We Live In The “Non-Information Age”

I miss the news.

I know this seems like an odd assertion when all the data in the world is—quite literally—at our fingertips, but I sometimes find it frustrating to dig through all the noise to find a straightforward presentation of fact that has not been spun into a prediction, rumination, admonishment, speculation, warning, or outright fantasy.  One lesson that I find increasingly easy to teach my college students—sadly enough—is that biased presentation of information is a fact of life today.  Worse yet, what even is a “fact” is now often a subject of intense partisan debate.  I sometimes wonder whether putting ten people in a room today to discuss whether the sky is blue would result in a brawl worthy of the Jerry Springer Show.

Of course, the primary reason that tempers flare when any matter beyond the most mundane is discussed relates to the stakes at hand when we try to attach the terms “right” and “wrong” to behavior, beliefs, or beliefs about behavior.  To be “right” can provide workplace advantage, educational preference, and legal protection.  To be “wrong” results in both a variety of benefits being unceremoniously jerked away and a beat down on social media as an added—and unwelcome—bonus.  Not surprisingly, “news” articles and programs are the primary mechanisms for both conveying and justifying the “correct” attitudes and perspectives, which many times means what passes for news is actually a mechanism for transmitting social, cultural, and political beliefs—not factual information that a reader or viewer can use to form independent judgments of their own.

I wonder how many journalists are even aware that in the not-too-distant past editorializing was confined to the editorial page (how quaint!), and every bit of information had to be confirmed by at least two credible sources identified in the notes that were reviewed by an editor prior to publication or broadcast.  Now “news” stories are many times exercises in rumor mongering and anonymous accusations.  This has, sad to say, resulted in a crushing drop of public trust and confidence in news media, a well-documented phenomenon that perversely seems to have incentivized yet more partisanship in the mainstream media in order to hold onto those readers and viewers who enjoy having their pre-existing beliefs confirmed.  Just to add another layer of crazy to this craziness, partisan journalists on both sides now launch regular attacks on one another’s credibility and judgment, which only further shreds whatever tattered public trust they each might still retain.

Reliable, credible, and unbiased journalism is as necessary to a functioning democracy as air is to human life.  Voters need sources of information that are free from the taint of partisanship in order to make thoughtful judgments about questions of public policy and to choose elected officials to implement those policies.  Lacking this, debate quickly descends into personal attack rather that reasoned discussion.  

It has, of course, always been the case that people have disagreements that result from differences in their judgments, experiences, and values.  However, when these differences are turbocharged by “news” that presents those with opposing ideas as deluded, stupid, or simply evil, any possibility for the type of compromise that allows both sides some satisfaction and creates the public trust necessary for democracy to thrive is eliminated.

As much as I might hope we can return to yesterday’s model of staid and boring journalistic practices, I know this is not possible in a modern media environment where scandal, shock, and salaciousness is necessary to attract viewers and readers.  Therefore, I fear that we may be irrevocably trapped in a pointless and destructive cycle of anger, insult, and accusation that will further deepen the already catastrophic divides in our nation.  

Until the day arrives when we finally realize what passes for news today is many times an addictive and damaging drug in disguise that is consuming both our public discourse and personal sanity, we are going to need to be reconciled to never ending conflict that is feeding a crippling distrust of one another rather than providing the tools we need to manage and build our nation.  How long we can proceed down this path before we take to the streets to start clubbing each other is anyone’s guess—I hope this day never comes—but it is a realistic concern for a nation whose “news” often cannot distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy.

 

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The Privilege Walk Of Life

The college admission scandal now consuming our news cycle speaks to the many contradictions that now confuse our discussions about privilege and power in America today. To be shocked that the rich are able to buy their way into opportunities closed to the average person speaks to either an enormous naïveté or ignorance about the power of wealth across the timeline of civilization. Money has always been the lubricant of choice to make life a smooth and untroubled path for the fortunate few, and the wealthy always exert outsized influence on the world around them. To presume otherwise is sheer foolishness, and this is the primary reason why those with money and power are typically obsessed with yet more money and power—it is always nice to be very, very rich.

