Let me be clear…I am not, nor have I ever been, a cultural dystopian, aka, “doomsdayer” whose pessimistic outlook of our country spells certain future disaster. Nor have I ever been a cultural utopian who believes our future is a yellow brick road leading to Nirvana. I like to believe I am a critical thinker who calls it as I critically see it—dystopian or utopian be damned.
Thus, when I contend that America is turning into a big fat joke, perhaps some context is in order.
In my Critical Thinking course I teach the 1985 classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by author Neal Postman. In this 31 year-old insightful piece of literature, Postman posits that the television is turning our country into a culture of entertainment addicts: A world in which all of our areas of supposed serious cultural discourse—our news, politics, education and religious institutions, to name a few, are transforming into conduits of entertainment while providing fodder for the amusement-feeding frenzy of the American populace.
I first taught this book circa 1989…when I believed it to be an interesting argument. I continued to teach the book through 1999…when I then believed it was on to something fairly huge. In 2009 I believed it was more relevant than ever. Now, in 2016, by simply including that television also means the internet, I believe it to be a cultural prophesy that has tapped into the present zeitgeist of a generation. The older the book becomes, the more relevant its application. My students clamor for it… other than the movie, “Back to the Future,” what else from 1985 is clamored for by today’s 20 somethings?
Postman has no problem with entertainment. In fact, he would likely argue that entertainment shows are the best shows on television. Why? Entertainment shows do not pretend to be anything else but entertainment. The danger, he suggests, are those programs which purport to carry meaningful substance and are, in reality, portals of amusement under the guise of serious discourse.
Postman bemoans the political debates of the 1980’s, yet, by today’s standards, those were exhibitions of the highest intellect—a political candidate referring to the size of his genitals? I doubt even the great cultural cynic Neal Postman would have ever predicted that one on even his worst, pessimistic day.
CBS president Leslie Moonves, referring to our current state of insane politics, could not have said it more clearly, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Spoken like a man clearly leading the charge in a country bent on amusing itself to death.
Of course I thought I did see the presidential silliness writing on the wall when the state of California elected an action star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to run one of the largest economies in the world, though, alas, I was wrong. It was when the great state of Minnesota conveniently one-upped us Californians with its electing wrestler, Jessie “The Body” Ventura, to its highest office, that the writing on the wall became truly legit.
We had to see this coming.
Oy vey. And I’m not even Jewish.
Moonves continues, “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
According to Moonves, CBS profit “Trumps” our nation’s dignity and decorum.
Contemporary politics is only one example of our big fat joke. Our nation’s biggest star is only known for a porn video, a reality show and a fat ass. Today’s pop music largely centers around “niggers,” asses, bitches and hoes. Now is when my grandpa Jimmy rant really gets good: In my day we used to play video games for fun, today we watch hours and hours of others playing video games for fun.
When I was growing up the greatest threat to our country came from outside influences, namely the Cold War and Russia. Then President Ronald Reagan proposed a “Star Wars” defense shield that literally would be a dome-like structure over the nation to protect us from incoming missiles. However, today’s greatest threat, save for isolated terrorist attacks, does not come from outside missiles but from inside insanity. Our country is not set to explode due outside forces, rather, we are on the course to implode due to inside sources. Who is going to save us from us? Does there exist a protective shield for that?
A friend of mine, Dominick, recently wrote sarcastically on his facebook page “that it’s some kind of shocker to learn we live in one big Jerry Springer episode set in an enormous Walmart…” Believing in this cultural milieu is one thing, yet what am I to do with this understanding of America becoming one big, fat joke?
Do I grow a beard and stand on street corner shouting the end is near? Do I laugh? Do I cry? Panic?
Please understand that when I say I will do absolutely nothing -outside my normal daily routine and life- is not a sign of apathy nor concern, rather a sign of accepting reality on realities terms.
I could argue with gravity or with the necessity to breathe or with the entropic nature of the universe, but I would lose all of those arguments.
I could argue against the decay of western civilization…but what would be the point? It is what it is.
Perhaps my cultural observations might lead some to sorrow and despair, yet for me it leads to the necessity to live life with a fervency and passion; to continue to take responsibility for opening minds and educating those around me to critically think; to write my thoughts and communicate my mind to others; to spread positive energy to all those within my small sphere of influence while being eternally grateful for each breath I take on this floating round ball in space; all the while continuing to know the difference between observing, complaining and truly living.
Accepting the big, fat joke for what it is does not at all mean that I am pleased by it, nor enjoy it, nor embrace it.
Perhaps if I were aboard the Titanic I would be one of the guys enjoying the wonderful sounds of the violinists as the ship slowly makes its way into the watery grave that awaits. The ship is going to sink whether I panic or not.
In the paraphrased words of Henry David Thoreau, “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Hey, things could change, or not. Or, hell, I could even be completely wrong about all this.
I want to live a rich life and make a difference with those with whom I am able. Perhaps if we all did so, the course can be changed. Or not.
A cultural dystopian? Perhaps, but in a clearly utopian kind of way.