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Lies, damned lies, and political consulting: Birth of an industry

If you read just one bit of journalism to illuminate what’s going on during the current season of political campaigning in the United States, make it this one. Jill Lepore, writing for The New Yorker, incisively traces the birth and history of the political consulting industry to reveal its dramatic (and dreadful) impact on American politics, and also, by direct extension, on American society in general. The following strategically cherry-picked über-excerpts are just a small part of the whole story she lays out in her fine article, which bears a title that is at once metaphorical and literal, and also pretty wonderful: “The Lie Factory.”

Political consulting is often thought of as an offshoot of the advertising industry, but closer to the truth is that the advertising industry began as a form of political consulting. As the political scientist Stanley Kelley once explained, when modern advertising began, the big clients were just as interested in advancing a political agenda as a commercial one. Monopolies like Standard Oil and DuPont looked bad: they looked greedy and ruthless and, in the case of DuPont, which made munitions, sinister. They therefore hired advertising firms to sell the public on the idea of the large corporation, and, not incidentally, to advance pro-business legislation. It’s this kind of thing that Sinclair was talking about when he said that American history was a battle between business and democracy, and, “So far,” he wrote, “Big Business has won every skirmish.”

… Campaigns, Inc., the first political-consulting firm in the history of the world, was founded, in 1933, by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter … No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting, an industry unknown before Campaigns, Inc. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, political consultants replaced party bosses as the wielders of political power gained not by votes but by money. Whitaker and Baxter were the first people to make politics a business. “Every voter, a consumer” was the mantra of a latter-day consulting firm, but that idea came from Campaigns, Inc. Political management is now a diversified, multibillion-dollar industry of managers, speechwriters, pollsters, and advertisers who play a role in everything from this year’s Presidential race to the campaigns of the candidates for your local school committee. (Campaigns, now, never end. And consultants not only run campaigns; they govern. Mitt Romney, asked by the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board how he would choose his Cabinet, said that he’d probably bring in McKinsey to sort that out.) But for years Whitaker and Baxter had no competition, which is one reason that, between 1933 and 1955, they won seventy out of seventy-five campaigns. The campaigns they chose to run, and the way they decided to run them, shaped the history of California, and of the country. Campaigns, Inc., is shaping American politics still.

… Whitaker and Baxter weren’t just inventing new techniques; they were writing a rule book. Never lobby; woo voters instead … Make it personal: candidates are easier to sell than issues. If your position doesn’t have an opposition, or if your candidate doesn’t have an opponent, invent one … Never underestimate the opposition … Never explain anything. “The more you have to explain,” Whitaker said, “the more difficult it is to win support” … Say the same thing over and over again … Subtlety is your enemy … Simplify, simplify, simplify. “A wall goes up,” Whitaker warned, “when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.”

Fan flames. “We need more partisanship in this country,” Whitaker said. Never shy from controversy; instead, win the controversy. “The average American doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind; he doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen,” Whitaker advised. “But there are two ways you can interest him in a campaign, and only two that we have ever found successful.” You can put on a fight (“he likes a good hot battle, with no punches pulled”), or you can put on a show (“he likes the movies; he likes mysteries; he likes fireworks and parades”): “So if you can’t fight, PUT ON A SHOW! And if you put on a good show, Mr. and Mrs. America will turn out to see it.”

— Jill Lepore, “The Lie Factory,” The New Yorker, September 24, 2012

Via Longform

Image: “I Like Ike” by Dwight D. Eisenhower Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My fellow barbarians: The dumbing of Americans and their campaign speeches

Two days ago, the August 31 edition of the PBS program Need to Know concluded with a brief video retrospective of American political convention speeches from the last century:

From William Jennings Bryan to FDR to Adlai Stevenson to Barack Obama, anchor Jeff Greenfield takes a look at the convention speeches that propelled some politicians into the limelight, and some even to their party’s nomination.

Watch Memorable convention speeches. on PBS. See more from Need To Know.

At the end of the segment, host Greenfield offers a sobering observation about a striking change in the intellectual level of these speeches over the past several decades, as illustrated by something President Kennedy — then candidate Kennedy — said in his nomination acceptance address at the 1960 Democratic National Convention:

There’s one more fascinating note about such speeches that’s not exactly encouraging about how politicians once regarded their audiences — that is, us — and how they might regard us now. Listen to this excerpt from John Kennedy’s 1960 speech where he’s tweaking Richard Nixon by comparing him to other Richards as an unworthy successor:

For just as historians tell us that Richard the First was not fit to fill the shoes of the bold Henry the Second, and that Richard Cromwell was not fit to wear the mantle of his uncle, they might add in future years that Richard Nixon did not measure up to the footsteps of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Now, can you imagine a Presidential nominee today trusting in his audience to understand these references to British history from the 12th and 17th centuries? I can almost hear his media advisers saying, “If you want to mention a Richard, try Little Richard.”