This scandal also is an object lesson in the importance of social and cultural signifiers in a world where developing your “personal brand” is now far more important than being a thoughtful and decent individual. Given that a degree from one of the most elite colleges in the United States—the ones with the name recognition necessary to improve your coddled child’s personal brand—is now considered a critical life accessory by the fashionable elite of Hollywood stars and corporate heavyweights, it should not be a surprise that a well-paid industry of fixers exists to plow the road to admission. A CEO whose child has to settle for a degree at a state college in East Podunk sees this “failure” an implicit rebuke of the parenting abilities of mommy and daddy, so such a sad state of affairs simply cannot be allowed to exist. Bring before me the “consultants” who will ensure my spoiled scion will succeed and reflect well on me!

However, this scandal perhaps most clearly points out our misunderstandings about privilege—and who actually has it—in America today.

Several years ago a former colleague related to me the dismal failure of the “privilege walk” she had her students complete. For those who are unfamiliar with this activity, it requires individuals to stand in a line and then take steps forward or backward based on “privileges” granted them by society. Below is a list of these privileges and deficits (you might want to grab a cup of coffee first), courtesy of Pennsylvania State University:

  • ​If your ancestors were forced to come to the USA not by choice, take one step back.
  • If your primary ethnic identity is “American,” take one step forward.
  • If you were ever called names because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If there were people who worked for your family as servants, gardeners, nannies, etc. take one step forward.
  • ​If you were ever ashamed or embarrassed of your clothes, house, car, etc. take one step back.
  • If one or both of your parents were “white collar” professionals: doctors, lawyers, etc. take one step forward.
  • If you were raised in an area where there was prostitution, drug activity, etc., take one step back.
  • If you ever tried to change your appearance, mannerisms, or behavior to avoid being judged or ridiculed, take one step back.
  • If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step forward.
  • If you went to school speaking a language other than English, take one step back.
  • If there were more than 50 books in your house when you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you ever had to skip a meal or were hungry because there was not enough money to buy food when you were growing up, take one step back.
  • If you were taken to art galleries or plays by your parents, take one step forward
  • ​If one of your parents was unemployed or laid off, not by choice, take one step back.
  • If you have health insurance take one step forward.
  • If you attended private school or summer camp, take one step forward.
  • If your family ever had to move because they could not afford the rent, take one step back.
  • If you were told that you were beautiful, smart and capable by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever discouraged from academics or jobs because of race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back
  • ​If you were encouraged to attend college by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you have a disability take one step backward.
  • If you were raised in a single parent household, take one step back.
  • If your family owned the house where you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you saw members of your race, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation portrayed on television in degrading roles, take one step back.
  • If you own a car take one step forward.
  • If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever denied employment because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were paid less, treated less fairly because of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever accused of cheating or lying because of your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you ever inherited money or property, take one step forward.
  • If you had to rely primarily on public transportation, take one step back.
  • If you attended private school at any point in your life take one step forward.
  • If you were ever stopped or questioned by the police because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever afraid of violence because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If your parents own their own business take one step forward.
  • If you were generally able to avoid places that were dangerous, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.
  • ​If you use a TDD Phone system take one step backward.
  • If you were ever the victim of violence related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • Imagine you are in a relationship, if you can get married in the State of ___ take one step forward
  • If your parents did not grow up in the United States, take one step back.
  • If your parents attended college take one step forward.
  • If your parents told you that you could be anything you wanted to be, take one step forward.
  • If you are able to take a step forward or backward take two steps forward.

Quite a long list, to say the least….

Apparently some of my former colleague’s students vociferously and angrily objected to many of the items on this list (or one similar to it) because they felt these simply reflected wise or responsible life choices made by themselves or their parents and grandparents rather than some inherited “privilege” that is presumed to be unearned and unfair. Of course, those who believe in the veracity of this exercise would assert such an annoyed or disbelieving reaction is proof of an inborn sense of entitlement that is the result of privilege, so a discussion of the individual items on the list might be considered by some to be beside the point. However, there does seem to be cause for reasonable questions about the benefit of this exercise and the purpose of some of the items used. For example, a reliance on public transportation is perhaps more indicative of whether you live in a city rather than the sometimes dubious privilege of individual car ownership.

