Talk about a contrast between substance and triviality…

At one moment yesterday on Twitter, about half the Tweets in my feed were about this Weiner guy (or should I say, “this weiner guy” — either way, it makes sense). Something about his wife being pregnant.

It’s not just Twitter. He (or rather, the debate among Democrats over what to do about him) LED The Wall Street Journal‘s “What’s News” column this morning. Normally, that briefing column exhibits a very fine sense of what is significant and what is not. But not today.

Yes, I get why other people think it’s important. It has to do with the never-ending war between the parties in Washington, and who’s up and who’s down, and which party is being embarrassed and which party is taking advantage of the other party’s embarrassment, yadda-yadda. NONE of which, I’m here to tell you, is actually important. I wouldn’t give two cents to have either party in the majority at any time, because as was said by Simon and Garfunkel, either way you look at it, you lose.

So take away that veneer of “importance” laid on by the daily partisan talking points, and all you have is a sex scandal, which is of no greater importance than a similar scandal involving one of those people on “Jersey Shore.”

A Twitter exchange I had a couple of days ago helps illustrate the difference between the dominant view and my own. Todd Kincannon — local attorney and Republican — retweeted this:

How many “objective” journos were more desperate to prove Palin was wrong about P. Revere than proving Weiner was wrong about his P?

I reacted by saying, “Who cares about either? Not I…” I mean, those are TWO “news stories” I was doing my best to know nothing about — and failing, of course. (Oh, and having learned more than I wanted about the Palin thing, I’ll just say that you’ve REALLY got to be a Palin fan to think anyone had to lift a finger to “prove” her wrong; any schoolchild should have known without checking.)

Todd responded: “I would be in your camp if Weiner (a) wasn’t married and (b) hadn’t lied.” To which I said, “He has NOTHING to do with me — nothing. I am NOT a NY voter. And I HOPE Palin never becomes relevant again, either…”

Of course, I can downplay and belittle this garbage all I want, and it’s not going to stop other people from making a big deal about it on a slow national news week.

But what I CAN do is take some pleasure in small things. Such as the above-pictured page in The Wall Street Journal yesterday. I thought the ironic contrast impressive. Here you have a story about this self-involved Weiner loser, whom everyone just goes on and on about and can’t get enough of… right next to a story about a man who lived an extraordinary life of service and accomplishment — but about whom no one is buzzing on Twitter (OK, no one I saw, anyway).

John Alison, who died at age 98:

  • Was deputy commander of the Flying Tigers (actually, the successor unit to the Flying Tigers), defending China from the Japanese
  • Innovated night fighter operations. Actually, that doesn’t describe it. He flew up at night and shot down two Japanese bombers, when no one knew you could to that.
  • Led glider-borne commandos behind the lines in Burma.
  • Played a key role in the Lend Lease program helping Britain and the Russians hold back Hitler.
  • Was there when the German army reached the outskirts of Moscow.
  • Advised Eisenhower on the use of gliders for D-Day.

As I once wrote in an editorial, that was the generation that Did Things. Him especially. And I’ll bet most of you never heard of him before his death. Meanwhile, we just can’t shut up about a guy who supposedly took pictures of his privates and sent them to women. Or something. Like I said, I’m trying to ignore it.

This is what we have come to.

25 thoughts on “Talk about a contrast between substance and triviality…

  1. Phillip

    Well, as I’m sure you’d agree, there are plenty of people in this generation who are Doing Things. We don’t hear about them as frequently as we should, no doubt, but even so one can find them if one knows where (or chooses to know where) to look.

  2. Steve Gordy

    The media are guilty of serving us what we demand more of and what we’re willing to pay for.

  3. Mike

    If Congress was made up of 435 people who each passed their own bills for their own constituents, and every congressional district had it’s own set of federal laws, then the whole “Anthony Weiner has nothing to do with me because I don’t live in his district” argument would have more merit.

