Syndicated columnist Victor Davis Hanson just made a damned fool of himself. I came across him in last Friday’s Tribune wondering “Why do we care about this transient fluff?” as if that’s something new to ask. As if it isn’t a question that’s haunted journalists forever, one that preoccupied bloggers and the MSM alike when the death of Anna Nicole Smith became the biggest story in the world.

“After all,” moaned Hanson, who cited Smith, Don Imus, the Rosie O’Donnell-Donald Trump feud, and Alec Baldwin’s spat with his daughter as evidence that Americans will think about anything before they think about anything serious, “it’s not as if there hasn’t been real news this spring.”

Poor Hanson. He’s old enough to remember when things were different. Did you know that when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor all comic strips disappeared overnight from American newspapers, college football was suspended, and Hollywood stars demanded submarine duty? Did you know that during the depths of the Korean war signs were posted on the doors of taverns that said “If you’re not prepared to discuss the Inchon landing, we don’t want your business”? Did you know that during the Vietnam war college students swore off drugs and drinking and instead held what were called “teach-ins,” where the great issues of war and peace were discussed and Americans never felt so united?

Those were the days.

Or is my memory playing tricks?

Hanson got my hopes up when he wrote that Smith and the others “are the modern equivalents of grotesque carnival freak shows that used to provide a perverse sense of escapism from what people dare not face.” That’s when I thought he was on his way to saying something actually useful. Maybe he’d suggest that transient fluff serves a purpose, giving the public respite from critical issues like war and terror it can do little about. Maybe he’d articulate how it helps us consign our heavy-duty troubles to our subconscious, where most productive thinking takes place.

But no. In Hanson’s view, “tabloid distraction” doesn’t help us live with the world’s “real dangers,” it just lets us “ignore” them. Thus, it plays into the hands of the world’s malevolent schemers. “The ghosts of Anna Nicole, foul-mouthed Rosie and trash-talking Imus,” Hanson concluded, “turn out to be the best friends Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Putin have.”

Wow! I thought. And Hanson doesn’t know the half of it. When word spread through Chicago of the rap song the Bears’ new tight end recorded as a frosh in college, the city’s usual laserlike focus on great urban issues faltered for a week. For playing into the hands of Those Who Wish America Ill, Greg Olsen is lucky not to have bought himself a cell in Guantanamo.

And yet what Hanson frets about matters. Any serious journalist is puzzled from time to time (read: chronically) by the public’s distractibility. For instance, a video the Reader put online a couple of weeks ago didn’t stand Chicago on its ear. If the sight of a cop gratuitously shooting a bystander in the head sends barely a ripple through the city–and through the city’s media, for that matter–I have to wonder, what wavelength is everyone on? The wholesale indifference to the police torture scandal, which the Reader’s John Conroy’s been pounding away at since 1990 (he’s at it again in this very issue), puzzles me. Maybe it’s just not a scandal. How can it be, when judging from their inertia, most people seem to consider the use of electric shock to squeeze false confessions from innocent men a mere technical violation of police procedures that protect us, one and all?

On April 29 the Tribune’s Perspective section carried a piece by Rob Warden of Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions that called police torture “an indelible stain on the Daley legacy.” It must be one of those below-the-belt stains people don’t notice. Warden expected letters damning him and letters damning Daley, but there were virtually none.

Warden reached out to someone who would share his pain. “As a society,” he wrote Conroy, “we will not tolerate racist utterances from Imus or Jimmy the Greek. Absolutely unconscionable, unforgivable. Yet Imus and the Greek didn’t torture anyone or tacitly condone it, didn’t convict or condemn anyone who was innocent. . . . Daley could ignore and then publicly deny the torture and still be elected mayor. . . . [Richard Devine] graduates to state’s attorney, [William] Kunkle gets elected to the Circuit Court although he not only defended Burge as a lawyer but went to a Burge fund-raiser. Meanwhile, we banish Imus and the Greek for stupid racist remarks for which they apologized. Daley, Devine, and Kunkle have not apologized to this day.”

Libraries could be built entirely of commentaries on the human facility for disengaging from reality, yet much about this condition remains a mystery. No one’s immune. I slipped into the Conrad Black trial last week during a break and found myself pinned between two grizzled press veterans. “What do you think?” asked the reporter to my left. “He’ll make all the difference,” said the reporter to my right. “What is he, about 6-6? You can’t ignore someone that big.” Since I’d rushed to the courtroom to watch the next witness, I assumed it was Big Jim Thompson they were anticipating. It wasn’t. Their minds were on Olsen, the Bears’ top draft choice. And after a few hours submerged in the trial’s complexities my own brain went on holiday too. “Is the judge married?” I asked a regular. A finalist a few years ago in an online judicial hotties survey, Judge Amy St. Eve was recently hailed by a Toronto correspondent as “surely one of the perkiest judges in America.” I’m guessing that every male lawyer in the courtroom has a crush on her, and that when she cuts short a procedural squabble by telling them “You guys work it out,” they’re as eager to please as the first graders Miss Peach asks to pass out the crayons.

Transient fluff? Damned straight. But rest assured, at no time in my meanderings did the big questions–the ones about right and wrong, guilt and innocence, good and evil–stop churning in my subconscious. And that’s what commentators like Victor Davis Hanson don’t get when they pen their critiques of American fatuity.

Hanson’s the type who’d dismiss a new-wave paper like the Tribune’s Red Eye for being stuffed to the gills with transient fluff. He wants the focus on what journalism-school deans might term “the stuff adults are supposed to know” (stuff like what’s going on in the world). But though our minds wander, we’re not a stupid people. We don’t read Red Eye to think; we read it to forestall thinking until we get to the office, drink coffee, and turn on our computers. Deep thoughts on the el at 8 AM are wasted thoughts.

Besides, my problem with police torture, or Hanson’s with America’s trillion-dollar debt to China and Japan, has nothing to do with the allure of transient fluff. We’re not distracted from either problem. We’re simply not facing them. If we did we’d have to do something, Americans being folks who shoulder their responsibilities. And mere posturing, which is plenty good enough for a Don Imus or Greg Olsen, wouldn’t do.

There’s a time and a place for getting serious, and I can say from recent personal experience that April in Vienna qualifies. When you’re a Chicagoan in Vienna, meditating on the world’s tangled affairs and coolly assessing the moral corruption of your hometown, a copy of the International Herald Tribune alongside an espresso on your table, Anna Nicole Smith and Alec Baldwin both shrink in significance. A Chicagoan in Vienna sees the world with 20-20 clarity. The world is like a movie.

And even in this altered and heightened state, the joys of fluff don’t lose all their value. As much of an IHT loyalist as I am, I still spend more time on the crossword puzzle than the editorial page.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Anna Nicole Smith and some Middle Eastern guy photos/Matthew Peyton/Getty Images (Smith), Ata Kenare/AFP/Getty Images (Ashmadinejad).