02/10/2007 02:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Anna Nicole Smith 24/7

Lurid. If some youngster asks you what "lurid" means in the next few days, you have only to point. The thought occurred to me while I was toiling away on the Stairmaster at the gym, half an eye on CNN, when the title line caught my eye. It said something like "Waiting for a News Conference to Discuss Anna Nicole Smith's Autopsy." At a time when every major city in the USA has it's very own CSI--we all know what "autopsy" means. And the screen is showing old photos and video clips of Anna displaying her, well, body. What more can I say? Well, I can mention that after the autopsy one of the news shows broadcast a tour of the room where the autopsy had just taken place. It featured lingering close-ups of mysterious stainless steel instruments--their weird shapes inviting the imagination to supply their very specific purposes.

So then I think (and I realize I've been going through this exact same loop ever since OJ in the White Bronco)--I think, jeez, how can they peddle this crap for hours on end when matters of such desperate importance are unfolding in the world? That's the "earnest progressive person" moment when I picture a basically decent populace being distracted and manipulated by powerful interests. But then comes the stark fact. People love this junk. They want to watch it. They could switch to C-SPAN if they wanted to. They good be curled up with Chomsky's latest if they wanted to be.

It really is human nature, this attraction to spectacles of sex and violence. Progressives need to face that. It's not as universal and inevitable as, oh, say, wanting food and water. Some people are watching C-SPAN and reading Chomsky. But not many. A lot more people are following the lurid story of the day. They are fascinated by these things, especially if there's a narrative line, if there's some puzzle or some pending outcome. I overhear conversations in the street all the time. People talk about Anna Nicole Smith's shortcomings as a parent as if they are gossiping about neighbors or co-workers, the interest is that intense and personal.

This is where conservatives have always had the edge on progressives, going back to Hobbes. Their low opinion of human nature is so often confirmed by events. That low opinion of human nature is the reason conservatives are authoritarian--they always favor control of humanity's inner beast. Or, as in the case of capitalist ideology, channeling it.

Progressives also have an edge. They genuinely care about justice for all. In the long run, I have to believe that will prove to be the winning edge. But sometimes, as when I contemplate the appeal of Anna Nicole Smith, it feels like an awful long run.