Sometimes, I despair. We live in an age where we're immersed in news and information like never before, yet I'm constantly surprised by just how information free most debate is these day. The tiniest snowflakes of truth seem to instantly grow into avalanches of half-truths and misinformation. For instance, in last weeks debate Mitt Romney said he would cut funding for public broadcasting. This instantly was mocked along two lines. First, people ridiculed the idea that Romney thought he could balance the budget by cutting this funding. But, I never heard Romney make that claim. He argued it wasn't important enough to borrow money from China to pay for, but he plainly was offering this as one example of unneeded spending, not the entirety of it. Second, some ads and commentary have run with the idea that Romney was threatening to fire Big Bird. In the same breath, people will point out how small the Federal dollars are that go to programs like Sesame Street. And they're right! The sale of dolls and books and games about Sesame Street characters is probably more than enough to keep the TV show on the air. Cutting off federal funds isn't going to ruffle a feather on Big Bird.
I'm not a Romney supporter, and can point to examples going in the other direction. WND just yesterday was running proof that Obama is secretly a Muslim. They had enlarged a photo of his wedding band a zillion percent and were showing how the blurry little squiggles in the gold spelled out "There is No God but Allah, etc." It reminded me a bit of people who find the face of Jesus in the stains on a whitewashed wall. And, of course, if you type in "Obama Birth Certificate," you will find hundreds of thousands of words dedicated to proving that the certificate is a forgery.
Twenty years ago, a few nut jobs with newsletter might have been able to spread these rumors to a couple of thousand people. Today, anyone with a computer and a cellphone can make their wildest theories available to millions of people. The millions inclined to believe Obama is a foreign born Muslim can read a new article proving their case every day. It's news! There's evidence! Look at the photos! Look how there's a blur on the birth certificate around the third "e" that proves it was cut and pasted from a different document! YOU'D HAVE TO BE BLIND NOT TO SEE IT, PEOPLE!
Of course, the "mainstream" media is only slightly less embarrassing. The order of the day is report on controversies, and, if none exist, make up some. Again, not to defend Romney, but when our embassies were attacked in Libya and Egypt he made a statement that the State Department had handled the matter poorly. For the next 72 hours of the news cycle, the headlines of how Romney had embarrassed himself with the statement seemed to be just as prominent as the stories about the actual attacks. It's not that I wanted to read stories about how the White House had screwed up... I really would have been happy with some real reporting about what was going on. But, of course, it's difficult to report on a story taking place in a far away country where American reporters might not be safe asking questions of the local authorities. It's easy to report on what politicians here are spinning. The path of least resistance is followed, and reaction to the story becomes the story... even while the facts of the story are still unresolved.
Arguments are fun. Shows that provide partisan arguments draw far higher ratings than shows that provide more staid, objective reporting. At least, I guess they do. I don't know. I'm throwing out a fact that could probably be googled, but I'm not going to google it, because if I'm wrong I don't want to throw out my argument. The perception that the partisan argument shows have higher ratings feels true to me, and probably feels true to many people reading this, so, PRESTO! We have truth! Who the hell cares if there are facts undergirding our truth? We live in an age where three news stories have to break every fifteen minutes just to keep us interested. If we're not entertained by our news, we'll just click on over to Cracked.com and look at their latest list of goofy photographs. Or there's always the latest World of Warcraft podcast to listen to, or a chatroom to discuss who's winning Face Off.
I'm reminded of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter S. Thompson:
“We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled that 60's. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary's trip. He crashed around America selling "consciousness expansion" without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously... All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody... or at least some force - is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The struggle of our age isn't drugs. It's amusement. We're all to busy watching the Daily Show, or listening to Rush Limbaugh, certain we're being informed when we're merely being entertained. And for the few who suspect there might be more to learn about a subject, they simply decide to trust that there are people out there who are keeping track of the important things. Information is everyone's right, but someone else's job.
The information universe has ordered itself to provide us with the most stimulating news. Giving us internet connections is like giving a monkey a button hardwired into the pleasure centers of his brain. The monkeys would rather push the button than eat. We'll just keep pushing our own pleasure buttons again and again, slowly starving out brains of any actual nourishment, going down that dark tunnel with smiles on our faces.