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?


Blogger jenniferjuniper said...

Bread and circus is exactly on the mark. Trans fats on the brains of our ignorant nation. So much easier to be the country committing murder, torture and also polluting the world - as long as we stay ignorant. It's a great way never to have to take responsibility, since we can always say "We didn't know." Sound familiar? Reminds me of another country after 1945.

9:29 AM  
Blogger James said...

Fat and distracted is right on the mark, Jerry, but the other question is, why Americans are so unwilling to see anything but skin deep when the real issues occasionally are put in front of them. Here's an example: Don't do a story on Iraq because it's a downer. Only, it's president bush that has us fighting two wars right now. That's where Paris and Britney come up. It's minimum investment for maximum return.

Unfortunately, it makes the jobs of people that want to do the job right (myself included) much harder. But I hope that when some of these people retire that you'll see some of us in those positions to change it for the better.

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