I wrote this back before the end of the year, and I never got around to posting it. I hope it doesn't sound too negative. I started out writing it with the intention to make it humrous, but I'll let you make your own determination as to how that played out. Anyway, I will say that as I look at this list now, I realize that it's as much a criticism of the media- their choices in what to cover it and how to tell the story- than about the events themselves.
Here's a list of some of the top headlines from 2011 along with an explanation as to why I think that a number of them are pretty strong evidence that our population might be doing some evolutionary backsliding:
Steve Jobs died (October 5): Here's the thing. In the wake of his death, people have been comparing Jobs to every major inventer and innovator since Thomas Edison, but in actuality, he didn't really invent anything. He didn't invent the smartphone, the MP3 player, the laptop, or even the tablet computer. All of the prototypes and fundamental designs for those things preceded Jobs by years. The real talent that Jobs possessed was in design- more specifically, he modified gadgets so that our lazy consumer culture wouldn't have to learn any new skills or develop any new talents in order to take advantage of advances in technology. Buttons were replaced with wheels and touch screens. Software was made so accessible that even children could stumble their way through it . Online shoppers were corralled into idiot-simple iTunes stores where they could download items into formats that were easily digestible on their Apple hardware. The software, hardware, and online shopping provided by Jobs weren't always the most effective, efficient, or cheapest options available, but Apple made sure that their products were so easy to use that even the least tech savvy person out there wouldn't face many challenging obstacles while figuring out how to use Apple products. We could be really slow to learn, but thanks to Apple, we could still do really cool stuff with our tech. As a result, I've recorded a bunch of music on Garageband and I'm writing this post on a MacBook Pro!
Occupy Wall Street (September): It was the kind of protest that a bunch of angry preteens might come up with. I'm not saying that there weren't/aren't any real issues that Occupy Wall Street protesters have been addressing, but for many of us, the lack of common purpose, the disorganization, and the inability to effectively communicate any sort of cogent message was every bit as discouraging as the problems that OWS were addressing in the first place. It's true that there's far too much corporate influence in government. It's true that income inequality is, at least in part, the result of some strange legal inequities, (especially when you consider that when some of the same people who contributed to the economic collapse have continued to receive huge salaries and have received taxpayer bailouts, getting richer while the employees who work in the trenches get laid off and/or remain unemployed). It's true that loopholes often leave some of the wealthiest members of our society paying proportionately much less in taxes than the middle class workers who provide the power behind wealthy corporate machines.
People have some legitimate reasons to be fed up.
But Occupy Wall Street seemed to fail again and again when it came to articulating the reasons why they're angry. Over and over again they sounded like a disorganized mob, filled with divergent interests, who just couldn't get their act together. They prided themselves on the fact that they didn't have a leader (claiming that they were a grass roots, popular movement that didn't need a singular figurehead), but in the end they lacked vision, direction, and unity. They sounded angry that they were poor, but without a clear message about the inherent unfairness in the job market/tax system/government subsidies/etc.... well, the protesters appeared to many outsiders to be a bunch of entitled misfits who would rather camp out, commiserate, and complain than look for a job. They produced some interesting imagery and seized the public's imagination for a period of time (pictures of police casually spraying tear gas into the face of protesters is always compelling), but they failed to capitalize on their moment in the spotlight by fully explaining what they truly wanted.
So there were and are real issues to be addressed by OWS, but the execution... the execution felt sort of dumb.
Charlie Sheen Publicly Melts Down (March?): Charlie Sheen gets fired from Two and a Half Men, which (and this is already evidence of our dumbness) is one of the top rated shows in America at the time. Sheen has some sort of mental health/drug induced breakdown, posting internet rants about the studio that fired him while simultaneously bragging about the tiger blood in his veins, his warlock nature, and the majesty of.... well, himself. Much of the rest of the world is focused on Libya as rebel forces move against Qaddafi, or Japan, which has been devastated by earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear meltdowns. Much of America, however, is infatuated with the Charlie Sheen story- captivated by the ravings of a clearly unhinged millionaire celebrity who's holed up in an L.A. mansion with some underwear models and his (undoubtedly very confused) small children. This is the kind of story that just snowballed once it came into contact with American dumbness because the gawking audience helped to feed the megalomania that was the story itself. (yeah, I know it's probably not fashionable, but I'm willing to just go ahead and call our society's mindless fascination with celebrity sort of dumb) There are probably thousands of manic, bipolar (or possibly drugged) people out there at any given time, but thanks to the desire of the American public to gawk at a celebrity meltdown like rubberneckers at a traffic accident, Charlie Sheen happened to be one of the few egomaniacs who turned his delusions of grandeur into reality. Between his own awful behavior and our fascination with it, he really was the center of the universe for a moment. Lord help that man's therapist.