  4. Cicero

    Thank you for taking the time to highlight John Allison’s achievements, Brad. The best and the worst of American citizenry, side by side on the above newspaper page.

  5. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    If you weren’t so misty-eyed about the military feats of the “Greatest Generation” you’d put your journalist glasses on and see that “old guy dies” is “dog bites man” while “Congressman Weiner texts same” is considerably more novel, and thus, newsworthy….

  6. Bart

    Hmmmm. On one hand, read about John Allison, member of the “Greatest Generation”, or, read about the exploits of Congressman Weiner, member of the “Greatest Generation of Weiner Texters”.

    What to do? What to do? Spend time reading about someone with substance or about someone who is a “flash on the web”?

  7. Brad

    Yes, Kathryn, I see that with crystal clarity. I am, after all, a guy who spent years deciding what went on the front page of newspapers.

    I was a) noting the irony of the juxtaposition, and b) WISHING I didn’t have to see that twit Weiner on the front page.

    Your tone, reminiscent of Bud’s, is puzzling. Maybe I should try to clear away some mist from your field of vision, which is probably my doing. Perhaps it would help you to remove the military aspect of this guy’s achievements, so you can see the sheer scope of what he did. Say, for watching the German advance on Moscow (after playing key roles in huge historical developments in China AND Burma AND Britain), imagine that he witnessed key moments in the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, while there to help the revolution keep going.

    I realize that taking the initiative to develop night fighter tactics to protect cities from bombers, and personally leading commandos against the Japanese invaders on the ground in Burma, doesn’t have much meaning in the 21st century. Too many of us don’t value such things. (Once, being a liberal, or indeed a leftist, being willing to stand up and fight totalitarianism, without apology. Think of the slogan on Woody Guthrie’s guitar: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Today, being a liberal — for that matter, just being “modern” — means getting all fidgety and uncomfortable over the use of force, even historically.)

    Perhaps in modern terms, you could think of him as having developed a killer iPhone app that everyone wonders how they got along without, just before working out the deal to pass Obamacare, and THEN going to help topple Mubarak. Perhaps that would translate.

    Because that’s the thing. And it’s why Phillip is mistaken to say “there are plenty of people in this generation who are Doing Things.” No, there aren’t. Not with that kind of scale and scope and sweep. Ours is a more specialized society, probably because of the way our economy has evolved since the 1940s. People don’t have the same opportunities to do as MANY things on such a scale. It’s that way in the military as well as the private sector. Today, you couldn’t imagine a top fighter pilot who was also a SEAL-type commando and doing top quasi-diplomatic work on the other side of the world, all within the same five years.

    My Dad was reminiscing about his older brother the other night. The guy just had career after career. He was a construction engineer in Trinidad when the war broke out, but gave up his draft-exempt job to join the Army engineers, and spent the war at the head of a construction unit in the Pacific. He was there when McArthur made his famous return to the Philippines. OK, that was all within one field. It was after the war that he really got innovative. He got a job supervising construction again, but when he saw the heavy equipment operators got more money, he did that. Then, he got into business after business, making a bunch of money, getting bored and moving on. He sold felt-tip pens when they were introduced after the war. Not door-to-door. He had the idea of selling them by the thousands to textile mills in the Upstate for marking packages, make a bit of a killing. Then he moved on. He saw a golf course needed a pro, so he took the job and ran the place. Met his future wife when she came to get lessons. He bought a teak plantation in Central America. He advised my Dad to invest in coffee futures, which paid off so big (late 70s or early 80s) that my folks sent my brother to Presbyterian College for four years on the proceeds. One thing after another after another.

    Nowadays, just to be a golf pro, even a club pro, you’d have to decide that’s what you were going to do, work at it for years, and (I think) get certified. You couldn’t just walk on. Back then you could. And succeed at it.

