INTEREST, AND LACK THEREOF

Posted in Rants on August 17th, 2010 by Ed

There are a lot of things I do not like but very few things about which I do not care in the least. The list is pretty short. Opera. Basketball. Country music. Fishing. Academic analysis of pop culture detritus (No, really, the world is aching to hear your Marxist-Feminist critique of Season 3 of According to Jim). Literature written before 1800. You might find these subjects very interesting and/or they may be very important. That's fine. I just don't care about them. At all. Hey, at least it's a short list and I can admit it.

I'm supposed to like everything about politics. Nothing in the universe of modern American politics is supposed to be uninteresting to someone in my line of work. But despite being a person whose personal Do Not Care list is pretty short and a Official Professional American Politics guy, the frequency with which I cannot bring myself to care about the ostensible headline stories on the news is starting to alarm me.

Take this "Ground Zero" Mosque thing. We are on day three of saturation cable TV and internet coverage. People, I swear on my eternal soul, this stack of Bibles, and the original Shroud of Turin: I could not give less of a shit about this "story" if it took place in the middle of the Country Music Awards. It doesn't even hold my interest long enough to listen to people venting steam about it and to process their opinions. I don't have a lot of respect for talking heads but I have to tip my hat to the people on cable TV for talking about this for three days straight. It can't be easy to do that much talking about something so mind-bogglingly irrelevant.

Many years ago Ted Carmines & James Stimson did some highly influential public opinion work categorizing different kinds of political issues. The simplest meaningful classification is not "social" vs. economic, but Easy vs. Hard issues. Easy issues are easy because it requires no information to have a quasi-meaningful opinion about it. Abortion is an easy issue. Yes, some people are well-versed in the legal and medical intricacies of abortion, but for most people it is a case of For It or Against It. I think it is immoral or I don't think it is immoral. And either way you can't prove me wrong. Gay marriage, right-to-die, mandatory English, and other "hot button" issues like that are good examples of Easy issues. Hard issues, conversely, require information to form a meaningful opinion. Tariffs or environmental regulations are hard issues. That's why we don't talk about them.

To put it mildly, we and our media are ass-over-teakettle in love with Easy issues because god knows the viewing public doesn't have information about anything and wouldn't usefully analyze it if they did. We love talking about stupid crap – Did Obama take a vacation at the wrong time? Should we build a mosque at Ground Zero? Should every candidate wear a flag pin on their lapel? Can the Ten Commandments be displayed in government buildings? – because these issues allow us simultaneously to talk out of our asses and offer an opinion that is as valid as any other. The mosque issue, for example, starts from the shared understanding that, yes, it is physically and legally possible for a group to purchase real estate and build a mosque just about anywhere. From there it essentially becomes "I think they should!" versus "Grr! Over my dead body!" And I would rather watch my rats bat a cardboard toilet paper tube around the cage than listen to, watch, or read that.

When nobody is right or wrong, what is the point of arguing? Who finds that interesting? To me, watching that is like watching a soccer game in which both goals were sealed off with bricks. When it's impossible to score you quickly realize that what is supposed to be an entertaining competition is just a bunch of idiots running around aimlessly.

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