Opinion and Taking Issue

KENNEDY: Goodbye and good riddance

December 28, 2013

Sheila Suess KennedyWell, it’s time to bid a not-so-fond farewell to 2013.

From Washington to City Hall, discord and dysfunction have characterized the political and social landscape and largely prevented our governing institutions from doing…well, much of anything.

Our media environment bears much of the blame. Television and the Internet increasingly remind me of Rome. Remember “Bread and Circuses?” Roman governors distributed food and staged big spectacles with gladiators, Christians and lions, in order to distract and preoccupy the masses.

Our current overlords seem to have forgotten the bread part of the equation, but the Romans would be absolutely green with envy if they could see how adept our politicians and their fellow travelers have become at mounting “Circuses.”

What race was Santa? (Ignore the fact that Santa is imaginary.) Get out there and fight the (equally imaginary) War on Christmas! OMG—the President ACTUALLY SHOOK HANDS with Raul Castro—cue up the Impeachment Brigade! And there’s Sarah Palin (a walking, semi-literate Circus all by herself) warning good, “real” Americans about the growing Atheist Menace.

And on and on.

The media dutifully spends its time reporting this drivel, and ignoring subjects that should matter to citizens in a rational universe. State and local corruption flourishes as coverage evaporates; nationally, bought-and-paid-for Congressmen and Senators pass legislation benefitting their donors and patrons at the expense of other Americans.

But we don’t care, because—look over there at the shiny object!—Obama is a Muslim! The Gays are coming for your children! Somewhere, some slutty woman is using birth control, and White Jesus wouldn’t like that!

Nothing sums up this state of affairs better than the current back-and-forth about remarks made by someone named Phil Robertson. Full disclosure: I had never heard of this character, or the show “Duck Dynasty,” before the recent eruption. Evidently, he made some crass and homophobic remarks, following which A&E (the network on which the show airs) fired or suspended him. The “wingers” came roaring to his defense, alleging that A&E was “censoring” him.

This episode was preceded by another brouhaha I missed, in which Martin Bashir made crass comments about Sarah Palin and lost his gig on MSNBC. (Predictably, the wingers actually celebrated that bit of “censorship.”)

Of course, in neither case was anyone denied his First Amendment right to free speech. The First Amendment—and the entire Bill of Rights—protects us against censorship by government, not against reprisals by your mother or your boss. Bashir and Robertson were and are free to say anything that pops into their programmed little heads, and their employers are equally free to exercise their right to decide what they will pay to promote on their networks.

What is so depressing about these episodes—and literally hundreds of similar examples—isn’t just their predictability. It isn’t just the obvious hypocrisy or even the appalling ignorance of what rights Americans do and don’t have. It’s the unbelievable pettiness of it all.

It’s bread and circuses.

Indiana workers continue to earn less than those in other states. Some 400,000 Hoosiers will be ineligible for health care, Indiana is foregoing billions in federal aid and an estimated 30,000 new jobs, public education is in crisis, Indiana continues to experience a brain drain—and our politicians are focused on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions.

Meanwhile, cable news and my Facebook feed are filled with arguments about Duck Dynasty and Santa’s skin color.

Surely we’re better than this.

Happy New Year.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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