The Poet’s Place

 

For lack of anything new to say, I choose to reblog an old post that was widely ignored.

Shelly is supposed to have said that poets are the legislators of the world. Ernst Cassirer later said that poets create culture — using the word “poet” in the broadest sense possible. I assume Shelly was speaking about poets like himself; Cassirer was speaking about artists who could create with words and pictures and thereby help us look at the world anew.
I think Cassirer was right, though I’m not sure about Shelly. But soon after Cassirer made his pronouncement the poets became journalists who wrote stories and in writing helped us see our world as they saw it and to make it into something new whenever they got tired of the old way of seeing things. Recently the print journalists have been replaced by media journalists of the entertainment variety. Our world is now created for us by those in the entertainment industry and consists almost entirely of pictures, moving and still: films, TV, radio,electronic devices of all shapes and sizes, and the internet. And we are pounded relentlessly.
In any event, the world they are creating is one that centers around the self. It is a theme I have developed before, but it is worth mentioning again in light of recent events. We are so much in the middle of a world of self-absorbed individuals we may not be aware of it. But just listen and watch: note how many popular songs refer to “me”; watch the TV commercials closely as they stroke the viewer; note how many reality TV performers will resort to any trick to grab the spotlight (and how many thousands want to be on stage); note how many politicians talk about themselves and see themselves as the center of the political world (especially you-know-who), how the sense of entitlement is ubiquitous, and how the internet is full of images and words telling us about those who post them. Or just consider U-Tube. Note also how materialistic we have become and how fame and wealth have become the center of so many young lives in our culture.
All of these are sure signs of a narcissistic personality. And this desire for fame, which triggers millions of words and images on Facebook and My Space and the millions of U-tube episodes involving self-absorbed people who want to be seen and heard, is spreading like the plague. In fact, it has been argued that the craving for fame at any cost is the major reason for much of the violence that has become alarmingly commonplace in this society, such as the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. The kid who takes (his mother’s) guns to school and kills several teachers and twenty young children may simply want to be seen and heard: a wasted life for a few minutes in the limelight. It seems unlikely, but studies have shown that our cultural narcissism runs that deep.
As readers of my blogs will recognize, I am drawing on Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell’s important book The Narcissism Epidemic. They make a very strong case that what started as a push to make kids feel better about themselves in our schools and in their homes has blossomed into a pervasive sense of entitlement and even cultural narcissism. We have become a society in love with itself, just as Narcissus in the Greek myth fell in love with his own reflection upon seeing it in the water. If they are right in their assessment of the situation, the repercussions are serious indeed.
The two main features of narcissism are the inability to build interpersonal relationships and what Freud called a weak “reality principle.” What this means is that we are becoming increasingly unable to get close to one another and we tend to live fantasy lives. Our electronic toys make this easy as they keep us from making human contact and push us deeper into a make-believe world where everything that happens is all about us.
As Miranda says in The Tempest, “Oh, brave new world that has such people in’t!” In Shakespeare’s day Miranda was filled with wonder; if she said that today she would be snickering. And the major player in this drama is the entertainment industry that creates fictional worlds, invites us in, and tells us we are the most important part of the drama. And we lap it up.

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Desensitized?

I have blogged previously about the fundamental difference between film as art and film as entertainment. For the most part we, as a culture, have abandoned any attempt to present film as art in an effort to set records at the box office. In a word: art doesn’t sell, entertainment does. The most recent example is the record $532 million that the “ridiculous” action film “The Fate of the Furious” recently made (in the first weekend) — worldwide. The word “ridiculous” is not mine, but that of a critic who could see no redeeming value whatever in the film which was, apparently, one explosion after another. I saw only the trailer, but I think I get the idea and that I have enough of a sense of what the film is all about to make a comment: a thin plot, little dialogue by second-tier actors, a touch of sex, and more than a little mayhem and graphic violence. The special effects people have taken over American movie-making.  A cinematic tour de force? Hardly. More like a cinematic comic book.

