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Caryl Rivers Headshot

Arsenal of Democracy or Fantasy Island?

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Has the one time Arsenal of Democracy turned into Fantasy Island?

Armed with ever growing information and technology, we used to be up to a challenge. We built towers that did indeed scrape the sky. When we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, we turned the whole nation's industrial capacity into a factory to defeat fascism. When the Russians beat us into space, we set our sights on the moon. And went there.

Once again we face great challenges: a major economic downturn, globalization, climate change and a terror network that wants to destroy us.

But too many of us are not turning outwards to face these challenges. Ironically, information and technology now are helping us instead to turn inwards, to private realms of fantasy and fear.

Of course there have always been bread and circuses to amaze and occupy the masses. But never before have we had opportunities for escaping reality on such a grand scale. These escapes come in two forms--Trivia (gossip, celebrity and personal chatter) and Venom (fear, hate, xenophobia, racism.)

Against that background, two recent news stories should give us pause. The amount of information human beings are now exposed to equals the entire sum of information throughout human history, and it is doubling every few weeks. Alas, most of this new information is not the wisdom of the ages, but material posted on Facebook and other social networks.

Another news item is that boys who spend a great deal of time playing video games score lower than boys on reading and writing than kids who spent less time with the games. "It's a zero-sum thing. There's only so much time you can give to certain activities, and the more you spend with video games, the more likely you will not progress in academic achievement," explained Alan Delamater, director of clinical psychology at the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami.

This flood of new information, instead of enriching us, is dumbing down and "fantasizing" our culture, making us less able to comprehend and respond to complex real world challenges.

The media bears a large dollop of responsibility for our national slide into fantasy. More and more, sexy narratives trump facts or data when it comes to reporting news.

Competition and the 24-hour news cycle is a big factor. Stories that years ago would have been quickly discredited -- or simply never printed or broadcast--now occupy gobs of media space. Did any rational journalist believe that the Obama health plan was creating "death squads" for grandma? In fact, what was suggested was payment for doctors to counsel families about end-of life issues. Obscene amounts of attention are given to demonstrably false stories such as the idea that Obama was not born in the United States or that he is a Muslim, not a Christian.

Recently, the idea was put forth by conservative Dinesh D'Souza in a Forbes article that Obama was channeling his dead father, trying to destroy America from the White house. He wrote, "Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation's agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. The son makes it happen, but he candidly admits he is only living out his father's dream. The invisible father provides the inspiration, and the son dutifully gets the job done. America today is governed by a ghost."

Paranoid fantasies don't get nuttier than that one, yet it appeared in a major mainstream publication and was repeated all over the web and TV.

And who is getting massive coverage as we head to the mid-term elections? Delaware senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, a woman who once dabbled in witchcraft, couldn't make a living, and believes masturbation is adultery.

Media "gatekeepers" are more and more in the bag these days to anyone who will hand them a good story, no matter how absurd. But if readers and are so obsessed with stalking Lindsay Lohan on Gawker or blowing the heads off opponents in World at War, maybe it doesn't matter that the news is so trivial.

Maybe Fantasy Island is where we will all be living in the very near future.