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No, We Shouldn't Be Paying Attention to Something Else
Distracting the distracters
This first ran on my Patreon in 2017. It still seems relevant though!
Savvy political commenters from the Frankfurt school on have long insisted that the American public is narcotized by distraction. Mass culture turns the active polity into a thumb-sucking blob, inert and ineffectual. "When…a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk," Neil Postman wrote in 2005, paraphrasing Huxley's 1931 Brave New World. Film, memes, cat pics, Kardashians, pop music—Americans, supposedly, watch their screens slack-jawed, happy to let shackles be placed around their wrists as long as they can still clutch the remote control.
Complaints about the deadening effect of pop culture are so ubiquitous, and so popular, that they've practically become a genre of pop culture themselves. Westworld, for example, is a sex-and-violence drenched HBO series criticizing sex-and-violence drenched HBO series. The narrative involves the visitors and inhabitants of a robot Western theme park, who are all presented as callous dupes and slaves.
Shows like Westworld and Black Mirror chastise their audiences for their indifference to injustice. It's TV about the evils of watching a TV, as criticism of distraction is itself turned into a distracting spectacle. At which point, it seems like the sneering at pop culture actually becomes counterproductive. Wouldn't critics be better off just trying to talk about and focus attention on the issues they care about, rather than dramatically and entertainingly denouncing the entertainment choices of their (supposed) inferiors?
Alas, attention-shaming, seems to be ratcheting up, not down. These days, truly hip observers don't just bewail public fascination with Taylor Swift, Kanye, or Harry Potter. They bewail the public fascination with politics.
Donald Trump tweets about prosecuting Americans for burning the flag, people respond with a vigorous debate about free speech and patriotism—and Rachel Cunliffe at the Telegraph insists that the whole discussion is a distraction from Trump's conflicts of interest. Someone hits a Nazi at the women's march, and there is a vigorous debate about the place of violence in anti-fascist organizing. But cultural commenter Freddie deBoer sees that vigorous debate as a pointless exercise in futility. "Click farmers got clicks," he says with world weary disdain, and finishes by reminding readers that there is an ongoing war in Yemen. The implication is clear; the political issue you're talking about is a distraction. Focus on this other thing instead.
In part, Cunliffe and deBoer are simply using the current news hook to try to center their own priorities. The news cycle in the age of social media is swift and relentless; if you want attention for your issue, from editors or readers, you need to connect your particular interest to whatever is happening this second. "Other people are talking about this—but they should talk about that instead" is a quick, easy way to discuss important topics that might otherwise not get a platform. This competition for attention can be relentless and draining; as LA Times writer Ann Friedman noted, it's practically a "social media ritual" now to compulsively and continually "rank the importance of various injustices." This can be wearying. But you can also understand why activists or writers are eager to try to find a way to focus on the causes to which they are committed.
Attention shaming isn't just about raising the profile of a neglected injustice, though. It's about a vision of the public as easily fooled and essentially passive. Trump tweets about Saturday Night Live skits, we are told, not because he is bored and easily distracted, but because he knows that Americans are. People share videos of a protestor punching a Nazi not in an effort to inspire anti-fascist solidarity, nor to rally resistance, but simply to entertain themselves and pat themselves on the back while ignoring real injustice.
Everything is a distraction from everything; the public is so thoroughly debased that even when it engages in politics directly it is actually passive. Criticizing the president or punching a fascist is, we're told, no more politically active than listening to a pop song or watching Westworld. The only political act that has real meaning, it seems like, is telling other people that their political acts have no meaning.
Propaganda is real, as is public apathy, and speaking against both is worthwhile and important. But a rote cynicism can be as repetitive and as deadening as the pop songs Adorno hated. A savvier-than-thou stance, bravely denouncing the herd, can harden into herd-pleasing schtick. "Everyone is bamboozled; all are mired in false consciousness" isn't a call to action. It's a recipe for contempt and despair—and ultimately for a passivity deeper than watching television for an hour or two.
And indeed, some of those television-loving, pop-song listening Americans have been surprisingly active in recent years. Black Lives Matter is the most sustained civil rights movement in decades. The #NoDAPL protest is an ongoing model of indigenous resistance and environmental activism. We just had one of the largest across-the-country protest marches in history. While railing against the easily distracted American public, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate the many, many people who are devoting time, energy, and heart to the difficult work of change. The rhetoric of distraction can be a distraction itself.
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