Sunday, September 19, 2010

15 Minutes Too Much

In the late 1960s, the pop artist Andy Warhol famously predicted that, in the future, everyone would have their own 15 minutes of personal fame. It seemed like a ridiculous remark at the time. But the 1960s were a very different time than today. Now we have the then-unforeseen environment of the internet, where virtually anyone can publish virtually any statement regardless of veracity or discernment and then claim it as absolute truth; we now have 24-hour / 365-day news delivery with airtime and page space that must be continuously filled and resupplied. Taken together, these two forces conspire to fulfill Warhol’s prediction by offering up any space-filling “news” as items supposedly of pertinence to us. And thereby, they give these news sources their newly found 15 minutes of fame, even though they are likely of no real consequence to the pursuit of my life.

The latest example of this is the disturbing case of one Terry Jones. Mr. Jones was apparently the pastor of a small church in Germany until he was released due to “financial improprieties.” He subsequently made his way to Florida where he founded a small church in a vacant mall space, with a congregation of less than 50 people. In the weeks leading up to the next forthcoming anniversary of the 9-11 destruction in New York City, Mr. Jones came up with the reprehensible idea to burn copies of the Qur’an as a way to show his hatred of all things Islam, supposedly because of what 19 Muslims did on September 11, 2001.

We have experienced book burnings in America before, as well as its more subtle but just as sinister cousins of book censorship and book bannings. Any of these various forms of negative expression are bad enough, but when they are specifically targeted towards insulting or restricting whole groups of people, they become even more of an assault on our society of free expression and freedom to worship.

Yet in the spirit of our times, attention and media space goes not to the substantive but to the outrageous. Thereby a previously (and deservedly) unknown player with a base audience of less than 50 people is suddenly the lead news headline of the day. Ultimately, a person who should be of no consequence to me whatsoever is generating conversation and attention from religious, political and military leaders across the country and world. No matter that people across all philosophical persuasions were universally condemning this proposed book burning as an undeserved and improper religious affront to one specific religious group as well as a tangible threat to American soldiers operating in Muslim countries. Through all of this noise the only question I found myself able to ask was – WHY are we even talking about this obviously self-promoting individual, versus consigning him to the set of right-wing or left-wing fringe people who have always existed in America and who should at most be a mere footnote buried on page 20 of the daily news, quickly dismissed and permanently forgotten about.

In the desperate rush for constant sensational headlines, these are now the kind of people who show up on our TV screens. Two years ago we had to endure day after day of “Joe the Plumber” and his nonsensical views on the economy and our presidential choice. Joe was an out-of-work plumber who wanted to buy a plumbing business but couldn’t afford it, who turned out to not be a licensed plumber after all and had no economic credibility at all. Yet there he was at one McCain rally after another, TV microphones stuck in his face, basking in his sudden fame, a political know-nothing designated by the media to speak “for the people.” The press ate it up as a “man in the street” human interest story; yet my opinion of the value of modern news reporting went down every time Joe’s image or words appeared in front of me. It was classic “celebrity over substance” reporting. Good old Joe had far more than his 15 minutes of fame due, and thankfully he has now gone on and disappeared from view.

I expect that it will so continue. So much noise coming our way built upon so little thought. And some ill-deserving people are getting way more than the 15 minutes allotted to them because they are very good at moving from one outrageous headline to the next. “Media savvy” is seen as a greater skill than being “smart people.” I would frankly put Sarah Palin, Glen Beck, and Newt Gingrich all in that category of being way beyond their 15 minutes due. I say that not because I differ from most of their political views, but because there is absolutely no substance or real ideas coming from them. They just provide emotional clich├ęs designed to get attention for its own sake without having to actually DO anything about their headlines of complaints. (Newt used to be a more reasonable big-picture thinker offering substantive ideas, but he has thrown that away in a willingness to now become another one of those who will say anything to get attention to his/her wanna-be presidential candidacy.) It is very easy to throw bricks through windows and thereby create self-focused publicity through destructive words and actions. Especially when you then disclaim any responsibility for unwanted actions that may subsequently ensue. It is a lot harder and slower to take those same bricks and build solid structures (of solutions) that will stand strong and have lasting benefits. It is to the bricklayers that we need to give our attention, not the brick throwers.

It is said that we ultimately get the government we deserve. I believe we also ultimately get the news and information that we deserve and demand. If we fill our days and our minds paying attention to those who deserve only passing interest (if any at all) from us, how will that leave us time and energy to listen to those who can truly inspire, inform and lead us to better and more positive outcomes?