Why is the country consumed by the trivial while snoozing through the essential? We have become a nation of instant electronic communications — Twitter, Facebook, cell phones, and the Internet — even as reading and math scores plummet in our schools, and newspapers and magazines go broke. We can communicate information at the speed of light but have trouble finding anything meaningful to send back and forth.

In prior times, writers, directors, and actors endeavored to present television drama characterized by good acting and engaging scripts. Now, it is more profitable and apparently more entertaining just to film pseudo-celebrities talking, eating, and agonizing over the day’s banalities, as with Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Yet sometimes we get vicarious pleasure from watching oddballs do what most of us won’t or can’t do. Nineteenth-century-style men who cut timber, mine gold, drive big rigs, and catch fish on the high seas are now the subject of big reality-television hits. Apparently, those who did not go to Ivy League schools or make a pile on Wall Street appear as more genuine Americans — at least in our dreams and fantasies.

Yet part of America’s confusion about what is important and petty begins at the top.