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.

Here’s what social critic and cultural historian Morris Berman had to say about these matters in his 2000 jeremiad, The Twilight of American Culture:

“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.

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on February 19, 2007, in Society & Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Matt,

    Do you suppose your view on the lack of cultural awareness of today’s teen is a result of living/teaching in a rural area? Do you suppose that in larger cultural centres the odds of teen knowing who Speilberg is, for example, are stronger? And, hasn’t this always been the case?

    Or, am I another victim of urban snobbery? Perhaps the internet has equalized the country, and the days of pockets of the country being ten years behind the rest are gone. The internet: the great equalizer.

  2. I love your blog and commentary, particulary on items related to popular culture and horror. This is an area of interest and blogging for myself at TheoFantastique (http://theofantastique.blogspot.com) where I branched off from my blogging on intercultural studies, religion, and popular culture in the West. I hope we can dialogue and learn from each other. You might also be interested in the extensive interivew I did with Kim Paffenroth on his Gospel of the Living Dead at my first blog.

  3. Matt,

    You know that I heartily agree. In fact, I have some students who actually demand that their material be dumbed down to below grade level so that they don’t have to learn new words or important cultural markers. A few creative assignments in response have quieted the outbursts (I’m cruel like that), but the attitude obviously exists. Sadly, the majority of my kids are virtually barbarians.

  4. Matt,
    I found your blog when I was researching a certain anthology I’ll be submitting to (you might know a little about it). It just so happens I was finishing Dark Ages America at the time, and have since moved on to Twilight. Berman casts a downward eye on the prospects of our future, but I can’t argue against his position. I’m hoping it informs the story I’ll be submitting. I think many horror authors are missing the boat by not focusing on today’s problems. Maybe they don’t recognize the signs when they are starring them in the face. Or perhaps, turning a mirror on society doesn’t sell. I wonder if Orwell could sell a book today?

    Glen

  5. John — I recently read Kim’s post about Christianity and horror, wherein he linked to both of our blogs. I went and browsed both of yours and was quite captivated by what I saw. I wish to God I had more time to really delve into what you’re doing, but rest assured that I’m squeezing in time to read things here and there as it’s possible. I’m confident that we will indeed dialogue with each other, since our vectors are so very similar.

    Grumpy — Yup. Oh, how I feel your pain.

    Glen — Thank you for weighing in. Interesting to hear that you, too, are a reader of Berman, who has become quite an important presence in my intellectual life. As for horror fiction focusing on the catastrophic-dystopian situation that obtains in American and Western cultural life at present, I tend to think that this is largely what the ongoing explosion of zombie novels is about. See the aforementioned Kim Paffenroth’s nonfiction book GOSPEL OF THE LIVING DEAD for the same idea applied to Romero’s zombie quadrilogy. Personally, I’m not really delving into the zombie novel wave. The only such novel I’ve read is Brian Keene’s THE RISING. I understand that WORLD WAR Z, ZOMBIE ISLAND, and various other books really have something to recommend them. But my time and inclination simply don’t take me there. But I’m still keeping abreast of new developments in the subgenre, since I do think it’s related directly to yours and my mutual interest in the intersection between what’s happening in the world and what’s happening in horror fiction.

    So maybe Orwell could sell books today. Hell, when L.A. — or was is San Francisco? — kicked off a major city-wide promotion of reading as a valuable pastime about four years ago, the first book they chose focus on was Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451. Then again, how many people are actually reading books like that, or like 1984, in the culture at large? And how many people are actually getting anything from the cultural subtext of the zombie novels? How many of the novels are even written on a literary level instead of as bang-em-up horror movies in book form? My pessimism gets the best of me yet again.

  6. You're a pitiful teacher...

    You say, “I can tell you that … 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”.

    First, that is one of the longest run-on sentences I’ve seen in awhile.

    Second, if you think your students are so pitiful, I bet they know you think so, too. From what you say, it appears that it’s YOUR job to teach them something about the English language, the “dramatic structure of stories” and “irony”. The Missouri state standards mention all of these, no matter how poorly.

    Get off your high horse and stop talking about how important you are, and do what you’re ostensibly paid to do.

  7. Thank you for your post. I had been expecting somebody to enter a critical response to my essay. Please go to the main blog page to see my extended response to your response.

  8. Mr. Cardin,
    I read your comments and essay about the Anna Nicole Smith phenomenon and I find myself thinking back to everytime I turned around hearing the lastest news about her death. You couldn’t(and still can’t ) turn on the tv or radio without seeing a picture of her stretched across the screen with some ridiculous comment about her “mysterious” death.
    I am basically leaving this comment to add my opinion to the reaction of the students. It is true that the students are oblivious to many things that are outside of the latest video game or the hottest new rap artist, but coming from that same town that you teach in, I find it very offensive that Simon Strantzas would say that the students are this way because they are from the country.
    You know as well as I do that if a student has it set in their mind that they are going to be great or intelligent and understand greater things than the average teenager, than the will do so. May I mention Casey Freeman, Grant Shaver,Ashley Betson, Tamara Welch, Brant Masner, Gina Barr and the Herrington girls, just to name a few.
    To say that living in the suburbs is completely different is a bias comment nonetheless. It would be like myself(never living in the city until just recently) saying that the only things the teenagers from the city care about are drugs, sex, money, and showing everyone that they are invincible.Obviously, I have no grounds to stand on with this statement because I did not grow up in the city so everything I just said is heresay.
    Mr. Cardin do not let anyone say that you are a pitiful teacher because of their closed-mind thinking. You may not realize this, but you teach every student in that school something new everyday. I, myself speaking from experience know first hand that you are an incredible English teacher that cares about nothing more than to educate his students about everything possible.
    I want to thank you for all the time an effort you have put forth in ensuring that your students believe in their abilities and knowledge. You have done more for me than you know.

  9. Charity, I would like to think I recognized the possible bias of my statments by asking, “…am I another victim of urban snobbery?” Truly, I don’t know. All I hear are stories of rural America, and having not had contact with it myself, I can only base my questions on what I’ve gleaned.

    And my question was not intended to enforce a sterotype of complete ignorance, rather to question just how deeply these “mass consumer influences” penetrate the rural areas. I spent most of my life in a world without internet, where some of the more “cultural” aspects of popular culture (foreign films, etc) did not make it very far out of the urban centres. And I of course don’t argue there will always be some who strive to find these things even when there are barriers to getting the information, only that it seems Matt is looking for the majority of students to have this information, and if it isn’t easily access then how can the students be held responsible?

    I appologise if I managed to offend you; it wasn’t my intent at all. I was simply posing a question in order to clarify exactly what the current state of affairs are over there.

  10. Charity — Hello and thanks for commenting. It’s nice to see you here. I appreciate the kind words.

    Please be aware that Simon is a friend of mine and that he’s being honest when he says he didn’t mean to offend. I think there was just a bit of a communication gap when you construed his speculative question about rural kids to mean something arrogant and dismissive. He’s done a good job of explaining himself above.

  11. As one who has spent much time in the country, may I just say that urban is beginning to smell like burnt metal, sound like grinding breaks and sirens…and I’ve never really been there. Not in the sense of wanting to be there.

    Anna Nicole Smith?

    Why is it that the people who consider themselves so hip, so intelligent, so avante-garde, will pick on such an easy target? What does it prove?

    I’ll tell you what it proves, it proves that you are bored stupid.

  12. Great save Meester Urbano. Take it on home, home.

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