From Greenfield’s tone and wording, it’s unclear whether he’s laying the responsibility for this rhetorical dumbing down on America’s politicians, for failing to trust their audience’s intellect, education, and historical awareness,  or on the audience themselves for being increasingly and authentically untrustworthy in these matters. What’s clear, though, is that something has indeed changed, and changed drastically, in the intellectual level of American political speech and general public discourse in the last 50 years, and that this has been accompanied, caused, produced, and/or exemplified by a generalized intellectual, social, economic, and cultural shift of seismic magnitude. This period of enormous advances in (to name just two areas) civil rights legislation and technological expertise has also seen a kind of cratering of the intellectual center and a society-wide stratification into two classes consisting of an increasingly isolated and rarefied educated elite on top and a burgeoning “great unwashed” underclass on the bottom.

What’s also clear is that the current season of political speechifying on the road to the November presidential election is taking place within this context, and that we should make a habit of paying attention to the rhetoric being used and the audience being targeted whenever candidates and their supporters speak, because they’re all aware of this ominous late-imperial evolutionary shift in the American polis, even as they themselves are caught in its grip, and are being used as mouthpieces for its furtherance.

Hemingway, media culture, and the impoverishment of modern English

It’s been awhile since a conversation at the Shocklines message boards elicited a response from me that I wanted to preserve here at The Teeming Brain, but just yesterday it happened again and resulted in my writing an article-length piece that briefly traced my personal, lifelong evolution and growth as a reader.

The inimitable Des Lewis started the conversation (which, be advised, will at some not-distant point slip away into Shocklines’ unreachable past) almost a week ago by asking people if they as readers prefer the more dense “baroque” prose of a previous era or the stripped-down and streamlined functional prose of modern popular writing. He kicked off the conversation by quoting a passage from George Steiner about novelist Lawrence Durrell’s baroque style. Steiner uses the opportunity to talk about the wider issue of English prose’s evolution away from ornate styles under the influence of Hemingway.

Here’s the passage, followed by my response to the conversation it kicked off:

But this does not mean that this jeweled and coruscated style springs full-armed from Durrell’s personal gift. He stands in a great tradition of baroque prose. In the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne built sentences into lofty arches and made words ring like sonorous bells. Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, used the same principal device as Durrell: richness through accumulation, the marshaling of nouns and epithets into great catalogues among which the eye roves in antiquarian delight. The feverish, clarion-sounding prose of De Quincey is a direct ancestor to that of Justine. And more recently, there is the example of Conrad. In the later parts of Lord Jim and throughout The Rescue, Conrad uses words with the sumptuous exuberance of a jeweler showing off his rarest stones. Here also, language falls upon the reader’s senses like brocade.

This baroque ideal of narrative style is, at present, in disfavor. The modern ear has been trained to the harsh, impoverished cadence and vocabulary of Hemingway. Reacting against the excesses of Victorian manner, the modern writer has made a cult of simplicity. He refines common speech but preserves its essential drabness. When comparing a page from the Alexandria novels to the practice of Hemingway or C. P. Snow or Graham Greene, one is setting a gold-spun and jeweled Byzantine mosaic next to a black-and-white photograph. One cannot judge the one by the other. But that does not signify that Durrell is a decadent show-off or that his conception of English prose is erroneous. We may be grateful that Hemingway and his innumerable imitators have made the language colder and more astringent and that they have brought back into fiction the virtue of plain force. But they have done so at a price. Contemporary English usage is incredibly thin and unimaginative. The style of politics and factual communication verges on the illiterate. Having far fewer words at our reach than had the educated man of the seventeenth and even of the late nineteenth century, we say less or say it with a blurred vagueness. Indeed, the twentieth century has seen a great retreat from the power of the word. The main energies of the mind seem directed toward other modes of ‘language,’ toward the notation of music and the symbol-world of mathematics. Whether in its advertisements, its comic-books, or its television, our culture lives by the picture rather than the word. Hence a writer like Durrell, with his Shakespearean and Joycean delight in the sheer abundance and sensuous variety of speech, may strike one as mannered or precious. But the fault lies with our impoverished sensibility.”

George Steiner, “Lawrence Durrell I: The Baroque Novel” (from Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell)

And now my response, which came after quite a few people had already weighed in with their thoughts and opinions:

I’m with those who say they favor baroque prose more when reading some types of literature and a more streamlined prose when reading other types of literature. I love the baroque stuff when reading horror fiction, especially of a gothic or gothic-related sort. Poe wouldn’t be Poe, nor Lovecraft Lovecraft, nor Ligotti Ligotti, nor Campbell Campbell, without the lushness of the prose style. The same can be said of Blackwood, Machen, Mary Shelley, and more. Then again, Fritz Leiber was no slouch himself, nor is Peter Straub, nor is Stephen King, and they opt for the more modernized, streamlined style. Read the rest of this entry

Joan Collins says tabloid culture has dumbed us all down

Who would have thought it? None other than Joan Collins, one of the living symbols of a former era in mass entertainment culture, deplores the catastrophic collapse of taste, intelligence, and attention span that’s been spawned by the current tabloid-ized version of that very world.

