There’s a world of important information; the sensation-driven mass media focuses elsewhere.

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

On March 18th 2020, Catherine Hamlin died.

But you probably don’t know who Catherine Hamlin was, nor what she did, so you don’t care.

No mass-media organization gave her death front-page coverage. Because although she saved over 25,000 lives, those lives were of dark-skinned people far away and saving lives is nowhere near as good for grabbing eyeballs as a constant litany of disaster and celebrity gossip.

Catherine Hamlin went to Ethiopia ostensibly to found a school for midwives but ended up practicing life-saving surgery on young malnourished women whose internal organs were ripped up by the process of childbirth. As Ethiopian culture promoted child brides (in order to ensure their “purity”) and as many Ethiopians were chronically malnourished, this meant inevitably that tiny female bodies struggled to deliver the resulting babies that were conceived when their mothers were still little more than children themselves.

Catherine adopted pioneering techniques of surgical reconstruction that saved the lives of over 25,000 young women. She founded a hospital that was open to all who needed her help, and she trained generations of nurses and young doctors who helped spread her work more widely. She made a positive difference for over sixty years.

Her work was not much reported in the West. Simply put, good news is meaningless when it comes to generating satisfactory levels of ad revenue for media organizations.

We never learn of the many valiant people around the world actively doing good. We never learn of the activities of others that would put our spoiled pampered self-indulgent lives into better perspective. We get nothing to offset the relentless diet of bad-news sensationalism: airplane crashes, terrorist incidents, murders, rapes, empty political posturing, and the inevitable brainless celebrity reportage.

We get this because it’s what we ask for.

We reliably soak up pernicious trash rather than seeking healthier inputs, just as we reliably consume vast quantities of unhealthy slop rather than giving our bodies the nutrition we really need.

We are, in short, terrible stewards of ourselves. It’s not really surprising our bad choices are relentlessly exploited by large corporations in pursuit of ever-greater profits. We have only ourselves to blame.

When citizens eagerly poison themselves, there sometimes comes a point when governments belatedly wake up to the costs. For hundreds of years, governments embraced tobacco because of the revenues gained from taxing tobacco products. It was only from the 1960s onward that slow-witted politicians began to realize the costs of tobacco consumption vastly outweighed the tax revenues derived from it. Not only were payroll taxes diminished because of worker ill-health but newly-introduced national health care systems were placed under enormous unnecessary strain in consequence of all the lung cancer, heart disease, jaw and throat cancer, emphysema, and other tobacco-related ailments. Very slowly, politicians began to restrict tobacco products and increase their prices, thus reducing (very slowly) overall demand.

Today we’re in the very early stages of a similar change of attitude regarding junk food. Around the world obesity rates have soared, so that now 86% of US citizens are fat. Half of all health care spending in several OECD nations now goes on attempting to treat obesity-related diseases; an increasing amount is now also being consumed by treating illness resulting from malnutrition because junk food provides few essential nutrients.

Few people have yet recognized that mental junk food is just as harmful as McSlop and Kentucky Fried Cancer and Coca-Diabetes. We consume endless “entertainments” that fill our minds with deeply unhelpful messages. We gawp at news that is nothing more than endless fear-mongering; we binge-watch TV shows that present utterly unrealistic ideas about how we should behave; and we lap up reality shows that undermine the very basis of human society by promoting exaggerated norms focused around destructive interactions.

The average person alive today in the spoiled and pampered West has no grasp of history, no knowledge of the complex web of interactions upon which we depend entirely for every single aspect of our lives, and no understanding of the harsh realities of life that apply to most of the world’s population. We’re a bunch of fat ignorant self-indulgent whining babies, constantly howling for the next over-sugared treat or flickering moment of eye-candy.

At some point, any society aspiring to humane values would recognize that just as tobacco and other harmful inputs must be regulated and discouraged, so too should harmful mental inputs be subject to regulation and discouragement.

Whenever this topic is raised, the knee-jerk reaction of “censorship!” is inevitable, just as free-market economists always screamed loudly about plans to discourage tobacco consumption. The argument, however, is misconceived. We already have censorship both de jure and de facto.

Regarding de jure censorship, all Western governments have ways to suppress information. In the UK the D-Notice is used far more often than British citizens realize. In the USA there are a great many ways to ensure that information is be suppressed, very often under the pretense of national security. No nation on Earth lacks the legal means whereby to suppress information deemed “unsuitable” for public consumption.

Regarding de facto censorship, this article began by noting that good news stories simply don’t make it out of the editorial meeting. We get a relentless barrage of context-free sensationalism instead. This is just as much censorship as any Orwellian conspiracy.

So it’s no good screaming “censorship!” We already have it. But what we have today is grotesquely dysfunctional. It’s a very strange argument that seeks to protect a totally dysfunctional arrangement by decrying a more coherent and health-based alternative.

Today is, at least in theory, a wake-up call. We’re in the middle of a global panic that has revealed just how dim-witted and self-harming we can be.

Why did we shut down the world for the sake of a virus that leaves at least 98% of the population* unharmed? Why have we thrown half a billion of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people into starvation? Why are so many hysterically imagining that this is an existential threat or even the end of the world?

It’s because we lack context. We’ve been fed a constant diet of context-free sensationalism for so long that we have zero capacity for coherent thought. We accept whatever spurious nonsense we’re fed. We’re a herd of mindless cattle, stampeded by a mass media that thinks only of ad revenues. We lack the simple ability to weigh up the real (as opposed to imagined) threat against the costs we’ve imposed in our terrified scramble to “save” ourselves. As a result, in order to temporarily “save” a few hundred thousand people who will in any case die within the next few months, we’ve undertaken actions that will most certainly kill millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable who otherwise would have lived for years.

And that is immensely stupid as well as profoundly immoral.

Of course, as individuals we can choose otherwise. Some of us eat healthy foods and abjure the things that harm us. Some of us don’t own televisions and ignore the mass media. But just as was the case with smoking and continues to be the case with obesity, the great mass of people will keep on making poor quality choices that inflict enormous harm on society as a whole. Such problems are not amenable to small-scale solutions.

We’re always going to be easily stampeded unless we begin to realize that a constant diet of sensationalist nonsense is as bad for us as a diet of McSlop or eighty cigarettes a day. Until we understand that no society aspiring to humane values can tolerate the relentless fear-mongering of large media organizations, we’ll remain as simple-minded and as ignorant and as foolish as we are today.

Which means that the present hysteria over covid-19 is only the beginning. Far worse will inevitably follow.

*The statistics presented in the mass media are intentionally misleading. Epidemiologists know that simply reporting those who are sick enough to get tested, and then reporting deaths against that small percentage of the population, creates a totally misleading impression. Data from countries such as Germany and Switzerland, where many ordinary people are being tested in addition to those showing extreme symptoms, indicates the mortality rate is around 0.1% which is identical to the overall mortality rate for ordinary flu. Even if covid-19 ends up killing ten times as many people as current data would imply, it would still mean that 99% of the population is panicking for no reason whatsoever.

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