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Andy Warhol, Bill O'Reilly, and Pearl Harbor

It's been a while since I've written one of my trademarked heartless, unfeeling, insensitive bastard pieces, so I think it's about time I got it out of my system.

It's largely a rule of life that the more one has of something, the less one values each individual item. There's an apocryphal story that, based on their annual earnings, if Bill Gates/Paul McCartney/Warren Buffet were to drop a hundred-dollar bill, they should not pick it up -- the cost of their time to stop, bend over, and recover it would be greater than the value of the lost bill. (Note to self: see about getting those restraining orders keeping me from following those gentlemen about lifted.) But nowadays, as both the United States is closing in on 300 million people, and the world apparently has more people living today than have lived and died in all of history, it seems that the value of each individual life has actually increased.

With all the people in this nation, one would think that our national sense of proportion would if not scale in parallel, at least increase. But it seems to have had the opposite effect.

Just for grins, let's take 1950 as a landmark. We have roughly twice the number of people we have today, so one would think that our sense of proportion would, logically, double. But it doesn't.

The latest casualty figures out of Iraq list the number of American troops killed as approaching 2200 in the nearly two years since we invaded and toppled Saddam's regime. In contrast, 2,403 American service members were killed in hours during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The left is currently aflame over blaming Bush for the deaths of twelve coal miners in West Virginia. But when you look at the trend in mine deaths over the last ten years, or since the dawn of the 20th century, the big picture becomes clearer: the Sago mine disaster was an aberration. This is not to diminish the loss of those twelve men, but an attempt to find a context.

With so many people in the United States, one would think that individuals would be less newsworthy. But still some people just manage to capture the attention of the nation. Laci Peterson. Jennifer Wilbanks. Natalee Holloway. Terri Schiavo. Paris Hilton, for god's sake.

I think I can attribute it to a few factors. The rise in leisure time (defined as time not spent at work) is certainly a factor -- people have the time to waste on frivolities and pointless interests. The increase in emphasis on the individual, the focus on things such as self-esteem and self-image and self-consciousness, must play a role.

But I think the key element has been the 24-hour news cycle. My cable lineup features CNN, CNN Headline News, MSNBC, and Fox News -- that's four channels that need to find material to fill up every minute of every day. With that, and the need to compete with each other, there is an insatiable hunger for stories to get and keep viewers.

Andy Warhol's most famous statement is probably when he said that some day, everyone would have 15 minutes of fame. It took about 40 years and the all-news channels to pull it off, but it looks like it might be here.

So, is it a good or a bad thing? I don't know. I can see pluses and minuses on both sides. But it certainly seems to me a subject worthy of considering.


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Comments (14)

Uhhhh Jay, I think the Inte... (Below threshold)

Uhhhh Jay, I think the Internet also has played a part - otherwise, I wouldn't know you exist.

Similar to Eiland's Theory ... (Below threshold)

Similar to Eiland's Theory Of Compensatory Misery

"As human society gradually solves the problems of basic survival and reduces the amount of other miseries rooted in the reality of the human condition, the fringe elements of that society feel an increasingly strong compulsion to become obsessively angry about ever more trivial causes to recapture the sense that life is a painful struggle."
I think that the rise in li... (Below threshold)

I think that the rise in living standards has in fact contributed to the phenomenon you describe, but not necessarily in the way that you propose. Life in the civilized world has become dramatically more safe and more comfortable over the last century. Dangers that were commonplace in 1900 are seen as aberrations today.

Coal miners going to work in the early part of the century had a much higher expectation of being injured or or killed. The same expectations were felt by their families and society as a whole. Today, with mines having become so much safer, each death is that much more shocking to us.

The same holds true for Iraq and modern war in general. When wars were won by sending human waves charging at machine gun nests, the general expectation was for a huge number of casualties. Today, we can send a hundred pilots to decimate a division, expecting every last one of them to return alive. In Bosnia, we had no fatalities during the entire campaign. If one is shot down, our expectations have been disappointed.

Also, the small number of industrial and military deaths allow us the time to focus on each person. In WWII, when daily casualty reports had hundreds of names on them, the press could never cover each person in depth, even if they wanted to. Today, military casualties usually come one or two at a time and industrial deaths occur a few times a year. That leaves plenty of time to tell each person's story. We are naturally going to be more sympathetic to a person whose life story we know than to the 259th name on 500-person casualty report.

