Random Idiots and Useless Blowhard Gasbags

Bad things happen, and the media amplifies them. But they are not the indicators of the decline of our culture that some would have us believe.
by | May 17, 2012

The story line from the media seems to be that the culture is going to hell — that we are having a national crisis of character. We have videos of "flash robs" posted on the Internet in which we see gangs of young people storm into a McDonald's or a convenience store and take what they can and run out. There was the scene, also on the Internet, of a young man beaten and robbed in Baltimore while people stood around laughing, recording it all on their cellphones.

And, of course, we have the scandal at the General Services Administration, in which federal employees not only wasted taxpayer dollars on an outlandish conference but recorded videos of aspects of the event showing them relishing in their abuse of the system. And finally, we have the Secret Service fiasco, in which agents whose job is to protect the president were discovered to be carrying on with prostitutes in Colombia.

The truth is, these are random idiots, not harbingers of the deeper culture. They come to your attention because bad and crazy stuff is newsworthy, and it is newsworthy precisely because it is rare.

The impact of this stupid stuff is amplified by useless blowhard gasbags who rant on cable TV and talk radio to get attention and money and power. These commentators get paid for getting attention, not for being ignored, and the way to gain attention is to say outrageous things. Reasonable discussions seem boring in comparison.

We've always had random idiots, of course, but they're more likely to come to your attention than ever before given the connectedness we all have through the Internet and the ubiquity of video. Some of us remember when video of the war in Vietnam made it the "living room war" and changed the nature of the debate about that conflict. Some of us also remember the Kitty Genovese case in New York City in 1964, in which a young woman was killed while the neighborhood heard her screams and did nothing. As a nation we were scandalized. Imagine if that had been recorded on video and posted on YouTube.

But these events are not indicators of our culture. A student who gets a gun and shoots up his school will be notorious. A student who keeps his head down, works hard, volunteers in the community, helps others and is generally a good and decent person will never be noticed beyond his or her immediate circle. Likewise, how would we ever learn about exemplary Secret Service agents or conscientious, well performing General Services Administration staffers?

There is a difference between the deeper culture in this country and the superficial baloney we often see in the media. The deeper culture resides in the wisdom of regular folks. They are under enormous strain, a fact well documented in "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker," by Steven Greenhouse, but millions of them continue to go to work every day, plant the American flag in front of their houses, and take care of their families. And you'd be safe leaving your kids with them.

Some friends of ours from Missouri were visiting New York City for the first time this year with their four young children. They were doing the regular tourist stuff — the Statue of Liberty and so forth — and their trip happened to coincide with St. Patrick's Day. A New York City taxi can take only four people, so every time they wanted to go somewhere they needed two cabs. At one point, in the aftermath of the big parade, they were in midtown Manhattan rounding up their two cabs when suddenly the mother realized that her 6-year-old was missing. She panicked. A passerby noticed her and told her, "It's all right. Come with me." Our friends had taught their children that if they ever got separated, the child was to stay put and the parents would find them. There, about a block and half away, was her little girl. She was surrounded by a half-dozen New Yorkers who were standing guard over her and sending folks to look for the parents. Our friend scooped up her child and ran back to the place where they'd hailed the taxi and found both cabs patiently waiting.

I'm well aware of our problems, but I think that the most significant danger is that people will begin to believe the awful stuff they hear about themselves. The danger is that the useless blowhard gasbags will make them think that the random idiots are the norm and that they will begin to doubt their ability to come together with their neighbors and make the decisions needed to keep our culture together.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com

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