We live in unprecedented times, unprecedentedly unprecedented times, in fact. So unprecedented are these times that there is an unprecedented use of the word unprecedented. So unprecedented is that unprecedented use of the word unprecedented that its use is starting to feel really, really precedented. Let’s talk about that.
This is a column I have been meaning to write for a while now. Admittedly, the world around us has changed a lot since I first thought it up, but the central conceit still works: we get bored too easily and the things that often bore us are actually really, really important.
We are obsessed with new things. Not too new, of course. But new enough to excite and familiar enough to be legible. Those who create the things we are most obsessed with are “gifted at creating moments of meaning by marrying new and old, anxiety and understanding,” writes journalist Derek Thompson in his book “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.” The best hit makers, argues Thompson, are “architects of familiar surprises.”
Here is a familiar surprise: We just hit 200,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths. Familiar because deaths from COVID-19 have been climbing since March and — I have not taken YData, so do not quote me on this — when lines go up for a long time without stopping they usually continue to go up. Concerning the second part, I wish I could say I wasn’t surprised. It would be really cool, cynical and wise to say that I knew it would be this bad from the start. But I did not.
Remember when the US hit 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, how big of a deal that was? The New York Times ran a really stunning first-page where they listed out names and obituaries. Did you see the display the Times made for 200,000? No, probably not, because they did not make one. Why not?
Frankly, I think they did not do the spread for 200,000 because it would have been boring. I mean, they have to sell papers, right? To be honest, if you had the 100,000 deaths edition, you could just squint and it would look the same as the 200,000 deaths edition. Upending business as usual to commemorate those we have lost is so last month!
Of course, it is not just the New York Times — or “the media” as a whole — that suffers from such deference to boredom. Nor are they the worst offenders. A criticism of “the media” needs to go a lot deeper than “they like clickbait,” but this is not really a criticism of “the media.” I, you, America as a whole, we just cannot help but get bored.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis is currently ordering a reopening of the economy — bars and restaurants to full capacity, kneecapping local mask mandates — despite the fact that Florida is averaging hundreds more cases per day than in June. I guess fighting the virus just got old. Late last month up on Capitol Hill, the Federal government let the extended unemployment benefits that kept millions of Americans from destitution run out with no plan to replace them. Rather, the Republicans killed the program and the Democrats got tired of telling them “stop!”
I know what you are thinking. Amidst all this yawning indifference, are there any exceptions to the rule?
One institution that actually does a really good job of fighting this urge is your favorite pillar of American society: the Yale Daily News. If you feel like you have seen a thousand iterations of the “being FGLI at Yale is hard,” or “being a person of color at Yale is hard” or “being at Yale is hard” Yale Daily News column, it is because you have. You have read thousands because people have written thousands and people have written thousands because there are thousands of lived experiences worth writing about. Is every column an unprecedented piece of journalism that goes where no column has gone before? No. Does that make any particular one less valuable? No.
When we pretend that news must be new and that all that is new is news, we stunt our ability to connect the dots, to admit that things often are not as big of a discontinuity as we would like them to be. It is easier to lament just how unprecedented a crisis is than to admit that we just failed to see it coming, failed to prevent it and failed to stop it. If it was hard being first-generation at Yale yesterday, and it is still hard today, we can take a guess as to what it will be like tomorrow. If the pandemic was raging on yesterday and raging on today, I think we know what tomorrow holds — and barring any action — every day after that.
Of course, it is a big jump from News columns to a national response to a pandemic. But, all kidding and snark aside, the throughline is there. We need to get acquainted with, get interested in and perhaps even obsess over the ‘boring’ things, the things that happen every day — precisely because they happen every single day. As we slouch into month seven of this crisis, people in power have gotten bored while the rest get busy working, coughing or dying.
So far, I am on a five-column streak about the pandemic. I would be on six if my editor had not squashed the first pitch in February as the News had already published one on the pandemic (no hard feelings). If past behavior is any indicator of future behavior, I have a good guess as to what my next column will be about.
Maybe I will just recycle this one. It would prove my point.
ERIC KREBS is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.