Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Sound, the Fury, and the Important

The Sound, the Fury, and the Important

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: They lead the polls for their respective party presidential nominations, but what do most people really know about them? How many prospective voters can name even one of Hillary's accomplishments as Secretary of State? (Don't feel bad, she couldn't either.) How many could describe Trump's stance on such things as abortion, big government etc? (Don't feel bad, hardly anyone else can either – at least with any confidence of being right.) They lead in the polls, not because of reasoned voter decisions, but because they get so much publicity. And that publicity is essentially independent of the important issues.

What gets publicity? The celebrities, spectacular, the event that will draw people to pay attention to the news and thus to their advertisers. Meanwhile, the important but less spectacular passes unnoticed. For example, I have been involved in mountain rescue for nearly 30 years. During that time I have participated in several widely publicized searches, even been on TV and been quoted, in large type, on the front page of the state's largest daily newspaper. By searching in the woods and mountains I have helped save a few people, which is great. However, what is undoubtedly my most useful “rescue” activity goes completely unnoticed, and even I have no idea how many people I may have saved. That activity is participating in our rescue team's public education program, providing information on how to avoid trouble. That program attracts no media attention, the person who avoids trouble because of what we taught him does not make the news. Yet that program almost certainly saves more lives than we do tromping around the woods. Its effectiveness is completely unrelated to the publicity it receives.

Both Trump and Clinton remind me of Daniel J. Boorstin's quote that “a celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.” Both are very well known and attract a lot of attention, especially from the media. (One recent cartoon showed Trump as the pied piper, leading the news media. In my opinion a very appropriate image.) But what have they done for the country? What would they do for or to the country if elected? Few if any people can answer those questions.

Publicity, news attention etc. are nearly independent of importance. We pay a lot of attention to entertainers, sports figures and other celebrities, but little to people like scientists and engineers who advance our technology. We pay lots of attention to things like the hair style or speaking ability of political candidates, but much less to their records and how they are likely to govern.

This is dangerous to our country. Any representative government depends on voter knowledge and wisdom. Voters distracted by the irrelevant are more likely to fall for demagogues than to vote wisely; and that will lead to turmoil or tyranny, maybe both. And relevance is essentially independent of how much publicity something gets.

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