‘Questionable proposals against Patriotism and Personal Freedom were floated in Wisconsin and New Jersey Tuesday morning and may become the Proverbial Straw,” the letter began. It went on for 309 words — not long for something that’s relevant to anything about our lives, but an eternity for something that … isn’t.
Wisconsin? New Jersey? Really?
My immediate thought was, “Why in the world would we publish an overwritten diatribe about topics so obscure that I would have to Google them to figure out what in the world he’s talking about?”
In case you care, here’s what that letter writer was talking about:
I tossed the letter in the “no” pile along with incoherent rants and yet more anti-Trump diatribes (there are only so many of those you can publish) and resumed reading that day’s stack of letters to the editor.
But I couldn’t let it go. “What is wrong with people,” I asked myself, “that they go looking for things to get enraged about?”
It took me about a half second to realize my error. It used to be that you had to go looking for stuff like this. You used to have to do some serious digging to find scary crimes in obscure places to panic over. It used to take effort to track down obscure legislative proposals made by obscure legislators in states on the other side of the country.
Depending on who your “friends” are on Facebook, who you follow on Twitter, whose emails you haven’t blocked — or, for the less connected, which 24/7 cable “news” programs you watch … 24/7 — you can get irrelevant outrages delivered straight to your smartphone. 24/7.
Set aside the question of why anyone in South Carolina would care what sort of murals appear on the walls of a building they’ve never heard of on a college they’ve never heard of, in some state they don’t pay taxes to support. Or why they would care what legislators in other states propose making illegal while residents in those states are driving. I recognize, though I don’t accept, the fact that people have a deep and abiding belief that they are much more affected by the proposals being discussed on the national news or their favorite blog than here in South Carolina.
So set aside all that, and let’s just talk about perspective.
One day, when I was a young reporter covering the Legislature, I noticed an obscure representative working the House floor, signing up co-sponsors for a bill that had nothing to do with our state and no chance of passing. But the bill was so bizarre — or at least it seemed bizarre a quarter century ago — that I decided to write about it.
When I turned in my story, a very wise editor asked me: What in the world would possess you to to write about a bill to outlaw female circumcision? Does it have anything to do with anything that’s going on in South Carolina? (No.) Is it going to pass? (No.) Embarrassed, I mumbled something along the lines of, “I thought people would find it interesting.”
I was embarrassed because I knew better. I knew that covering the Legislature is drinking from a fire hose — there are more bills introduced than you can ever write about, and the vast majority will never even get scheduled for a subcommittee meeting. I knew that the only way to be anything more than an entertainer is to focus on the bills that have a chance of passing. To ignore all those man-bites-dog bills.
Of course, that was before the proliferation of the 24/7 “news” stations that have to fill every one of those hours with … something, and social media and a frantic scramble among journalists to get people to read what they write. Even if they write about bills they know won’t pass.
Politicians realize that most journalists can’t resist a bill to require a 24-hour waiting period for purchasing Viagra or to ban S.C. judges from using Sharia law (thus making people think that maybe our judges are using it) — or, as with the New Jersey bill that outraged my letter writer, to ban coffee-drinking behind the wheel. So they introduce more and more of them. And people hear about more and more of them and get angrier and angrier.
Perspective: In the 2015-16 session of the S.C. General Assembly, 3,813 bills were introduced. Fewer than 10 percent — 306 — became law. That’s typical. And the same thing happens, to varying degrees, in every legislature in the country, in the Congress, on city and county councils the nation over. That means that when you hear about a bill that’s been introduced somewhere, the odds are overwhelming that it will never become law.
And even if the North Dakota bill that sounds so outrageous does become law, what does it matter unless you’re planning to move to North Dakota?
We have plenty of things to get upset about right here in South Carolina — things that actually affect our lives, things that we might be able to do something about if we set our minds to it. You really don’t need to go looking elsewhere to raise your blood pressure.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.