Sunday, August 31, 2008

Q: What’s more addictive than heroin?

A: Tragedy

We all know about addiction: You know something’s bad for you, the more you do it, the worse things will be. And yet when the object of obsession presents itself, you follow with undivided attention. The feeling is just too good to pass up.

So I was watching the Democratic Convention last week and I could not help but notice that sooooo much attention was being given to the episodes of tragedy that exist among the population: the mother with autistic children being denied insurance, the soldier on his third tour in Iraq, the couple that was told to declare bankruptcy or get a divorce for some reason or another. It seems as if we are a nation full of tragedy, that there are so many people down and out and so little time to save them.

I think that the reality is much different. Sure, 47 million people are not covered by health insurance and that sucks. But, most of the people in this country are getting over. There’s food on an awful lot of plates and two cars in too many garages. On the whole, between the job and easy credit, in the scheme of our time on the planet, most people in the good old USA are doing all right.

So, what gives?

Joshua Meyrowitz wrote a book back in 1986 titled, No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. One of the points that he makes it that media is a megaphone by which perceptions are amplified. Take a 100 people, put them in a frame of video and have them shout some slogans. It seems as if hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets. The numbers might be small, but the perception of volume is huge. The whole world really is watching.

Probably the most telling example is the conflict in the West Bank and Gaza. The entire population of Israel is ~7.3 million people. In terms of rocks, guns, suicide bombings and armored personnel carriers, I suspect that the number of belligerents might be less than 20,000, if that. Yet is seems as if the entire population, Palestinian and Israeli, is in a state of siege, that millions and millions of people are going at it, every hour of every day.

As any ad exec will tell you, media works!

Which brings us to the Democratic Convention. Now don’t get me wrong, I am an ardent Obama supporter. I plan to vote for the man as many times as they’ll let me. He’s right; the stakes are much too high this time around. Looking back I can only imagine how different the world would be were Gore to have taken office in 2000.

But, I need to admit that political discourse that embraces the Queen for a Day, "no tragedy is too small for empathy" brand of attention getting is disheartening. The political prime directive seems to be: Get the feeling and the votes will follow. On the HD-TVs of America, looking tough is more valuable than being thoughtful.

Yet can we expect more? As Robert Hughes points out in his book, The Culture of Complaint, to paraphrase, when we can no longer report our thinking about a topic, all that is left to report is our feeling.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I picked up on that same little piece in the convention. You are right that there is nothing like tragedy to grab the audience. It is similar to the humor when someone slips on a bananna peel; In a moment of relief you chuckle and are glad it didn't really happen to you. THere is nothing like that bananna peel to grab the hearts and give a squeeze.
you might say that tragedy and humor work the same way. But who wants to listen to some political candidate tall jokes a give a chuckle with a crooked smirk on his face, y'all.
I remember when jokes were told at these conventions. It was big news.
Although it is important to remember the tragedies we must not forget how to laugh in the face of them. Milton Berle once said there wasn't anything funny about America (except Mark Twain) until the Jews got here. We can learn a lesson about coping with extreme adversity from Yiddish humor.
Viva Galitzeyaner!

7:12 PM  

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