April 4, 2012

As always, there were important things going on in the world the last few weeks. You probably didn’t hear about them, though. The biggest news story, the story that everyone was talking about, was the crime sweeping the country: People are stealing Tide detergent from stores and using the detergent to buy drugs. They’re running into supermarkets, shoving Tide under their coats, and in some cases, running out the door to getaway cars with shopping carts full of detergent.

According to the news stories, desperate store managers are attaching anti-theft devices to the bottles and wondering why Tide doesn’t come with serial numbers, the way iPods do, so they can be tracked. Local news departments were rushing out to find out whether Tide had been stolen in their areas, too.

This is one of those stories that I don’t know what to think of. There’s almost no data to back it up. I might be impressed if they said “National sales figures show that Tide theft is up 87 percent in the past six weeks” or even “Tide theft established in 12 states,” but there’s nothing like that. And some of it seems a little hard to believe. Tide, and Tide alone, is being stolen. Evidently, the distinctive orange bottle is attractive to thieves, and people who buy stolen detergent from drug addicts in alleys are really particular about how their clothes smell. I began to wonder whether this tidal wave of crime was real or whether the American public is being taken to the cleaners. (I’m sorry. It is my responsibility not to let easy puns like that get away.)

The media come up with silly, pointless stories just to distract us from our real problems. They think they’re doing it as a public service, the way that adults try to distract a child with a skinned knee by making funny faces. The week before the Tide story took over, we were being inundated with updates on the dangers of the “Cinnamon Challenge.” In case you missed it, kids across the country have been challenging each other to try to swallow an entire spoon of cinnamon. It’s impossible and leads to teenagers spewing clouds of cinnamon across your kitchen and parents coming home to kitchens covered in spices. It’s not important, and it’s not worth telling you about, but it gets headlines.

The week before that, the story that got the most attention was a video of an angry dad shooting his daughter’s laptop with a pistol because she had been disrespectful to him on Facebook. Again, unless you are this guy’s daughter or a social services worker in the hick town where they live, the story shouldn’t really matter. But it gets airplay, and it’s all we’ll talk about. We’ll do national polls and have the father do a media tour to discuss the merits of laptop shootings. (I vote no.)

This stuff is all designed to distract us from the real problems out there, the stuff we can’t, or won’t, do anything about. In case nobody remembers, our actual problems haven’t gone anywhere. We’re running out of fuel, our planet is supposedly getting warmer by the minute and we have at least two wars we’ve started but can’t seem to finish. Those of you who have enough guts to actually open the envelope when the 401(k) statement comes will know that your retirements are moving further and further off into the distance. Many of you are hoping that when you get old, Walmart will still hire people too old to stock shelves to work as greeters. You will see all your friends there because they’ll be stopping by to pick up cat food — for their own dinners. Your kids might still go to college, but when they get out, there aren’t jobs for them, and they’ll be saddled with so much debt that they’ll have to steal truckloads of Tide just to get by.

But none of us wants to hear about that stuff. It’s too hard to deal with, and it makes us feel a little nauseous. Instead we’d rather focus on, and talk about, stupid news stories.

I, for one, am going to look at the Tide-stealing story as an opportunity. Maybe I can fund my retirement by getting into the black market detergent trade. You can find me in the nearest dark alley, bottles poking out from under my raincoat. I had better get to my local market as soon as possible, though. Time, and Tide, wait for no one.