The Birth of Sensationalism
One of the interesting byproducts of our paradoxical times is the birth of sensationalism.
Two powerful forces of the modern paparazzi age – mass media and instant gratification – have joined, in a bizarre confluence, to brew a “new” concoction: publicity stunts.
A third ingredient is obviously necessary to make this potion toxic: The insecure individual in frantic need of attention. Give this person a microphone that can reach the masses, combine that with the voyeuristic hunger of audiences, and you have a lethal cocktail: A frenzy of sensationalism feeding off the desperate curiosity of audiences, coupled with the insecurities of individuals who will stoop to the lowest common denominators, to satisfy their immature ravenous cravings for attention.
Once upon a time, people lived in self-contained shtetls or other secluded towns. Most men and women were born and died in the same city, where they lived out their entire lives, with hardly any contact or awareness of anybody but their own neighbors, let alone the greater world around them. For all its limitations and naiveté, communities then were isolated and insulated. They were as far as one can possibly be from the global stage of our present-day mass markets and its accompanying mob mentality, digesting whatever the media inundates us with.
Surely there were sensationalists back then as well. Such an individual was often known as the shtot-meshugener (the local madman, the town idiot). But due to their isolated proximity they were easily identifiable, recognized by everyone as part of the local furniture of their respective shtetl – without them posing any real risk of causing serious damage. These “court jesters” were part of the fabric of everyday life. At worst, they were a nuisance. At best, simply a reflection of the absurdity of life.
Once upon a time, an insecure person had nowhere to turn but to his local shul and community for relief.
Today however we have a new phenomenon: the insecure, attention-seeking sensationalist with a global platform upon which to perform his tricks.
With just a stroke of a keyboard and a press of a button he can broadcast any idiocy that strikes his fancy.
Imagine the shtot-meshugener suddenly handed a megaphone through which to stream all his thoughts to the world at large?! As people get attracted to the spectacle, the fool begins to take himself seriously. In what began as a joke, in time, egged on by the applauding audiences (who enjoy the entertainment), the shtot-meshugener feels he is now – oy vei iz mir – an expert and authority…
No doubt that the information revolution and modern communication technologies are a great blessing, allowing us the unprecedented opportunity to disseminate a powerful flow of knowledge. But let’s face it – as the idiom goes, originating from computer age infancy: junk in junk out. Communication devices, no matter how advanced, do not create wisdom and sensitivity, let alone common sense. They are deaf and dumb neutral agents. As such any fool can become a “conduit” for gibberish, reaching mass audiences with reckless abandon.
With Google, Wikipedia and the entire slew of modern tools at our fingertips, to boot, any fool can masquerade as a scholar and profess to be an authority on subjects he has no clue about.
So there we have the genesis and birthing of sensationalism – a voice that today can be amplified across the airwaves and light waves from one end of the globe to the other.
With this newfound attention tool and no censorship (which of course we don’t advocate), the low self-esteemed, self-proclaimed sensationalist has a 24/7 stage from which to spout his drivel.
Instead of going to therapy, or sitting down with a mentor, a rav or mashpia, a friend, a spouse – anyone that cares – to address his issues (as anyone would have done back in the shtetl, where there was no other recourse), he replaces this by self-medicating with publicity stunt after publicity stunt. The global stage – or should we say: coliseum – becomes his proverbial therapeutic couch.
And with an increasingly desensitized audience cheering him on in their incessant need and addiction to increasingly flagrant titillation, the sensationalist stoops lower and lower, digging deeper into his bag of tricks, to come up with some new “drama” that will surpass his previous feats.
Thus we have another full blown version of addiction, with everyone in on the “game:” The spectators are getting their fill of theatrics; the performer is getting his dose of attention.
And in this circus of sensationalism, every bit of critique, no matter how valid, instead of being taken to heart, becomes fodder for more publicity.
It would be comical if it were not so tragic.
The saddest part of it all is that the comic insists on being taken seriously…
* * *
Now, what happens if the sensationalist actually feels he has something important to say? Let’s take this a step farther; let’s even go as far as to say, that he actually does have something valuable to contribute? Just because he is a bona-fide shtot-meshugener doesn’t mean that everything he says is insignificant (as the saying goes: Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that no one’s out to get me. Just because I feed off sensationalism doesn’t mean that everything I do is sensationalistic). He may have a very worthy thing to say. Indeed, we can learn something from everyone, especially from a shtot-meshugener.
So how do we distinguish between his worthy words and his nonsense? How can he determine whether his ideas are worth propagating?
The adage “better safe than sorry,” can obviously be applied here. Especially after he has proven time and again that his subjective publicity addiction distorts his views. But, for a moment, let’s just give him the benefit of the doubt, and argue that his ideas have value. How then do we determine what has value and what does not?
To answer this question we can invoke a classic story of Yankel der shtot-meshugener, from the shtetl of Lubavitch, in the times of the Rebbe Maharash (Rabbi Shmuel – 1834-1882). He was well known around the small village, and would always bring a chuckle to the townspeople. He had a special place in their hearts.
