Short Attention Span Nation

If you glance over at the right-hand column, the boilerplate stuff, you’ll see why this is a low-traffic site, a hundred or so hits a day. Oh, now and then CNN or Crooks and Liars or Andrew Sullivan links to this site and the traffic jumps to three or four thousand in a day. But that traffic trails off quickly, when people see what is really here. You get a column each day in long form, not the usual short posts pointing to this and that and saying “Oh my!” As noted, the columns here are an attempt to think things through, weighing this idea against another, sometime more successfully than others. Most people don’t have the patience to come along for the ride, or they find the issues uninteresting. That’s fine. Some write to provoke thought with startling new ideas, some to show off, and some of us write as a way to figure things out. You know – some event or idea is vaguely disquieting, you examine the details, and then try to find the words that help clarify what’s really going on. And then things become clear, or at least clearer. No one likes being vaguely unsettled by current events, knowing something important is up, and also knowing that others, for their own ends, are trying to make you agree with them. And no one wants to be jerked around by quick, glib pronouncements about the simple truth of the matter. As they say, the truth is rarely simple – and often is not even the truth. One must remain skeptical and think things through. 

 

Of course the famous quote from Einstein applies here – “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Those are words to live by. That concept also drives readers elsewhere. Most people like things to be simple.

 

The news media know this. They’re driven by profits – advertizing revenue brings us the news (or pledge drives). So they need to keep the eyeballs on the page, or on the screen. They give the public what it wants. So it is not surprising that in the Columbia Journalism Review there is this report on a new study:

 

Anyone who buys the beltway complaint that television news reporting shrivels both politics and public discourse has two new reasons to worry: sound bites are getting shorter and video reels are getting longer. That means less talk of policy solutions and more rolling shots of diplomatic handshakes, tarmac striding, and presidential cowboys whacking underbrush on Texas ranches.

 

Or you get John Kerry ordering the wrong cheese for his Philly Cheese-Steak. It was shorthand. He was an out-of-touch elitist. And in mid-April you got this:

 

On Hardball, while remarking on Sen. Barack Obama’s reported request for orange juice after being offered coffee at an Indiana diner, David Shuster asserted: “It’s just one of those sort of weird things. You know, when the owner of the diner says, ‘Here, have some coffee,’ you say, ‘Yes, thank you,’ and, ‘Oh, can I also please have some orange juice, in addition to this?’ You don’t just say, ‘No, I’ll take orange juice,’ and then turn away and start shaking hands.” Host Chris Matthews agreed, “You don’t ask for a substitute on the menu.”

 

What? This means something? Who knew? But try Google – one hundred thirty thousand items on this matter.

 

And it’s not over yet. At Commentary Magazine see Abe Greenwald with this:

 

The switch from juice to coffee is a rite of adulthood. It’s not that Obama seemed to hold himself above the coffee drinkers. It’s that he seemed to lag behind them. He’s still on fruit juice while the adults are sipping bitter and bracing coffee.

 

Scroll down to the comments to see the reactions:

 

You guys are just running out of things to say.

 

And heaven help us, there are still six months to go before the election. And by the way, I’m older than Barack Obama, and I prefer juice to coffee. You know, some people just don’t like coffee.

 

And this:

 

This is ridiculous. Choosing not to drink coffee doesn’t mean you’re childish. Here’s an alternative explanation: Obama takes care of his health. Coffee is not good for you. Orange juice is. Ergo, no coffee. One could blame Obama’s arugula-chomping and good physical condition on the same tendency. I don’t think Obama’s abstaining from coffee says anything about the man’s childishness – or lack thereof.

 

All that is via Andrew Sullivan, who adds this:

 

Look: if you’re a neocon, it beats discussing the war.

 

Yeah, some things are complicated. The war we cannot win and must not lose, and which simply cannot stay as it is now, is complicated. So you go for the easy, and pretend it’s devastatingly insightful. People will quote you. Then they’ll think about it and shrug, or they won’t think about it and decide it means something very deep. Sociopolitical discourse is funny that way. These days it’s hard to separate the inane observation from the deep insight. When every observation is short – and now getting shorter – you’re on your own.

