Recently I began noticing on tabloid covers and website homepages frequent stories involving two people named Jon and Kate. I don’t know who they are. The brief headlines and teasers I’ve seen don’t identify them, as in, “Former Olympians Jon and Kate” or “Philanthropic power couple Jon and Kate” or “TV watchers and squabbling lovers Jon and Kate,” for example. They seem to be having some kind of marital trouble, one of those celebrity divorces in the making, complete with lurid hints of bad behavior. Or the divorce itself has made them celebrities; or they’re not married but just “breaking up,” since getting married today is not worth the bother.
Such stories are always tabloid staples, but Jon and Kate won’t go away. They’ve been in the headlines for what seems like weeks. At some point, “Jon and Kate” reached critical mass in my mind and I became conscious that I still didn’t know who they were. My hand glided over the mouse to click on a story and find out, but then I stopped myself. As the days passed and I refused to click links or read home-page teasers — only headlines, which are unavoidable — my ignorance remained unsoiled.
Now it has become a project: I will strive not to discover who Jon and Kate are, though there are limitless opportunities for finding out involuntarily — whether through a random television playing in the next room, my car radio, or an Internet headline that gives the game away before I can avert my gaze. But so far, I have been successful.
Obviously it is not important to know anything about Jon and Kate beyond this: they are evidently the latest sorry fools to feed their lives into the maw of 24/7 media culture. As tabloid subjects, they are contemptible by definition, so knowing how they came to be contemptible is purely incidental.
The Jon and Kate story interests me only in how it illustrates the conscious effort one has to take to avoid absorbing, even unconsciously, whatever pablum the ubiquitous media machinery chooses to shovel out. Now, don’t get me wrong: I, like all proper-thinking people, bow my head in thanks each day for this wonderful machinery, with its proliferation of choices and channels — the Internet, cable TV, email, tabloids, talk radio, cell phones, iPods — that allow us to customize our lives and guard against the scourge of silence that so haunted less fortunate Americans in earlier times. It is truly the liberation of the republic and I agree with all of the proper-thinking technologists that the machinery is Madisonian in its diffusion of faction and Jeffersonian in its decentralization and Lincolnian in its determination never to perish. And I am old enough to remember those gray days of the old regime, when citizens were left unplugged to think their own thoughts.
So it is with sadness that I oppose the great machinery, though I cannot hope to prevail in any meaningful way. Such is the state of the mismatch that continued ignorance about Jon and Kate counts as a kind of victory. It’s one of my great achievements, in fact. But it will be temporary. The machinery wants me to know who Jon and Kate are, and sooner or later it will teach me. And I’ll be grateful, as I should have been all along. I’ll have won the victory over myself. I’ll love Jon and Kate.
Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.
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