February 1, 2010

Not Ignorant, Just Distracted

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There is an often overlooked problem in this country. It is subtle and comfortably ingrained in American culture. It is the widespread problem of disproportion. Some disproportions are obvious: Obesity stems from the disproportionate consumption of food. Inequality finds its roots in the disproportionate distribution in wealth between the races. However, a disproportion that has become more obvious, especially in these past few months, is that of attention.

That is, we simply pay too much attention and dedicate too much energy to the useless and the trivial.

The epitome of our disproportionate attention can be traced back to the death of Michael Jackson. His death garnered so much attention that some news channels absurdly dedicated twenty-hour broadcast to his legacy, entirely ignoring all other events happening in our country and around the world. In fact, the attention surrounding his death was so widespread that news stations began to cover the news coverage itself: Once a news channel has milked Jackson’s death dry, it began documenting the gross amount of news coverage on his death, which certainly did not help relieve the news stations of Michael Jackson.

And during the following weeks, what did we hear of other events that actually had an impact? Very little, if any. Any updates on the progress of the Iranian elections? What about the protests in Thailand against their government? Maybe a report on North Korea’s missile testing that was just as thorough as the report on Jackson’s funeral? Diverting all its attention to Jackson’s death, the media gave so little coverage on those events that matter that the public did not raise a bit of concern.

And this trend has continued and has even been exacerbated to this day. A few months ago, Tiger Woods was involved in a car accident. Reports confirmed that the accident did not seriously harm Woods and there were no life threatening injuries. What should have been the end of the neww coverage was actually the beginning of a sudden explosion in media sensation. The amount of cameras on Tiger Woods and his personal life erupted in rumor and gossip. The entire nation, in the course of less than 24 hours, knew that Tiger Woods scratched his Cadillac Escalade. Weeks later, our nation is still mesmerized by Woods, as his mistresses slowly reveal themselves one by one.

This disproportion is not relegated to the lives of celebrities. We saw it during the 2008 presidential campaign. Again and again, the political pundits assaulted each presidential candidate on useless and asinine aspects of their campaigns. Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. Barack Obama’s lapel pin. John McCain’s daughter. The cost of Sarah Palin’s wardrobe. These arguments did not pertain to their capabilities as leaders and their irrelevance may have even harmed the elections by diverting attention away from the pertinent facts. Instead of discussing the candidates’ fashion, let’s talk about their solutions to our frail economy, healthcare system and schools. Let’s talk about their diplomatic experience (or rather, lack of it). Let’s have a debate over their opinion on the Middle East.

The consequences of our disproportionate attention are far reaching. First, it is self-perpetuating and thus increases the frequency of these petty news coverages. One can argue that the Balloon Boy crisis was the product of our ill-placed attention. If not for our society’s thirst for the superficial, the Balloon Boy’s father would have not thought up such a preposterous scheme to grab headlines. But as the media provides more and more of these thoughtless reports, viewers become more and more addicted and inevitably, we see a Balloon Boy incident.

Second, it has rendered the important issues vulnerable to distortion and sometimes outright contradictions. What should have been a civilized debate over the healthcare bill became a riot of lies, irrational fear and spite, perhaps irrevocably diluting what could been effective healthcare reform. Likewise, the fervor to teach creationism in schools is, in part, due to the lack of attention placed on the scientific discoveries in support of evolution; discoveries, that if presented to the public would be undoubtedly persuasive and sway some of the Creationists.

Finally, and most gravely, our misplaced focus has forced us to ignore those issues — and people — that truly matter. While the nation was swept by fear over swine flu, we failed to recognize that the normal flu kills more people annually. As paranoia over H1N1 swept the nation, even the healthiest of Americans, we paid little attention to the fact that more deaths are associated with a lack of health insurance.

As a result, there are still those who want to maintain our current healthcare system. While we obsessed over Jon and Kate Plus 8 — criticizing the two parents for divorce and its potentially grim effects on their children — we failed to acknowledge the 1.4 million children around the world that die due to lack of sanitation and clean drinking water, the 25,000 children dying of poverty and the 270 million with no access to health services.

While most Americans grieved over the deaths of their favorite celebrities, worried about catching a timid flu virus or concerned themselves with the wellbeing of eight children — who will have bright futures regardless of their parents’ actions — the rest of the world, starved, struggled, suffered and died.

If the United States is to truly improve itself and eventually the world, its citizens must first change its habits. We must expand our myopic view of the world and realize that the problems plaguing mankind are not limited to and as simple as those we see in the news. Rather, the problem plaguing this world are diverse and complex, but, fortunately, reparable. In order to solve them, we must first give them our attention.

Steven Zhang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at szhang@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang