Addicted to Fake Outrage

By David Sirota

February 12, 2009 5 min read

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 [email protected]

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