There are, of course, items on this list that perhaps reflect a tougher road ahead for some because they touch upon issues of discrimination or disability that obviously speak to challenges that no one wants to face, but the overall problem with the exercise might be that it focuses on “micro” rather than “macro” issues that affect success and failure—and some important problems are curiously omitted.

It is surprising that being a victim of sexual abuse or violence is not included—only the threat is mentioned in this list—but it could be the case that the authors wanted to avoid prompting any uncomfortable self-disclosures in a classroom setting. However, it is well known that victims of sexual assaults, which sometimes sadly begin in childhood, are at far greater risk of depression, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal ideation or attempts that add up to a far greater loss of “privilege” than whether your parents rented instead of owned your home as a child. Moreover, it is surprising that no direct mention is made of household income as a child. Although some items, such as summer camp attendance or household servants, might function as effective proxies for family wealth, there are still too many individual variables—maybe your summer camp was, for example, designated specifically for low-income children—to make a completely reliable connection.

What this type of list also fails to recognize is that privilege is often a more multifaceted conundrum. Sheer physical attractiveness or athletic skill opens a great many doors for a great many people—and to refuse to acknowledge this seems shortsighted. In addition, basic intelligence—or the lack thereof—is a significant precursor of both academic and career success. Moreover, the implication that a multi-lingual upbringing presents an all-but-certain life deficit also seems unsupportable when applied across a broad population. What about those who leverage their foreign language skills into well-paid positions in business?

However, one item does seem to me to be highly predictive of the type of privilege that many find both frustrating and disheartening: “If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.”

Moving back to the college admission scandal now in the news, the mastermind of this scam did not have a billboard up on the highway offering to help bribe Ivy League team coaches or assist students with cheating on their SAT tests—wealthy parents learned about this “service” through word of mouth networks comprised of other wealthy friends and family. As with a great deal of what has passed for “privilege” since the dawn of civilization, most life advantage accrues through personal connections who provide inside information: the stock tip, the job opening that has not been advertised, the great deal on an expensive purchase, the zoning change that is suddenly going to increase the value of a piece of property. These conversations that are leveraged into more money, power, and influence are impossible to track—and unavailable to all but the most privileged few. As a result, the highest circles of power in most societies tend to be both self-perpetuating and supremely exclusionary. Prejudices and poverty obviously impact many lives, but our understanding of privilege tends to be both overly preoccupied with labeling and oblivious to the fact that some realities have more weight than others when it comes the exercise of privilege.

These privilege walks might be an interesting activity that provides fodder for the kinds of heartfelt and clueless conversations that fill many college classrooms today, but they also demonstrate a gigantic blind spot regarding our understanding of how power, privilege, and elites actually operate. Our preoccupation with labeling one person as privileged—and another as not—tends to reinforce simplistic explanations for individual success and failure that fail to account for the many complexities of life and grotesquely understate the enormous influence of family wealth in terms of providing access to information and opportunities that are not available to the average person.

We do still, thankfully, live in a nation that generally rewards hard work and personal initiative, although government enabled—or mandated—mediocrity is a real and growing problem. Moreover, we have to recognize that laws and regulations that are written to allow the elites to invisibly and effortlessly skim money from the economy ultimately turn the American Dream into a a cruel joke for those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

As long as government officials continue to trade campaign contributions for one-sided and destructive legislation that is designed to pit the poor against the slightly less poor, the lives of many Americans will continue to consist of catching the crumbs that drop from the tables of the rich and powerful. We don’t need a privilege walk; we need a People’s March against the fixers and insiders who devote their lucrative careers to robbing the many to enrich the few. That would be far more useful than expending our time and energy parsing degrees of victimhood or fighting with one another over matters that are ultimately of little or no importance to the futures of our children, families, communities, or country.

