Freedom From Boredom

America is bored. People think freedom from boredom is written into the Constitution. Americans don't think much about free speech or universal suffrage, but take away their remote control and you've got a problem. Toiling at their dreary underpaid jobs, overworked citizens bear the infliction of boredom least graciously of all insults. Each second that passes is a second closer to death, a lost micromoment of potential entertainment if not production. In an age of cellular phones, vibrating pagers and a hundred channels, there's no excuse for time spent in ennui. Hit me; kill me; do anything you want. Just don't bore me. God knows our leaders and popular media do their damnedest to keep us entertained, but it's impossible to get the attention of the post-television generation. To us, it's always the same-old same-old. President Clinton's momentous decision to dispatch 20,000 ground troops to Bosnia hit the country like a wet paper bag. Of the 60% of Americans glued to the tube Monday night, only 26% bothered to tune in to all or most of Clinton's 21-minute speech. Allan Feuer, a 24-year-old Manhattan writer, favors sending troops but only thinks about Bosnia "when it comes up on the radio." My mom, a 60-year-old teacher in Centerville, Ohio, believes America "should mind its own business." At the same time, she admits, "I don't really care either way." We're too busy shopping and working three jobs to buy the things we shop for to worry about this little upstart of a war. No one's going to hang out Old Glory or march on the Pentagon over it. Twenty years ago, the Republican plan to balance the budget on the backs of everyone who's not a corporate executive might have gotten people out into the street. Today you can't get anyone to cough up a letter to their local newspaper, assuming it still exists. To be sure, we've had plenty of time to get bored. Every president since Kennedy has seemed accessible, ordinary, and second-rate, but these guys only reflect us. Rather than dazzle us with bold new ideas, candidates poll us and regurgitate what they already know we think. After Clinton's Bosnia speech, Bob Dole expressed measured support and said, "We have to see what the American people say." We elect the politicians who most tell us what we want to hear, cruising an ideological Mobius strip. Voters keep punishing their politicians for the crime of paying attention to them -- and their patience is growing shorter. It took 12 years for us to get sick of Reaganism and boot Bush out of office. In '94, Democrats caught hell for two years of rehashed New Deal policies. It took less than a year for the electorate to tire of Newt. No event has captured our attention like the JFK assassination. Surely part of why tiny political events like the 1970 Stonewall riots and the Iran-Contra scandal failed to grip the nation is that there's no nation left. Major benchmarks like the Gulf War and Challenger disaster did--for about ten seconds. Many Americans can't identify these events, much less relate to them. As society continues to splinter by race and gender and age and marital status and religion, communal experiences mutate into exclusionary ones. We confuse the specificity of Montel Williams' shows on alcoholic daughters of lesbian divorcees for personal identity. Perhaps unifying moments were always an illusion. The McCarthy hearings, the Beatles and Kent State seemed like momentous national events, but in hindsight weren't they really riveting only for white middle-class America? The rejection of this "common" American experience is at the core of recent rights movements and the political correctness they spawned. Pop consumer culture is becoming increasingly homogenized. Most people can only afford to shop at the Gap, thrill to Wesley Snipes and sip java at Starbucks. They react against the cult of the generic by desperately clinging to racial and other non-consumer-based labels, which drives us still further apart. Moreover, decades of mass media hysteria have left us immune to further manipulation. They sold us paper tigers like Ayatollah Khomeini, Daniel Ortega, Muammar Qaddafi, Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein. The Next Big Villain won't go over so well in the Land of the Bored. Falling SAT scores don't tell the whole story; we're getting smarter. The Next Big Thing that will seize the country's agenda may be right around the corner, but who'll notice? There's no shortage of problems to get excited about. Homelessness, AIDS and the seemingly hopeless inner cities threaten to destroy much of what most people value. Ultimately, we're each responsible for recognizing the importance of other people's concerns. If anything positive came out of our obsession with the O.J. Simpson trial, we've proven that a wide cross-section of Americans can share a common experience--even if they experience it completely differently.

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