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The Age Of Perpetual Crisis

I like the free-flowing, rough-and-tumble, demotic character of Internet-driven media as much as the next blogger. Information can be addictive, just as sharp-edged opinions can induce an adrenaline-driven thrill. But what about historical perspective? And philosophical reflection? And level-headed analysis? The 24-hour news cycle and instant Internet updates don't foster those habits and may even be incompatible with them. And I'm afraid our culture is beginning to pay the emotional and intellectual price.

Has a week passed in the last nine months when we haven't been confronting a "crisis"? Last summer, there was the "peak-oil crisis." Then there was the banking and stock-market crises of the fall. In his February 24 address to Congress, President Obama spoke of numerous crises facing the country. "The economy is in crisis," he declared, and the crisis had several dimensions. There was the "credit crisis" and the "housing crisis" and the "financial crisis" -- all of them leading ours to be a generalized "time of crisis." And now, of course, there's the swine-flu crisis. On top of the ongoing climate-change crisis. And so on and so forth.

Never mind that the peak-oil crisis seems to have vanished overnight. Or that the economy may have already turned a corner before reaching the severity of the 1981-82 recession, let alone the Great Depression's catastrophic levels of unemployment and human suffering. Or that roughly 36,000 Americans die of influenza every year without it being dubbed a public-health crisis. None of this matters, finally, because when it comes to hysteria, reality is beside the point. Whether or not the source of this season's anxieties fade, cable news and Internet prognosticators are sure to hype some new issue or event or problem into the next national Crisis.

Why will the pattern almost certainly continue? Because the rewards that come from magnifying the significance of and threat posed by every event and trend are too enticing to resist. Alarmist headlines generate an agitated buzz, which spreads through the culture like a contagion, driving people to seek out information to allay their fears, which in turn generates ratings and boosts page views (and rates of presidential approval) into the stratosphere, with the most hyperbolic headlines and rhetoric often grabbing the most attention of all.

Which is not to say that newscasters, writers, commentators, and politicians don't believe their own hype. Sadly, many of them do -- even those who should know better. The paranoid style in American politics has metastasized. No longer confined to the radical right as it largely was when historian Richard Hofstadter first diagnosed it in his classic book, generalized paranoia has now spread beyond politics and into the culture at large, infecting nearly everything it touches, transforming otherwise thoughtful Americans into modern-day doomsayers anxiously awaiting imminent civilizational apocalypse. 

This isn't to say that the problems we so readily refer to as crises aren't worthy of attention or concern. But it is to say that we will be better off as individuals and as a society when we (re)gain some perspective on our troubles and (re)learn how to respond to them with poise and composure instead of technologically driven populist panic.