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America Prefers Molehills to Mountains

As I watch the feeding frenzy over Lance Armstrong’s lies about doping and Manti Te’o and his mythical girlfriend, I can’t help but wonder how things would change if we reserved our outrage for things that really matter, that actually affect the country in profound ways.

Yeah, Lance Armstrong is a lying asshole. And the fact that he tried to destroy anyone who told the truth about him is appalling. And I hope he pays for it in a major way, losing that huge fortune he built up through those lies. But our government does the same thing to people who tell the truth about the illegal actions they take and the results are far more damaging for all of us. And almost no one cares.

I wish we had similar outrage at the use of torture by our own government; at warrantless wiretaps; at drone killings of innocent people and the Obama administration’s refusal even to tell us under what legal authority they order them; at the use of the State Secrets Privilege to deny the victims of torture and rendition and illegal surveillance even the chance of getting justice in the courts; at the wholesale buying and selling of elected officials, including judges in most states; at the millions of people our government has murdered in unjust and unjustified wars.

But no, we save our outrage for sports heroes that turn out to be jerks. And entertainment. We care more about who knocked up Kim Kardashian and who is going to win the next season of Dancing With The Stars Washed up Has Beens Desperately Clinging to the Last Vestiges of Fame. Panem et circenses — bread and circuses — that is all that matters.

Comments

  1. oranje says

    We can bookend a story like this, there’s the opportunity for redemption (which our culture loves to see, after trouncing on the protagonist first), and we can directly relate it to our entertainment. The big problems require sustained observation and understanding, an appreciation for nuance, and a displacement of factionalism. Neither the current political nor media environments much cares for this. Thus, such deeper discussion remains sidelined for the intelligentsia (of any political or cultural stripe), while the hit and run media personalities can label that as elitist.

  2. Rob Monkey says

    To be fair, while the Manti story is the usual gossipy bullshit about sports stars, it’s also the first bit of actual investigative journalism I’ve seen in ages. To your point however, I read the sentence, “But no, we save our outrage for sports heroes that turn out to be jerks,” and immediately thought, “and reward torture with zero prosecutions, lucrative book deals, and Oscar nominations.” Dog bless the USA.

  3. scienceavenger says

    Don’t forget worrying more about the 10,000 or so people a year murdered by guns (not to mention highly publicized events involving far less than that) instead of the literally MILLIONS of people victimized by the government’s prisons-for-profit program, comnplete with paid-off judges and a disregard for actual guilt or innocence. For every child murdered at Sandy Hook, there are a thousand children growing up without parents because of this anti-American nonsense. Maybe if the government carried out that program with guns…oh wait…

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    And I hope he pays for it in a major way,…

    Have you ever heard anyone say, “I’d give my left nut to win that prestigious athletic competition”?
    Did you dismiss it as hyperbole?

  5. Francisco Bacopa says

    And pretty harmless folks like T’eo who were taken in by a hoax and then became part of a larger hoax are a national story, while serious rape and assault allegations against Notre Dame football players get no attention and the victims are harassed into silence.

    Indiana is a fucked up state. You just have to read what Jen has written about it and her experiences at Purdue. And the first wave of the Klan remained active there after it had faded in the former confederate states.

  6. baal says

    Real outrage on real problems would lead to pressure to actually fix stuff or to tweak the system to be less stacked against the least privileged. The forces of the status quo (including the profit margin on the big media orgs) militate against change of those kinds. So we get trivia flogged to the nth degree.

    I’d start with a a total redo on criminal justice, add an excellent quality safety net, single payer health care (2x per capita spend but not top 10 in life expectancy!) and whatever can be reasonably done on climate change as where to start.

  7. says

    ” I can’t help but wonder how things would change if we reserved our outrage for things that really matter, that actually affect the country in profound ways.”

    Like, oh, gun violence, the fact that the injustice system is pretty much bought and paid for by the prison, I mean, “Corrections Industry”, the fact that the War on (Some) Drugs is tearing apart families and leaving people rotting in prison for 40+ years over one lousy joint…

    All this little stuff? It’s an intentional misdirection, designed to keep us talking about these little things and ignoring the big things.

