U.S. Public Wins Olympic Gold Medal In Distractibility

09/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Next week, China will be upset in a closely contested Olympic race by team USA. It's not an official event, and I'm the only judge, but the Beijing Olympics isn't just for athletes. No, it's also a forum where nations unofficially compete to see who can best distract their populations for the duration of the games. One time hopeful Russia has dropped out of the race altogether. Its official team is just managing to beat Italy in the official medal count, so they've basically blown the whole thing off and contended themselves with smacking the Georgians silly. Just because the Soviet Bloc is gone, there's no reason for Prime Minister Putin to let a US ally in the Caucuses get uppity. And what could be more entertaining then directing the invasion of Georgia from the comfort of Beijing, while hanging with George W. and all the other sports fans?

But how can Team USA best the Chinese public in distraction at its own games? True, a $40 billion Beijing makeover and the biggest athletic squad -- one that's doing pretty well -- will warm the patriotic cockles of a resurgent power. But the Chinese at the individual level, I suspect, are far too pragmatic too be entirely distracted. The obstetrician who delivered some of the "women's" gymnastic team about thirteen years ago, give or take, keeps it to himself. The poor sods not living upwind from Beijing still notice that the air is starting to visibly resemble that in Mexico City. And if you happen to express an idea that's out of line with one-party state's currently fashionable beliefs, you can find yourself being reeducated (with hard labor) faster than I can say "voluntary deportation."

But that's all window dressing: the fact is that Team America is just starting the hangover that comes from too many patriotic wars, a government exhortation to spend, spend and spend and a political apparatus that defends our liberty by keeping it in a box stored in a rented storage locker. And so, rather than face up to some unwelcome realities, we suck on distraction like an alcoholic takes to the bottle. I'm hardly immune from this: I've spent more time watching people compete in sports that I'd forgotten existed 3.5 years ago on my 50-inch plasma screen than is right or decent. I've done this for hours on end despite having the real, no fooling around kind of ADHD (ADD) that generally makes anything lasting more than 20 means seem a total bore.

But the ADHD turns out to be very helpful because it eventually forces my return to reality. I literally forget to be distracted by the award winning architecture and the byzantine scoring systems for gymnastics. Instead, I go back to worrying about the collapsing housing market; the anemic banking sector (that the government has bailed out like proud French Socialists); the war in Iraq which we'll have to abandon to better fight in Afghanistan (and Pakistan if we're lucky); the three or four civil rights that the Patriot Act forgot to remove; the daily, unconstitutional humiliation that is Gitmo; the lack of anything resembling an adequate health care system; and the mind-number absence of anything like a coherent energy strategy. (Senators Obama and McCain, please note that footage of windmills in your campaign ads does not constitute an energy policy.)

And just when I'm feeling crushed by the overwhelming weight of it all, I rejoin my fellow Americans on the podium of Gold Medal denial. I tune back into the Olympics and maybe watch the great Michael Phelps, who also has ADHD, defend American pride through swimming. And for a little while, I'm safe and hopeful that the Beijing Olympics will never really end.