People can get attention either from their accomplishments or from their deliberate attempts to get attention. Today, almost everywhere you look, people seem to be putting their efforts into getting attention.
Wild hairdos, huge tattoos, pierced body parts, outlandish clothing, weird statements — all these have become substitutes for achievements.
Some parents give their children off-the-wall names, as if that is the way to give them some kind of individuality. On the contrary, it means joining a stampede toward showiness. You don't need a crazy name to become famous. It would be hard to think of plainer names than Jim Brown, Ted Williams, Walter Johnson or Michael Jordan. It was what they did that made their names famous.
In business, some of the biggest changes in the economy were produced by people with plain names like Henry Ford and Bill Gates. In retailing, some of the biggest names were Richard Sears and Sam Walton.
When you achieve something, you don't need gimmicks. This has been especially apparent in sports.
Joe Louis wore the same standard boxing trunks as everybody else, not the wildly varying and garish trunks so many boxers wear today. He did not find it necessary to taunt or deprecate his opponents or behave like a lout inside or outside the ring. But he scored more first-round knockouts in championship fights than any other heavyweight, and will be remembered as long as boxing is remembered.
If Jim Brown had carried on in the end zone after every touchdown he scored, the way so many football players do today, it is hard to see how he could have had the energy left to average more than five yards a carry for his career.
The problem is not just with people who want to get attention by the way they dress, act, talk or show off in innumerable other ways. The more fundamental problem is that the society around them pays attention to such superficial and often childish stuff.
The media attention lavished on Anna Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton 24/7, while paying little attention to Iran's movement toward nuclear weapons that can change the course of history irrevocably, is one of the most painful signs of our times.
A lifetime of making major contributions to the health, prosperity or education of a whole society will not get as much media attention as organizing some loud and strident demonstration, spiced with runaway rhetoric.
In a "nonjudgmental" world, what is there to determine who deserves notice, except who can make a big splash?
We not only live longer today, we are more vigorous in our 60s than earlier generations were in their 40s. But can you name even one person or one enterprise that conferred this enormous benefit on millions of people?
The average American today has a standard of living that includes things only the upper crust could have afforded in times past — and some things that even the rich didn't have in past generations, like personal computers.
But are the people who made that possible even mentioned, much less publicized and praised?
There is not an inventor, scientist, medical researcher or industrialist who is as well known as loudmouths like Rosie O'Donnell or Jesse Jackson. Any bimbo who exposes her body can get more attention than someone who finds ways to reduce the cost of housing for millions of people. In California, the bimbo can get favorable attention while the developer is condemned.
In short, the problem is not that particular people do particular things to get attention. The problem is that the society at large no longer has standards by which to deny or rebuke attention-seekers who contribute nothing to society.
Do not expect sound judgments in a society where being "nonjudgmental" is an exalted value. As someone has said, if you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything.
Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.