    It’s like Teddy Roosevelt. OK, so he was a member of the New York ruling class. Still. How many people do you know of today, WHATEVER their background, who could be a cowboy in the Dakotas, a crusading police commissioner of NYC, the anti-machine governor of New York, commander of his own cavalry regiment that he started from scratch with cowboys, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, secretary of the Navy (and to a great extent the father of modern American sea power, which you’ll no doubt see as illegitimate because it arose from his imperialistic impulses, but note the SCALE of what he did), vice president and president of the United States, all by the time he was 42?

    This was before setting up the national park system and trust-busting and all that. But presidents are expected to do big things — he just did more than most.

    OK, yes, larger-than-life character. But look at larger-than-life characters today. Their scope is generally narrower.

    As for that “Greatest Generation” thing. Brokaw makes like they were different people. I think they had different opportunities, broader opportunities. Because the world was different.

    People do not Do Things with that scope and variety any more.

    Please give me convincing evidence to the contrary. It would make me feel more upbeat about the times in which we live.

    Meanwhile, I have to be constantly bombarded by “news” about a guy who, to the best of my knowledge, has accomplished nothing beyond being a famous wanker — most likely literally, and definitely figuratively.

    Hence my sense of the marked contrast.

  8. Brad

    Good one, Bart. I, too, crack jokes about it. But it makes me feel … low. It’s like all of us are transformed into Beavis and Butthead when we pay attention to stuff like this. Sitting on the couch going “huh-huh, huh-huh-huh…”

  9. Brad

    Whoop-te-do. Lots of people get elected to Congress. John Jenrette got elected to Congress. Mark Sanford got elected to Congress. I could go on. Alvin Greene won the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate.

    You think they’ll have a resume of accomplishments like that even if they live to be 98?

    You can be a member of Congress along the way to doing other things. Lots of people who have made big contributions to the world, or at least made their mark, have also been members of Congress. But just getting elected there doesn’t cut it.

    Maybe it’s just that I’ve known too many people who have done that, and known them fairly well. They’re just these guys, you know? And sometimes gals.

    One thing about knowing as many public officials as I do and have — I neither have as low an opinion of them as some (such as Doug) do, nor am I especially impressed that they hold such offices. I just kind of see them as folks.

    Someone has to distinguish himself in addition to getting elected to impress me. I know a bunch of mayors, but it’s Joe Riley who really impresses me. I know a bunch of members of Congress, but few impress me (Lindsey Graham and John Spratt both did, and do).

    Obama was a fairly undistinguished junior senator when he ran for president, but he still impressed me. Still does. Hillary Clinton, too, although I didn’t like her as much as a candidate. Oh, but wait — I’ve never met her. But you get my point.

    There’s something about obits, though, that have a way of sneaking up on me and REALLY impressing me. I confess I’d never heard of this guy. And I’m like, I’ve never heard of this guy, and he did all THIS? I used to occasionally write columns about people featured in the single obit that appears in The Economist every week, which frequently bowl me over. They make me feel ignorant about the world I live in…

  10. bud

    Your tone, reminiscent of Bud’s, is puzzling.

    Why? It seems obvious to me that all this over-the-top blathering about WW II stuff is wearing a bit thin. At least the Weiner stuff is current and has an impact on our lives. After all he may be replaced by someone who will vote very differently and that CAN have an impact. Mr. Alison, however interesting his story is, is simply not relevant to current events today. (Yes, his story is very interesting and I’d love to read more.) And shouldn’t newspapers cover current events rather than history? Seems like it to me.

  11. Steven Davis

    Jim Clyburn gets elected to Congress, that tells you a lot. Now if someone introduces me to a US Congressman, I’m about as impressed as if I were being introduced to a city councilman.

  12. Steven Davis

    @bud – I’ve noticed that this military talk just seems to wear thing to all of you left-wing liberals.

    I could care less about a liberal Congressman displaying his weiner to the world, it just shows what kind of mentality takes to be a Congressman. I’m sure Barney Framk is just upset that he chose a porn star over him. I realize it just scares the hell out of you who think they might be replaced with someone who might actually use his head.