Diversity And Its Discontents

One of the main insights of Sigmund Freud’s classic of modern psychology, Civilization and its Discontents, is that a major tension—and source of dissatisfaction—with our modern world is that the will of the individual must be restricted by communal norms in order to create a harmonious society. Therefore, we are trained from infancy to obey authority, restrain our impulses, and look out for others before we attend to our own needs.

This process, which sounds rather dark and unnatural when described by Freud, sounds suspiciously like the normal development of maturity and empathy as we proceed from child to adult, but we know many have now decided that the key to their personal happiness is to not give a hoot about what others think or need. It could, in fact, be persuasively argued that the signal feature of life in much of the developed world today is that many people have decided that to do and say whatever you want is the key to happiness. Communal norms have likely never been so weak and ineffectual, and many laws are, in fact, now written with the express intent of denying any effort to reassert past controls over behavior or attitudes.

However, communal control is still exercised, although in a distorted and unfortunate manner, through the ruthless and regular public attacks on those whose viewpoints or ideas suggest a distinction between that which is right and that which is wrong. Given our prevailing cultural milieu and desire for absolute individuality, to make a judgement of any kind for any reason is, by definition, to be hateful and intolerant—so you must be punished by the herd.

It, of course, makes perfect sense that increasingly diverse nations would admonish—or actually sanction—those who express disapproval of others. One of the reasons that President Trump grates on the nerves of many is that his persona and pronouncements are a clear and unmistakable repudiation of decades of efforts to promote tolerance—and he is, for many, a gigantic trigger warning with a tan. However, the often cruel cudgel of virtue signaling that flies right behind the imperative to be “tolerant” also has a tendency to cause reasonable conversations to spiral down into accusatory personal attacks that are poisonous to discussion and inquiry. Logic and evidence are no longer necessary in the marketplace of “ideas” in our world today. A clever and nasty put down is now considered all that is necessary to “win” an argument.

A misguided attempt to promote social harmony and cultural understanding by adopting an ever more censorious attitude toward individual disagreements and innocent misunderstandings has resulted in a world where every thoughtcrime is a felony. If someone displays a swastika in their living room and builds their life around quotes from Mein Kampf, it is entirely reasonable to question their actions and motives. However, if someone prefers to marry someone who shares their own religious background or avoids certain ethnic foods because they don’t like the taste, it is wrong to accuse that individual of harboring hateful attitudes before immediately launching into an attack. If we insist on punishing people for their natural diversity of opinions or values, we are creating a world where unending anger is the norm.

It is, of course, preferable that individuals be comfortable with a range of people, experiences, and ideas. However, we cannot condemn others simply because they prefer that which is familiar to that which is not. A great many wonderful Americans are still hanging around with the same friends they have had since elementary school, populating their Spotify with the same songs they have been listening to forever, and craving the same casseroles that Grandma cooks for Thanksgiving each year. To insist that those who revel in routine and regularity are racists is more than a little overboard, but it is not unfair to ask everyone to try their best to be open to new ideas, experiences, and people and resist the urge to automatically reject that—and those—which are unfamiliar.

Education, which until World War II was seen primarily as a mechanism for transmitting core academic skills along with a hefty dollop of cultural norms on the side, has been seen—especially since the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960’s—as the mechanism through which progressive educators could create citizens of the world and promote understanding. I still remember the elaborate presentation on the African nation of Zambia I did for my fifth grade classmates and the day we sampled the “cheeses of the world” in my seventh grade Social Studies classroom. Our multicultural experiences were, of course, greatly limited and designed for a much more innocent and parochial era. Today’s technology has opened up a range of possibilities that were simply unavailable in the slide rule and rotary dial telephone days of my youth, and students can now enjoy a range of culturally immersive experiences that can broaden both their perspectives and understanding.

Consequently, our political, educational, entertainment, and business worlds have never been so welcoming to the full richness of humanity. So why are so many convinced that bigotry of all types still runs rampant in America today—and violent and virulent speech is the necessary cure for those hatreds they see all around?

