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David Sirota
David Sirota
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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.

David Sirota is the bestselling author of the books “Hostile Takeover” (2006) and “The Uprising” (2008). He is a fellow at the Campaign for America's Future. Find his blog at or e-mail him at



3 Comments | Post Comment
Excellent points. Criminalization of marijuana is completely hypocritical. Why are highly addictive and lethal substances like alcohol and morphine legal, yet a natural herb that has killed no one is taboo? Because people believe propaganda.
Comment: #1
Posted by: sssick
Sun Feb 15, 2009 11:24 AM
First, when I first saw you on C-SPAN maybe 2 or so weeks ago, I liked where you were coming from. Of course, that overrides point of view. For me, generally, if the argument is well presented I can more appreciate another point of view even if I disagree with it.
For many years I've disagreed with the view our Federal government has allowed that criminalizes marijuana by convincing the vast population (remember it took a majority to elect Dubya - and twice! Give me a break!) of ignoramuses that marijuana is a gateway to hell. You note that over half of Americans have tried it at one time or another. So, where are the body snatchers? Get my drift? It's time to turn the table around. Make no mistake about it. This is not a promotion for psychoactive drugs. Frankly, it's a perspective on ridding our great country of the evil which prays to fear.
Thanks again.
PS for more facts on marijuana try:
Comment: #2
Posted by: Reid Carter
Sun Feb 15, 2009 2:53 PM
Sir;...You may be correct that weed has killed aproximately no one; but it has caused many bodies to be thrown into jail... And; as this article points out, from the Hilton Sex tapes or the Phelps bong shot, we have become our own spies... Give a kid a camera, and they will send personal porn to the whole school district; and everyone has a phone.... We can't trust big brother...In fact, we can't trust us... Who can we trust??? Where can we hide??? We might want to roll up some big fatty and get so stupid we might never get straight; but how can we do it alone??? We want it social... Stoned is nothing, and the social experiance of law breaking- by taking charge of your own consciousness together, is everything; and no one can do it because no one can trust that some one with a camera won't find the bluish green hue and mindless grin on your face fit for internet... So far, the Phelps photo has resulted in eight arrests... That is a hellova price to pay to wreck the fame of some world class athelete.... But there is a lesson there... Every idiot with a camera is more dangerous to social liberty than all the cops in the world on the prowl for pot heads.... They can't get into every life unless invited; and invitations are sent out wholesale.... Here is a picture of me and my buds stoned to the bone and beyond... Come and throw a net over us, because we are stupid and here is the proof... That is the crime... Smoking the dope should not be illegal... Getting caught should be... Life is an intellegence tests end on end.... Those people who set traps for stupid people serve a public purpose even if it is pointless and cruel.... Sooner or later, stupid people will be taken out of shackles or cuffs and out of cages, and will be harnassed to a plow, or put on a treadmill to generate electricity..When they are done with the system they will not have energy left to breed.... No one except but by their own actions can be legally discriminated against.... I do not think Pot provides just cause for such legal discrimination, but until people can manage their lives, and their behavior in such a way that they do not get caught, they will never be in a position where they can change the law... Do you see what I mean??? In fact, people who smoke have better things to do than seek the power necessary to change stupid laws... So the writing of laws and the enforcement of laws and the punishment of people on the basis of laws will always go to those who are warped by their normality as defined by never having been cool even once for a while... Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Feb 16, 2009 11:11 AM
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