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Jewish World Review Aug. 5, 1999 /24 Av 5759

Bob Greene

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The national gaper's
block is always jammed --
DEEP THINKERS are asking aloud what we have learned recently about life, about death, about the fleeting nature of wealth, fame and power.

The answer is: probably not much.

What we have learned about ourselves, on the other hand -- as if we needed more evidence of this -- is that as the 20th Century nears its end, we as a nation have become one giant gaper's block.

It's what we do best; at times, it seems as if it's all we do. Like gawkers at an accident scene (except it doesn't always require an accident to bring this out in us), like motorists ignoring the horns of other drivers so we can passively stare at someone else's problem (except it doesn't always require a problem to draw our stares -- absent a problem, flashing lights or garish colors will do it), we drop everything, as if hypnotized, to gape. Our national concentration span is tiny; the usual half-life of the things that stop us in our tracks is around six days. After which we wait to gape at something else.

Those literal gaper's blocks -- backed-up stretches of road filled with people slowing down to stare -- were local. The national gaper's block knows no boundaries. At least on the literal gaper's blocks, a gaper had to have worked up the energy to be in an automobile in order to participate. The new coast-to-coast gaper's block requires nothing more than sitting back on the couch, or in bed, in one's own home, aiming the remote control device, and gaping day after day, night after night, until there is something newer to gape at.

The literal gaper's blocks had traffic cops who would try in vain to move the gapers along, to get them out of there. The traffic cops on the national gaper's block -- glib, attractive men and women employed by television networks -- serve a function that is almost the exact opposite. Far from wanting the gapers to move on, these video traffic cops are desperate for the gapers to stop, to stare, to stay. They don't say it -- the anchors and correspondents who function as traffic cops often wear expressions of deep concern and sober gravity -- but they would be very disturbed if all of a sudden the gapers decided to go away. Without the gapers, what would they do?

What's that you say? That there are plenty of other stories that people would be interested in?

Oh, but you don't understand. There is no longer much tapestry in the news coverage of our national life; a tapestry can be confusing. The gaper's blocks form for one event at a time. Death of a princess, murder trial of a former football player, retirement of a basketball star, hate-crime shootings by a disturbed loner, soccer victory by a team of Americans -- most of the gaper's blocks form for grim events, some for happy ones, a few for events that are merely interesting, but the inviolable rule is that they form one event at a time. Everyone in the country must gape at once -- everyone must react to the same stimuli. There is a certain orderliness to the gaping, and the order revolves around the single vision of the stare.

If the non-stop media coverage of the Kennedy tragedy seemed exhausting, then you may be forgetting that you have been through similar weeks before -- the tragedy was different, the names were not the same, but you were there. You weren't invited -- the people being stared at during weeks like this have far more serious things to worry about than whether they are being gazed upon, but if they were to be asked, you can bet that they would prefer that a curtain be drawn -- but no invitations are necessary. The original gaper's blocks were always the products of two accidents -- an accident involving automobiles, and the accident of these particular gapers having chanced to drive by at just this moment.

The new gaper's block does not depend on chance. You don't have to be driving by. The accident will come to you. Often supported by commercial sponsors.

Why do we gape? Why do we -- millions, all at once -- stop and gawk? Is it in pursuit of history? Enlightenment? Sociological meaning?

No. It's just something to do.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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