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Originally published Sunday, December 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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The conscientious public

For some time now, the commentariat — columnists, critics, bloggers — has bashed the American public as "celebrity-starved," gobbling every sighting and, better yet, smashup of a person "famous for being famous."

Special to The Times

For some time now, the commentariat — columnists, critics, bloggers — has bashed the American public as "celebrity-starved," gobbling every sighting and, better yet, smashup of a person "famous for being famous."

And, with the smashups accelerating — just this year we have had shock jock Don Imus, former stripper Anna Nicole Smith, socialite Paris Hilton — the bashing accelerates. Increasingly, we also are cited — in both mainstream and "new" media — as "porn-loving," "potty-mouthed," "stupid," "shopaholic," possessed of the attention span of a flea and, as to political (in)activity, history-averse and criminally apathetic.

Enough. Before this contemptuous "conventional wisdom" congeals into "fact," let's get clear: Some of our number in this democracy may be gaga over celebrity, though I have yet to meet one of these creatures. But — crucial to the survival of the Republic — some of us are most emphatically not.

Call us the conscientious public. (And, if the following seems self-serving, it's meant both as defense against further defamation and antidote to declining readership, by turning a gimlet-eyed view of the broad public into respect for the worthy citizen, Democrat and Republican, within it.)

Instead of celebrity, our eye is on infinitely more important things: the unjust war that America forced on Iraq; the unnecessary death of Americans and Iraqis; our departure from the rule of law, with torture and secret prisons now standard. In short, America's moral fall.

We mark also our fellow citizens still digging out from Hurricane Katrina two years later; the growing inequity between the superrich and superpoor; and, we mark this administration's unconscientiousness to that suffering.

And when we can, we act — to maddeningly little result. By the millions, we protested, full-throat, the launching of the Iraq war, but President Bush wasn't listening; we've continued protesting, but Bush stays the course. When Abu Ghraib hit in April 2004, we let loose an enormous outcry but, unforgivably, torture never surfaced in the ongoing presidential campaign, nor did a champion emerge to forward our cause.

And that enormous outcry to Imus' slurring African-American women as, um, whores? Again, that came from us, though in defending the women, we got dirtied ourselves (it's distasteful even to write the word "whore") — a consequence of fighting pigs in mud. And, while we care about things like honor, dignity and good name, to call women whores and claim it's just a free-speech issue, as Imus did, is to be so uncaring of the injury inflicted as to be psychopathic. (Fittingly, one of the women slurred is now suing Imus for defamation.) And what came of our protest? More celeb-a-thons followed.

Pigs, mud, whores, strippers: Contrasted with the prayerful hope that, in response to 9/11, our best would come forth, what sorry ruin. Instead, the worst in the American character is reflected back at us: the warrior bombast, the vulgarity, a cash-register ethic, Melville's confidence man as national type. That this cruel farce stretches into Year Six portends, in our eyes, tragedy. We should be well past the post-shock need for distraction, a role celebrity fills. But the warmup act won't leave the stage.

"Only a good thing can be abused," goes a French proverb. We conscientious see a great and good thing — the idea of America — being abused, wrecked, and it breaks our hearts, also our health: Burning shame — made more acute in light of the high achievement of the World War II generation — on top of protesting, petitioning, mentoring, and starting new organizations and Web sites, even running for office, takes a toll.

The strain of it all is causing some conscientious to consider leaving the United States; as one soon-to-be expatriate told me, "I can't bear to watch this great country destroy itself." But, most of us are sticking — we have to, we're conscientious — and, sticking, we are emboldened to ask: Why is all our various action, over which we're knocking ourselves out, not to mention our heartbreak and strained checkbooks (we are overdonating to our watchdog organizations), weighted so much less than mere passive consumer choice (for, say, more pix of Anna Nicole Smith)?

And, consider the despair of the conscientious veteran. The New York Times recently wrote of a vet, home from Iraq, who now advocates for brain-damaged comrades: "And day after day [he] has to grind his teeth at how swiftly, how vapidly the occasional news of troubled veterans is bumped aside by a deluge of bulletins about Paris Hilton or some other this-just-in frippery. 'It's staggering, sickening,' he says. 'There are days I scream at the television — lives are being taken, families left in heartbreak.' " No doubt this vet wonders, "What was I fighting for?"

What infuriates is that this egregious situation is rigged ... and the commentariat has to know that. To bump news of troubled vets in favor of "frippery" reflects the monetized "celebrity sells" bias of the media's corporate owners. Instead of bashing the conscientious public for something we never wanted, pundits should bash their bosses for pushing meretricious product (and their hack colleagues for reporting it and their editors for assigning it). Also, they might ponder their corporate owners' motives in accelerating the inanity as the ruin deepens. But that's a profile in media courage we seldom see.

Where the conscientious public does get respect is in the editorial. There we are appealed to, in moral voice, about the important things — i.e., America's moral fall.

Yet, elsewhere in the same venue, even in prestige ones, the moral line is chucked and we read of "kinky chic"; the pornographer as entrepreneur; critics' thumbs up to the latest sleaze (e.g., the TV series "Californication") — and see ourselves again "dissed," as "prudes" and "righteous" and (new epithet) "pearl clutchers" if we object. This is the worst hypocrisy — moral hypocrisy — yet it goes uncommented upon. Analyze that, please.

But, apart from respect, getting squared on terminology is crucial, because perception is reality. And the commentariat, dealing in ideas, helps shape perception, also capacity: To brand a people with their worst traits is to cripple their capacity to recover their path, govern themselves, solve complex problems.

When global warming was declared fact by the world's scientific community some months ago, three of the six TV screens at my gym featured endless loops of Anna Nicole Smith — not confidence-building, considering the gathering storm(s) coming at us.

In a word: The conscientious public cares about the commonweal, while the celebrity-starved does not.

Happily, the conscientious public is making its point, or rather history is making it for us: A big and growing majority of Americans now opposes the Iraq war. And, finally, torture is being addressed: The recent attorney general confirmation hearings focused on waterboarding, the presidential candidates are being forced to take a stand, and a month ago a group of World War II interrogators broke silence to condemn this administration's use of torture.

More than celebrity-gazing, it's these two matters — when and why we wage war; how we treat people in our custody — that define who we are as a people and what we are fighting for. Will we have that defining moment — or more drivel? The next celeb-a-thon, featuring a couple from the UK named Beckham, is already under way, and O.J. Simpson has made yet another comeback.

Six years after 9/11, patterns are being set — bad ones. Let's stop the suicide now. At its simplest, the remedy is a matter of lighting: Just as the commentariat has ignored the conscientious public, it could ignore the next celeb-a-thon — simply kill the lights, for what's celebrity without its lights, its stage?

At the same time, this spitball into the commentariat's cubicle is to demand: Hey, over here, pay attention to us, the conscientious. For we are fighting for the nation's conscience and the commonweal. It's also to remind: Print is forever and history takes names.

Carla Seaquist, a playwright based in Gig Harbor, is author of "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks," among other works. Her Web address is www.carlaseaquist.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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