Now and then, we choose the most convenient prism through which to view our most serious social problems, however superficially, because it comes packaged in equal doses of celebrity and infamy.
There is a drug crisis in most states, but it hardly registers until Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's drooling visage fills the TV screen or actor Philip Seymour Hoffman drops dead.
This country has a mass shooting problem, with 4,500 dead and 19,600 more bleeding on ER tables so far this year, but the world doesn't notice until Pittsburgh Steeler wide receiver Plaxico Burress puts a hole in his own thigh.
We cannot educate children in many cities, but the tragedy goes unnoticed until some altruistic billionaire (Mark Zuckerberg) drops $100 million on Newark.
So now there is fresh dialogue about racism and sexism, spilling into the mainstream media with an inadvertent shove from Donald Sterling and Jill Abramson, but to discuss either as a cause celebre is to trivialize the real issues.
Abramson, a journalist as subtle as a blowtorch, was accused of unspecified acts of brusque behavior, committed among the princely hierarchy at the New York Times. But the theme that had the most traction was an unsubstantiated claim involving a lower salary than the one earned by her predecessor.
Indeed, Abramson might be a sympathetic figure. But gender justice isn't so much about an executive making $450,000 as it is about pay equity in America, an issue that was muted the moment the U.S. Senate blocked a vote last month, and about having the worst maternity leave policy in the world.
Moreover, racism isn't merely the purview of dotty old men such as Sterling. Racism is common cause in our political culture — not only in Cliven Bundy's America, but in the institutional marginalization of minorities by our courts and our laws, which conspire to produce segregated schools and voting restrictions and countless wars waged on the poor.
Theologian Paul Tillich said if we don't develop a keener eye for racism or sexism or homophobia, and address them only when the news cycle gives us no other choice, we're mistaking moralism for morality.
The real systemic sins are hiding inside the latter. Yet the cycle spins on.
Copyright Star-Ledger, based in Newark, N.J. Distributed by the Associated Press.