High-Tech, High-Speed Boost for Moral Outrage Index

February 14, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. Those of a certain age will remember the Misery Index, a compound of the inflation and unemployment rates. If there were such a thing as a Moral Outrage Index (MOI), it would surely be setting new records these days.

Misery has lost its cachet, but outrages are in surplus. New ones are born daily even as old ones live on. There are outrages for every sensibility, and for every ideological shading.

For example, we read that General Motors for several years sold to the public pickup trucks that could, in certain types of accidents, burst into flame. Can you believe the heartlessness of American capitalism? Outrage!

And then we read that in its zeal to demonstrate the wickedness of General Motors, NBC News, the People's Defender, went Hollywood. NBC crashed a couple of General Motors pickups, first secretly equipping them with radio-controlled model-rocket engines to make sure the explosions were sufficiently fiery. What other reports do you suppose they faked? Outrage!

President Clinton, in his campaign a dove on immigration, decides after his election to deny refugee status to Haitians fleeing their squalid homeland. Outrage!

Meanwhile, the latest crime-of-the-week among the political class becomes the employment of illegal immigrants as domestic workers. This practice hasn't yet been accorded permanent outrage status, however, perhaps because it is as cherished by Washington's yuppie press caste as a good puppydog barbecue is by our South Korean allies. NBC News should investigate.

Then, closer to home, we have the matter of John Arnick, which started a lot of local adrenalin pumping this past week. Mr. Arnick, beloved in Dundalk, is a former legislator recently appointed by Governor Schaefer to be a judge. While still in the General Assembly he made the serious mistake of inviting two politically-savvy women to dinner and then being himself.

His guests have reported his colorful words and attitudes to the astonished world, and as a result the yet-unconfirmed judge's name became a household word and his career prospects rather less promising than if he had made it a practice to dine alone. Outrage! Outrage! Outrage!

The radio call-in shows accurately reflect the swelling public fury over all this, although they can't quantify it; only one caller can fume at a time, after all, and there's no way to tell how many are waiting in line. Jammed switchboards in government offices are an even more powerful indicator.

During the Zoe Baird confirmation hearings, for example, Washington politicians were overwhelmed and held briefly incommunicado by the torrent of incoming telephone calls. According to the New Yorker, on the morning after the presidential inauguration it was impossible to reach any Senate office by phone, so tremendous was the No-to-Zoe babble.

(The New Yorker also reported, exclusively, that when Senator Joseph Biden told Ms. Baird her nomination as attorney general was in trouble, "tears welled up in [her] eyes, and her voice quavered." This issue of the magazine is easy to find on the news stand. It's the one with a cover painting depicting a Hasidic Jew embracing an African-American woman -- in a celebration, an editor's note explains, of Valentine's Day.)

To a degree, the outrage generated by crises of this sort is simply a product of technology. Information flows so fast and freely these days that minor events or offhand comments can become worldwide topics of discussion within hours. Responses then come pouring in, not by telegram or letter as they used to, but by telephone or e-mail or fax.

What these instant responses lose in thoughtfulness they more than make up in credibility. Because they clearly can't be the work of organized campaigns, politicians tend to take them more seriously than mass-produced postcards.

Thus the idea of a formal electronic link between the national government and the country, proposed by Ross Perot during the campaign and subsequently embraced by Mr. Clinton, seems to be gaining support. As 800-number technology can handle 10,000 calls every ten seconds, why not give it a whirl?

If we could all talk to the president, after a fashion, whenever we wanted to, it might be reassuring. On the other hand, some of us would probably ring up just to tell him and Hillary the latest about John Arnick, and that probably wouldn't do either the nation or the reputation of Dundalk much good.

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