So I’m at the gym and one of the TVs is tuned to Fox News, which I choose to watch because the other options are all reality TV shows about the hardships of blandly pretty rich white women, and at least the blandly pretty rich white people on Fox have the theoretical potential to talk about something important, and anyway I don’t need to justify this part of the decision. It was on. I was watching it.

While I’m at the gym and watching Fox News, what they’re talking about on Fox News is this: they’re talking about pork. Specifically, Shepard Smith is reporting on a story about pork being loaded with “stomach turning germs.” And at some point halfway through, I become so despondent, so utterly disappointed in our culture, so heartbroken by how dumb we’ve allowed ourselves to become, that I leave my body, I watch from above as my body collapses and gets tangled in the elliptical machine, and well-meaning people rush over to revive me but I don’t want to be revived because this is the truth: watching my body from above my body, I’m thinking if this is how god damn stupid we are, if I’m allowing it to perpetuate, if I’m partly culpable for the way we’re now incapable of talking about anything in an honest adult way, then I don’t deserve to be revived and we might as well all leave our own bodies and go somewhere, anywhere that is not here.

The report is here, but you should not watch it.

The summary is this: Shepard Smith, sometimes known as Shep, ostensibly a newsman, needs to warn you that the pork you’re about to eat may be tainted. He further warns you that the symptoms he’s about to read are “gross” and makes the sound a child makes when he does not want to eat peas. The symptoms of eating tainted meat are what you already know they are: fever, cramps, etc. But also, and this is what has Shep so shaken: bloody diarrhea. Oh my god. Bloody diarrhea, he says again, incapable of hiding his disgust and sophomoric glee in saying a word like diarrhea.

Let’s admit the condition and the story of tainted meat both sound kind of frightening, at first, until you think even for a moment and realize that this major news organization is using its prime hours during a time of major international upheaval to report that eating undercooked meats can make you sick. Because that’s all this story is, as Shep says in the next sentence. If the meat is cooked correctly, you’re fine.

Okay, story over. Let’s move on to other things we learned when we were ten, like how to combine fractions and how lightning is a manifestation of god’s rage.

Or let’s call in an exceedingly patient doctor and have her answer this completely necessary question: “What are we supposed to do? I mean, if you overcook the pig, it’s not as good as if you cook it kind of… normal.”  When the doctor explains the very basic and obvious concept that there is a fucking middle ground, I swear to you the thing he says in response is this:

“I like bacon to be crisp.”

He says this presumably because he is only 25% human and the other 75% is Labrador, in which case his response is perfectly adequate and even reasonable, and it would have also been acceptable for him to say something like, “When the sun comes up it eats the moon,” or “I usually breath through my faceholes.”

Next, he asks the doctor whether this means we can no longer allow our pork blood to drip onto the counter and cooking surfaces. The doctor patiently explains the basic reality of cooking to him, but then we reach the point at which I leave my body, which is the moment when he returns to the bloody diarrhea and actually asks if people should be freaking out.

You may have already guessed the answer, but I will tell you the answer: the answer is no. The answer is people should cook their meat to the proper temperature and they will be fine. The answer is we all already know this and have for many years.

But what about bacon? Shep would like to ask another inane question about bacon and I’m sorry but I cannot watch this video again and the fact that I even saw it in the first place is obviously some kind of cosmic punishment for evils I must have committed in a past life, a penance for a blight on my soul, and I know you’re thinking that I’m overreacting, especially considering that I saw this video yesterday and have been talking about it since, have already gone on rants about it to students in two of my classes and to my wife and to a lesser extent to my dog, and it’s only 4-minutes of inanity out of a 24 hour news broadcast, but that’s the thing, isn’t it?

It’s not just 4 minutes of inanity.

It is a microcosm of everything we do on TV, it is a perfect demonstration of the terrible depths to which we’ve sunk our public discourse. It is a grown man prattling on about bacon and asking a doctor to explain incredibly basic concepts about bacteria to an audience of presumably competent adults, and we all just accept it, even though it may be literally the least essential story the most watched news network in the country could be reporting  while people are dying and cities are crumbling and our nation is facing any number of impending crises.

Watching Shep’s thorough investigation of the various ways one can consume bacon, I was undone by the thought that not only is it acceptable to conduct public dialogue at a third grade level, but it’s encouraged, it’s what we’re paying them to do, it’s what millions of people were watching simultaneously with me but instead of leaving their bodies and instead of wanting to put a hole in something they were nodding along and saying yes, I like bacon too, this is a good news show because the man on the news show likes bacon like I like bacon.

It’s not about Fox News, this essay. It’s not about 24-hour news networks or The Today Show or Good Morning America. It’s about the way we tell stories, the way we’re afraid to engage with reality. For every second spent on that insipid story about how raw meat is less good for you than cooked meat, for every decision we make to comfort ourselves with the familiar and simple, for every word spilled by Shep onto the airwaves, there is a cost to us, and it’s manifested in our abject inability to grapple with the major issues that are plaguing us, the debts and wars and poverty and terror, the fear we feel when we’re confronted by something true and difficult and complex.

So what this post is, is the creeping sense that our culture is not only unwilling but actually incapable of engaging in earnest, intelligent conversation about anything beyond the sex lives of celebrities and the status of fantasy sports teams. It’s the desperate notion that this is the best we can do, and nobody even cares. It’s me lashing out because I’m afraid if I don’t then I’ll just blithely accept it all too, that I’ll forget the importance of and if that happens, I may as well have left my body because there’s nothing here for us anyway.

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TOM MCALLISTER is the author of the memoir Bury Me in My Jersey and the novel The Young Widower's Handbook. He is the Non-fiction editor of Barrelhouse, and his shorter work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Hobart, Black Warrior Review, FiveChapters, and a number of other other places. He also co-hosts the Book Fight podcast (bookfightpod.com). Follow him on Twitter @t_mcallister

5 responses to “Bloody Diarrhea, Crispy Bacon, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves”

  1. Don Mitchell says:

    “. . . there is a cost to us, and it’s manifested in our abject inability to grapple with the major issues that are plaguing us, the debts and wars and poverty and terror, the fear we feel when we’re confronted by something true and difficult and complex.”

    Well put. And beyond sad. I don’t know what to do about it, beyond trotting out another observation: it starts with the children.

    Nobody’s going to be able to fix what you describe by working with, haranguing, cajoling, or bribing any significant portion of the adults whose worldview you describe.

    But the kids? They offer the only avenue.

  2. MJ Broderick says:

    This is the best piece I have read in a while…Amen to all of the above.

  3. M Paylor says:

    Hilariously written and well said! I came to a similar realization after reading an article about how the average politician addresses the public using the language of an 8th grader. It’s insulting, really. However, what can we expect if we don’t demand more of our government officials, media, entertainment, and ourselves?

  4. Thanks for the nice feedback, everybody.
    Agreed 100%, MP, on political language; the more willing we are to accept their abject abuse of the language itself, the more obsequious the media is to them all, the more likely we are to see further decline.

    It’s hard to be vigilant about this stuff all the time, but I think it’s important for everyone to step back from their hectic lives now and then and demand that media/politicians start speaking to us like adults.

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