Jim Cramer, Nadya Suleman, Bernie Madoff, John Thain, Alex Rodriguez, Rush Limbaugh - these 6 names (or their peers) consume an inordinate percentage of current media coverage. Why are we as a culture obsessed with a former hedge fund manager turned financial-entertainer, a woman who had octuplets, a ponzi scheme operator, a disgraced CEO of Merrill Lynch and a professional athlete who admitted to taking steroids?
The only thing I can find that tie these together is all their stories trigger one of our most primal emotions, that of outrage and smugness - the "Jerry Springer" effect. No matter what's happening in your life, at least you didn't bilk thousands investors out of $50 billion. You may have doubts about your abilities as a parent, but at least you don't have 14 children as a single mother with limited resources. Maybe you're 401k isn't setting the world on fire, but you weren't the one telling millions of people to buy Bear Stearns prior to its collapse and so on.
My worry about our new national past-time of being obsessed with our superiority to others is that it is transferring from just being a media phenomenon to impacting our entire culture. The increased mobility and communication of our society has lead to people being able to almost completely surround themselves with people just like them. This creates an echo-chamber effect where actions and beliefs that are contradictory to yours are more and more difficult to understand or relate to because it's less and less likely that you are interacting with people who are your polar opposites. The rise of tightly focused media outlets complete this feedback loop.
This idea crystallized for me after a recent trip where I had the opportunity to spend an evening with a relative I rarely see. We were both born into upper-middle class families in the 70's, both grew up in the South with professional fathers and stay at home mothers, both attended college, etc. On the surface, we'd seem to have much in common, but the reality is very different. Our primary similarity is we have both very successfully surrounded ourselves with people and situations that reinforce our wildly divergent beliefs.
As we began to discuss work and politics, it became clear to me that our discussion was a microcosm of the above situation. Our views and points of reference were diametrically opposite. I work in an environment where few people attend regular religious services and Richard Dawkins style debates are a favorite work pastime, he has recently become the senior pastor at a 95 year old church. I've worked with and for woman executives, his church does not allow women to be on the governing committee nor be a minister. Multiply this one example by millions, and it quickly becomes clear why governing the US is so difficult today.
It's as if we're all living in parallel universes. Each of us so confident and smug that our beliefs are the correct ones and all too eager to look down our noses at how the "other half" lives. The gap has grown so large that when it does come time for the entire country to come together and have a dialogue about something important (Financial Crisis, Health Care, Iraq, etc.) there are no longer any common reference points or shared experiences to use as a starting point.
Thinking back on it, the only shared experience in recent history that all Americans truly experienced together was 9/11, and it was awe-inspiring to see the entire country come together in those dark days. As a country, we now face even larger challenges and instead of coming together in healthy dialogue, we have lost sight of the real issues and continue to bicker over minor social and political differences while the country careens towards bankruptcy. When inflation is 1,800% and unemployment 35%, will anyone believe that Congress used to busy itself with issues like same-sex marriage and abstinence sex education funding?