I don't know about you, but images of the tragedy in Haiti made me feel pretty silly about having paid so much attention recently to Tiger Woods' sex life, Harry Reid's gaffes or Conan O'Brien's future. There's nothing like real pain and suffering to make us realize that the stuff we tend to obsess about can be pretty meaningless.
I was interviewing a writer in a hotel lobby in Bucharest, Romania, last October, when he glanced at the CNN coverage of the "balloon boy" aftermath and interrupted himself to ask, "Is that what you people in America care about?"
Yes, I confessed, and tried my best to explain the connection between our frenzied response to mostly meaningless, manufactured dramas and bungee jumping.
In relatively strifeless, wealthy, stable democracies, we seek to add an element of excitement to our predictable lives by, say, jumping off Colorado's Royal Gorge Bridge attached to a rubberized cord. We engage, in other words, in ritualized, controlled risk-taking to make us feel like we are really alive. And taking sides in trumped-up controversies, or just watching a less-than-earthshaking disaster unfold, is a similar civic phenomenon. In a nation where individual isolation is becoming the order of the day, ritualized contention and alarm over almost anything make us feel like we're connected, part of something important and in the thick of things.
This is especially true with most political scandals. You could say that all the moral outrage over a politician's sex life or slip of the tongue lets us think we make a difference in the halls of power. As UC Santa Cruz sociologist Andrew Szasz puts it, these recurrent episodes are a little like professional wrestling. Like a WWE match, scandals demand a suspension of disbelief, "this time in the phoniness of what passes daily for democratic participation. One is rewarded with the feeling of witnessing and being swept up in important political events. Nonparticipation is replaced for the moment by exciting, spectator participation."
And the end result? The public feels good about its involvement, the political system is stabilized, and the hard issues go on as ignored as ever.
In other words, fights, scandals and recurrent moral outrage give a fragmented nation the illusion that we're all involved in something important even while we're not. In particular, we are suckers for a battle. Frame anything as a dispute, as "us versus them," or as a potential "gotcha," and you have our attention. If there's a potential winner or loser, and especially if the mighty can be made to fall in a way that's advantageous to our side, we're deeply engaged. However meaningless, corrosive or inauthentic, we'll choose contention over rational debate any day. With knee-jerk ease, it allows us to take sides, reaffirm our biases and feel superior to our enemies.
The devolution of media and the rise of the blogosphere are making us even more of a controversy- and outrage-obsessed society. Because new media tend to focus on niche markets, outlets leverage their biases to engage their specialized audiences. That explains why a December study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism suggests that bloggers are significantly more likely to focus on controversy than is the mainstream media. In the week of Nov. 30, for instance, when the biggest story in mainstream news was President Obama's decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, the blogosphere was focusing on the controversies over the Swiss ban on minarets and the hacked e-mails from a British climate change research unit.
The great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes invented what he called the hydrostatic paradox of controversy. If you take a bent tube, he said, one arm of which is the size of a pipestem and the other big enough to hold the ocean, and fill it with water, the liquid will stand at the same height in one arm as in the other. "Controversy," he continued, "equalizes fools and wise men in the same way. And the fools know it."
There is nothing wrong with a good public fight over important issues. But beating any little thing into a froth of disputation - Jay vs. Conan! Tiger vs. his wedding vows! Reid vs. phantom offended black folk! - is a criminal waste of our civic energy.
It's also subject to the law of diminishing returns. You can only bungee jump so many times before the thrill is gone. That means the fights we pick and the scandals we chase are going to have to get a whole lot messier to keep us tuned in.
Except, of course, when a 7.0 earthquake reminds us of what is really important.
Gregory Rodriguez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him e-mail at grodriguezlatimescolumnists.com.