Protagonist Bing Madsen, furious at the system, tries to make a statement by working his way onto the “ X-Factor”-esque show “Hot Shots,” where he interrupts his own audition by threatening to commit suicide with a shard of glass he’s snuck in with him. Instead of taking him seriously, the judges commend his performance and give him his own show, in which he rants about society while holding a glass shard to his neck -- a shard he carefully puts away in a silk-lined box after every episode.
I’m not so simplistic as to think our own continuous distraction -- with reality shows, with Kim, Khloe and Bieber, with noise and fluff and bright shiny things -- is the orchestrated product of a centralized control structure. But it gets to a point where it almost doesn’t matter. If we are so anaesthetized by the world around us, does it really matter whether someone is doing it to us or we are doing it to ourselves?
As for me, I am uninterested in the Kardashians’ trials and tribulations. But I am interested in TED talks and social media and the occasional Lamebook guilty pleasure. I follow stories about SCOTUS and get teary over videos like this. If we are sucked into a time-wasting vortex, does it really matter whether the subject is reality TV or intellectual cotton candy?
The greater the stakes, the greater the distractions. Start to gain a little bit of fame or notoriety, and people want a piece of you, want to handle you, want to make sure you’re on their track and not some rogue one. Imagine, just for a moment, that you’re Edward Snowden, Wendy Davis, or even Barack Obama. Imagine the challenge of staying true to what you think is right -- whatever that may be -- when thousands, millions of people want you to do what they think is right?
Today a friend of mine posted a link to an article saying Snowden joined Booz Allen Hamilton on purpose to gather evidence. My friend added the comment, “Hang him.” But do we really think any kind of productive outcome can result from a simplistic analysis of fragmented information that almost certainly represents only the tiniest fraction of the full story? Or are we just distracting ourselves?
Serious stories can have their fun side -- like these Amazon reviews of the Mizuno sneakers worn by Wendy Davis during her 13-hour filibuster. But more often they end up put through a keyword-generating, link-baiting meat-grinder, stripping out all sensitivity and nuance and delivering only McContent. And the more we regurgitate that content, the more we lose sight that these stories represent real people, making real decisions, doing their best to face up to what they see as their grandest obligations to the world.
When my friend Zsolt wrote the passage below a decade ago, he was referring to the Iraq war, but you could substitute almost any war or any story and it will still be relevant:
“The war will go how the war will go and certainly we must be mindful of our leaders’ assumptions that we are stupid enough to forgo our deepest beliefs in freedom in order for them to climb to ever higher power and glory. Yet we are no better than they if we remain unwilling to reach out to those in our midst, both neighbors and strangers, in order to make our communities -- especially those who have been abandoned by the same government intent on saving communities elsewhere around the world -- better places to live, so that when the war does end, in a week or a decade, our own neighborhoods will be safer, cleaner, and friendlier, less burdened by oppression.”
The real work, Zsolt was saying, is right in front of us. Don’t get distracted.