Perhaps you heard recently when Al Gore observed that the country was too celebrity-obsessed. This, he said, was too distracting to the hoi polloi — or the Boobus Americanus, if you incline more toward Mencken's own Latin assessment of our citizenry — from caring about issues that really matter.
Shortly thereafter, though, Jack Shafer, a media columnist for Slate, the online magazine, suggested that the former vice president had missed the greater target.
"If (Gore) possessed any real courage," Shafer wrote, "he'd attack sports coverage" — which, the columnist estimated, must eat up 20 percent of every newspaper's editorial budget.
Fair criticism? Are sports fans really lotus eaters? Well, to be sure, there are an awful lot of featherbrained fans who could rattle off the entire roster of the Kansas City Royals before they could name their own congressman.
But somehow I doubt that these folks would suddenly become as acutely involved as informed citizens if, tomorrow, all sports coverage instantly ceased. Probably, in fact, their new devotion would be to something more base, like pornography.
On the other hand, while a lot of intelligent folks do think sports are serious business, I doubt that anybody who even conscientiously follows the high jinks of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, et al. ever believes that that stuff really matters. It's just a benign retreat from reality.
Actually, although God knows this irony surely didn't occur to Mr. Gore, he was really, unintentionally, singling out women. Yes, it is they, far more than men, who tune in the celebrity programs and buy the gossip magazines. No, please, neither am I dumb enough to castigate women en masse, but I do think that a proportionate devotion to sports — a population which numbers more men, by far — is a healthier escape than the predilection for dunking into the world of boldface.
But remember this, perhaps above all, about sports. In our culture, sports is now the only entertainment where popularity and excellence thrive in tandem. The best movies, the best plays, the best books, the best art, the best music are never nowadays what attracts the most attention. As a matter of fact, popular culture is too often dominated by junk, while true brilliance goes unappreciated.
But sport is different. Those who care about sports are connoisseurs. The best and most artistic and most graceful of the genre is what attracts the most devotion. Paying attention to excellence is so rare in this tacky universe. Sports is the only discipline — on the whole earth, so far as I know — where mass and class are still conjoined.
That doesn't absolve the many abuses in sport. It doesn't excuse the fans who impart too much of their lives to a mere diversion. It does, though, distinguish sport and elevate it above our other popular entertainments.