  13. Brad

    OK, Bud, we’re agreeing as much as we’re going to on this. I think you see my point. It’s not about WWII. It’s about the sheer RANGE of the history-making things he did.

    And yes, if newspapers properly covered the news there’d be no room for history — except maybe in obits. But they don’t properly cover the news. They obsess, along with television and the blogosphere, about trivialities.

    We do have real news these days, even history happening, which we don’t pay as much attention to as we should. For instance, did you know that we’re at war in Yemen these days. Of course, it’s just a front in the War on Terror, but a lot of people probably don’t even realize it. But they know ALL about Weiner…

    You might want to read this about Yemen. Money quote: “Yemen has been identified by the Obama Administration as perhaps the next greatest threat to the United States, maybe even more now than Pakistan is.”

    So he’s doing something about it. You might even say he’s being pre-emptive. But whatever you call it, at least he’s doing something about it.

  14. Tom Fillinger

    I may be old, but, the ethics that were ingrained in my soul (for which I am most thankful) lead me to conclude that LIES, repeatedly and publicly are an issue.

    If he lies about this repeatedly – that makes him a liar. Does anyone truly desire a LIAR in the halls of congress?

    This is not a R-D-I issue. This is not about some sexual picadillo. It is a character issue and this man needs serious character assessment and remediation. He is a pathetic being.

  15. Brad

    Yes, he is, Tom. And the awful thing about us is, we can’t seem to stop talking about him and his appalling dysfunction.

  16. Brad

    Speaking of front pages, and what’s important, yadda-yadda, I really need to TRY to restart my Virtual Front Pages. If nothing else, they force ME to take a broader view of the news every day, in order to make my selections. It’s just been hard to find the time lately…

  17. Brad

    Y’all should check out some of the Economist obits. Sometimes they do the obvious death of the week — bin Laden, or Elizabeth Taylor — but other times they tell you about a researcher you may not have known about, such as the guy who defeated hepatitis B, or a “statesman, philosopher, journalist and lover of numbers.” Fascinating people. They always make me think, “I should have known all about that guy when he was ALIVE!” Even the ones about the famous people are well worth reading, they’re so well-written…

  18. Tom Fillinger


    I just have to share this with you concerning High School coaches.

    When a fight broke out in Gym Class our “Coach” would call a halt to whatever activity we were doing, get boxing gloves, have the class form a human boxing ring, and the two antagonist had to duke it out until one of them was on the mat.

    We sort of loved it but as you observed, today we would probably all be incacerated for something. Those were the days!!

  19. Phillip

    I understand your point about the changes in society and the increasing age of specialization. But you fall victim to a double fallacy: both the “the old days were better” one which everybody to which almost everybody succumbs as they age (me too, though for me it tends to be in the sports arena), and the “Great Man” view of history.

    There may not be as many opportunities for people to have a multiplicity of impressive careers, although it’s important to remember that people also didn’t live as long 50 or 100 years ago, so for every remarkable person there were 5 or 6 who were dead by 55. We don’t remember them, of course.

    And more importantly, I believe that there are plenty of believe who have achieved a great deal across many fields of endeavor in our current day; those areas may not all be spectacular in a public sort of way; but we can see examples here in our own backyard of those who achieved in their given professional career, but gone on to impressive second acts that have often involved more altruistic pursuits, or spiritual ones, etc.

    Things always change. You can be sure that there will be a Brad Warthen (and again, I don’t mean to pick on you…we’re all subject to this phenomenon) blogging or whatever they’ll be doing in 2070, about how there just aren’t people around like there were in the early part of the 21st century, the real Do-ers.

  20. Brad

    And he’ll be right! Don’t even get me started on those slackers in 2070! They make me sick!

    But seriously, folks… Don’t give me that “to which almost everybody succumbs as they age” stuff. It’s not like I’m remembering my own glory days or anything. I’m looking at the full stretch of American history, and most of it occurred before I was around. I see that stuff in black and white, not with the rosy glow of my own nostalgia.