Just check out this excerpt from a recent interview in BlackBook magazine titled “Bling Dynasty,” dated April 17:

BlackBook: Any idea why the “tabloid” is back at the moment in culture, with people obsessing over every little detail about celebrity pregnancies, what they wear?

Joan Collins: Our civilization has become extremely dumbed down, with shorter attention spans. All they want are sound bites. People don’t have the concentration to read an in-depth article or a book, or watch a serious movie. I can’t understand it. And the tabloid magazines are exactly the same every week! People has the same cover as InTouch as OK! as US Weekly as Star magazine. They’re exactly the same! You never read about De Niro, Pacino, Harrison Ford… well, you do hear about him since he’s with Calista Flockhart. Meryl Streep. These new stars are appealing to a young audience, or a rather dumb audience.

The interviewer also asks Ms. Collins for her take on the current crop of young female celebrities a la Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, and she offers an extremely negative assessment of both them and the culture of carefully marketed narcissism and voyeurism that enables their pathological behavior:

BB: And what about their clothes, these celebrities like Britney and Lindsay and Paris who go out wearing trashy outfits and no panties?

JC: I don’t think she is well, Britney. I definitely think there is something wrong with her: depression, illness. No normal girl goes out and lets photographers shoot at that angle. It’s bizarre, isn’t it? We have these girls in England. Glamour models. And they will flash their breasts in a desperate attempt to get their photos in the paper. I asked my friend Glenda Bailey [editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar] why she would put Lindsay Lohan on her cover. And she said, “It sells magazines.

Perhaps it would be out of character for me to offer the hearty accolade, “You go, girlfriend!” But I’ll offer it anyway.

Gee whiz, Ms. Collins sounds a lot like Stephen Jones in my forthcoming interview with him for Cemetery Dance magazine, to wit:

Almost nobody reads these days. There are too many other distractions: cell phones, Playstations, reality TV….Nowadays, in Britain, at least, newspapers have become part of the “dumbing down” process. Here we now have “lite” newspapers that are more like MTV newsbites for people who don’t want to read about anything in-depth. And what they read about is the latest gossip surrounding such empty vessels as Paris, Britney, Lindsay or Angelina. They aren’t actually learning anything—except how not to behave in public and what the latest fashion accessory is.

She also sounds a lot like Morris Berman, Neil Postman, Daniel Boorstin, Ray Bradbury, and any number of additional culture critics, commentators, and writers of dystopian fiction who have seen what’s going on and recognized that the modern mass entertainment milieu represents an absolutely unprecedented and, as it so happens, cataclysmic cultural development in terms of collective intelligence, taste, emotional centering, moral outlook, and historical memory.

So, to repeat (because I just can’t help myself): You go, Joan!

Education vs. student anti-intellectualism

My recent post about Anna Nicole Smith continues to draw lots of traffic. A couple of days ago it finally drew what I had been expecting: a criticism. A commenter to my blog chose to remain anonymous and wrote in place of a user name, “You’re a pitiful teacher.” Then he/she left a very critical response to my post. Here’s what the person said, followed by my response.

* * * * *

March 24, 2007

You’re a pitiful teacher…said,

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

* * * * *

My response:

Thank you for your comment. In your second point you hit upon an issue that I myself had actually thought about but hadn’t yet mentioned here at The Teeming Brain. The parallels between what you say and my heretofore unexpressed thought are positively eerie.

In the original draft of my Anna Nicole Smith post, immediately after the paragraph containing the sentence you quote, I said, “Of course there’s an obvious rejoinder that could be made to all of this. Somebody might say with a degree of validity, ‘Well, okay, let’s assume things are exactly the way you describe. Don’t complain about it. What, did you expect the kids to come into your classroom already knowing everything you think they ought to know? The whole point of school is to educate them! You’re the teacher, for God’s sake, so if you notice they’re ignorant about something, then just teach it to them!'”

I trust you notice the similarity to your own point.

The reason I deleted that comment/proviso/recognition was that although it occurred to me as a semi-valid response to what I was saying, I thought — and still think — that it mostly misses the point I was making, and the effort to explain why would have detoured the essay off into a distracting tangent. That’s why I appreciate your bringing it up here, since this gives me an excuse to explain why the objection is off-target.

What I was talking about in the ANS post was the fact that as my fellow teachers and I go about our jobs these days, we’re having to fight the surrounding culture. Formal education has always been a supremely difficult endeavor for both teachers and students, ever since our fundamental idea of it was first formulated among the ancient Greeks in and around the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The “deep” goal of education is not just to teach the “three R’s” of American scholastic folklore but to change a person’s deep-seated sensibility. It’s intended to inculcate an outlook and attitude characterized by reason, reflection, and moderation. I’m talking about the classical ideal of a liberal education, which, as Allan Bloom stated succinctly in The Closing of the American Mind, may be defined in a nutshell as the type of education that liberates. The purpose of a liberal education is to free a person from the tyranny of the immediate, the superficial, the shallow, the transient, and the trivial by training and instilling certain habits of thought and by informing the mind and emotions with profound and ennobling ideas through sustained examination of what Matthew Arnold famously called “the best that has been thought and said in the world.”

