The big ratings hit of the week went to ABC, whose two-hour exclusive interview with Bruce Jenner drew 17 million people last Friday night. Jenner, who owes his fame to his Olympic success and Kim Kardashian in roughly equal measure, has declared himself a woman. And when it comes to matters of strange perversion, sensational subject matter, and lurid peeks into the lives of celebrities, we just can’t get enough.
The very fact that Kim Kardashian is arguably the most famous woman on the planet is evidence enough that something in our culture is dangerously wrong. This is a woman with no obvious talent, no apparent accomplishments, and little class. She is famous because of a sex tape, a reality show, and a bigger-than-average behind. But it’s not Kardashian (or Jenner) that is the problem. The problem is that we have allowed ourselves to treat this kind of trash as though it is actually important.
A commentator on one of the cable news shows last week claimed that the reason we have come so far on our views of gays and transgenders is that our world has shrunk. Because of radio, television, movies, and the internet, we don’t have to know a gay person to understand that they exist. These people have become parts of our communities even if we may never actually meet them in person. It was a good point, and it explains a great deal about how and why culture has changed so much in the last sixty years.
But it also sheds light on a concurrent problem. Radio, television, movies, and the internet have also brought an unprecedented amount of triviality into our lives. The tabloid exploits of Hollywood stars only account for a portion of this triviality. There is also this obsession with meaningless crimes that get mainstream traction only because the media decides they will be good for ratings. That’s how people like Jodi Arias, Lorena Bobbitt, and Scott Peterson becomes household names, despite the fact that they have nothing to do with our lives.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional diversion. If the Jenner special was an anomaly, that would be one thing. But it wasn’t an anomaly; it was just more of the same. We go from diversion to diversion, replacing one week’s water-cooler chatter with the next’s. And even that might be okay, except for the fact that when we are obsessed with trash, we are ignoring the stuff that’s actually important.
Instead of obsessing about what we should do about ISIS, we are worried about the royal baby watch.
Instead of obsessing about the upcoming presidential election, we are focused on what the Avengers stars said about Black Widow.
Instead of obsessing about what’s going on in our local communities, we are determined to figure out whether or not Robert Durst is guilty.
Can a country thrive when the populace is distracted by bread and circuses? If things keep going this way, we will have a definitive answer before long.