Shocked by the foreseeable. Exactly. So what accounts for our "persistent cultural tic"? And why, I wonder, is this condition so much more salient now, in the early 21st century, than it was during the Great Depression, when Americans were much more able to both absorb and prepare for bad news? The answer, I suspect, can be found in "Beyond Wisteria Lane", an excellent piece in this week's Economist which, borrowing from Herbert Gans' classic The Levittowners, compares the "changing mindset" of America's "new middle classes" with the working-class culture of the early 20th century.
I also suspect that one reason Americans have become so bad at absorbing reality is that they are deriving "values" and "outlook" from people outside their immediate community, particularly from those in the mass media of television and the Internet. Bad news articulated through the mass is distant and malleable; the fragmentation of peer-group-directed communities, therefore, has undermined our ability to grasp reality. So is the peer-group revolution of social media a cure to our inability to digest bad news? Not according to leading British neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield who, in a speech to the House of Lords, yesterday, argued that social media is actually compounding what Gans called "the other-directed" way in which we consume knowledge. As the Guardian reported Greenfield's speech:
Greenfield, therefore, unravels the Frank Rich paradox (if paradoxes can indeed be unraveled) that the more plugged in we are, the less we are able to grasp reality. For Baroness Greenfield, social media is turning us all into identity-lite unsympathetic infants with short attention spans and a predilection for sensationalism. Shocking, eh? And, I'm afraid, entirely foreseeable.