a prevailing focus of primary attention is going to be more likely to allow themselves to be misdirected by unscrupulous political actors of any stripe. When the house is burning down, you don't ask if your child has made their beds no matter how irritating it might be that they neglect it - you just try to get everyone out with their skins intact and damn the bed-spreads.

In a slow election year it would be appropriate for the American people to let concerns such as the moral decay induced by Britney Spears videos affecting impressionable young women's minds dominate the public discourse and priorities. This election year however promises in order to prove a stark choice between two different possible paths that America can chart into the future, with dire consequences domestic and foreign abounding. In 2000 the big media outlets got the story horribly wrong when they advanced the interpretation that there wasn't that much difference between the two major candidates running for President. Now we know that whoever is elected will determine the outcome of a struggle for the direction of America itself. If GW Bush is elected, it will stand as a vindication and further encouragement for all the policies advanced in his movement. Similarly, if his opponent is elected it will be seen as a repudiation of those very same policies and a choice by the American people for a different manner of doing things.

Whatever one's position on matters, one shouldn't allow frivolity in order to undermine the seriousness of the current debate. I supported Dole in 1996, but I didn't end up voting for him. Part of the reason why was that I didn't perceive him of being capable of winning even with my best efforts. This is what a political commentator might call not having an "energized" or motivated (political support) base. However in this election, not only am I going to be voting (as I voted in 2000) but I'm participating in the Primary process. Allot of important issues are on the line, and for me its imperative that they be decided not by a passive tolerance or indifference but by active deliberation. This year we basically get to decide the future course of American democracy, and I for one want to be able to say that I did everything possible to do my part in determining that choice and making sure that it was decided for the right reasons.

So if there is a New Year's resolution for the American people, let it be no more inattention and no more frivolity. Let us put away things that however normally important to us are not critical right now, and let us focus on the very important issues and process before us.


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