Slaves to the dumbocracy, and getting dumber
A quarter of a century ago, American academic Neil Postman released a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, which argued that television was dumbing down society in dangerous ways.
Decades before Kevin Rudd used his folksy appearances on Sunrise as a launching pad to the prime ministership, Postman was warning that in a culture based on visual images, a politician’s policies were becoming far less important than whether they came across well on TV.
Two books released in recent months suggest that Postman’s direst predictions may have come to pass. The first is Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World by American lawyer and television commentator Lisa Bloom.
Bloom’s book explores the paradox of educated, middle-class women, who have long outperformed their male counterparts educationally and are increasingly outshining them in the workforce but are obsessed with reading about celebrities and, what’s more, spending huge amounts of time, money and effort trying to look and live like them.
Bloom’s book is packed with frightening statistics such as “25 per cent of women aged 18 to 34 would rather lose their ability to read than lose their figure”. Conceding this mindset might be a rational response to a society that values beauty over brains, Bloom raises the question of why, after the many triumphs of second-wave feminism, supposedly smart women have gone along with creation of a society with such warped values.
While Bloom’s book hasn’t attracted much attention in Australia, a similar debate was kicked off by the release of Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow. For those who missed it, Tanner lamented that, “under siege from commercial pressures and technological innovation, the media are retreating into an entertainment frame that has little tolerance for complex social and economic issues. In turn, politicians and parties are adapting their behaviour to suit the new rules of the game… the contest of ideas is being supplanted by the contest for laughs.”
Of course, society has been going to hell in a handbasket for very long time and Bloom and Tanner are merely the latest in a very long line of gloomy cultural critics who’ve argued popular culture is lobotomising the lower orders and democratic politics has descended into vaudeville.
Nonetheless, in a world where Sarah Palin is considered a serious contender for president, one cat-call can dominate political debate for a week and anyone under 40 is much more likely to be able to name three Kardashian sisters than three members of Federal Cabinet, perhaps it’s time to consider if we have crossed some sort of Rubicon and, if so, who is to blame.
Simple-minded folk are wont to point the finger at the meedja, but as my esteemed journalistic colleagues argue whenever the likes of Tanner are impertinent to offer them a performance review, the fourth estate is never anything other than a force for good and any of its regrettable excesses, in the unlikely event such excesses even exist, are entirely the fault of others (felicitously enough, usually whatever group the individual making the criticism belongs to).
The standard ‘bread-and-circuses’ Left line is that the Right relies on the lightweight media to act like a big pile of shiny beads, distracting the masses from their oppression. Simplistic as this analysis is, it’s hard not to believe there’s something in it given that the rise of a celeb-obsessed culture has gone hand-in-hand with the creation of a plutocratic economic order in the US.
Not that progressives don’t have tabloid ink on their hands too. The left-leaning intellectuals given to pointing out the pop-culture circus ramped into overdrive at the same time that 95 per cent of Americans were having their bread ration cut to fatten the loaves of the uber-wealthy are the same left-leaning intellectuals who’ve spent the last couple of decades toeing the postmodern party line that there’s little difference between soap operas and Shakespeare and that Madonna is just as legitimate an object of academic enquiry as Marx.
Whatever the overarching political, economic and technological forces that have combined to generate the dumbocracy, ultimately no-one’s holding a gun to your head and forcing you to watch The Hills while flicking through NW.
As Bloom points outs at the end of her book, if you can wean yourself off the narcotic drip of reality TV shows, gossip mags and TMZ.com, you’ll find you have a surprising number of hours free to log on to substantive news sites, read good books, get involved in your community, make a contribution to local, national or global causes and, who knows, maybe even achieve something that will get your own mug in the paper.
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