Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.
Remember Afghanistan? Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Afghanistan—or more specifically, the aftermath of America’s failed twenty-year-long war there—was attracting intense scrutiny, both in the United States and elsewhere.
And rightly so. The victorious Taliban were reimposing their ultraconservative version of Islam, with women in particular subjected to its draconian restrictions. The Afghan economy was in shambles. Banks had closed. Food and medicine were in short supply. Afghans who had supported United States and coalition forces struggled desperately to flee.
To all of this, the media bore righteous witness. Implicit in the news reports coming out of Kabul and other parts of the country was an insistence that the United States could not simply walk away from Afghanistan—could not absolve itself of responsibility for what was occurring there following the final, humiliating departure of U.S. troops. Then came Vladimir Putin’s reckless decision to undertake a war of choice in Ukraine. With that, Afghanistan disappeared from the headlines, its travails ignored or reclassified as possessing negligible salience.
We confront here one of the underappreciated paradoxes of the so-called Information Age. On the one hand, the typical laptop or cell phone provides almost instant access to a seemingly infinite universe of knowledge and commentary. On the other hand, at any particular moment, media gatekeepers choose to highlight a small handful of topics with everything else consigned to the margins. The “CNN effect,” as it used to be called, has returned with a vengeance.
Typically, topics receiving attention are those that have occurred within the previous twenty-four hours. Meanwhile, those that occurred in the prior twenty-four days or twenty-four weeks—forget about months—are ignored or simply forgotten. The boundless availability of information thereby impedes actual understanding. It kills perspective.