We talk all the time about the level of ignorance Americans bring to the table with respect to our major social, political, and economic problems. The problems that result are obvious – we will never find our way toward a sane economic policy when Americans overwhelmingly believe that they are egregiously overtaxed and that 50% of the budget is spent on "welfare" and foreign aid. For the most part, our lack of information is our own fault and stems from a fundamental lack of interest in politics (or, arguably, an inability to tolerate how awful and unrepresentative the political process is). But the media must bear some share of the responsibility, given how hard they work to make sure that you are able to ignore reality even while they're reporting on it.
One of the best examples is a spate of stories in 2003 about the use of the "Barney and Friends" theme song – undoubtedly a most cloying, nerve shattering piece of music – being used by American defense and intelligence services to facilitate the interrogation of detainees and prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. A variety of music, mostly heavy metal but also including poor Barney, would be played continuously and at ear splitting volume to disrupt the sleep and sanity of people housed primarily in cages or metal shipping containers. In the U.S., morning talk shows and evening Talking Head shows alike got several days of cheap laughs out of it. "As all of you parents out there already know," Chip would say to Mindy, "being forced to listen to the Barney song certainly qualifies as torture!" Ha ha ha. Hilarity all around.
The thing is, uninterrupted exposure to music played at jet engine volume for days on end is effectively a form of torture, or at the very least in the gray area between torture and interrogation. It has been proven to have serious short- and long-term psychological effects and should hardly be taken lightly. But the media were more than happy to make a joke out of it for you. The cold reality – "Your government is torturing people." – is glossed over and turned into a throwaway laugh line – "If you had to listen to Barney, you'd go crazy too! Am I right, folks?" No need to think about the issue more seriously, or anymore at all. Here's Tom with Sports.
Over the past two weeks we have seen dozens of stories about the real life "zombie apocalypse", i.e. one guy eating another guy's face off in Miami. The story is presented in flawless Hearst style, blending the man-bites-dog and news-of-the-weird formats. You kids like the zombie and vampire shit, right? You parents are scared of black people and drugs, right? Well then you're gonna love this! This dude got his fuckin' face eaten off! It's like Walking Dead or something! Ha!
Bizarre acts of violence like this, perpetrated by people who are obviously disturbed, speak to the underlying reality that we have a staggering number of mentally ill people wandering around in this society with a deteriorating mental health care system and social safety net in place to deal with them. Since the 1980s, when state mental hospitals were emptied out with patients given little more than a bus ticket to the nearest city with a homeless shelter, we have devoted progressively fewer resources to what should be a very obvious social problem. People getting burned out on hard drugs, sleeping on a bridge in the middle of the afternoon (as the "zombie" victim was), or wandering the streets in a state of psychosis are not laughing matters here in reality. But when something happens to prevent us from completely ignoring these social problems, we have to find some way to make a joke or meme out of them to shield ourselves from having to take it seriously.