Addicted to Fake Outrage

I'm not sure if it's because we're strung out on "Lost" episodes, or
if it's because we're still suffering from a post-9/11 stress disorder
that makes us crave "breaking news" alerts, or if it's because the
economy has turned us into distraction junkies. But one thing is
painfully obvious after Michael Phelps' marijuana "scandal" erupted
last week: Our society is addicted to fake outrage - and to break our
dependence, we're going to need far more potent medicine than the herb
Phelps was smoking.

If you haven't heard (and I'm guessing you have), the Olympic gold
medalist was recently photographed taking a toke of weed. The moment
the picture hit the Internet, the media blew the story up, pumping out
at least 1,200 dispatches about the "controversy," according to my
LexisNexis search. Phelps' sponsors subsequently threatened to pull
their endorsement deals, and USA Swimming suspended him for
"disappointing so many people."

America is a place where you can destroy millions of lives as a
Wall Street executive and still get invited for photo-ops at the White
House; a land where the everyman icon - Joe Sixpack - is named for his
love of shotgunning two quarts of beer at holiday gatherings; a
"shining city on a hill" where presidential candidates' previous abuse
of alcohol and cocaine is portrayed as positive proof of grittiness and
character. And yet, somehow, Phelps is the evildoer of the hour because
he went to a party and took a hit off someone's bong.

As with most explosions of fake outrage, the Phelps affair asks us
to feign anger at something we know is commonplace. A nation of tabloid
readers is apoplectic that Brad and Jen divorced, even though one out
of every two American marriages ends the same way. A country
fetishizing "family values" goes ballistic over the immorality of Paris
Hilton's sex tape ... and then keeps spending billions on pornography.
And now we're expected to be indignant about a 23-year-old kid smoking
weed, even though studies show that roughly half of us have done the
same thing; most of us think pot should be legal in some form; and many
of us regularly devour far more toxic substances than marijuana
(nicotine, alcohol, reality TV, etc.).

So, in the interest of a little taboo candor, I'm just going to
throw editorial caution to the wind and write what lots of us thought -
but were afraid to say - when we heard about Phelps. Ready? Here goes:
America's drug policy is idiotic.

Doctors can hand out morphine to anyone for anything beyond a
headache, but they can't prescribe marijuana to terminal cancer
patients. Madison Avenue encourages a population plagued by heart
disease to choke down as many artery-clogging Big Macs and Dunkin'
Donuts as it can, but it's illegal to consume cannabis, "a weed that
has been known to kill approximately no one," as even the
archconservative Colorado Springs Gazette admitted in its editorial
slamming Phelps. Indeed, it would be perfectly acceptable - even
artistically admirable in some quarters - if I told you that I drank
myself into a blind stupor while writing this column, but it would be
considered "outrageous" if I told you I was instead smoking a joint
(FYI - I wasn't doing either).

That said, what's even more inane than our irrational reefer
madness is our addiction to the same high that every pothead craves:
the high of escapism. Nerves fried from orange terror warnings, Drudge
Report sirens and disaster capitalism's roller-coaster economics, our
narcotic of choice is fake outrage - and it packs a punch. It gets us
to turn on the television, tune in to the latest manufactured drama,
and drop out of the real battle for the republic's future.

© 2023 San Franciso Chronicle