Okay, so all of this sounds pretty stiff and pompous by modern standards. But then, why the hell should that be the case? Answer: because of the types of things I railed against in my ANS post. Every day in the classroom, I and other teachers are having to fight against the overwhelming tide of contemporary mass entertainment culture with its reigning ethos of consumerism, celebrity worship, and technolatry. This makes what is already a difficult task for both teacher and student all the more difficult. It’s no exaggeration to say that almost every minute a student spends outside the school environment these days sees the prevalent culture undermining and undoing whatever has been accomplished in the classroom. Certainly, complaints about the clash between the goals of formal schooling and the influence of the surrounding culture are nothing new. But for the past fifty to eighty years we’ve been stumbling through new territory as the mass electronic media have lent a previously unimagined power and prevalence to the forces of distraction and trivialization.

Thus, to respond to my complaints in the ANS post by simply telling me to do my job is to miss the point that the job of a teacher in this type of cultural environment is ridiculously difficult. Everything about the educational experience, from the focus on books (gasp!), to the subject matter being studied in the core areas of English, mathematics, science, and social studies, to the very idea that sustained study, effort, and self-awareness are necessary to understand some really valuable and rewarding things, goes against the grain of what today’s young people have been taught to want and expect. School, traditionally conceived, is “off the tracks” for them. It lies outside anything they’ve been trained to think of as worthwhile and interesting.

J. Peder Zane, in his November 2005 article, “Lack of Curiosity is Curious” (from which I’ve quoted here in the past), describes exactly the same thing I’m talking about when he avers that in the face of growing historical and other types of ignorance, “our culture gives us a pass, downplaying the importance of knowledge, culture, history and tradition.” Thus today’s students, instead of being embarrassed by their ignorance of many things that were formerly considered rote, are “permitted to say ‘whatever.’”

Paul Trout also notes the same thing in his 1997 article, “Student Anti-intellectualism and the Dumbing Down of the University,” from which I shall now quote liberally:

“For well over a decade, college instructors have been complaining about students who are not only apathetic and unmotivated but who belittle and resist efforts to educate them.

“Students demonstrate this anti-intellectual mindset in a number of ways: by not reading the assigned works; by not contributing to class discussions; by complaining about course workloads and lobbying for fewer assignments; by skipping class; by giving low evaluations to instructors with high standards or tough requirements; by neglecting to prepare for class and tests and not bothering to do extra-credit work or take make-up exams; by not consulting material placed on reserve or picking up class handouts; by refusing to learn any more than is necessary to get a good grade; by boasting about how little time is spent studying; by ridiculing high achievers; by being impatient with deliberative analysis; by condemning intellectual endeavors as ‘boring’; by resenting academic requirements as an intrusion on free time, etc., etc., etc.

“These anti-intellectual behaviors and attitudes are now so rife on college campuses that motivated and engaged students are being squelched by them.

….“Of course, there always have been students who have hated studying, found classes boring, resented demanding requirements, and expected high grades for mediocre work. And there have always been professors who complained about them. None of this is really new. What has changed, however, is the number of students who exhibit these attitudes. Nobody can say precisely how many anti-intellectual students now sit in college classrooms, but the number appears to be growing and in some contexts seems to have reached a critical mass.

Not incidentally, Trout attributes much of this college-level problem to prior problems at the high school level, which is the milieu where I spend most of my waking hours nine months out of the year: “Now that around sixty percent of high-school graduates go on to some form of higher education, colleges are importing the anti-intellectual behaviors and attitudes undermining secondary education . . . . American colleges could follow the same path as American high schools and become warehouses of anti-intellectual and anti-educational slackers. In the years ahead, the real campus war may be between those who think that students should adapt to the rigors of higher education, and those who think that higher education should adapt to the declining motivation and intellectual commitment of students. . . . Faced with growing numbers of high-school graduates who resent and resist the rigors, demands, and pleasures of higher education, colleges and universities have lowered standards to keep students happy and enrollments up.”

So all of that represents my response to your criticism. As for a couple of other specific points:

You admonish me to “Get off your high horse and stop talking about how important you are.” Sorry, but there’s nothing you can point to in my essay that indicates I’m full of myself or afflicted with an attitude of superiority, unless you’re inferring it from the overall tone of the piece, in which case the attitude of superiority you impute to me is still coming from you, not me. Far from being on a “high horse,” I consider myself one of the afflicted, and also one of the perpetrators, in this generation of mass media drones. I was raised in the 1970s and 80s, which makes me a full second generation child of television. I’m also a child of the narcissists Christopher Lasch wrote about. I’m a Gen-X-er. So generationally speaking, I’m part of the problem, and when I introspect I see in myself — in my cognitive and emotional life, in my basic affective cast – both a product and a cause of the cultural degeneration I decry.

