Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Bread and Circus

06/15/07 -- "Are you happy to be back home?" my neighbor asks.

I weighed the answer carefully. "In some ways," I reply. "But France was quite wonderful."

What I don't mention, at least not right off the bat, is my growing disenchantment with what I've begun calling "the idiot factor" of American life. The idiot factor clicks in when CNN salivates over whether Paris Hilton will serve five, 15 or 45 days in jail or the print media run rampant about whether Tony Soprano will survive his show's last episode. Gripping, important stuff, no doubt. But is there nothing else going on in the world right now? Was all the news I saw overseas on the BBC and France's TV5 a mirage? Can't we find even a toehold on TV for our emerging Constitutional crisis over the Administration's stonewalling in the firing of U.S. attorneys? And which war should we choose to ignore today? (There are too many to cover, anyway.)

American cable television is so effective at appealing to the idiot factor that I can't help but wonder whether someone has pulled a page from the schemers of ancient Rome. Remember bread and circus? Keep the masses fed, fat, diverted and distracted?

Certainly we have succeeded in super-sizing both our stomachs and the holes in our reasoning.

The first we see daily, on the street and in the handwringing headlines about overweight everybody.

As for those gaping gaps in logic, look no further than a USA Today poll about 10 days ago on the origins of life. The paper found that 66 percent of Americans think it is "definitely or probably true" that God created humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years. But 53 percent ALSO told the pollsters that man evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years.

How, you ask, is that possible? The answer: A quarter believe both to be true.

And why not, one might ask, at a time and in a country in which the president has taught us that something is true as long as he SAYS it is true and the media to this day rarely bother to directly challenge that assertion. Who needs logic or evidence when we have opposing views -- when we have a starting point for talking heads to yell at each other?

To me, coming back from a continent in which conservation is part of life's rhythm, the "bread" of America is bad enough -- our supersized houses, supersized cars, even supersized erectile dysfunction drugs (you know the one: please call your doctor if your erection lasts more than four days).

But now that I have cable TV again, it's the circus that drives me truly wild. I'm a journalism professor so in a way that makes me a co-conspirator. I didn't realize when I signed up for this that I'd be educating students to stand on the steps of some distraught family's front porch, earnest expression on their faces, a tear in each eye, keeping a daily countdown on the whereabouts of the latest lost kid of the month. More often than not, however, that's what passes for serious news.

Stay tuned this summer, and you'll see. It will be show time because it's a slow time for anything but real news -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Gonzales, immigration, corruption, Darfur, missle shields, health care... The list is long. But who wants to ruin a beach day with a lasting problem when we can cry for someone whose problems will never touch us? Why get mad at our leaders for lying to us and deceiving us when we can get pissed at Paris (as in Hilton) instead?

Let's keep the public satisfied and distracted. That way they won't have to figure out this monkey business about why man can't both be created erect AND evolve from less forms of life. If all else fails, we can rely on that other fine American tradition and simply split the difference, as one fellow journalism educator suggested to me at a conference in South Carolina this week.

"Evolution is just a theory; it's never been proven," he said, his face muscles tensing. "Why not just teach it with creationism as opposing theories?"

Why sure, we could do that. But tell me: I have a theory, too. I believe that the planets were placed around us by leprechauns to brighten the sky. Do you think we could start teaching that in science class, too?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Lingering signs of tradition; hints of change

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, May 26 – Continuity and change.

The signs – on billboards, bumper stickers and store names – can be seen across the South of France.

From Secrets Dessous, this city’s lingerie store that whispers of “Secrets Beneath,” to the 2,800 poems advertised by Chris of Cassis on all topics from romance to heartbreak, there are abundant signs the French still take quite seriously their responsibility as the standard bearers of amour.

We’ve seen that on the rotating billboard we've passed daily for four months on our walk to downtown Aix. A few months ago, in the early weeks of spring, it featured a young, scantily clad, woman leaning back. Avec moi, pas d'abstention -- “ with me, no abstention” --read the words below. By late May, on the eve of the holiday of Pentecost, the fifth and last French school holiday in the month, the same billboard featured a leggy, long-haired blonde in flowing white dress atop what looked like a wooden, carrousel horse. This time the words – vive les mamans sexy -- seemed aimed at a slightly older set: mothers. But the message hadn’t changed much.

Perhaps such signs should not surprise in a culture in which young men and women pass each other on the sidewalk and, in mid-stride, plant a kiss on both cheeks, a culture in which a middle-aged couple seated at our table at a town festival in the village of Venelles suddenly began kissing passionately in mid-main course and the grandmother ahead of us in the butcher shop line wore miniskirt, orange headband and silver heels.

A warning triangle in the back window of a high-end Peugot sedan in the tony village of Lourmarin seemed to sum up both the country’s passion for and humor about all things sensual. It alerted others that the driver stopped suddenly – for women in high-heeled shoes.

But if some things remain the same in the South of France, there are signs others are changing. Frenchmen, it might be argued, love their dogs nearly as much as les femmes. Enter a restaurant, bar or café and you can expect to find a cuddly Newfoundland curled in a ball beneath a table, a golden lab nibbling du pain from his master’s outstretched hand, a French fou-fou cuddled under papa’s arm.

Those days, however, are rapidly becoming as endangered as the 35-hour French workweek under the newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The signs are subtle: a new breed of triangular warning signs has cropped up in several stores and restaurants here in recent weeks with a sketch of a dog, a line drawn through it: No dogs allowed.

This is quite shocking in a land in which canines have demanded – and been granted -- their share of egalite. But as more dogs are left at curbside, they at least appear to be exhibiting more grace than French students, angry at rumblings of change in the higher education system.

No protesters here. Just yesterday, outside Aix’s best butcher, the Boucherie/Charcuterie du Palais, a young husky, no leash or collar, stood patiently for awhile, ears perked, awaiting his owner. A new sign – dogs forbidden – had been taped to the window.

Inside, the human line moved slowly. And so, after a few minutes, the dog lay down, crossed his front paws in front of him and rested his chin on one, a bit sad perhaps, but accepting of the inevitable winds of change.