Are we, as a society, “worse” than our parents’ or grandparents’ generations? In terms of civility, partisanship and events that spin out of control and become crises?
Hard to say definitively, but we sure talk, text, email, video, photograph, record and spread bad news faster and more comprehensively.
It’s hard to compare a BP oil spill with the Exxon Valdez; or 9/11 with Pearl Harbor; or the Great Recession with the Great Depression; or even Iraq to Vietnam. But crises seem everywhere, every week, almost every day.
Perception seems to make situations “worse” today. For instance, some 4,500 American men and women died in Iraq over an invasive nine-year war; Vietnam, over just a few more years, saw 10 times as many American deaths.
Media immediacy — which came of age in Vietnam with the first TV film of jungle battles — creates the perception that situations are worse than they are, society is worse than it is, our lives are worse than we thought. Constant crisis does that.
Welcome to Marshall McLuhan‘s “global village.” In our world, the lives of teen-age girls in Kabul seem to affect us as personally as victims of high school bullying back home — perhaps more.
Life is compressed, visual, immediate and seems virtually inescapable. What we found out about FDR, Eisenhower, JFK and LBJ five, 10 years, 25 years after their presidencies, we now learn in mere weeks about potential presidential candidates who announce their intention to seek office.
Recently on the television show “The Good Wife,” an otherwise noble and well-meaning candidate for state Senate in Illinois had to devise a crisis management strategy because a picture from college showed him with his head in the crotch of a large Santa Claus statue. Why? Because he was caught on film, in the inimitable words of Eli Gold, his irracible crisis manager, “felating Santa.”
Almost nothing is out of bounds; everything is invasive. Whether or not we wanted to know the answer to “Does Congressman Anthony Weiner wear boxers or briefs,” we found out. We also learned that Congressman Chris Lee has defined pecs. And that Gov. Elliot Spitzer liked to call call girls. Not that we wanted to know those things.
In the epic ’60s clashes between college protesters voicing dissent about Vietnam, racism and sexism, only the extremes — the truly significant — made their way into the public consciousness. Kent State. Columbia. Selma. Birmingham. Chicago.
Today UC Davis has a black eye, will lose a police chief and several officers [as it should] and possibly force the chancellor’s resignation because two yo-yo cops decided to use enough pepper spray on peaceful Occupy protesters to put out a house fire. Outrageous? Yes. Significant, in the grand scheme of such things? Not really. It received more provocative attention — blame/credit the video — than the earlier death of a protester in Occupy Oakland.
The problem with all these crises and our access to them is that they desensitize us. Everything seems of equal significance. And the honestly serious events — 9/11, Katrina, Bin Laden’s death — seem all the more breath-taking in comparison.
We’ve gone from questions and crises that brought down a president — “What did Nixon know and when did he know it?” — to a seeming national catastrophe that brought down a football coach. “What did JoePa know and when did he know it?”
If the Watergate break in occurred today, CNN would post the surveilance video two hours after the arrests, having seen the first post on Twitter by the security guard. And she already would have downloaded the only copy to a thumbdrive and signed an agent to represent her.
What’s the lesson for you? A crisis will strike, at the worst-possible time and it will be artificially maintained as the crisis du jour, or of the week, if you don’t have a pre-existing plan in place to answer and blunt it.