Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Terrible Trivium.

A Google News search yesterday made me think of a character from Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth.

The problem in a nutshell: there were 11,800,000 news stories about NAACP white person Rachel Dolezal, but just 1,910,000 news stories about the "cyber Pearl Harbor" hack on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management---despite the fact that the OPM attack may be horrific in scale and consequence and permitted by colossal government incompetence by the same jackholes who constantly assure us that they are smarter and wiser than the American people they rule. 

In other words, one deluded woman has garnered almost six times the news coverage of a massive threat to U.S. security and the exposure of the ineptitude of those who lead us. 

We are in the grip of the Terrible Trivium. 

Sure, he looks pleasant, despite having no face; everyone admires a good dresser. But if you've read the book, you may recall that the Trivium was one of the most difficult obstacles that Milo had to overcome in his quest to restore Rhyme and Reason:

"Because, my young friends," he muttered sourly, "what could be more important than doing unimportant things? If you stop to do enough of them, you'll never get to where you're going." He punctuated his last remark with a villainous laugh.
"Then you must---" gasped Milo.
"Quite correct!" he shrieked triumphantly. "I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit."
The Humbug dropped his needle and stared in disbelief while Milo and Tock began to back away slowly.
"Don't try to leave," he ordered, with a menacing sweep of his arm, "for there's so very much to do, and you still have over eight hundred years to go on the first job."
"But why do only unimportant things?" asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them.
"Think of all the trouble it saves," the man explained, and his face looked as if he'd be grinning an evil grin---if he could grin at all. "If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won't have the time. For there's always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing, and if it weren't for that dreadful magic staff, you'd never know how much time you were wasting."

We need a magic staff.

It's been 30 years since the late Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death was published, and it seems that our slide down this carnival ride has picked up speed in the Internet age. Our interest in the Jenner saga (15,800,000 news articles yesterday), our treating of movie openings as actual news (Pixar's Inside Out, 5,380,000), these things make Pope's Dunciad look like a scene of great insight and knowledge. The idiocracies that run our government and colleges are only allowed because we have no desire to demand better. And all this is coming from me, a guy who would like nothing more today than to sell a pile of novels.

Citizens of a democracy are free to do what they want, including opting out of anything to do with their actual governance, but if we do that we had better be prepared to accept the consequences. Otherwise we will wake up one day with everything in ruins, and all but a very few of us will wonder how it happened.

Religion, blushing, veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires. 
Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.

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