It could be the case that the unyielding dogma of “tolerance” and the messy reality of diversity might be a more combustible combination than we tend to realize, particularly when the 21st century disease of self-interest and self-absorption—turbocharged by the inherent narcissism of much social media usage—is added to the equation. If one believes that happiness depends upon acting with as little restraint as possible—“Hey, don’t oppress me!”—and we can now instantly lash out to either our circle of friends (or a worldwide audience) when we feel our experiences or opinions are not granted sufficient deference or respect, the end result is going to be a lot of outrage driving yet more outrage in return. If one is determined to create a world that respects diversity, it could be the case that we all must learn to be comfortable with the inevitable outcome: a diverse society that will have to accommodate a diverse—and sometimes judgmental—range of opinions.

Humans have always—and will always—disagree about every aspect of life. We cannot long survive if we insist that ideas that differ from our own must be attacked, suppressed, or outlawed altogether. Were Sigmund Freud alive to update Civilization and its Discontents for the Age of the Internet, I wonder what he would identify as our main source of discontent and where he might see civilization going in the years ahead. Can any civilization long survive if our passions are powered by the most powerful technology ever made available, and we are ready to use that power to defeat the “enemies” so many now seem to see all around them? This is an uncomfortable question for an uncomfortable age, and we are still groping toward personal and communal mechanisms for balancing our desires to express with our urges to attack.

Is Free College Really The Best Idea?

One of the pillars of Democratic Party orthodoxy today is the push for free college for all.  At the state level, one of the most ambitious programs is to be found in New York, where the Excelsior Scholarship program has rendered tuition-free both 2 and 4 year public colleges throughout the state for students whose family income is under $125,000 per year.  Approximately 17 states now offer some form of free college to their residents, and it seems likely that more states will develop these sorts of programs in the years ahead.

These free college programs are not, of course, without their critics.

Many have pointed out that these programs many times actually function as a massive subsidy offered to middle class families that previously did not qualify for income-based scholarships; poor students have long paid nominalor zerotuition costs due to existing federal and state aid programs targeted to low-income students and their families.  Moreover, these free college programs are typically available only to those who attend full-time, which locks out those who need to work while attending school in order to cover their daily living expenses.  Although the college tuition might be free, students still need food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads, which may greatly restrict the use of many these free college programs.

In addition, freeis a deceptive term to use because these programs are certainly not free for taxpayers.  The New York State program, although much more limited in actual scope than advertised because of the many restrictions attached, still carries a price tag of $87 million this year alonewith costs estimated to rise to at least $163 million annually when fully implemented.

However, the fundamental problem with free college is simple and direct: Access does not equal success.  The scandalous and continuing national crisis of inadequate college preparedness at the K-12 levelwhich decades of incredibly expensive education reformhas yet to addresstranslates into a great many students starting college but failing to complete.  

How widespread is this problem?  Tennessee has for many years offered free tuition to the states community colleges at a taxpayer cost of only $45 million annuallykeeping the outlay lower by covering only that portion of tuition not already picked up by federal Pell Grants.  

However, although the costs might be relatively low for Tennessees taxpayers, there is still ample reason to question whether this is a wise investment of state funds.  Data shows that during the 2016-2017 school year nearly half of the states high school graduates required remedial coursework during their first year of collegeand nearly half had dropped out after two years.  No matter how much educators might want to try to talk their way around it by desperately pointing to other factors that sometimes affect college completion, it is plain that the promised economic and individual benefits of free college are colliding headlong with the disappointing academic preparation that is the daily reality of Americas public schools.

Therefore, looking at the soaring promises of the politicians and educators who advocate putting taxpayers even further on the hook for the costs of free college, a reasonable person might be prompted to ask if the reality is somewhat different from the rhetoricand whether the estimated $70 billion needed to fund the College For Allplans supported by many Democrats is a good use of scarce tax dollars when our national debt now tops $22 trillion.