You point out that the Missouri state educational standards do include some of the things I think students should know. But if you reread my words you’ll see that it’s not an ignorance of irony or the dramatic structure of stories or any other such thing that I was decrying, but rather the loss of a common fund of knowledge that can be referred to when trying to teach, illustrate, and discuss these concepts. Plus, Missouri’s state standards, just like every other state’s educational standards, and just like the national educational standards, are all now stated in outcome-based form. This means that in my subject area of English (now renamed “communication arts” by Missouri), there’s no actual content specified for me to teach, no novels, plays, stories, poems, etc. Instead, what’s stressed are skills in reading, writing, analyzing, and so on, all of which can be quantified and measured. This in itself is a major factor in the educational apocalypse that’s currently well underway. The very fact that all official educational standards are now stated generically in terms of transferable and quantifiable skills represents a travesty of real education. The flaw reveals itself largely on the level of student motivation, since the implicit message that it’s not really important what content you devote your time and attention to, since any and all content will serve equally well to hone the stated skills and facilitate the prescribed “learning outcomes,” is not lost on young people, who thus imbibe a fundamental and uncritical attitude akin to nihilism. The education system teaches them that no books, authors, or ideas really matter in and of themselves. Books etc. are just means to an end, namely, the acquiring of skills that will make you a productive and happy member of the global economy. If what I’m saying here seems a rather large leap from your mild gesture toward Missouri’s state education standards, then I ask you to look and think again, and to do so much more carefully.

Finally, and on an unrelated note, you called my quoted sentence a run-on sentence. That’s incorrect. It’s a common misconception that the term “run-on sentence” refers to any lengthy sentence that ought to be shortened for stylistic reasons. But a run-on sentence is actually a syntax error created by running two or more independent clauses together without a sentence break or other punctuation. An example might be, “This is a run-on sentence it should be broken in half.” It can be fixed by either adding a period after “sentence” and starting a new sentence with “It,” or else by adding a semi-colon or a comma plus a conjunction. If you’ll go back and reread my quoted sentence, you’ll see that it’s made up of several independent and dependent clauses, all of them melded into a syntactically and grammatically correct whole by the use of appropriate punctuation, grammar, and stylistic placement. Yes, it’s a very long sentence by modern standards. But it’s still fairly common in the academic types of writing that have influenced my own style a great deal. And in my English classroom one of my goals has been to accustom students to reading this more complex type of prose, since the absence of that skill effectively cuts them off from nearly everything that was written before the mid-20th century, thus rendering them cultural amnesiacs who depend on Hollywood and The History Channel to tell them about anything beyond the immediate historical present.

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.

More on anti-intellectualism

I hope you all had a good week. As for me, I’m safely back from a brief doctor-oriented jaunt to Texas — specifically, to Austin and San Antonio — and can report that yes, it’s hot down there. And humid, at least in the two cities where my wife and I went. Imagine Dante’s Inferno set in the tropics. Here in Missouri we’re bracing for a new heat wave that’s forecast to settle over us for most of the coming week, and yet it’ll still be more pleasant than what I just encountered further south. So a word to the wise: Plan your Texas vacations for any time but the summertime.

But that’s not what I came here to write about today. Instead, I thought I’d share a bit more about anti-intellectualism, which I wrote about at length a week or two ago in my post “High tide for anti-intellectualism.” As I explained in that one, the rise of anti-intellectualism in America had become a live topic in several discussion threads at the Shocklines message boards, and had elicited such a lengthy response from me that I decided to post it here instead of there.

Well, the conversation at Shocklines progressed considerably further after I uploaded that post, with several people responding to things I wrote here. I posted my own responses to these responses, and eventually ended up writing so much that I’ve now decided it bears being published hereat The Teeming Brain. Of course, if you want to read the full, original discussion at the Shocklines boards, just click here.

Note that in the following transcript, the names of all participants besides me have been concealed to protect the innocent. I’ve quoted and in some cases summarized what other people said, and have followed these comments with my responses. Also be advised that if you haven’t read my original post about anti-intellectualism but you decide to dive right into the argument below, you might feel a bit disoriented, as if you had just walked into a room full of people where an impassioned conversation is already well underway.

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Anti-intellectualism, Part Deux

R.G. said, “I never know what to make of this issue. I cannot remember a time — or really even hearing of a time — in American history when intellectualism was so prevalent in America. I might have just had my head in a book though. I mean what’s the big problem? People can be intellectual or not, it’s never been a big concern to me. People live their lives as they live their lives.”