Casey Anthony Acquitted in Murder of Daughter (July 5): So on July 5th a jury in Florida found Casey Anthony not guilty of murdering her daughter, Caylee. This was after the police found evidence of decomposition in the trunk of the defendant's abandoned car, after months of the defendant denying that she knew anything regarding the whereabouts of her daughter (and after lies about some sort of nanny abduction), after the police found evidence that internet searches had been performed on the defendant's computer regarding the use of chloroform, after the defendant lied about her employment, after the child's body was found only a short distance from the family's home, and after the family had been caught telling lies on the defendant's behalf. This was the sort of case that could only be lost in the face of a jury that had learned about justice through the fictional TV world of CSI (and other police procedurals) in which every single case contains a smoking gun if the detectives just look hard enough. This jury represented a section of the public (perhaps a disturbingly large section) which has come to believe that facts presented by the government are always inherently untrustworthy (because the government, we've learned, is almost always out to presecute inncoent people), and that hidden conspiracies are more believable than any simple simple logical inferences- mostly because the application of simple logic just doesn't feed our imaginations the same way that wild conjecture typically might. This was a jury who believed it was their job to abandon common sense and sound reasoning at the courtroom door- a jury who wanted to hold prosecutors to unrealistically high standards, forgetting that if the evidence was perfect every time, we really probably wouldn't need juries in the first place (if there's airtight evidence in every case and conviction is little more than the application of a simple, logical formula, do we really need juries at all? A computer program might suffice...).
Over time, many a murderer has been convicted without a body ever having even been recovered. Historically, organized crime and serial killer prosecutions have been full of such cases. The Casey Anthony case involved more than enough evidence to convict this woman for murder if the jury had possessed the will to do so.
The prosecutors might have overreached a bit by trying to insist upon the death penalty in this case, but it was the jury, in the end, who ignored the facts and set a child killer free. The case wasn't the sort of neatly wrapped package that the public has come to expect from cop shows on TV, so Caylee Anthony walked. That was pretty dumb. Next, this woman will probably write some sort of memoir, and America will have the chance to prove itself even dumber as copies fly off the shelves...
Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal (November)- This fall Penn State made the news when allegations came to light that Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the school's football team, had been sexually abusing a number of boys (ten or more, according to charges) over a fifteen year period. The allegations of abuse were bad enough, but even more alarming have been the reports that numerous members of the Penn State administration and athletic department knew of, suspected, or had reason to know of Sandusky's abuse but did nothing to report it. Athletic directors, university presidents and vice presidents, and even Joe Paterno, an 84 year old coach and college football icon, were caught up in the scandal in a wave of suspensions and firings.
What's dumb about this scandal? Well, it's not the fact that this sort of abuse is a serious crime. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite. How the heck did this thing go on as long as it did with so many people apparently knowing about it or suspecting it without anyone reporting the abuse to the authorities?
Right or wrong, when this sort of thing happened in the Catholic church I found it easier to understand that people were confused about what to do and how to handle the disturbing situation. The church, after all, has historically served as a moral compass and a reference point for the personal ethics of a lot of people, so when something very bad happened within its ranks, I guess I found it easier to see how people could be confused, uncertain, and maybe even a little scared. I sort of chalked up a good deal of the uncertainty and slow response in the Catholic abuse scandal to the disorientation that believers felt when they found evil at the heart of something that had formed the bedrock of an institution that had always been meant to serve as a paragon of good.
But protecting a defensive coordinator for a college football team? What the hell? Do people really feel the same need to close ranks and protect a college football program in the same way that they might protect their religious institutions?
Keep in mind that if anyone had taken this thing on earlier and simply reported it to the authorities, the department could have just replaced Sandusky as a single problematic piece in a larger, successful college football program. There would have been a little media attention and a little embarrassment, but the whole program wouldn't have been put at risk.
What makes the Penn State case so troubling is that people weren't ignoring the problem because of a desire to keep faith in an institution that had served as a center of their spiritual and moral well being- or if that's what was happening people really are insanely dumb. I know that there's a lot of money involved, but in the end the case of the Sandusky scandal was about people turning a blind eye in order to safeguard their good feelings about a college program where a bunch of young men compete to move an inflated piece of leather 100 yards down a field of dirt and grass.
Protect college football at the expense of abusing kids? So there's some dumbness involved.
The Debt Ceiling Debate/Downgrade of U.S. Credit Rating (July and August)- Congress, The White House and the Senate reached an impasse on the debt ceiling when Tea Party members of Congress refused to agree to increased taxes, and Democrats dug their heels in on budget slashing for certain key programs. There was a heck of a lot of brinksmanship involved, very little compromise, and in the end, the whole mess basically demonstrated to the world that our government (and perhaps our populace) is fractured, obstinate, and dysfunctional. As a result of Washington's inability to efficiently and effectively negotiate a fairly straightforward compromise on what should have been a relatively routine matter (the debt ceiling has already been raised more than 70 times since 1940), Standard and Poor downgraded the credit rating of the United Staes for the first time in history, moving the rating from AAA to AA+. S&P pointed to the skepticism of Congressional members about the seriousness of the consequences stemming from a default as one key reason why the downgrade took place. Apparently the Tea Party rhetoric about letting the government collapse instead of negotiating with Democrats was actually taken seriously by some people- mostly the people who have a lot of money invested in our government. Various American politicians and pundits expressed outrage over the downgrade, but S&P stood firm, apparently standing behind the radical belief that in order to have a really good credit rating, governments and their leaders need to seem serious about not wanting to stiff their creditors.
This wasn't the only time that our elected leaders cut off their respective noses to spite their faces this year, but it was an example where the negative consequences were immediate and clearly felt.
Even children are taught how to share and play nice.
So... I would say that this whole debacle was pretty dumb.
Anyway, I hope 2012 goes well! I hope we can all find a way to stand up for what we believe in while still remaining open minded, flexible, and open to compromise. It's a tough balance, but an important one, and I feel like I have to work a little harder at it each year (of course, if everyone would just acknowledge that I'm always right, that would work, too! ;-)).