The many well-meaning promises attached to college that is freestill will be hampered by the vast number of American high school graduates who are academically unprepared to succeed in collegefree or otherwise.  If we want these taxpayer dollars to have the impact we hope that they will, we need to be smart enoughand brave enoughto ask whether college for allactually means failure for many.  Rather than asking taxpayers to pay for college students to again try to learn material that should have been mastered in high school, perhaps a more impactful program would tie taxpayer support to documented student academic preparedness for college-level coursework.

However annoying this discussion might be for those politicians who are anxious to create yet another endlessly expensive entitlement funded by already beleaguered taxpayers, it seems sensible to ask a few difficult questions now about this hazy dream in order to prevent a great deal of money from being pointlessly wasted in the years ahead.

Higher education is important, and we now knowall too wellthat our burdensome and outrageous student loan programs have been an unmitigated disaster that has both enabled obscene increases in college costs and created a gigantic debtor class of Americans whose financial futures are terribly hobbled.  Perhaps it could be persuasively argued that any college experience is beneficial, so free college would be a worthwhile taxpayer expenseregardless of the outcomes.  This is a viewpoint deserving of careful considerationas is the idea that money spent on education can never truly be wastedin the manner that other tax dollars often are.

Nonetheless, it might be worth stopping and thinking before we rush to pay for many students to make a pit stop on a college campusonly to later leave with little learning and no credential.  College is a great experience for many, but it may be the case that we still have thinking to do about how we pay for itand whether freeis the best path forward.  Perhaps some combination of grants and merit-based scholarships will be the mix that provides the magic.  Before any further decisions are made to create a new line in the federal financial ledger, we need to carefully study the long-term experiences of state-level programsparticularly regarding the impacts on student success.

However, whatever direction we ultimately take from here, we also need to give immediate consideration to the question of how we can relieve the frightening burden of the student loans that are now ruining the lives of many.  We cannot continue to ask so many to pay for a grievous past error in government policy that became a trap for so many Americans and their families, and I believe this is the step we must first take before we decide how to help those who will attend college in the future.

Our Celebrity Culture Does Great Harm

Two recent incidentsthe Jussie Smollett street attackand the D.C. confrontation involving high school students from Covington, KYwere disturbing in and of themselves.  In the case of Mr. Smollett, it now appears that he contrived an elaborate racist/homophobic attack on himself and filed a fake police report, but we will have to wait for the final adjudication of his case.  In the case of the Kentucky high school students, a racist narrative regarding the incident that was later proved to be false was spread by news organizations and millions of social media posts, and this resulted in these adolescents, their school, and their families being targeted for frightening abuse by total strangers. The New York Minute from first notice to outrage (prior to a thorough investigation in each of these cases)certainly points to the necessity for restraint and reflection before going nuclear regarding what you read or hear.  It typically takes only a few days to sort out the facts, and reasonable people can be expected to wait before reactingor at least control their reflex to viciously attack at first sight.

However, each of these situations also highlights the role that celebrities and our celebrity-driven culture now play in creating a rush to judgment and inflaming public discourse.  To wait is to left behind by the howling pack, and celebritiessome of who are nominally journalists or politicianscan ill afford to fall behind in the mad dash to amass more clicks and views.

Never in human history have so many pursued fame with such unmitigated lustand never have our standards been so crushingly low.  Notorietynot actual accomplishmentis what matters in America today.  If this fame can somehow be amplified by the suggestion of the grotesque, the hint of the salacious, or a soupçon of victimization, you have hit the Trifecta of 21st century click bait.  As a result, it is likely that more Americans know the name of Lorena Bobbittwho sliced off the penis of her abusive husbandthan Dr. Jonas Salk, who created one of the first vaccines against polio.  So many of usparticularly the young, the impressionable, and the troublednow feed an unhealthful hunger for the bizarre through social media and newsthat titillates the senses rather than informs the mind.  Like a cat frantically chasing the elusive light from a laser pointer, we race to fill some void in our own psyches by trafficking in raw and disturbing emotion rather than careful analysis.

