This column has often railed against those things that appeared to be organized efforts to make Americans less intellectually demanding of… well, just about everything.
My personal choice for historic watermark on these efforts would be the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 where in both instances America seemed to vote, with eyes wide open, for lesser intellect in its leadership.
A surprising or even frightening number of voters appeared to be saying, “We like George Bush, his folksy and inarticulate manner of speaking, his lack of experience, and his uncomplicated approach to issues.”
There was also Bush’s often overt courting and embrace of the Christian right, which at that time appeared to be asserting that the repeal of Roe v Wade should be the number one priority of the President of United States.
It didn’t help those concerned about a “dumbing down” of America that we were simultaneously experiencing a popular culture that seemed to be locating itself near the perceptual grasp of 8th graders. Too many movies were childish and juvenile, and violence in TV and film appeared to outweigh any other dimension of storytelling. Couple to that to the economic struggle plaguing public schools, public libraries, and the arts and you had reason to be concerned.
Then just after Bush and Cheney were free of their responsibilities, with both the oil in Iraq and their comfortable private lives secured, we learned that our economy was in such a shambles that the new administration would need to act with lightning speed to avoid another and possibly worse Great Depression.
Our preoccupation with the economy and jobs has, quite understandably, moved attention away from any hand-wringing about whether the ship of America’s bilge is filling with effluent by way of dumbing down. Metaphor too strong? Did you know Kim Kardashian is pregnant? Of course you did.
All this caused me to have great interest in a March 17th LA Times essay by Times senior culture editor Mary McNamara that focused on a possible shift back to smarter entertainment fare. McNamara headlined her piece “Hast la vista, He-Men” and began by noting that recent efforts to bring back the old action movie with action “stars” paradigm to Hollywood movies had irrefutably tanked. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘comeback’ project “The Last Stand” and Sylvester Stallone’s delicately titled “A Bullet to the Head” both failed at the box office. McNamara suggested that old models of masculinity were no longer interesting to movie audiences, and that now “real men drive hybrids” and “smart is the new sexy.” To her credit, McNamara then widened her observations to recent highly publicized dumb statements by certain Republican candidates concerning birth control and rape; men who later lost their election campaigns.
In a capitalist, consumer-oriented society there is always going to be a struggle of Smart vs Dumb going on at some level because success is rarely tempered by a noble desire to bring craft – be it the making of processed foods or entertainments – up to a new standard of excellence. A contemporary subterfuge is obfuscating language. Fatty foods and snacks aren’t dumb for our bodies; they’re “guilty pleasures.” Soapy, overly-simplistic hour network TV dramas aren’t a step down from their (now) more successful and sharper competitors on cable; they are also guilty pleasures. The spending of millions of dollars to tell comic book stories to adult audiences isn’t American film making sinking in dross; it’s the building of “tent poles” and “blockbusters.” And as McNamara pointed out, our issue with guns isn’t the guns themselves but rather figuring out how to arm school teachers.
But all this is an on-going tug of war, and at any one time things can be rising or sinking. Mitt Romney fails to bamboozle his way into office after video reveals his disdain for 47 percent of all voters, yet Republicans continue to block forward progress not with competing ideas but simply by saying “no” to everything. A new book about “Salt Sugar Fat” and how food processors got us “hooked” is a best seller, while empty calories continue to expand American pants and Carl’s Jr. advertises a Double Memphis BBQ Burger delivering 1,090 calories and 1,890 mg of sodium. Thoughtful films are nominated for Academy Awards, but by March the number one box office hit is a sugary derivative confection borrowed from “The Wizard of Oz.”
Throw in text messages and surfing the Web and it’s possible that more Americans than ever are reading. But what are they reading? Consider this admittedly far-fetched reach for a glimmer of hope: Assume for a moment that social networks and online videos significantly contributed to interest in the recent “Lincoln” movie and that getting Americans to spend time with that material about our past was good and might even spur more thinking about our present and future. Add the likelihood that digital effects, initially developed so movie makers could make scarier comic book monsters, contributed to the impact of “Lincoln.” Then in considering the continuing struggle between smart and dumb at any given time, maybe we’re left with Lincoln’s own observation: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”