Entertainment?

I have suggested on occasion, sometimes generally sometimes pointedly, that the entertainment industry has been one of the more pernicious influences on the development of such things as intelligence and character that have been seen of late. It’s influence is felt everywhere and since we know that animals, including the human animal, learn from imitation it follows that the ubiquitous television and the social media (of late, especially) have had a tremendous effect on the development of young minds and hearts.

Robert Hutchins once pointed out that the invention of  television held out the greatest of possibilities for humankind. It could be an educational tool like none other and could bring about the elevation of minds and the enlargement of experience among all those touched by it. But we know that has not happened. Not only does public television — which was the last bastion of hope — struggle against the tide of political interests that lie elsewhere, but even when its programs are seemingly beyond criticism they still raise deep questions about their effect on young minds. I speak of such programs as “Sesame Street,” which has always been held up as a paradigm of the best that can be hoped for in television programming. And yet, television is a passive media and does not involve the viewer fully, and this applies to children’s programs on P.B.S.. Furthermore, such programs as “Sesame Street” — as good as they are in many respects — lead the young to expect to be entertained by those who would be their teachers later on. I know this from first hand experience, but it is fairly easy to deduce. Given the fact that the young spend hours each day in front of the television waiting to be entertained, it follows that when in a classroom they will expect the same stimulation. Again, television is essentially a passive media and that’s the key. It does not involve the give-and-take that is required for real learning to take place.

I speak in general terms about television as the main culprit in the drama I am attempting to expose, but in addition to the programming itself, which is beyond banal, there are the dreaded effects of commercials that are designed to capture and hold the minds of the viewers and lead them to buy items they certainly do not need and probably do not want. But one cannot deny the pernicious effects of the frantic series of pictures drummed into the heads of passive viewers hour after hour that present him of her with examples of human behavior that are anything but exemplary. I speak of the commercials, especially, that advertise everything from feminine hygiene products to pills to cure erectile disfunction, and God only knows how many drugs designed to make our lives easier and more pleasant. But much of what I say can be placed at the feet of the programming itself which presents innumerable examples of what was once regarded as deplorable behavior — such things as chronic lying, for example, not to mention the common practice of shouting and interrupting, and the repeated message that YOU are the only thing that matters and violence is the way to solve conflict.

There has been much attention drawn to social media lately, and with good reason. But it simply exacerbates the problem I allude to, since it reinforces the message that the self is paramount and others are there to be used and discarded. Many young people admit that in addition to being addicted to social media, they are driven to present themselves to those who read and follow in such a way that they will be “liked.” It’s not a question of whether or  not a person is a good person, a virtuous person as once was, but if one is well liked. How many followers do we have? Has my latest post been “liked”? How can I make sure that I never hear again from that fellow who just criticized my latest post?

I carp, of course, and grind a favorite axe, one that many  would prefer to ignore or even deny altogether. But we might do well to think about the impact of the entertainment media and the effects it has had on generations of people with diminished attention spans and lowered intelligence who seem to be withdrawing further and further into themselves and less and less inclined to become involved in the world around them except in so far as it affects them directly. It is not something that is likely to change — and certainly not because of this blog post. But it is a phenomenon that deserves serious attention if we are to better understand the current cultural malaise, the growing incidences of violence, and the widespread apathy among growing numbers of people who could not care less about the world around them.

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Decline of The West

Oswald Spengler wrote a classic study of what he regarded as the rise and fall of various civilizations throughout the history of mankind. The key for Spengler was that these civilizations are natural organisms and like any other natural entity, they are born, grow, decay, and eventually die. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote his Study of History after Spengler and while he agreed with Spengler on many points, he regarded civilizations as artificial, not natural. There is no reason to expect that all civilizations will necessarily die out. But in his study, he noted that sixteen of the twenty-one fully developed civilizations he identified have, in fact, died out and four of the remaining five were in their death throes. The only relatively “healthy” civilization is Western civilization.

But despite its relative healthy state, Western civilization is in the latter portion of its cycle — a series of stages that every civilization goes through — and while its roots grew strong in the rich soil provided by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Toynbee could see the beginnings of a trend toward dissolution beginning in the Reformation with the failure of Christianity to withstand a variety of attacks from without and within. The most vital society in Western civilization was, as Toynbee saw it,  the new kid on the block, India — because of its “vast literature, magnificent opulence, majestic sciences, soul touching music, awe-inspiring gods. It is already becoming clear that a chapter which has a western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.”

A healthy spirituality is essential to the well-being of any human civilization. In general, Toynbee presented the history of each civilization in terms of challenge-and-response. Civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty, when “creative minorities” devised solutions that reoriented their entire society. Challenges and responses were physical, as when the Sumerians exploited the intractable swamps of southern Iraq by organizing the Neolithic inhabitants into a society capable of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects; or social, as when the Catholic Church resolved the chaos of post-Roman Europe by enrolling the new Germanic kingdoms in a single religious community. When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to loss of control over the environment, nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. Again, Toynbee believed that societies do not die from natural causes, but nearly always from self-inflicted wounds. And that death necessarily involves the death of the soul — the vital spirit that kept the civilization alive throughout the ages.

Whether or not we agree that India will dance on the charred remains of Western civilization (or whether we agree with Toynbee at all) we can certainly agree that the cycles that he insisted that all civilizations repeat seem to be very much in evidence today — even if we simply focus on a small part of Western civilization, namely, the United States of America. Clearly, we have lost control over our environment, given global warming, which most of us continue to deny. Further, the growth of nationalism, militarism, and the “tyranny of a despotic minority” are very much in evidence as I write this brief blog. In particular, we can see the increase of militarism today as so many political decisions seem to be directed by the military, just as we can see the immense influence the “despotic minority” of the wealthy have on the President and this Congress.  But the growth of nationalism and especially militarism, along with the failure of a “creative minority” to maintain a foothold in this society, seem to have brought about what Toynbee called “an answering withdrawal of mimesis on the part of the majority” — i.e, apathy; this is especially disconcerting.

Looking at both the ancient Greek and Sumerian civilizations, Toynbee saw a movement through what the Greeks called “kouros, hubris, and haté.” These signify the growth of  especially the military in those societies from a surfeit of power through excessive pride, to disaster. If he were alive today he would doubtless note a similar pattern emerging in this country, if not in the West generally. And it all seems to be hidden under the cloak of “national security.”