The singer-songwriter Paul Simon once said in an interview that he thought there was a significant difference between being “childlike” and being “childish,” and when he hit the point where his work reflected that difference he began writing better songs.
Simon’s adjustment might not have found traction in a time when a successful TV show on a big network asks us, not rhetorically, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?
By now, these essays or rants about how we’re getting dumber tend to take on a familiar pattern: Pull worrisome examples from popular culture, highlight what seem to be impacts on the larger culture or even politics, then close with a dire prediction. Here’s what has changed: Bush is not a dire prediction. Bush and our allowing him to run the country for eight years is now historical fact.
Our happy assumption is that the tide has turned and we won’t ever again elect anyone as incompetent, language-challenged, and insipid. And yet… two weeks ago Mike Huckabee was confronted by Bob Schieffer on CBS’ Face the Nation concerning his use of a cross in a political TV ad. Huckabee offered that the ad was shot at the end of a long day and his people were tired, and that the “cross” was in background bookshelves so nothing specific was intended. Knowing what we know about the conscientious attention paid to image in political media, Huckabee said to America, in effect, “I think you’re all stupid enough to buy this crap denial.”
Or put another way, when the November elections roll around, will voters make choices smarter than a 5th grader?
In the months before the election, the landscape won’t exactly be filled to bursting with provocative and intellect-stirring stimulation. The writers strike may cause television to be teeming with low-rent reality sludge. During the summer, when we should all be talking about the candidates, the mall movie boxes will be filled with at least a half dozen “blockbusters” sourced from comic books. Then there’s the election content itself. Will American voters demand dialogue about the war and America’s new image as a bully lusting for oil, or settle for talk radio blather about immigration and abortion?
Admittedly I’m pressing a case for the notion that all these things work in a kind of toxic synchronization, with our slacker-devolving-to-stoner criteria for what constitutes “entertainment” somehow impacting our lessening demands on integrity, leadership, and brains from those who run the country.
But if it’s not global dumbing-down, then what did occur when Pervez Musharraf went on the air right after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination asserting that Al Qaeda was responsible, and mere hours later U.S. Republican candidates and you-know-who were echoing that exact message… all without the slightest substantiation? Obviously somebody believes that we have been softened, perhaps slowly over time, to the point where we will accept every statement presented to us as truth and we won’t bother to doubt it. Citizens in Pakistan didn’t buy in, many of them shouting through the anguish in the streets that Musharraf was a “dog.”
But back to worrisome popular culture. In a December 27 article in the LA Times regarding upcoming summer movies, this sentence appears: “[Mike] Myers is back with The Love Guru, his first grown-up movie since 2002’s Austin Powers in Goldmember. Agreed, it’s just a pile of studio-friendly drivel about movies, but… the Austin Powers movies are “grown up!?” Now imagine we’re being fed that kind of fuzzy gibberish 24/7 and that it’s mixed in with what they call “news.” Except, you don’t have to imagine it.
In the same edition of the Times another feature item fretted over people modeling themselves after TV characters, with young men seeing themselves as the cast of Entourage and young women saying in conversation, “I see myself as a Carrie Bradshaw” (from Sex in the City). Writer Lena Katz closed by imploring readers to “recover our own stumbling, imperfect but authentic selves again.”
We also need to recover our own stumbling, imperfect, but authentic thinking again. Just because CNN reports something doesn’t make it truth. Certainly any statement from Pervez Musharraf is immediately suspect and should be treated as such, rather than being instantly deployed by manipulative bounders pretending to have leadership qualities. Again, none of this would be a concern unless you’ve been living in the United States for the past seven years.