Regarding the first part of your comment, Neil Postman amply demonstrates in Amusing Ourselves to Death that the general intellectual character of the American populace during the 18th and 19th centuries was much more elevated than it is today or has been for the past fifty or hundred years. For example, during the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary periods, political texts like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold so rapidly that booksellers could hardly keep them in stock. “In 1985,” writes Postman, “a book would have to sell eight million copies (in two months) to match the proportion of the population that Paine’s book attracted.” Overall the book ended up selling maybe 400,000 copies. Writes Postman (quoting another author), “’Taking a figure of 400,000 in a population of 3,000,000, a book publisher today [that is, circa 1985] would have to sell 24,000,000 copies to do as well.’ The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today’s America is the Superbowl.” I’ll add that if Postman were writing the book today, he might also identify other media culture detritus like the finale of American Idol.

As he recounts in his book, European and British visitors to America during the 18th and 19th centuries were astonished at the widespread literacy and book hunger that was evident among the populace. It was a cultural circumstance that elevated writers to the status of celebrities. “When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842,” writes Postman, “his reception equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarterbacks, and Michael Jackson.”

Regarding the American intellectual character specifically, Postman refers to the famous political debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 — the source of today’s Lincoln-Douglas debate format used in interscholastic competitions — and points out that they were staggeringly long affairs compared to today’s political debates. The audience’s “attention span would obviously have been extraordinary by current standards. Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? or five? or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally. . . . [T]hese audiences were made up of people whose intellectual lives and public business were fully integrated into their social world. . . . [T]he use of language as a means of complex argument was an important, pleasurable and common form of discourse in almost every public arena.” Postman calls the type of mind that developed in America under the influence of books and lectures the “typographic” mind, which is characterized by that long attention span and that ability for complex reasoning. He also says the advent of the electronic communications media largely undid all this. “We might even say,” he writes, “that America was founded by intellectuals, from which it has taken us two centuries and a communications revolution to recover.”

As for the second part of your comment, where you said it doesn’t matter whether people are intellectual or not since it’s a matter of personal choice, it sounds like you’re equating intellectuality with mere lifestyle preference, on the same level as deciding whether to live in a house or an apartment, or to join a bowling league or a book club. I think the issue at stake is much deeper than that. Sure, on one level, whether or not one reads books is akin to whether or not one plays tennis or enjoys big band music. It’s just a matter of personal taste and enjoyment. But anti-intellectualism refers to something much deeper: an attitude that is either hostile or apathetic toward serious reasoning and reflection, and that therefore produces a people who behave like barbarians when it comes to matters of serious, urgent importance. We’re not just talking about people who don’t like to read. We’re talking about people by the millions who generate a collective mindset, atmosphere, and outlook that can’t distinguish between truth and bullshit. And that has ramifications far beyond the realm of literature and the arts. Should America mount a military attack against Iran? Who should the next president be? What’s a good solution to the mounting oil and energy crisis? What is a valid response to the present conflict between Israel and Lebanon? How should we arbitrate and decide between the opposing sides of the screaming match that has overtaken America in the form of the culture war? When a people have been coarsened through the degradation and atrophy of their intellectual character, who’s to offer reasonable responses to any of these practical issues? We’re all infinitely more manipulable by our politicians, who are themselves products of this same intellectually blunted culture, when we’ve lost our ability to think, or worse, when we no longer realize that we aren’t thinking. And this demonstrates why what’s happening in America — or rather what’s already happened, since the game is over, the cultural turning is a matter of historical record, and anti-intellectualism has won — is so much more significant than mere personal taste or preference, since the question of whether one chooses to read serious books or grapple with serious ideas as a general pastime is distinct from the question of whether one is able to do these things when they’re necessary. Generally speaking, the American public has lost that ability. Our intellectual character has atrophied. So for us as a culture, authentic intellectuality is not even an option any more.

And anyway, who cares about any of that when America’s Got Talent!!!

Moving on to another comment, A.M., who created the Shocklines anti-intellectualism thread to begin with (yeah, it’s his fault!), said, “I think my original point was missed. I’m not wondering about what anti-intellectualism is, nor how pervasive it is among various elements in our society. I’m wondering why it is being categorized as a relative new and expansive phenomenon (a wave, as it were) when it’s been omnipresent during my lifespan. I mean, hell, when I was a kid ‘Carter Country’, ‘Sheriff Lobo’ and ‘The Love Boat’ all made it to prime time. Donny and Marie Osmond had a variety show, and so did The Captain and Tenille. Stupidity is nothing new.”

I’m hoping some of what I just wrote addresses some of your point. But yes, of course you’re right, such cultural detritus is always present. Nor is it always bad. The 70s had disco. The 60s had Gilligan’s Island and Green Acres. It was in the 60s that Newton Minnow, then head of the FCC, gave his famous speech in which characterized television as a “vast wasteland” based on its vapid programming. The speech is still well worth reading for its relevance. The 50s had Leave It to Beaver. The 40s had The Three Stooges. And so on.

The problem is that anti-intellectualism isn’t just a matter of dumb entertainment, but of a fundamental personal posture toward serious thought and reflection. The electronic mass communication revolution of the past century has done something to us in this area, the full effects of which we still can’t get a perspective on because they’re still accruing, and because we’re still living in the midst of it all

D.W. said, “Thank you Matt for the last bit. Its funny about Postman’s Amusing Ourselves; very relevent today but 25 years old already. (His Techopoly is also good)”

I agree that Amusing Ourselves to Death has only become more cogent over time. And thanks for recommending Technopoly. I’ve browsed it in bookstores and read excerpts online, and I know I’ll have to read it someday.

