Let's be honest. Percentage-wise, few people in America really give much of a crap about what's going on in the hallowed halls of politics and power.
This is what we in the media and maybe you in the media-consuming audience tend to forget far too easily: This country is simply jam-packed with millions of people who have no time for, or interest in, politics, or media, or environmental policy, or education, or global issues, or which presidential candidate lied his ass off about which aspect of his military career and which Orange Alert is totally bogus and how many soldiers are dying for what imbecilic war.
It seems hard to believe. But the general rule of thumb is that major cities are slightly more attuned due to aggressive media saturation and how issues tend to make themselves known more urgently, more immediately, whereas Middle America is a scattershot conglomeration of the politically apathetic and the actively disenfranchised, full of people far too busy with their lives and kids and jobs and zoning out on "Fear Factor" and "Monday Night Football" to care about following the elitist, ever dire dramas playing out on the nation's gilded stages.
Most Americans, in other words, have no idea what the hell a Halliburton is. Or a Karl Rove. Or a Donny "Shriveled Soul" Rumsfeld. Or a Lockheed Martin. Or a Carlysle Group. Or have any idea that Saddam had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. Or that WMDs were never found. Or that President Bush has taken more vacation time than any president in U.S. history. Or that Jesus thinks Dubya is "sort of a dink." Or where Iraq is on a map.
Fact is, in the past decade, TV-news ratings -- cable and network, combined -- has shrunk to a fraction of its former numbers. Newspaper subscriptions have been either flat or dropping for just about as long. Newsmagazines, radio, historical nonfiction: flat or dropping fast. Even the Internet, that vast teeming customizable firestorm of news and info streaming in from all over the planet, even the awesome Net draws far more people to its porn and gossip and shopping departments than any e-news joint could ever wet dream.
Is this unfair? Does it sound elitist and biased? It's not. There have been studies. And reports. And alarming indicators of all kinds telling us time and again that, for example, fully 50 percent of eligible Americans don't even bother to vote (a 15 percent drop since 1964), and many have no idea who's on the Supreme Court or what Congress does, and many can't even point to France on a globe.
Voter turnout, comparatively, in Italy, Spain, the U.K., or Germany? Anywhere from 75 to 92 percent, every time. The sad fact is, the United States ranks 139th out of 172 countries in voter turnout. Wave that flag proudly, baby.
You've seen the headlines. Alarming numbers of American high school students can't even identify the current vice president, much less name a half dozen presidents from history. Far too many citizens can't name the capital of their own home state or recognize their own senators, much less discern how Bush's environmental policy is poisoning their water or how Ashcroft wants to scan their email and tap their phones and suck the pith from their souls.
A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development states that upward of 60 percent of Americans ages 16-25 are 'functionally illiterate', meaning they can't, for example, fill out a detailed form or read a numerical table (like a time schedule). A recent Florida study shows at least 70 percent of recent high school graduates need remedial courses -- that is, basic reading and math -- when they enter community college. These are kids who, you can be assured, think Colin Powell is that nasty British dude on "American Idol."
And everyone you know seems to have a parent or a sister-in-law living somewhere conservative and podunk for whom politics and news media is like some sort of impossibly dense morass, alien and strange and vaguely threatening, like a nasty, painful growth on their big toe, best ignored in hopes that it will just dry up and go away.
Maybe this, then, is the most pressing question of our time: How to get the vast majority of Americans to care? To pay attention? To read? To effect change and demand accountability from bumbling spoon-fed leaders who count on voter apathy and force-fed ignorance to cram through their environmental rollbacks and homophobic laws and draconian Patriot Acts? Is it even possible? Are we too far gone?
How to make America more like, say, Europe, where knowledge of current events and political intrigue is not only hugely important to the vast majority of citizens but is also deeply woven into the very fabric of daily life, an integral part of the educational system and the café conversation and the workplace water-cooler chats, and to ignore it is considered, well, irresponsible and even a mite traitorous?
True, part of why they care so much is because America is the foremost bully on the block and it pays to know what makes the bully tick. And whine. And kill. In short, as the theory goes, most Americans don't give a damn because we're on top and we own everything and have more nukes than anyone and we're never the ones getting invaded. It's our unofficial motto -- America: We Don't Have to Care.
And this very column is frequently slapped with the accusation that it merely "preaches to the choir," and if I really want to affect minds I should consider tempering or sanitizing my opinions for a more "moderate" mainstream readership, as if the nation was chock-full of opinionated, well-read, temperate thinkers ready to be gently informed of new ideas, when in fact this group is but a fraction, a sliver, far overshadowed and overpowered by the real majority in America: The detached. The disinterested. The intellectually lazy.
So, what's the solution? It is as simple as dramatically changing the way we educate our children, our population? Is it desanitizing our vacuous history textbooks and making media studies and political science and current events as mandatory to the educational diet as macho sports and bad lunches and playground kickball?
Or maybe it's a new national draft? Will that galvanize the rest of the populace sufficiently? How about Iraq devolving even faster into Vietnam 2.0? Is it 10,000 dead U.S. soldiers and nary an imprisoned terrorist or fresh barrel of oil to show for it? How about five bucks a gallon? Ten? Is it legalizing pot and banning guns? What will it take?
Maybe another massive national catastrophe? Maybe a 9/11 cubed, and cubed again, something unthinkably horrific and unleashed upon the innocents and the children and the puppies, something that so jars and infuriates and undermines our desperate empire that even the cold-blooded neoconservative Right can't possibly leverage our sorrow and pain for its own political gain? Very possible. After all, nothing like a little hard-earned apocalypse to make you consider voting independent.
Or maybe it's something entirely different, maybe some sort of potent, unimaginable spiritual enlightenment that looks like revelation and smells like Vishnu and sounds like harmonic convergence and tastes like Buddha and has nothing whatsoever to do with fundamentalism or Christianity or Bush's angry homophobic flag-wavin' God. The mystics say we're very close. They claim the next decade will offer, to those who care to participate, one helluva transformational vibrational wallop. Possible?
Whatever it looks like, we can rest assured we're still not out of the dark, dank woods just yet. Our national apathy is well protected, our intellectual ignorance secure and our fears well fed and carefully, perpetually reinforced by the Powers That Be and the fact that the overall 50 percent voter turnout never moves by more than a point or two, usually downward.
And the Establishment, it only smiles knowingly, and nods, and says there there now. It'll be all right. Just go back to sleep.
Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SF Gate, unless it appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which it never does.
© 2004 The San Francisco Chronicle