Off-Topic Tuesday: The Blank Slate of Our Attention

Here’s another rerun from my old blog, the Daily Aneurysm, for today’s Off-Topic Tuesday. These reruns have not had much to do with our usual subject matter so far, although this one does, inasmuch as it’s about the not-guilty verdicts in Michael Jackson’s child molestation trial. It appeared on June 14, 2005. If you’re looking for something from me that’s absolutely new, there’s this at Otherwise, come back next time.

At one point yesterday afternoon, I counted nine different channels on my cable system carrying live coverage of the Jackson verdict: MSNBC, Fox News, Headline News, CNN, Court TV, E, ABC, CBS, and NBC. Last night, Jackson coverage ran largely wall-to-wall for six hours on the major news channels. If TV had covered the Downing Street Memo to the same thorough degree—or damn near anything else having to do with Iraq since the fall of 2002, for that matter—Bush would have had to resign over it. . . .

One of the words that’s thrown around a lot in celebrity trials is “tragedy.” Isn’t it tragic how Michael Jackson/O.J. Simpson/Robert Blake/Martha Stewart/Kobe Bryant had everything, but was brought low by adversity, just as less famous people, and sometimes even ourselves, are sometimes brought low? We’re supposed to learn something from such “tragedies,” apparently—something about humility, maybe, or about how we’re all the same deep down, or about justice, or about equal protection under the law whether you’re famous or not.

If we’d actually learn these things, celebrity trials might serve some sort of positive function in society—but we don’t, and they don’t. There’s a terrific essay in Salon this morning about the “tragedy” and the “lessons” of the Jackson trial—and how this sort of American tragedy has very little to do with tragedy in its classic form.

Much as classic tragedy is exact and rigorous, this American tragedy is messy and arbitrary. It is tragedy crossed with melodrama in its most degraded expression (the soap opera). It is tragedy for people who crave the frisson of morbidity much more than any catharsis. Classic tragedy is hopeless because the tragedy is preannounced and inevitable. American tragedy is hopeless because it assumes that we all are. One type of tragedy is moral; the other is cynical. We hear the rhetoric of the lawyers knowing that it’s just that—rhetoric—and knowing that everybody knows it. When both parties are somehow guilty, not only innocence but truth itself becomes “impossible.” Any truth will always be subjective, muddy and ultimately unsatisfying, like a negotiated, artfully worded statement. The truth is then beside the point: the point is just to win, to put one over the other guy. In classic tragedy, everything is known, everything is understood in its very terribleness. In this form of American tragedy everything is ultimately unknowable and impossible to understand.

A tidy resolution to such “tragedies” is the last thing we want, really, because when there’s no doubt, there’s nothing to talk about. But when ambiguity remains, TV talking heads and people around cubicles at their offices can bat it around endlessly, until the next trial, when the cycle begins anew, and another “tragedy,” with all its non-lessons, unfolds on the blank slate of our attention.

I am guessing that there was something very much like our obsessions with celebrity justice, something that misdirected citizens’ attention from the meaningful to the trivial, at some point before the fall of the Roman Empire. And when the Empire fell at last, many people never saw it coming, because nobody ever mentioned it on the fifth-century equivalent of Court TV.

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