 

Watch MSNBC’s Hardball – they put it all out there. Much of it seems inane, but sometimes it may not be. They won’t tell you which is which. They probably don’t know – they’re just reporting, after all. The same applies to CNN and Fox News. But then, when you are told something really is important – Obama refusing that cup of coffee – do you agree? Perhaps which news source you end up watching is a matter of trust – what an O’Reilly viewer finds hopelessly inane and stupid is probably what someone watching Keith Olbermann, at the same hour, might find quite important. CNN is probably countering with an extended human interest story, something about kittens no doubt. But there’s nothing too complex, anywhere.

 

If you’re a news hound, and watch all three, and surf the web for what’s being reported and discussed from San Diego to Berlin, you find yourself befuddled. You have to work through it all.

 

As with the media, political candidates go for the short shots, the quick hits. The idea is to keep it simple, or even simpler. McCain is a straight-talker. Obama is subtle and smart and decent. Hillary Clinton is the champion of women, and a real fighter for the common man. You know what you’re supposed to think. They stay on message and you are appropriately grateful for not having to worry yourself over any details.

 

But there’s always an oddball out there, a skeptic. There’s Betsy Reed at The Nation actually thinking about Hillary Clinton:

 

What is most troubling – and what has the most serious implications for the feminist movement – is that the Clinton campaign has used her rival’s race against him. In the name of demonstrating her superior “electability,” she and her surrogates have invoked the racist and sexist playbook of the right – in which swaggering macho cowboys are entrusted to defend the country – seeking to define Obama as too black, too foreign, too different to be President at a moment of high anxiety about national security. This subtly but distinctly radicalized political strategy did not create the media feeding frenzy around the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that is now weighing Obama down, but it has positioned Clinton to take advantage of the opportunities the controversy has presented. And the Clinton campaign’s use of this strategy has many nonwhite and nonmainstream feminists crying foul.

 

She may have not thought about that. As Andrew Sullivan notes:

 

The Clintons may end up not just losing this race, but their reputation among liberal Democrats as well.

 

Things should be made as simple as possible, not simpler. That can ruin things. The simple is dangerous.

 

And Clinton’s husband isn’t helping matters. He has a reputation for subtle and complex thinking, but he knows that’s not useful in a tight race for office. You have to lay out stunningly simple propositions for the rubes.

 

So on Friday, May 2, he laid out this, referring to Barack Obama’s supporters:

 

“The great divide in this country is not by race or even income, it’s by those who think they are better than everyone else and think they should play by a different set of rules,” he said. “In West Virginia and Arkansas, we know that when we see it.”

 

That’s clear. Obama thinks he’s better than you. Hillary doesn’t. You know who to resent. Do it.

 

Over at Daily Kos, “Miss Laura” has a thing or two to say about that. Of course, this is Laura Clawson, a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at Dartmouth, with a BA in American Studies and English from Wesleyan and a PhD in sociology at Princeton. Such people are dangerous. They don’t like simple. And she doesn’t like this crap:

 

Let’s think about this for a minute: Bill Clinton is a driving force behind the campaign that has tried to insist that Florida and Michigan should count, even though the rules say they don’t. Even though its own top advisors voted for the rules that say Florida and Michigan don’t count. That’s the same campaign that has tried to discount caucus states, even though the rules say they count. The campaign that has tried to get the press to rechristen super delegates as automatic delegates. This is a campaign that has shown time and again that there is not a rule of the Democratic nomination process they will not attempt to undercut if it will benefit Hillary Clinton.

 

And Bill Clinton wants to talk about how Obama’s supporters think they should play by a different set of rules?

 

Clinton’s statement is absurd on the face of it. But then, anyone who starts out saying let’s think about this certainly is dangerous. You’re not supposed to do that. The Clintons might claim it’s unfair, or, at the very least hopelessly, elitist. Hell, look at Clawson’s credentials. She probably drives a Volvo, while sipping a latte!

