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

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

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

If we get one more shiny object to contemplate, I fear our support for Ukraine might waver. Do we have the attention span to stay focused on the Russian descent into pure evil?

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

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

He pleaded, “Hatred has to lose.”

But are we moving on? Moving on, after all, is the favorite American activity. And technology has exacerbated our twitchy consciousness and sensationalist culture. We now live in a world of nothing but distractions, with a blizzard of stimuli.

We have a way of turning everything into trends. Once, there were causes. Now, there are trends. “You’re trending” is the highest compliment you can pay someone — or the biggest alarm you can sound. If something is trending, no matter what, it commands the highest commercial respect.

But trends are transient, by definition. American attention goes from transient to transient to transient. A lifetime of ephemera. 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 with our concern when California and Colorado are burning to a crisp. But then the fires burn out and we move on to the next thing, the next trend. Crises are not trends.

Look at energy independence. We dwell on it when the Saudi crown prince sends a team to dismember Jamal Khashoggi or when Vladimir Putin shows what a monster he is in Ukraine. But then the fickleness of our attention span kicks in. High gas prices? Make peace with the monsters. “Biden Needs to Make Up With Saudi Arabia, or China Will Gain,” read the headline on Karen Elliott House’s piece in The Wall Street Journal.

To add to the distraction, Putin creates his own alternative reality in Russia, as Donald Trump does here, with those susceptible to his lies. The Russians denied striking the train station in eastern Ukraine. They claim the Ukrainians are blowing themselves up.

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 little lie, and so the big lie actually has a better chance of sailing through,” he said from his home in Berkeley, Calif. “I think, in the same sense, just the degree of atrocity and evil is hard for us to process.”

He shared his philosophy that, through history, when politics, culture and technology get too fancy and theoretical, they tend to lose staying power and brutality breaks through.

“The Bolsheviks had this tremendously sophisticated, fancy rhetoric and all of these complicated ideas,” Lanier said. “They were building their own socioeconomics. Then, basically what happened is, Stalin came in and said, ‘No, it’s really just about violence and domination, and screw all that.’

“I think the current wave of populism has that character,” Lanier added. “The ever finer gradations of thought on all kinds of issues, like gender and intersectionality and this theory and that theory, it’s so sophisticated that it requires a lot of patience. It’s too inbred to be robust. So this very crude thing comes in.

“There’s more and more sophisticated talk about how we’re going to do blockchain, nonfungible tokens and cryptocurrencies, with contracts built in in its algorithms. I’m personally of the belief that this very fancy approach to technology is headed in the same direction as cultures or politics that get too fancy and too full of themselves.

“Basically, the Russians came in and said, ‘Screw all of your ideas. We’re just going to brutally take this stuff over and use it for power.’ Putin’s psychological operatives looked at all the stuff we do on social media and said, ‘We’ll 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 getting more sophisticated to perfect their schemes? I think then it reverts to brutality.”

As he got off the phone, Lanier offered one 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 deceit and endless distractions. Solidarity with Ukraine is trending now, but will it last? Real solidarity is not a trend. It’s a commitment. Can the Ukrainians count on us? Or are we going to let them down as our attention wanders?

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