[D.W. also said some stuff in a separate post about education becoming a kind of customer-service driven enterprise in America. The following comments were in response to that.]

As for education becoming a customer service-based enterprise in a society centered around consumerism — yes, absolutely. And horrifically. I happen to think you’re dead-on. And I’m appalled to know that all the criticisms that could be made about this state of affairs, and that have been made, and that are being made, have a tendency simply to bounce off the very people who are being damaged by the whole thing, namely, America’s college and university students. The problem is that they simply can’t see how this state of affairs is bad, or even that higher education should be or could be conducted in any other way. This is a function of their involuntary narcissism, which has been bred into them from birth and which is the primary fact about their sense of self and world (cf. Jean Twenge’s recent study Generation Me, which promises to be as cogent as Postman’s many writings). Of course I myself am one of the first generation narcissists as described by Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism (1979). So I can see these same forces at work in my own self, distorting my cognitive and emotional life and generally wreaking havoc with my happiness.

B.D. referred back to Postman’s claim about the inability of modern audiences to handle the long-form discourse of 19th century political debates when he said, “The typical C-Span junkie could probably handle 70 hours. As for our ‘grossly consumer-oriented society,’ it’s called capitalism– and it works.”

Yes, C-Spanners could surely endure that much talk. But exactly how well do they represent the mainstream in America right now? And what’s the level of talk they’d be imbibing on C-Span or any other channel?

Regarding your second point, capitalism is not consumerism. They’re distinctly different. Capitalism is an economic system. Consumerism is an ideology. Capitalism is simply one way to organize the economic life of a society. It happens to work very well, perhaps better than any other system, for moving goods and services around, and also for stimulating materially productive activity among a population. Moreover, as we have discovered in the American national experience (and as many economists and sociologists have explained both retroactively and prophetically), it is amazingly good at producing vast concentrations of wealth among a tiny economic elite of “winners.” Consumerism, by contrast, is a philosophy or attitude that elevates consuming, as in buying and owning things, to the status of Life’s Real Meaning. It holds that personal worth and a successful, happy life are measured and defined by material gain. Although capitalism provides what is probably the most perfect venue for consumerism, enabling it to expand explosively and take over the ideological environment like a spreading virus, it’s still a distinctly different thing. To ride roughshod over this distinction is to muddy the waters in a big way.

B.D. responded to the above words by saying, “I think that consumerism, as you’re describing it, is more a lack of ideas than anything else. But does that really mean people are getting dumber? Most people in the US used to be farmers– that changed dramatically with the rise of industry. Was this population better educated and informed than Americans today? I find that hard to believe.”

Consumerism is a lot more than a simple lack of ideas. It’s a positive driving ideology that has shaped and is continuing to shape American society into something it did not used to be. Moreover, it produces cannibalistic zombies who hang out in shopping malls.

The question of whether today’s American populace is or isn’t better educated and informed would seem to hinge on value-laden assumptions about the meaning of education and informedness. In the popular mind today, education is almost universally equated with being schooled in the mainstream educational institutions. Being informed is equated with having access to the mass media net through television, computers, and so on. The problem is, just a little investigation reveals that the schools aren’t really about educating in the authentic sense of the word, and being informed in the modern sense isn’t the same as having real knowledge.

For the first part, one can turn to such resources as John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education or even to far less radical books and articles for much proof and documentation that we’re all being hoodwinked by institutional pressures when we think the schools today are truly devoted to educating the population, or that American society is better educated than it was before the massive school reforms of the early and mid-twentieth century were instituted.

For the second part, I hope I’m not harping overmuch on a theme when I refer yet again to Neil Postman. In his 1990 speech “Informing Ourselves to Death,” Postman argued that ever since the advent of the “information age,” as defined by the rise to dominance of the electronic communications media and the computer, we’ve been drowning in a sea of information that we just don’t know what to do with. The universal cultural assumption is that more information will improve and even save us. Whatever the subject or problem, the assumption is that if you throw more information at it, do a controlled study, cross-reference multiple databases, survey the relevant literature, watch or make a documentary, find out what the experts have said — in short, if you’ll just get more information, i.e., make yourself more informed — you’ll magically arrive at the solution.

Postman does a great job of deflating this belief by asking rhetorical questions: “Did Iraq invade Kuwait because of a lack of information? If a hideous war should ensue between Iraq and the U.S., will it happen because of a lack of information? If children die of starvation in Ethiopia, does it occur because of a lack of information? Does racism in South Africa exist because of a lack of information? If criminals roam the streets of New York City, do they do so because of a lack of information?

“Or, let us come down to a more personal level: If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information?”

Of course, Postman isn’t the only one who’s talked about this kind of thing. Theodore Roszak and his The Cult of Information come to mind.