I have noted before that films that achieve the level of art require an effort on the part of the spectator, an effort of the mind and the emotions. The viewer must become fully engaged in what is happening on the screen and must use his or her imagination to make connections and follow the sometimes complex plot and action. When film is presented as mere entertainment, no effort of required: the film does all the work and the spectator merely needs to sit back and “let it happen.” The imagination withers from lack of exercise.

But the problem goes deeper than merely a lack of imagination and effort required to view most recent films, especially of the “action” variety. It suggests to those of us who care about such things not only a lack of imaginative effort, but also a growing desensitization to the suffering and pain of others. The more we see cars exploding and blood pouring out of open wounds the less it impacts on us. This is not unlike the desensitization of police officers and surgeons who see pain and suffering on a regular basis and are able to “shut it off” somehow. I gather in their case it is a defense mechanism as those who must work in the midst of pain and suffering must obviously figure out a way to cope. Otherwise they would have to find another line of work. This is the idea behind the British comedy “Doc Martin” in which the main character who is a successful vascular surgeon suddenly develops a blood phobia because one day he realizes that his patients are real people and has to leave the operating room for a GP’s life in a small village in Cornwall.

The point of all this is that desensitization is sometimes a good thing, but when it becomes commonplace, even global, it becomes worrisome. If we simply “shut off” the natural human reaction to seeing another person in pain or upon hearing about the suffering of those who are displaced by a war they never wanted in the first place, what does that say about us as human beings? Fellow-feeling, as the Scots told us about in the eighteenth century, is a basic trait of the human species. We see someone suffering and we naturally feel their pain — it’s called “empathy,” and some are more empathetic than others. But we were told at the time that it is a trait we all share to one degree or another and whether we agree with that thesis (and there are those who do not) it attests to the fact that there is a common reaction to the pain of others that ordinarily surfaces and keeps the “average” person from wanting to inflict pain or even to witness it in others. Fellow-feeling may not be universal, but it is certainly not uncommon — though it threatens to become so.

In a word, the possibility that a film has received a huge payout despite the fact (because of the fact) that it is merely violent entertainment that wallows in the pain and suffering of others on the screen, and that this film has become the record-holder for all films for all time, does make us pause. What does this say about us as human beings? Not just in this culture, but around the world where people are lining up to see the latest action film that has no redeeming value whatever.

Dumbing Down America II

In light of the “Trump phenomenon,” which has even Stephen Hawking bewildered, I thought I would reblog a post from 2011 that tries to figure out what went wrong. A large part of our problem is the fact that Trump gets headlines every time he farts and Bernie Sanders gathers thousands to his rallies and gets no notice whatever. Other than the fact that the corporations pretty much own the media these days — and they do NOT want Sanders to be the nominee of the Democratic Party — the media have fumbled the ball. But, as planned, Hillary has recovered the fumble and is running with it. 

During the middle of the last century when Walter Cronkite was at the height of his popularity — “the most trusted man in America” — he spoke out against the growing tendency of journalists, especially TV journalists, to confuse news with entertainment. He noted that “television is too focused on entertaining its audience,” insisting instead that the job of the journalist is to present the news as objectively as possible — both sides of complex issues, with the broadcaster keeping his bias to himself or herself. “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine,” he quipped. In order to make news hold the viewer’s attention, he thought it was sufficient that the journalist simply make it more “interesting,” focusing on “good writing, good reporting, and good editing.” Even though his words were widely anthologized and incorporated into the curricula of numerous schools of journalism, they pretty much fell on deaf ears. It is clear that not only television, but also print journalism, has gone the route of entertainment, big time. It’s all about competition among the dozens of news programs that demand our attention and attracting the viewers to your news program in order to sell your sponsor’s products. And entertainment sells the product.

So, what’s wrong with news as entertainment? It has to do with what entertainment is: it is essentially fluff. It is designed to grab the attention of a passive spectator, demanding nothing of him or her in the way of intelligent or imaginative response. It doesn’t seek to engage the mind. It is less concerned with informing than it is with holding the viewer’s attention long enough to deliver the sponsor’s message by way of thought bites — which is what TV news has become, for the most part. And as attention spans shrink, the entertainment must get more and more sensational and more graphic in order to keep the viewer’s mind from wandering. The same phenomenon takes place in the movies. [And has recently occurred in the political arena.]