I suspect the secret fantasy of many who are addicted to social media is to be famous themselves because their daily lives lack the drama they desperately crave.  Perhaps the rewards of honesty, sobriety, and responsibility seem meager compared to the bright, shiny lives of celebrities who apparently race from party to party while dressed in the most fashionable clothes and surrounded by the most beautiful people.  If our souls are empty, it could be the case that that which has a shiny surface can be mistaken for that which sustains us spiritually.  A society that lacks faith in itself or its future is especially susceptible to the lure of living for only the moment without regard for the long term consequences for either ourselves or others.

Celebrity culture is, after all, about nothing other than the here and now.  Planning and introspection are both unnecessary and, quite frankly, a huge and unwanted annoyance when the focus is entirely upon yourself at this very moment.  The sheer wonderfulness of being you is all that matters, and in order to keep the spotlight focused and bright, celebrities of all stripes must continue to engage in increasingly wild and potentially self-destructive behavior.  Because so many other celebrities (and potential celebrities) are now vying for the publics limited attention span, sheer shock value is sometimes needed to cut through the clutterwhich only further degrades our already dismal standards of speech and behavior.

Therefore, moderation in both words and actions are quickly discarded by those seeking fame.  Because celebrities by definition need publicity and attention in order to remain celebrities, they are many times the worst offenders when it comes to posting nasty and snarky comments and rushing to pass judgment before all the facts are available.  Sadly, we also see many political leaders moving in this direction in order to keep their names in front of voters.  It often seems to be the case that political commentary in America today follows a drearily predictable formula: Insults + Innuendo = Eyeballs.

Mean-spirited comments from actors, singers, and wannabes are obviously unhelpful; however, when those who hold or aspire to elective office go on the attack to garner attention, they call the basic fairness of our governmental processes into question and further corrode our already shaky faith in our political leaders, which is currently bumping along at historic lows if polling data is to be believed.  We should be able to expect more from a Senator or President than we do from someone who once acted in a sitcom or had a hit song.  Although it may be true that, as the saying goes, there is no bad publicityon an individual level, our nation suffers terrible harm when a politician decides to be a clever little quote machine.  Those who want to lead our nation should be able to demonstrate more restraint than an eleven year old.

This being said, it must be pointed out that sane and fact-basedcommentary posted on social media platforms often provides a forum for discussions that avoid the politicized myopia that has become so prevalent in the mainstream media today.  Given that we cannot expect MSNBC or Fox News to soon escape from the ideological straitjackets that stifle open and honest discussions of the many pressing issues facing our nation, thoughtful debate and discussion often falls to citizen bloggers who do not need to worry overly much about the disapproval of their peers or the annoyance of advertisers.  This unique opportunity for those who live outside the hyper-partisan media bubble to inject some sanity into our national debates, which is possible only because of the internet and social media, offers the clearest possible proof that the problem is not the existence of social media itselfwe simply need to learn how to use it to inform rather than inflame.

Will the downward spiral of celebrity slams ever end?  Although I would like to believe that maturity inevitably triumphs over immaturity, too many have now learned to define themselves by the insults they automatically heap upon others.  It could just be that lawsuitsand the massive financial awards that can followwill be the awful chemotherapy that finally cures the vile cancer of hate that infects our online discourse and daily media commentary.  Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky high school student most prominently featured in the recent online and media persecution concerning completely fake charges of racist behavior earlier this year, has filed a $250 million libel lawsuit against The Washington Post over their unsupported and insulting coverageand other lawsuits are soon to follow.  

Will Mr. Sandmann prevail in court?  This is obviously yet to be determined, but it might be the case that fear of grievous financial harmrather than a return of basic human decencywill be what finally tempers our outraged and outrageous urges to shock, snark, and smear rather than simply converse when the next topic of national debate presents itself for our evaluation and reaction.  I am certain this will be a terrible disappointment for the many who now heighten their celebritystatus by denigrating others, but it could be the best possible outcome for both our nation and our people.

When it comes to any of the issues and problems facing our nation today, creating a meme must not be more important that discussing a sensible solution.