Let’s take stock of the major events that have pushed Britney Spears to the forefront of our razor-deep national consciousness:
She was photographed driving with her infant son in her lap.
She was also photographed wearing a miniskirt without panties.
She’d separated from KFed and filed for divorce, arguably the smartest thing she’s ever done and would be worthy of admiration if one didn’t remember that she had to marry that two-legged tick in order to put herself in that position of necessity.
And now, the best for last, she’d checked into another rehab clinic and was videotaped turning herself into an extra out of THX 1138 at the same time that Kevin Federline is suing for custody of their two children (and maybe Anna Nicole Smith’s, for good measure).
Before I move on, I have to admit that it’s a helluva trick to make Madonna look less like an aging twenty dollar tranny hooker, Courtney Love sober and dignified and Kevin Federline pragmatic and responsible by conspicuous relief.
So why is Britney doing an impression of a neo-Nazi front page and leading news that’s rivaled only by the putrifying corpse of Anna Nicole Smith? Don’t blame the networks and the print media. They didn’t pull the zombie demographic out of their asses. They’re merely feeding a demand, our demand for the next Michael Jackson. And even though Britney never had a hit CD of the magnitude of Thriller or get caught patting a 13 year-old Macaulay Culkin on the ass, we’ll take what we can get.
We need a break from 9/11, Iraq and the war on terror, you say? Nice try but we were just as shallow and easily-distracted before 9/11 (See Jackson, Michael and Man, The Elephant).
So don’t completely blame the media because they’re only half to blame for perpetuating a downward spiral that more or less started, I think, when Walter Cronkite retired as CBS’s anchor in 1981.
Even though we were always a nationality lured away from what was important by shiny objects and successfully lied to by every administration, my childhood recollections are that of a nation that was more engaged and aware of what was going on in Vietnam than we are of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Back then, also, there were four anchors on three networks. There was no CSPAN 1, 2 and 3, no MSNBC, no CNN, no Fox. There was no internet, no blogs and not much of a punditocracy. In a way, the lack of choices in the 60’s helped focus the nation on the blood-letting and atrocities that were streaming into our living rooms with a consistency that’s impossible to imagine today.
In my childhood, the American people hung on every word that came out of Walter Cronkite’s mouth, the most trusted man in America, starting with President Lyndon Baines Johnson. When Cronkite said on February 27th, 1968, "It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate," President Johnson was said to have responded, “That’s it. If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Less than a month later, Johnson put the kibosh on any reelection bid. The jury’s still out on whether Cronkite’s words of no confidence contributed to Johnson’s abrupt retirement.
Try to think of someone, anyone, even on Fox, if they turned on George Bush and his failed war and imagine Bush saying, “If I’ve lost him/her, I’ve lost middle America.” Of course, George W. Bush isn’t Lyndon B. Johnson even though both men are infamous for stubborness no matter how many people died or were maimed for their personal and political hubris. Yet, Johnson agonized over the war and feared that it would wreck his presidential legacy. Bush has gone down on record recently as saying that he’d keep our troops in Iraq even if his support dwindled down to Laura and his dog, frighteningly resolute and unwavering in his belief that his own Vietnam will somehow, against history and all earthly reason, be vindicated.
Yet there’s no anti-war movement forcing Bush to change tactics or to put at least political pressure to bear on him and the Republican leadership. It would be naïve to expect that there would be one spearheaded by Katie Couric or any other network news program but Cronkite’s prophetic words on Vietnam found a highly receptive audience with the anti-war movement of the 60’s.
Juvenal, the satirist of the ancient Roman empire, put it best when he famously referred to the Roman peoples’ ability to be distracted by “bread and circuses.” The bread is the kind served up hot and bitter by the bobbleheads on Fox and by media-baiting hate mongers like Ann Coulter who rail against the media that nonetheless provide them with endless forums and opportunities to spew their hateful and deliberately misleading thoughts. The circus? That’s provided by Britney Spears, the parade of fathers of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby and human stunt dummies like Johnny Knoxville that have been elevated to virtually the same status as James Dean and Elvis.
And if we could rouse ourselves from the endless circus lovingly narrated by what ludicrously passes for a mainstream media, we would perhaps rail at the lack of respect that George W. Bush has for the middle America that was largely responsible for putting him in the White House not once but twice. But we don’t and he doesn’t care about middle America as Johnson did and he cares even less about the coastal states.
And President and proletariat alike remain hunched over their iPods, knowing by rote what songs are on them while hardly knowing the names of world leaders who are slowly retreating from Bush’s world stage. George Bush doesn’t respect the opinion of the American people. And the sad part is, we have forfeited the right to ask for it through our willful ignorance and inability to distinguish what’s true from what’s merely presented to us as real.