  8. jws1 says

    The Armstrong story is somewhat important, I think. It is fairly obvious that his nationality, coupled with the allegedly sacrosanct ideals of nationalism, informed the opinions of his supporters who denied reality until the very bitter end. These deniers are most deserving of a touchdown dance in their face. If Armstrong was from France and didn’t have a nice public persona but instead one like Barry Bonds, this support would never have existed.

  9. John Hinkle says

    The way to get people’s attention is through the pocketbook. If people had to pay upfront for 2 unnecessary wars, and big bank bailouts, they might be a little more discerning about what’s happening in government. Medicare, Medicaid, and SS wouldn’t even be on the radar.

  10. slc1 says

    The muck de mucks who run the Tour de France have taken away his 7 consecutive “victories”. But who are they going to award those 7 contests to? The overwhelming likelihood is that most of his competitors were also juiced, and also passed the drug tests administered, as he did.

  11. Austin Travis says

    I think it has to do with the way our societal incentives are constructed.

    I have long argued that one of the worst things to happen to US policy was the creation of CNN. Once news became a for-profit industry (as was inevitable when a 24 hour station broadcasting only news started) we were bound to end up with what we’ve gotten. Let’s face it, when viewership is the driving force behind what gets broadcast, celebrity, titillating scandal (as opposed to complex scandals that are hard to explain and understand), and the taking down of popular figures is what will be on the air.

    There are larger markets for stories that let people imagine a life that is (theoretically) easier than theirs and the downfall of people who were living that kind of life than there are for stories that require effort and critical thinking to understand or stories about problems that seem too big for us to be able to affect. So, journalism evolved into infotainment because the shareholders’ value must be increased (or the CEO and CFO don’t get their bonuses).

    These same incentives also lead to broadcasts that reinforce the viewers’ points of view. Most people (present company excluded) feel better when their worldview is validated rather than challenged. So, viewers will be more likely to return to watch something that makes them feel validated rather than returning to watch something that makes them feel like they are wrong. Viewership equals increased ad rates and revenues, so that’s what any for-profit broadcaster must try to increase.

    I have more ideas on this, but I’ve already reached the tl;dr level for a comment on someone else’s blog, I think. A full discussion is probably better suited to putting on my own blog (not that I have one).

    I think it’ll be interesting to see what Al Jazeera America does in such an environment. My prediction is that they will either fold, operate with losses, or move to the same infotainment model that the rest of the US media uses.

  12. Suido says

    Journalism, despite it’s claims to the contrary, should have regulatory bodies, just as almost every other profession (medical, engineering, trades) does. Self regulation is a sham.

    Regulate what counts as news, regulate honest/biased reporting, reduce everything else to entertainment. Ensure access to public assets (radio wavelengths/satellite bandwidth) comes with responsibility to serve the public.

  13. kyoseki says

    slc1

    The muck de mucks who run the Tour de France have taken away his 7 consecutive “victories”. But who are they going to award those 7 contests to? The overwhelming likelihood is that most of his competitors were also juiced, and also passed the drug tests administered, as he did.

    I believe they said they weren’t going to award them to anyone.

    I saw a factoid the other day (read that how you will – I sure as hell couldn’t be bothered to check it) that if they were to award his 2005 jersey to the next finisher who HADN’T been accused to doping, they’d have to give it to the guy who crossed the line in 23rd place.

    What really bugs me even when we’re talking about professional sports, which matters not a jot in the grander scheme of things, is how everyone is hopping on the bash Lance bandwagon, but nobody seems to give a shit that there’s any number of felons playing in the NFL at any given time – Micheal Vick ran a dog fighting ring for fuck’s sake and he’s still eligible to play.

    People get outraged over whatever the media tells them to get outraged about.

