Anna Nicole Smith Is the Fourth Horseman
The only daily newspaper that originates from my part of the world is The News-Leader, which is located in Springfield, Missouri. It blankets southwest Missouri and part of Arkansas.
Last Tuesday, February 13th, editorial page editor Tony Messenger posted a brief observation at his blog, “Ozarks Messenger,” titled “A sign of the apocalypse…” It read as follows:
“I know that just by posting this I have become part of the problem, but I’m amazed at the coverage of the Anna Nicole Smith death and impending fight over her estate and paternity of her child. According to this study, the story has consumed more than 50 percent of cable news time. Between that and astronaut/diapergate, it’s amazing there’s any time for important coverage, such as, oh, I don’t know, a little war, health care, presidential politics. How low we as an industry, and a community, have sunk.”
I’ve really enjoyed Mr. Messenger’s handling of the paper’s editorial page ever since he took over from longtime editorial page editor Robert Leger last year, and this recent post is an example of why. I couldn’t help leaving a comment about it at his blog. Naturally, given my penchant for going on — or perhaps going off — about various indicators of cultural decline, my comment quickly bloomed to the length of an essay.
Here’s what I said:
As another commenter has already averred: Amen, brother Tony! I especially like the way you’ve framed this media insanity as an apocalyptic phenomenon. I know it’s become common to refer to things jokingly as “signs of the apocalypse,” but at present the type of idiocy you’ve decried here is hardly a joke, since the takeover of American and Western public life by trash and trivia over the past 30 to 40 years is truly a harbinger of cultural decline.
One of my favorite websites that talks about the “dumbing down” phenomenon (http://nomuzak.co.uk/dumbing_down.html) offers a vivid and accurate description of the way our collective consciousness has been hijacked by meaningless junk that obscures and edges out more serious fare: “In fact, the evidence for ‘dumbing down’ is everywhere: newspapers that once ran foreign news now feature celebrity gossip, pictures of scantily dressed young ladies, and football; television has replaced high-quality drama with gardening, cookery, and other ‘lifestyle’ programmes; bonkbusters have taken over the publishing world and pop cd’s and internet connections have taken over the libraries. In the dumbed-down world of reality TV and asinine soaps, the masses live in a perpetual present occupied by celebrity culture, fashion, a TV culture of diminished quality and range, an idealisation of mediocrity, and pop videos and brands. Speed and immediacy are the great imperatives, meaning that complex ideas are reduced to sound bites, high culture is represented by The Three Tenors and J K Rowling, people spend their spare time reading text messages instead of Dostoevsky, and listening to rap bands rather than Bartok and Stravinsky.”
Although the writer is speaking about Britain — note the British spellings — his words describe the contemporary culture of the U.S. as well. And indeed, he talks about America elsewhere in the same essay.
To speak more from my own personal experience, I can tell you that I teach English at a rural southwest Missouri high school, and whenever I speak to my students, if I want to make reference to any sort of common object of knowledge in order to illustrate a point about the dramatic structure of stories, or about irony or other literary techniques, or about anything else having to do with books and literature – and it’s a daily necessity to refer to a common fund of knowledge in order to illuminate something we’re studying – I find lately that the only thing I can mention with any reasonable expectation of group familiarity is the Harry Potter phenomenon. Almost all of the teens have seen the movies. Several have read one or more of the novels. I can also refer to THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but that’s because of the popular movies; only a tiny minority of students so far (as in, two or three of them) has actually read Tolkien’s books. I do have a student who has read a couple of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” books, so he has a minor grounding in literary fantasy.
But anyway, I simply can’t expect these kids to know much of anything, not even — and here’s the rub — about pop cultural stuff! It’s astonishing to find how many of them are oblivious to mass media culture. Not that they don’t know the names and faces of actors and bands and other celebrities, but if I mention the name of any movie director besides Rob Zombie, there’s a general look of blankness. I tried it with Spielberg once and had a couple of students respond, none too confidently, “Isn’t he the guy who made Saving Private Ryan?” I’ve also been shocked and dismayed at how many of them are functionally ignorant of Stephen King. Sure, they know some of his movies, but when it comes to the man himself the overwhelming consensus is an attitude of dull, suspicious disinterest, expressed in questions such as, “Stephen King – he’s really weird, right? Like, he’s that horror guy.” So even on the level of the pop culture crap that many of us decry, these kids’ frame of reference is shockingly narrow.
That said, I did find out recently, simply by asking, that they’re all aware of the Anna Nicole Smith “story.” So hooray. I guess.
“In his introduction to the book, Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture, John Simon notes that a whole world of learning is disappearing before our eyes, in merely one generation. We cannot expect, he says, to make a mythological allusion anymore, or use a foreign phrase, or refer to a famous historical event or literary character, and still be understood by more than a tiny handful of people. (Try this in virtually any group setting, and note the reaction. This is an excellent wake-up call as to what this culture is about, and how totally alien to it you are.) Indeed, using Lewis Lapham’s criteria for genuine literacy — having some familiarity with a minimum number of standard texts (Marx, Darwin, Dickens . . .), and being able to spot irony — it may even be the case that the number of genuinely literate adults in the United States amounts to fewer than 5 million people — that is, less than 3 percent of the total population.
“In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 — later made into a movie by Francois Truffaut — which depicts a future society in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with screens (referred to as ‘the family’) and taking tranquilizers. Today, nearly five decades later, isn’t this largely the point at which we have arrived? Do not the data cited above suggest that most of our neighbors are, in fact, the mindless automatons depicted in Truffaut’s film? True, the story does contain a class of ‘book people’ who hide in the forest and memorize the classics, to pass on to future generations — and this vignette does, in fact, provide a clue as to what just might enable our civilization to eventually recover — but the majority of citizens on the eve of the twenty-first century watch an average of four hours of TV a day, pop Prozac and its derivatives like candy, and perhaps read a Danielle Steel novel once a year.”
Okay, so there’s a misanthropic tone there. But, you know, Berman’s point is difficult to argue with, and sometimes the bitter pill is the necessary medicine.
To round out this rambling comment on the aforementioned apocalyptic note of cultural decline, I’ve long been disturbed by the terminal diagnosis of American culture that appeared in Neil Postman’s influential Amusing Ourselves to Death back in 1985: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk: culture-death is a clear possibility.” I truly think that’s where we stand now, even more so than when Postman penned those words two decades ago. And the fact that the national news media can go into a feeding frenzy over something as patently and disgustingly vapid as the Anna Nicole Smith “story” at a time when America’s foreign and domestic circumstances are as they are only drives home the truth of Postman’s (and Bradbury’s, and Berman’s) Dark Age diagnosis.