One fine day, Shmerel the shtot-meshugener of neighboring Dobromysl met up with his colleague Yankel and said to him: “You know it’s years now that I have been living in Dobromysl and you in Lubavitch. Maybe it’s time for a change of ‘career.’ Why don’t we move on to Vitebsk, a much larger city, and try our luck there.”
Yankel, intrigued, looked at him and responded: “It sounds like a plausible idea. But I need to ask my Rebbe first.”
Yankel tried to schedule an appointment to see his Rebbe, but to no avail. The Rebbe’s secretary wouldn’t take him seriously and refused to give him an appointment. One day, Yankel, who had many antics up his sleeve, decided to wait for the Rebbe to leave his home and embark on his carriage. When the Rebbe climbed onto the wagon, Yankel leaped up onto it before anyone could stop him. People around tried pulling him off, but the Rebbe brushed them away.
With Yankel hanging onto the buggy, the Rebbe asked him: “So, what can I do for you, Yankel? What is so urgent?” Yankel then proceeded to ask the Rebbe his advice: “Should I do as Shemerel suggests and move to Vitebsk, or should I stay here in Lubavitch?”
The Rebbe looked at him and replied: “Yankel, your place is here.”
When Yankel jumped off the carriage the surrounding Chassidim asked him about what just trasnspired. What did he ask the Rebbe and what did the Rebbe tell him? Yankel related his dilemma and shared with them the Rebbe’s advice, that he should remain in Lubavitch.
“So, Yankel, what are you going to do?” the Chassidim asked. “What kind of question is that? What do you mean what am I going to do?” Yankel blurted out incredulously. “I am going to listen to the Rebbe of course!”
“Meshuge, meshuge,” exclaimed Yankel, “ober sechel darf men hoben…” (Crazy, crazy, but one must have, i.e. use his, brains).
This simple but profound story guides us in how to answer the question of how to determine whether an idea has merit and is not just feeding into sensationalism: Go ask your Rebbe!
As subjective human beings all of us have our blind spots. We are therefore instructed in the Ethics of the Fathers – with perhaps the wisest words ever uttered: “Appoint for yourself a mentor; acquire for yourself a friend.” Seek counsel. Get yourself objective, dispassionate advice.
This is especially true when one is in the public arena, with access to a mouthpiece that reaches larger numbers of people. In our publicity age, we need to be extremely wary of not getting caught in the “ends justify the means” trap: as long as the people will be reached with a positive message, anything goes, regardless of the content of the message and how it is delivered. Sometimes one can say the right thing in the wrong way.
Even if your arguments are good, and you can win debates (though one can argue that no debates are truly won; they too are a modern-day invention. But I’m sure that point can also be… debated), there is more to truth than oratory skills and pointed responses. There is a thing called the spirit of the law. There is also a thing called the “fifth shulchan aruch:” common sense. One can have sound reasoning, cite sources and do extensive research. But then there is the spirit – the subtle, in-between-the lines wisdom, which is the domain of the truly wise, who have mastered the power of restraint, and live by the rule of “megaleh tefach, mechaseh tefochayim,” reveal an inch, conceal two.
The Talmud even describes a person who is “metaher ha’sheretz b’mei’ah v’chamishim ta’amim.” He is able to purify the most impure thing with 150 different reasons and arguments! His arguments are all solid. So what’s missing? Humility. Truth. Emes. Which as we know is far more than just a well-structured legal case.
This explains why we often find ourselves hearing someone build a strong case with excellent arguments, but something about what they say and how they say it doesn’t resonate. It just rubs us wrong. Another may offer a less formidable presentation, but his words enter the heart (because they come from the heart).
“Meshuge, meshuge. Ober sechel darf men hoben…”
* * *
Perhaps to free us from being engulfed by this vicious vortex of sensationalism, we are given the Torah to lift us up and show us broader horizons. After all, the Mishna does say: There is no free person except one who studies Torah. Left to our own mortal devices we will easily succumb to the seductive power of celebrity and media hype.
For a bit of refreshing good news, we read in these weeks’ Torah portions about a true hero: Moses. A humble man (the humblest to ever walk this Earth) with formidable strengths, Moses serves as the ultimate role model of leadership and vision. And one that has endured until this day – into eternity.
Unlike all the entertainers of their time whose bag of tricks lasted, if at all, in their brief moment in the sun (read: on stage), Moses, a man who never wanted to take the stage, lives on forever. The words of Moses – “man of no words” – are engraved for all time in the greatest best seller of all time: The Bible.
Thank G-d for some sanity that remains with us.
Once upon a time we all knew when the circus came to town. We were aware that a circus was a circus, not to be confused with real life. A circus then served as a spectacle that distracted and relieved us from some of life’s harsh realities. It entertained us and made us laugh.
Today, my friends, the circus has become daily life, and no one is smiling. The clowns have become authorities. And that is not a reason to laugh.
Yet Moses – and the Moses that lives on in each one of us – is a stark reminder, and a symbol of hope, that even in our hyper stimulated media age we can see through the fog and recognize what is really true and enduring. And with such focus, we can learn to utilize the communication gifts of our times: To humbly spread and promote spiritual wisdom (instead of promoting one’s own self-generated agenda), until the world is filled with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea.