A Too Typical American Story

A Drug Enforcement Agency officer, attempting to demonstrate gun safety to a class of grammar school children, shoots himself in the thigh. The videotape makes its way to the Internet, where it appears as a “top 20 video” on a website called Dumb Cop. Claiming the release of the video clip has damaged his career, he hires a lawyer … who hires a publicist. And suddenly, he’s being interviewed on NBC about a suit he’s filing against the school system.

The NBC reporter who interviews him characterizes his career as “exemplary” and admires him for playing down his injury in front of the children. “You must have been in great pain,” he says in a commiserating tone. “Was it sheer pride that kept you going?”

In the U.S. today, it seems that there’s nothing we won’t do for money and fame. Any act or accident, no matter how stupid or disgraceful, has the potential to be transubstantiated into the new, shameless American dream. America’s writers and journalists have always had a fascination with miscreants, losers, and bad guys … and some of them became widely known. But until recently, it seems to me, such characters were neither paid nor pampered by the press that publicized them.

In the old days of American idolism, a Jesse James or Clyde Barrow might, through a string of evil and illegal actions, become infamous. But he could never hope to enjoy fame. He might benefit temporarily from the money he stole, but he wouldn’t expect additional riches for the rest of his life from interview payments, public speaking fees, and publishing royalties.

Until recently, we also always held our antiheroes in contempt. We loved what we knew should be hated. Nowadays, that distinction is fading fast. Making a sufficient fool of yourself on national television – either by failing miserably as an apprentice for Donald Trump or by blurting out your sexual secrets for Jerry Springer – is a virtual guarantee of additional fame and fortune … including, if you’ve really been disgraceful, a movie deal.

Lawyers, journalists, publicists, and media executives have discovered what their predecessors either didn’t know or didn’t want to find out: There is no limit to America’s fascination with the seamy side of our culture … and the fastest way to cash in on this fascination is to aim low.

In today’s United States of America, we reward vice and stupidity just as much as virtue and intelligence. The secret to fame and fortune is no longer a subtle algorithm of skill, ambition, and good intent but the simple arithmetic of avarice and excess.

In other words, if you are going to be bad and/or stupid, be really, really bad and/or stupid and who knows … you may end up on the morning news.

It’s sad but it’s very true. If you judged America by its most popular television broadcasts (the morning news, afternoon game shows, and evening reality programs), you’d surely conclude that integrity and common sense are passe.

Luckily, we have a media that’s bigger than network news. Thanks to cable and the Internet, we have hundreds of news and entertainment options. Some of these – not many, but some – are not afraid to call a spade a spade.

You don’t need to be an expert in handgun safety to know that: Accidentally discharging a weapon in a classroom full of children requires an amazing combination of stupidity and ignorance.

Anyone who does so should never be allowed to carry a gun again.

Any publicity that such a person merits should be negative. Any money that exchanges hands as a result of such an accident should be from the responsible party (the cop) to the true victims (the children).

I can’t do much about television’s love affair with ratings, our culture’s fascination with crassness, or the increasingly popular practice of legal action as a means of acquiring wealth. And neither can you.

What can we do? We can surround ourselves with people who maintain pre-21st century values and we can try to live by those values ourselves. We can work hard and stay smart and do good and hope that – in the end – if we don’t get everything we want, at least we will get everything we deserve.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]