What is it that is distracting these two, and so many others, from reality? (I’m aware that reality is a concept any definition of which can be rationally disputed; I’m using the word loosely.)
In the case of the young woman posing for a selfie, she is in the grips of that all-too familiar worldwide epidemic, cellphone mania. Sufferers increasingly lose their awareness of the physical world and begin to exist only as beings who manifest themselves through images, text, or sound in small, hand-held electronic devices.
As for the Ebola protestor, he too has been distracted from reality, although his pathology is rarer. Don’t misunderstand me. Right or wrong, as a rule, someone standing at the White House fence with a sign calling for the suspension of flights from West Africa should not be considered as distracted from reality. Quite the opposite. But someone who does it dressed in a hazmat suit? In one way, he is doing the exact opposite of the selfie-poser. Instead of broadcasting his identity, he is disguising it. But the disguise he assumes is as two-dimensional as the self-image of the young woman, only the screen he sees himself on is living-room sized.
Ebola is an epidemic. We know what that is like. We’ve had consumption, yellow fever, scarlet fever, Spanish flu, polio, AIDS. And we have had them here. But Ebola is an epidemic in Africa and, fortunately, it is harder to catch than the others. Sure, it’s worrisome considering how incompetent the medical establishment in this country, public and private, seems to be in dealing with it. But where does the widespread public paranoia come from, with schools being closed, ships being diverted, vacations being cancelled?
If you are someone who has been distracted from reality and your world is one of two-dimensional text, images and sound, and if a disease has become the most prominent element in that world, it is becomes frighteningly overwhelming. For you, Ebola is not a particular virus with particular propensities in a particular time and place; it is a ubiquitous, threatening monster.
There has been widespread outrage on screen and off over tourists taking selfies at Auschwitz. It is offensive, disgusting. Everyone thinks so.
Well – not everyone, evidently.
That is what is so disturbing about those who pose for Auschwitz selfies. For them – even, remarkably, for the group of Israeli youngsters pictured above – the reality of Auschwitz, its physical existence, its history, the role it plays in our culture, its complex meaning – religious, political, tragic, criminal – does not exist. For them, Auschwitz is nothing but nine letters of text and an image on a screen – another backdrop to their two-dimensional lives.
It is tempting to call this distracting of an entire generation, its removal from reality, some sort of conspiracy by the ruling class (the wealthy, the powerful, the celebrated). After all, keeping the hoi-polloi distracted certainly makes it easier for them to keep their status. To that end, the providing of bread and circuses was government policy in the Roman republic. Unlike in ancient Rome, though, our bread and circuses are not free. They are profitable businesses which earn their purveyors more wealth, more power and more celebrity. This is their raison d’etre. The fact that they also induce public complacency simply is an added benefit to the one per-cent. If there is some sort of active conspiracy to keep people distracted, it is only because it is easier to sell them things that way.
Here is a question I probably won’t live long enough to learn the answer to: Is this phenomenon of a generation distracted from reality the quirkiness of an era, to which the next era, equally (but differently) quirky, will be a reaction? Or is it a phase in the inexorable progress of social structure toward the hive? To put it another way, is this craze for pixelated interconnectedness like the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll of the sixties? Or is it a big, big thing, like the development of agriculture and the industrial revolution?