Thursday, April 30, 2009

Wise Words from Damon

If, in these troubled times, you're not reading my friend Damon Linker's blog, well, you should be. Not that I'd expect the majority of you readers out there to necessarily agree with everything--or even most things--that he says (I don't; his insistence on taking swipes at populism almost every chance he gets is fairly annoying), but just the same, sometimes, I think everyone (including me) needs the dash of cold water that only a smart, secular, pragmatic, sometimes cynical voice like his can provide. Here's a bit of his latest:

Has a week passed in the last nine months when we haven't been confronting a "crisis"? Last summer, there was the "peak-oil crisis." Then there was the banking and stock-market crises of the fall. In his February 24 address to Congress, President Obama spoke of numerous crises facing the country. "The economy is in crisis," he declared, and the crisis had several dimensions. There was the "credit crisis" and the "housing crisis" and the "financial crisis"--all of them leading ours to be a generalized "time of crisis." And now, of course, there's the swine-flu crisis. On top of the ongoing climate-change crisis. And so on and so forth.

Never mind that the peak-oil crisis seems to have vanished overnight. Or that the economy may have already turned a corner before reaching the severity of the 1981-82 recession, let alone the Great Depression's catastrophic levels of unemployment and human suffering. Or that roughly 36,000 Americans die of influenza every year without it being dubbed a public-health crisis. None of this matters, finally, because when it comes to hysteria, reality is beside the point. Whether or not the source of this season's anxieties fade, cable news and Internet prognosticators are sure to hype some new issue or event or problem into the next national Crisis.

Why will the pattern almost certainly continue? Because the rewards that come from magnifying the significance of and threat posed by every event and trend are too enticing to resist. Alarmist headlines generate an agitated buzz, which spreads through the culture like a contagion, driving people to seek out information to allay their fears, which in turn generates ratings and boosts page views (and rates of presidential approval) into the stratosphere, with the most hyperbolic headlines and rhetoric often grabbing the most attention of all.

Of course he's not saying anything new here. And he's not saying it as humorously as, say, Jon Stewart can (and does, with great regularity)...

Snoutbreak '09 - The Last 100 Days

...but still, the wisdom holds. Calm down, people! Yes, there are genuine crises and controversies and concerns that plague us, and some of them need to be taken with the utmost seriousness (for example, peak-oil; unlike Damon, I suspect that the slow collapse of the world's oil economy is inevitable, if it hasn't begun already). But that hardly warrants the constant bleating of "crisis!" which the mass media delights in giving us, and which we so often reward them for by echoing every item on their agenda. Blow it off! Turn off the tube, log off the internet, and go read a good book or work in your garden or play with your kids or listen to some good music. The odds are very, very good that swine flu, like nine out of every ten crises, will be yesterday's news by, well, tomorrow (or the end of the month at the latest).

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