Hmmm.I'd have writ... (Below threshold)


I'd have written an insightful point, like always hehe, except that Daniel has already done so.

For all subsequent readers please replace, in your mind, Daniel's name with mine and send all kudos to me.

Seriously. That analysis was spot-on.

The left is currently af... (Below threshold)

The left is currently aflame over blaming Bush for the deaths of twelve coal miners in West Virginia.

Like who? I have seen this comment on several right wing blogs but have yet to see anyone from the left blame Bush for this tragedy.
I think you would be lucky to find more than one or two sources, so I don't think the left is "aflame". Find a new strawman.

Jay:Far from being... (Below threshold)
The Guvnah:


Far from being contradicted, your rule of life is supported by the phenomenon you've noticed...

It's not that we have more people, causing us to value each life less when it is lost... It is that we have fewer deaths**, causing us to "value" each death more highly.

Surely you're familiar with Stalin's[?] statement that 100 deaths isa tragedy; a million is a statistic.

** That is, fewer politically useful deaths.

Hmmm.The only thin... (Below threshold)


The only thing I'd add is the 24/7 news channels have altered my perceptions of their worth. Previously I had thought such a channel would have sufficient time to cover a multitude of issues in depth. Now I see that instead they cover the same exact issue for hours or even days at a time while ignoring almost anything else.

So instead of a wide-ranging coverage and analysis we're getting 24 hours of the same damn thing.

The left is currently af... (Below threshold)

The left is currently aflame over blaming Bush for the deaths of twelve coal miners in West Virginia.

One kos diarist puts up a moronic post about the mine explosion being the fault of Republicans (Bush is not mentioned) and the "left is currently aflame over blaming Bush"? Have any links to support that assertion? Are you sure it's not the right that is aflame...over nothing?

Otherwise, interesting post, but I think that sensationalism over individuals in trouble/turmoil has been around since communications developed to allow nationwide news stories. The Lindberg baby is a good example from the pre-television days, the print and radio news coverage of which was roughly equivalent to today's mass media coverage of the stories you mention.

I totally agree that the 24... (Below threshold)
Just Me:

I totally agree that the 24 hour new cycle has led to some of the hyper focused "pretty white girl missing/dead/etc" stories. It has gotten to the point where I don't want to tune in to TV news at all anymore.

I also think the 24 hour news channels have led to lazy reporters, who are in such a rush to be first with the story, they don't really care whether or not it is factual (Katrina is one of the better examples of this, but the Coal Mine story has some pretty good examples as well).

One kos diarist puts up ... (Below threshold)

One kos diarist puts up a moronic post about the mine explosion being the fault of Republicans (Bush is not mentioned) and the "left is currently aflame over blaming Bush"?

I believe it's gone beyond that in the last day or two. Some spittle-flecked leftard columnist, IIRC.

Beyond noting the fact, I disregarded it, much as I disregard the rantings of Howard Dean, Harry Reid, or Nancy Pelosi -- faceless unknowns that they are.

Oh, wait...

"the big picture becomes cl... (Below threshold)

"the big picture becomes clearer: the Sago mine disaster was an aberration. This is not to diminish the loss of those twelve men, but an attempt to find a context."

Another point of sorrow is that you felt you had to include the final sentence there. It seriously marks the success of the Dhimmis efforts to turn us into a relatively ignorant, low context society. For God's sake: A) That sentence should be a given and B) The search for the context should have been the first thing on any thinking person's agenda.

CorporateLeech & Mantis,</p... (Below threshold)

CorporateLeech & Mantis,

Re: the left aflame over Sago

Perhaps you should have listened to NPR right after the disaster. They felt the need to preferace the report with snarks about Bush reducing mine safety standards.

As usual Jay talking rubbis... (Below threshold)

As usual Jay talking rubbish again, as many other people have pointed out its the rise of standand of living which has made life more valuable...

Not to take anything away f... (Below threshold)

Not to take anything away from the larger point you're making, but I was struck by this-

...and the world apparently has more people living today than have lived and died in all of history...

Not even close!

Depending upon the exact point in our evolution that we actually became "human", most estimates I've seen say that somewhere between 60-100 billion people have walked the earth.

For instance, doing a quick "Google" for (total number people ever) yields these links--




- the first two links both come up with a total of about 100 billion, the last goes "low" with about 40 billion...






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