    Don’t you ever worry about the problems of specialization? Forget careers. It fragments society. It makes it harder for us all to understand each other, and what we do. Technology is a large part of it. I was reading about this new transistor principle that Intel’s working on, and when I got to the part where there are billions of this complex little thing on a tiny chip inside my phone. And suddenly I thought, You know what? It’s a more credible proposition to believe it’s done by magic. No WAY anybody can produce billions on those things and get them on that chip. Yeah, I know that sounds stupid, but modern manufacturing techniques are more and more mysterious as they accomplish more and more amazing things. And it can be alienating.

    I’m particularly aware of that because I myself am a generalist — you know, jack of all topics, master of none. It’s not a coincidence that “journalist” sounds so much like “generalist” — and I’m more that way than most journos. I always resisted beat work — I wanted to learn about, and write about, something different every day. (Maybe that’s why a life like Alison’s appeals — today on the U.S. ambassador’s roof in Moscow, tomorrow in the jungle in Burma, the next day explaining gliders to Eisenhower.)

    But hey, I’m done with that, right? Fortunately, I managed to find new things to do — between the blog on the one hand and the job at ADCO (where every day I can deal with a different client in a very different line of work with a different problem), I’m able to stay interested enough not to go nuts.

    But the general trend, as society gets more complicated, toward all of us getting stuck in ruts. Yeah, the days of working on an assembly line for 40 years and retiring with a nice pension are over. But today’s ruts are different.

    That said, I’ll grant your point about all the people who lived boring lives in the past and died young. But hey, loads of people today live boring lives and then die old.

    Here’s an encouraging thought — maybe it all depends on the way the obits are written. When I was 22 and working on a copy desk, I HATED having to edit obits, because that paper used a very strict, limiting format, and it always seemed these people had lived 90 years or whatever and NOTHING interesting ever happened. It was depressing.

    But you know what? After newspapers quit doing obits for free, and people could put in them whatever they wanted, they got more free-form. And more interesting. Seriously, get a newspaper from 30 years ago and read those cookie-cutter items, and look at the rambling obits today. They may not always be very well written today, but they’re more interesting.

    And when they ARE well-written, as in The Economist, and there’s interesting material to work with, they can be fascinating.

    Which goes back to your point that maybe it’s our perception after all…

  21. bud

    Phillip’s point reminded me of a promise I made to myself many years ago. My dad would become very frustrated whenever I would tune the old AM radio in our 1965 Ford to the Top 40 station to listen to some outrageous noise like Hey Jude or Sympathy for the Devil back in the late 60s. Dad would get so upset he would turn the radio off. I said whenever I had children I would be open minded enough to listen to the popular music of the day whenever they became teenagers.

    Yesterday I transported my 19 year old daughter to Atlanta for a week to visit a friend. And I found myself listening to the most ghastly, screechy noise ever recorded by the music industry. It wasn’t an AM radio but rather an I-pod that I had to deal with. Still, the superior audio quality could not make up for the excruciating sounds eminating from my car speakers.

    But true to my word I continued listening with only a few complaints for about 100 miles. Finally I had had enough and suggested it was my time to listen to some “good” music. My child dutifully put on the earbuds and we were both happy. But I did at least give Lady Gaga a bit more of a chance than my dad gave Mick Jagger. Maybe that’s progress in closing the generation gap.

    Moral to the story is this. Every generation believes they’re the one with the open mind. In about 25 years or so hopefully I’ll be around to see how my child copes with her teenager. I suspect the challenge will be much the same.

  22. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Dunno, bud–I guess I’m a weirdo–my dad is seriously into bebop, while I have always tended toward more mellifluous music–I love Pacific jazz, bossa nova, etc., as well as classical music, so long as it doesn’t have screechy violins or chugging cellos…

    I wouldn’t mind hip hop if it weren’t for the language….much better than heavy metal and its distorted sounds….

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