Hollywood has never really understood the difference between film as art and film as entertainment. With the exception of people like Woody Allen and Orson Wells, directors and producers in Hollywood for the most part opt for the blockbuster, with the latest technical gimmick demanding nothing of the spectator whatever, except that she pay for a seat and then sit glued to it with eyes on the screen. The movies that seek only to entertain, again, do not engage the imagination of the spectator: they require no mental effort whatever. Films that seek to rise to the level of art, films made by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini, insist that the spectator make an effort to follow the plot and connect pieces, and think about what went before and how it connects with what is happening now — and what the implications are for human experience outside the movie theater. In a word, they teach.

And that brings us to the final point I want to make: thanks to TV shows like “Sesame Street,” teaching has also become an entertainment medium. The teacher is now supposed to engage the pupil’s shrunken attention span long enough to get bits and pieces of information into a mind that is frequently engaged elsewhere. The content is less important than the way it is delivered. Students are often asked to evaluate teachers and much of the evaluation has to do with “performance.” The popular teachers are the ones who put on the best show. The worst thing that can happen in the classroom is that it be deemed “boring” by a group of disinterested students who are surrounded by media that inundate them with noise and rapid-fire visual and aural sensations that overwhelm the mind and leave it spent and confused.

This is what people are used to and what they expect on a daily basis. What could be worse for such a mind than to be asked to sit and listen to a lecture that consists of nothing more than a man or a woman standing there reading from a text — or even speaking extemporaneously, without visual aids? Can we imagine an audience of thousands standing for hours in the hot Illinois sun to listen to a debate between two politicians on the pros and cons of slavery, as the folks did to listen to Lincoln debate Douglas? On the contrary, we demand thought bites, snatches and slogans. The quick 30 second news bite or political ad that tosses out a couple of bromides that are designed to fix themselves in the memory and guide the finger that pulls the lever in the voting booth. The point is not to inform, it is to entertain. And it’s not just Fox News, which is simply the reductio ad absurdam of the whole process.

That’s what bothered Cronkite years ago: news that lowers itself to the level of mere entertainment demeans the audience, and renders it a passive vehicle for any message that can be delivered quickly and effectively in order to somehow alter behavior — buy the product, pass the test, vote for this candidate. It lowers us all to the level of idiots who are waiting to be told what to do. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the mind by expanding its powers of imagination, thought, and memory. It is all about the dumbing down of America.

Media Matters

I begin with a most interesting comment posted by “Media Matters” in which we are told about some large matters of unfairness with respect to the coverage the various political candidates get from the media:

The New York Times reported on March 15 that part of the reason Trump “wins primary after primary with one of the smallest campaign budgets” is that he “dominates” earned media — which includes “news and commentary about his campaign on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on social media” — giving him a “mammoth advantage” over other candidates. According to The Times’ report, Trump far outpaces other presidential candidates in free media coverage, noting that in February “he earned as much media as [Ted] Cruz and [Hillary] Clinton combined” . . .
Mr. Trump earned $400 million worth of free media last month, about what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign. Paul Senatori, mediaQuant’s chief analytics officer, says that Mr. Trump “has no weakness in any of the media segments” — in other words, he is strong in every type of earned media, from television to Twitter.

Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.

I now turn to a comment I made earlier this year with respect to the “Fairness Doctrine” which has become a matter of mere historical interest, though one might wish it were still infect.  I noted at that time that the free exchange of ideas was guaranteed by the F.C.C. in 1949 as a result of what was then referred to as the “Fairness Doctrine” which guaranteed that both sides of controversial issues must be made public. This doctrine was rejected in 1987 by the F.C.C. under the leadership of Mark Fowler who had been a member of then President Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff and who argued that the doctrine violated the first amendment. As a result, the door was opened to the media to indoctrinate rather than inform — present a single point of view repeatedly and ignore opposing views; this gave rise to such abortions as Murdoch’s Fox News.