Another way to look at it is this: We can all see that being ever more informed isn’t necessary valuable in and of itself, because American culture in the midst of this utopia of information and informedness is — to put it bluntly but accurately — profoundly fucked up in a way it’s never been before. Certainly, we’ve been screwed up in various serious ways in the past, but we’re currently foraging through unexplored territory.

So to answer that last part of your question — No, I don’t think people used to be better informed than they are now. But I don’t think we’re any better off than they were just because of our informedness. In fact, we’re worse off in a great many ways precisely because of this difference, and will continue to be so as long as we keep equating informedness, and also education as it’s currently practiced, with wisdom.

Incidentally, I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m shouting at you, B.D.. I don’t even know for sure that the kind of assumptions I’m going on about were behind your question. This entire issue just touches upon things that interest me greatly, as I suppose is obvious.

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Okay, this is me talking again, in the present tense, right as I’m about to post this to my blog. If the anti-intellectualism conversation progresses any further at Shocklines, I’ll probably share more of it here. Need I add that what I wrote above signaled the end of that particular discussion thread? This doesn’t surprise me and I really can’t blame other people for abandoning it, since Shocklines is primarily about horror entertainment, which made the whole conversation off-topic anyway, and also since I have a long history, almost amounting to a kind of legacy, of seizing upon topics that interest me and then pounding them into the ground so very thoroughly that everybody else grows sick of them. I’ve ended many an online discussion with my long-form comments. I certainly hope I haven’t further perpetuated the beating-the-dead-horse phenomenon via the present post. But then again it may not matter, because hey, after all, it’s my teeming brain we’re talking about here.

High tide for anti-intellectualism

This post is in response to a query somebody made at the Shocklines forum. In various conversations at that board, people have recently been mentioning a supposed surge of anti-intellectualism in America today. One person responded with the following:

I’ve been hearing a lot about this ‘wave of anti-intellectualism’. I’m curious about it.

All artistic ventures aren’t immediately dismissed by the general public. Memento springs to mind; it was certainly a different sort of film, but it also had reasonable legs as a movie which didn’t even break 600 screens, and its DVD sales seemed pretty strong. While it’s undeniably true that the most innovative movies do not have corresponding box office receipts (hey, Shallow Hal beat out Memento by a long shot) it’s also true that this is not a new thing. I don’t recall a time when the most innovative films racked up the best box office.

What is the root of the anti-intellectualism argument?

I could go on and on about this topic all day, and would end up thanking you for the provocation to vent. But I’ll restrain myself, relatively speaking. Apologies in advance if I sound smotheringly didactic at points. I’ve recognized that fact about my writing for years but have thus far been unable to overcome it.

I think the basic idea behind the anti-intellectualist argument presents at least two aspects. One of these is the simple recognition that “dumb is in.” I remember seeing Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey mention this in an interview a couple of years ago. When the interviewer brought up the subject of Ms. Fey’s reputation for intelligence and wit, she jumped on the opportunity to express serious concerns about the fact that in American pop culture, which for several decades has been synonymous with (prepackaged) youth culture, it’s become hip to be stupid. She talked about kids, and especially girls, feeling pressured to suppress their intelligence and appear stupid and vapid in order to fit in. And she contrasted this with her parents’ generation, when the counterculture was in full swing and it was hip to be über-intelligent and well-read so that you could effectively criticize the American government or the radical commie sympathizers or whomever, depending on your stance.

So this is the first and easiest-to-get-at arm of the argument, this pointing-out of what might be called the Bill & Ted syndrome, or the Harry & Lloyd syndrome, or the Jesse & Chester syndrome. Especially among the under-thirty crowd, there’s a cultural pressure to act stupid even if you’re not, and this is hostile to intelligence.

The deeper and more extended aspect of the argument represents a kind of medical diagnosis of a peculiarly American pathology that has now infected the rest of the world by means of cultural imperialism — that is, via the aggressive exporting of a lifestyle centered around consumerism and mass media entertainment. The idea is that America is in the throes of a systemic crisis that is largely economic in nature, the effects and implications of which have inevitably spun off into a detrimental effect on the American intellectual character. Then there’s also the related recognition of America’s longstanding bias in favor of what might be called “down home-ism” and against anything perceived as highfalutin, a tendency that has been alternately muted and dominant at various periods in the nation’s history. People who point to current anti-intellectual trends like to say the tendency has now moved dramatically and perhaps definitively to the fore, with youth culture’s “dumb is in” phenomenon representing just the tip of the iceberg.

Please pardon me while I let other people do much of my thinking and speaking. When I first started writing this reply to your query, I was just out of bed and my brain was quite foggy. (I’ve never been able to fathom how or why so many writers find this time of day to be the best for doing their work, since I myself can barely put two words together until mid-morning.) So I’m just going to offer some quotations from, summaries of, and links to a number of books and articles whose ideas have amplified, shaped, and/or coincided with my own. Read the rest of this entry