 

And then she has the temerity to bring up psychological projection: 1) “Projection is the opposite defense mechanism to identification. We project our own unpleasant feelings onto someone else and blame them for having thoughts that we really have.” 2) “A defense mechanism in which the individual attributes to other people impulses and traits that he himself has but cannot accept. It is especially likely to occur when the person lacks insight into his own impulses and traits.” 3) “Attributing one’s own undesirable traits to other people or agencies.”

 

As an angry conservative friend out here, who intensely dislikes this site, often says – “Real people don’t know about such things, and don’t want to know about such things!”

 

The Clintons rely on there being many such people. It’s a good bet – there are.

 

But then you can be surprised. There’s Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, in the Wall Street Journal, now owned by Rupert Murdoch, with this:

 

Few voters will be more inclined to vote for Barack Obama because his friend, mentor and pastor is extreme. They will think it makes Mr. Obama less attractive. They will not think Mr. Obama handled the challenge with force, dispatch and the kind of instinct that turns dilemma into gain.

 

And yet … it doesn’t get my blood up. It doesn’t hurt my heart. It doesn’t make me feel I need to defend my country. Because I don’t see it as attacked, only criticized in a way that is not persuasive.

 

What? She thought it through and decided that whole thing with Jeremiah Wright wasn’t a big deal? Will wonders never cease?

 

But then the Republican Party is now trying to block this television ad from the Democratic National Committee – showing the famous clip of John McCain saying we should stay in Iraq for a hundred years. They seem to want to sue the Democratic National Committee for taking McCain’s quotes out of context. That’s odd. A careful analysis at Talking Points Memo argues persuasively that the add is rigorously accurate – it quotes McCain saying just what he said. But McCain says this:

 

It’s a direct falsification, and I’m sorry that political campaigns have to deteriorate in this fashion. Because there’s legitimate differences between myself and Senator Obama and Senator Clinton on what we should do in Iraq.

 

Well, that at least is true. Hendrick Hertzberg in the New Yorker puts it nicely:

 

McCain wants to stay in Iraq until no more Americans are getting killed, no matter how long it takes and how many Americans get killed achieving that goal – that is, the goal of not getting any more Americans killed. And once that goal is achieved, we’ll stay.

 

You see, it’s very simple – inane, but simple.

 

But then, his simple straight-talk really got him in trouble on Friday, May 2, at a little get-together. See the video clip here:

 

My friends, I will have an energy policy which will eliminate our dependence on oil from Middle East that will then prevent us from having ever to send our young men and women into conflict again in the Middle East.

 

Ah, simple and direct, and innocuous, unless you think about it. At Crooks and Liars “Silent Patriot” does that:

 

Think about how amazing this is. McCain is essentially saying that our quest to “spread democracy” throughout the Middle East is a sham. It has nothing to do with freeing oppressed people, or protecting Israel, or defending ourselves against future attacks. It’s about gaining control of foreign oil. Stunning! Will this get any significant media play?

 

It will probably not get significant media play. “Silent Patriot” had to tell us to think about it.

 

The video clip, from Hardball on MSNBC, does have this from the excitable host, Chris Matthews:

 

You know, if somebody else were to say that, they would be accused of being a communist, or radical, or a leftist… for John McCain, a war hero, to say that we’re fighting in the Middle East to protect our oil sources is an astounding development.

 

Oh, that’ll pass. We have short attention spans.

 

And Obama may well lose the nomination, or if not, lose the presidency. He seems to live by those words from Einstein, about making thing simple, but not simpler than they actually are. That’s deadly. It makes him an elitist.

 

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Bill Clinton, Chris Matthews, Complexity, Elitism, Hillary and Bill, Hillary Clinton, Jeremiah Wright, McCain, Obama, Political Posturing, Populist Politics, Press Notes. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Short Attention Span Nation

  1. radio ric says:

    Bullsheet! I know what that coffee is about. At El Sitio in Queens I order a double expresso of Cuban coffee. If it ain’t El Sitio then I order orange juice. Often it’s made of oranges. You can’t say the same thing for coffee in an Indiana diner. Obama did the right thing. Why take the offered coffee if it’s undrinkable? Take it and leave there, and drink the orange? That would be disrespect. Obama is too cool, too far ahead, to be a president for America.

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