Every year on Dec. 7, or thereabouts, we are reminded of the famous day of infamy.
On that date in 1941, a Japanese surprise attack caught America off guard. President Roosevelt forever blazed the phrase “Day of Infamy” into our national psyche. Similarly we are reminded yearly of Sept. 11, another day where we were caught off guard.
History is filled with examples of singular events like these. We have forgotten April 12, 1861, when a South Carolina militia opened fire on Fort Sumter (the Confederate States of America hadn’t even formed yet).
One has to wonder how we will remember Jan. 6, 2021. One suspects that will depend on how things unfold in the United States.
All of these days of infamy are singular for their abruptness. Unlike these easily identified events, gradual change can often sneak up on us. We are all familiar with the fable that tells us that a frog tossed into a hot pot of water will jump out but placed in a cold pot and then placed over a fire will slowly cook, because they don’t recognize the change from benign to dangerous.
This fable is used to remind us that humans are very poor at long-range thinking. It is used to remind us that gradual change can sneak up on us. If you’ve ever gotten into a friend’s car and immediately asked “what’s that noise?” only to have the owner respond “what noise?” then you know how we can become accustomed to what would otherwise be immediately recognized for what it is, which is hot water.
There are many issues confronting us today which fall in the category of cold water getting hot, issues we have become accustomed to living with and thereby inured to. One example is the role that national debt can play on our national strength. When the national debt was on the order of 20 trillion dollars, and was slightly less than the GDP, our politicians were all over that as an issue. We blinked but did not step back from that precipice. Now as the debt has ballooned to 29 trillion (and counting, usdebtclock.org) like the frog we forget that we are sitting in ever hotter water.
Another good example is global warming, a clear crisis if you look at where we are now from the perspective of 1980 when our politicians first learned of this issue, but because we’ve gradually gotten to this point over the last 30 years, we have grown accustomed to crazy weather and are thereby desensitized to the increasing urgency of the problem.
Even something as relatively recent as the impact of artificial intelligence and social media on our political world is hidden from us (youtu.be/iX8GxLP1FHo). The ability of the internet to change exponentially has led many of us to throw up our hands in disbelief and shut down our brains rather than trying to figure out how that exponential change is going to affect us. What used to pass for a warning call is now just another step down a slippery slope.
Absent the clarion calls that days of infamy, with their abrupt transitions, represent, we complacently sit and watch as the pot is brought to a boil. Unfortunately, even our media is having trouble staying focused as they suffer from the same inability to see long-term when what they need right now is a headline that qualifies as news.
Repetition may sell cars and shoes, but it doesn’t sell papers or generate clicks. At the same time that our attention span works against us, making us notice those singular events but not the trends, our political left and right are working from the wings of our political world. Our political activists focus on finding short term crises that can be used to motivate voters to donate money, while ignoring the steadily rising heat in the pots in which we live. They thrive on fake urgencies while missing the trends.
Like frogs distracted from what surrounds us, we are being cooked on multiple fronts.