Terminal triviality?

Thomas Sowell

9/21/2000 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

DOES AMERICA have a terminal case of triviality? Just weeks from now, we will be selecting someone for the highest office in our land -- and the most important office in the world. This is someone who can take us into war, or blunder us into war, someone who can restore the rule of law or further corrupt our institutions until this is no longer America.

Yet what are we talking about? How Gore kissed Tipper, how Bush kissed Oprah, how Lieberman is Jewish and what Cheney's retirement package was from his previous employer. Is this how little we think about the future of our country and the lives of our children?

As election day gets closer, we are going to hear more and more repetitions of the mindless mantra that we need to "get out the vote." But how are we better off if more people who don't even care enough to become informed about the serious issues show up at the polls to make choices by guess and by golly?

That is putting form over substance. It is also putting enormous power in the hands of political demagogues who exploit the voters' ignorance to gain power for themselves. It used to be said that an informed citizenry was the foundation of democracy. It is still true, but it just doesn't get said any more. "Participation" is now the magic word, even if it is participation in self-destruction.

Truth and reality count for so little today that the cardinal sin, according to the media, is "negative advertising." In other words, when some political chameleon misleads the public about the kinds of policies he has supported and the kind of ideology he embraces -- the classic example being Michael Dukakis in 1988 -- then it is terrible if someone exposes him for the phony that he is.

Far better that a politician should acquire the enormous powers of President of the United States under false pretenses than that we should hear "negative advertising." This is a blank check for phonies -- including both Clintons and Gore.

The whole history of this century reeks with the tragic consequences of blank checks for people whose chief talent has been the emotional manipulation of the public for political purposes. Lenin was charismatic. So was Hitler. So was Mao. In each case, tens of millions of people paid with their lives for this charisma and their own emotional decisions to follow the pied piper of the moment.

Would it have been so terrible if there had been some "negative advertising" to warn the people of what these aspirants to power were really like? Or would that not have been sporting? Or would it have spoiled the fun of those who looked up in glassy-eyed admiration at their heroes, even though these were heroes who would lead them to their doom?

If you can't be bothered to read a lot of dull stuff about Social Security or military defense or what is really going on in our public schools, then why should you be bothered to go down to the polls on election day and cast an ignorant vote? And don't kid yourself that watching TV -- even TV debates -- is going to inform you. Sound bites are usually very unsound. If you can't see beyond a media image or some catchy phrases and emotional attitudes, then why should you take the future of America -- and the world -- into your hands in a voting booth? Stay home. At least you won't be doing any harm. Media pundits will undoubtedly wring their hands about low voter turnout, but this gives them something to do instead of spreading misinformation.

In this age, when everything seems to be discussed in terms of what you have a "right" to do, no doubt you have a right to go vote and take the consequences. But the consequences don't apply just to you. They apply to people who have no right to vote, who are babes in their cribs who will be the people of tomorrow who will inherit the world that your vote helps create.

You also inherited. You inherited what was created and preserved by the efforts of centuries and the sacrifices of lives on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima. Is it too much of a sacrifice for you to take a little time to become informed on both sides of the issues that will determine what kind of country our children will inherit?

There are people out there whose job it is to manipulate your emotions for political purposes -- and they get paid big bucks for doing it. But the real price will be paid by millions of Americans, including Americans yet unborn.