  14. cottonnero says

    I know I’ve got a limit of how much angry-about-real-shit I can get before I get exhausted. There’s only so much powerful people turning the prison industry into a personal playground of guaranteed profits that I can take before I desperately want to worry about something meaningless, like the Lions’ secondary.

    Austin Travis #16: Michael Heath has made, if not a career, then at least a well-studied hobby out of leaving ten- or fifteen- paragraph insightful comments on Ed’s blog. If you can keep up the quality (and regular paragraph breaks), I don’t think anyone will begrudge you the length.

  15. cry4turtles says

    I wonder how much money medicaid would save if they refused to give O2 tanks to idiots with COPD who still smoke? Some rocket scientist in Youngstown just blew himself up lighting a cigarette with his O2 on. Almost killed his brother too. Just wondering.

  16. says

    Thinking is hard.

    Being entertained (and pissed off about what we know, which is what entertains us) is really easy.

    The solution? Make the news entertaining. :D

    JT

  17. daniellavine says

    The reasoning is simple, here, and I don’t think JT’s suggestion is going to cut it.

    Paying attention to systemic problems in government, the economy, and society in general forces people to acknowledge that the institutions with which they identify, from which they enjoy a certain largess, and for whose existence and operation they maintain the tiniest bit of moral culpability — well, that makes people feel bad. The fact that my country has the highest incarceration rate — well, doing something about that sounds really hard but not doing something about it would probably reflect poorly on my sense of ethics.

    Much easier just not to think about the serious problems. Then you don’t have to feel responsible.

    But criticizing other people for their problems — that’s damned easy. Best of all, you can feel smugly superior to such people. Lance Armstrong may be one of the world’s best bicyclists (dope or no it’s probably true) but in some sense I can consider myself superior to him. That makes me feel good.

    The problem is really cultural, I think. We are a nation of emotional adolescents, unable to admit we are perhaps not the best/smartest/fastest/strongest/hottest in the room.

    This is the one sense in which I think the Islamists have a great point: US culture is frivolous and amoral.

  18. daniellavine says

    Micheal Vick ran a dog fighting ring for fuck’s sake and he’s still eligible to play.

    People get outraged over whatever the media tells them to get outraged about.

    Such as dogfighting?

    I’m not pro-dogfighting but it was one of the most popular “sports” in the 19th century. It’s also arguably less cruel than a lot of the other things we do to animals in our society. Since I’m not a vegetarian I don’t feel a whole lot of moral superiority to Michael Vick on this particular issue. And again, it would be so much easier to criticize Michael Vick for the dogfighting than it would be to acknowledge how my diet contributes to a huge amount of suffering on the parts of animals that don’t have as good PR as dogs do.

    Having watched and enjoyed a bullfight I’m a little conflicted about this. But I’m already well aware that I’m a moral hypocrite. It really is harder to keep the focus on one’s own failings than to find someone even worse to point at.

  19. anchor says

    That’$ en-ter-tain-ment,..

    It is ‘news’ like gossip is news. ‘News’ media place commercial interest over any ideological journalistic responsibility to inform the public. ‘Serious or important news’ is apparently not only insufficiently entertaining, its often hard and dreadful to the sensiblities (as problems inevitably are) and foster negative emotional reactions. It can drive their consumer viewership away from their commercial $pon$ors…who have (especially over the course of the television era) systematically bought up media outlets and now dictate the content to meet their ratings demands.

    That’s where the junk news and dumbed-down nonsense comes from. It was only a matter of time before that kind of control metastisized into the full-blown cancer of shaping political opinion under the guise of ‘editorial’ liberty. To be sure, the practice of poltical advocacy is as old as the newspapers (WR Hearst for example) but the onset of tv broadcasting is what really fanned the flames…

    Incredibly, it isn’t enough for them. It seems they want ever more control, and they are going for it. Precious few are aware of this:

    http://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/news/?id=60f8db95-59a0-42bd-bcb1-abef930ef837
    Evidently, the reason must be that it wasn’t sufficiently newsworthy entertaining.

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