Opinion | The War in Ukraine Has Our Attention. Will It Last?

WASHINGTON — Please, Kim Kardashian, don’t run off with Pete Davidson.

We’re already distracted by the wonder of Ketanji Brown Jackson and the gaffe of Will Smith, the arrival of dreamy spring days and the return of the dreaded mask rules.

If we have one more shiny object to behold, I’m afraid our support for Ukraine could waver. Do we have the attention span to stay focused on the Russian descent into pure evil?

Using brutal methods honed in other conflicts, the Russians are committing ever more brazen atrocities; they are raping and killing civilians. On Friday, fleeing civilians were targeted at a train station in eastern Ukraine, where a missile psychopathically labeled “For our children” killed at least 50 people and injured nearly 100.

“Why do they need to attack civilians with missiles? Why this cruelty? Volodymyr Zelensky asked the Finnish Parliament on Friday, adding: “Sometimes, you think if they are human.”

He pleaded, “Hate has to lose.”

But do we move on? Moving on, after all, is America’s favorite thing to do. And technology has exacerbated our nervous consciousness and tabloid culture. We now live in a world of nothing but distractions, with a storm of stimuli.

We have a way of turning everything into trends. Once, there were causes. Now, there are trends. “You’re in style” is the most important compliment you can give someone, or the biggest alarm you can sound. If something is fashionable, no matter what, it deserves the highest commercial respect.

But trends are transitory, by definition. American attention goes from transitory to transitory to transitory. A lifetime of ephemeral. We used to have thought leaders; now we have influencers.

It’s a cognitive challenge, but can we find ways to keep our attention on things that require our attention? Do we have any mental discipline at all?

Consider climate change. We can stick to our concern when California and Colorado are burning. But then the fires die down and we move on to the next thing, the next trend. Crises are not trends.

Look at energy independence. We stop at it when the Saudi crown prince sends a team to dismember Jamal Khashoggi or when Vladimir Putin shows the monster he is in Ukraine. But then the inconstancy of our attention span comes into play. High gas prices? Make peace with the monsters. “Biden needs to reconcile with Saudi Arabia, or China will win,” read the headline of Karen Elliott House’s article in The Wall Street Journal.

To add to the distraction, Putin creates his own alternate reality in Russia, as Donald Trump does here, with those susceptible to his lies. The Russians denied attacking the train station in eastern Ukraine. They say that the Ukrainians are immolating themselves.

I called Jaron Lanier, known as the father of virtual reality, to ask him about this.

“It takes a lot of energy to process a big lie compared to a small lie, so the big lie actually has a better chance of coming through,” he said from his home in Berkeley, California. “I think, in the same sense, just the degree of atrocity and evil is difficult for us to process.”

He shared his philosophy that, throughout history, when politics, culture, and technology become too sophisticated and theoretical, they tend to lose staying power and brutality creeps in.

“The Bolsheviks had this sophisticated, wildly sophisticated rhetoric and all these complicated ideas,” Lanier said. “They were building their own socio-economy. Then basically what happened is Stalin came in and said, ‘No, it’s really just about violence and domination, and to hell with all that.’

“I think the current wave of populism has that character,” Lanier added. “The finer and finer gradations of thinking on all sorts of topics, like gender and intersectionality and this theory and that theory, are so sophisticated that they require a lot of patience. It is too innate to be robust. Then this very raw stuff comes in.

“There are increasingly sophisticated conversations about how we are going to make blockchain, non-fungible tokens and cryptocurrencies, with contracts built into their algorithms. Personally, I think this very elegant approach to technology goes in the same direction as cultures or politics becoming too sophisticated and too conceited.

“Basically, the Russians came in and said, ‘To hell with all your ideas. We’re just going to brutally take these things and use them for energy. Putin’s psychological agents looked at all the things we do on social media and said: ‘We will just step in and use that to weaken you. We don’t care about these ideas.

“I think ideals are great, but idealists who get too involved with their own sense of becoming more sophisticated to hone their schemes? I think then it goes back to brutality.”

As he hung up the phone, Lanier offered a note of optimism about Trump, Putin and their ilk: “One of the great truths of history is that the great deceivers also deceive themselves.”

We live in a world of easy trickery and endless distractions. Solidarity with Ukraine is in fashion now, but will it last? Real solidarity is not a fashion. It’s a compromise. Can the Ukrainians count on us? Or are we going to let them down while our attention wanders?

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