What do the following have in common? "Death panels", "The Party of No!", "Save Social Security," government bail outs, Sarah Palin's latest gaffe, the Birther Movement, WikiLeaks, earmarks, "Death Taxes", opinion polls, "Don't Touch My Junk!", "dropping babies", Wall Street bonuses, "socialism," and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".
Despite their seeming diversity, they all share one thing: these topics and the seemingly endless coverage they get in the media distract us from things that matter much more to the long-term strength of our society. Some of the distractions have no or very little basis in truth - the health care reform package never proposed or included panels that would decide if you got life-saving medical care. Some of them are factually grounded - Wall Street bonuses are real and can be counted. Many of the distractions raise truly legitimate concerns - WikiLeaks may well do damage to our foreign affairs. But they are distractions nonetheless in that they are blips on the public policy screen which stir the emotions but do little to help us deal with more substantive, underlying problems. None of them will come close to addressing our budget deficit, long-term debt, unemployment, economic growth, educational challenges, environmental degradation, infrastructure needs and the threat of terrorism or war.
Distractions in our private lives can be useful things. NCAA football, Dancing with the Stars, Harry Potter, the lottery - they all amuse, engage, and offer relief from the stress of daily life. Political distractions in our public lives can be fun, of course, as they merge entertainment with politics. But attending a Glenn Beck or Jon Stewart rally, while not a bad way to spend an afternoon, should not be confused with meaningful work on public issues.
Distractions in our public life - for all their excitement and titillating allure - are not benign. They often lead us to avoid substantive discussion, concentrating instead on the scoring of political points. Distractions usually hold at bay the need to come up with workable solutions built on compromising strongly held values and views. They keep us from focusing our energy and resources where they matter most. Management author Stephen Covey makes the point that we fail ourselves and others when we focus on the urgent but not important (e.g. the latest poll numbers on whether Americans would support a tax increase to pay down the debt) instead of the important but not urgent (how to solve the long-term debt problem). Distractions also take the place of confronting disarming and disconfirming data. ("No Bail Outs" is a wonderful distraction from a recent report of the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office that the $770 billion TARP fund will actually cost the taxpayers only about $25 billion.)
America could use a new measuring device - the "distractometer." Set up on a scale from zero to ten (with 10 being "Titanic Distraction"), we could evaluate any politician's utterances, any political ad, any public issue, or any media article or blog post on the extent to which it distracts us. Thus, for example, a substantive article reporting on the proposals of the President's bipartisan fiscal commission might get "O" or "1" depending on the level of facts vs. analysis. On the other extreme, a Democratic political ad that charged the Republicans with continuing to be "The Party of No!" would get a "9" or a "10" since its chief purpose would be to score political points without offering any substantive alternative. In the middle of the scale, the latest news on WikiLeaks might get a "4" or "5" since the issue matters - but it does not matter in proportion to the news coverage it is getting. And, to be honest, this particular blog might get a "9". It aims to be useful and short, though it is of very little help in addressing any real issues.
Distractions cost time, resources, and attention. We should not suffer them lightly. It may help to know that the Old English root for "distraction" translates as "separation." When we distract ourselves, we pull away from what matters. The synonyms for "distraction" say a lot: madness, lunacy, insanity, craziness.
As a nation, we have been distracted too long from serious attention to our problems. Alas, the "distractometer" is in itself a distraction, so perhaps not that good an idea. It's hard to stay focused, even when writing a blog. But we need to get better at it.