I don’t watch much television, though the newsroom I work near does not make this easy. There are screens everywhere you look (sound blessedly off), just like the contemporary style in restaurant dining. These screens feature a not-so-wide array of heads talking with their pancake makeup and serious faces on. As always, you can recognize the familiar pros, that is the ones who have made a good living at being wrong about all major U.S. policy decisions in this century. They are still in demand because it takes a special skill to be consistently wrong and still sound plausible to somebody. (See also “President of the United States.”)
But occasionally I glimpse not the familiar array of heads, but the weather-map-style action figure. Someone standing to the side of a large graphic and gesturing at it like an awkward animated dancer. Lately, probably because we are between weather disasters, the graphic is of presidential contenders for a race that hasn’t begun, and the fevered commentary appears to be the exciting difference between 8.4 percent support for one candidate and 8.9 percent for another, with some brow-furrowing about whether that gap can be closed or will prove fatal.
Is it any wonder our political thinking is so broken that we elected Donald Trump? I think all the articles we’re reading about whether screen time is bad for children should be replaced with a conversation about whether screen time turns us INTO children. Really, does anyone EVER stop and ask if something is simply unforgivably imbecilic, or wrong, and then stop doing it? And then find something better?
The marketplace of ideas has turned into just another supermarket featuring row after row of salty opinion snacks and sugary attitude drinks. We have reached the terminus for the ideology that all a market needs to do is deliver “what the customer wants.” “Wants” is the slippery word in this formulation. What people want is not fixed, nor can it be assumed to be healthy or on an improving trajectory or immune from pathologically manipulative ads and messaging. A culture that does everything it can do to stoke and then satisfy the most idiotic and destructive “wants” is a culture that will get around, sooner or later, to electing Donald Trump.
Please, please don’t tell me that after 2016 we are going right back to campaign coverage that is wall-to-wall superficial garbage. Our communication system, from TV to social media to political messaging is broken, and it’s breaking us and our culture. It got us to the degraded state we find ourselves in, and it surely isn’t going to get us out. Whatever the answer is, it follows from getting in the habit of asking the right question.
“Is this stupid?”