Clearly, Donald Trump is being covered in the media to a far greater extent than any of his opponents.  As suggested, this does go a long way toward explaining the hold he seems to have on American voters. Even those who hate the man find themselves drawn to stories about his latest outrageous behavior — not unlike the way we are all drawn to a train wreck. It’s morbid curiosity, I suppose. In any event, the Trumpet is getting free media coverage while others (such as Sanders) are lucky to get a brief mention. As a result, it would appear, he is kicking butt on the Republican stage. This claim of a causal relation here is strengthened by the consideration that those in the media hesitate to hold Trump’s feet to the fire on any of  the main issues. Nor do his opponents. Thus he sails along unchallenged, filling the air with empty platitudes and bromides that will not cure any of our ills whatever. This may change in the general election. We shall see. But even then the media will determine what we see and hear

And this is the heart of the matter. I have mentioned in previous posts (as have others) that the “news” has become mere entertainment. What this means is that the media are going to broadcast those matters that matter to people: they want to sell air time or please their sponsors. The formula is not “fairness” it’s “give them what they want,” and a citizenry brought up on violent entertainment and video games wants something that gets their attention and holds it for a moment or two — one can scarcely hope for more than that these days.

So when the chickens at last come home to roost, we can blame the citizenry for the success of no-minds like Trump. But we had better reserve some of our criticism for the media which are determined to give us what we want while, at the same time, they manufacture our desires according to the dictates of their sponsors.

Truth To Tell

One of the reasons I like to read novels by folks like Barbara Kingsolver is because they often have important things to say and do it so well. Her novels (and I am hooked on her novels, I admit) are always thought-provoking and intriguing. She has won numerous awards and, in her case at any rate, they are well deserved. In her novel The Lacuna, which is in its way brilliant, she tells us of a young novelist living in Washington D.C. and lets us read the letter he is writing to an old friend in Mexico. The letter is dated July 6, 1946.

“Politics here now resemble a pillow fight. Lacking the unifying slogan (Win the War), our opposing parties sling absurd pronouncements back and forth, which everyone pretends carry real weight. How the feathers fly! The newsmen leap on anything, though it’s all on the order of, ‘Four out of five shoppers know this is the better dill pickle,’ assertions that can’t be proven but sway opinion. ‘Dance for the crowd’ is the new order, with newsmen leading the politicians like bears on a leash. Real convictions would be a hindrance. The radio is the root of the evil, their rule is: No silence, ever. When anything happens the commentator has to speak without a moment’s pause for gathering wisdom. Falsehood and inanity are preferable to silence. You can’t imagine the effect of this. The talkers are rising above the thinkers.”

It’s no longer the radio, of course, but her point is well taken: “The talkers are rising above the thinkers.” Or is it “the shouters”?

Nonsense

The entertainment media are so full of nonsense it is hardly worth mentioning. And it will get worse before it gets better, what with the elections soon upon us. Brace yourselves!

But one of the more offensive pieces of nonsense is the commercials that have the disclaimer: “Real people. Not actors.” I gather we are to infer from this that actors are not real people. I assume they are robots. No? In any event, when we go to the movies there should be an appropriate disclaimer at the end: “Actors. Not real people.” Now, that would make sense — or as much sense as most of what we see on the silver (and not-so-silver) screen.

Paranoid Fiction?

Imagine if you will that a group of, say, eight or ten of the wealthiest and most powerful corporate CEOs meets together once a year in Switzerland — or, if their inclination leans toward sunnier climes, perhaps Belize. They have drinks and a bevy of loose women at hand, though they break every now and then for gourmet meals while they discuss the coming year together: how can they maintain their positions of power and keep the money rolling in?

They might decide to gain control of the media, especially television. Then they would make sure that the airwaves are filled with news reports biased in their favor together with sporting events 24 hours a day with plenty of patriotic zeal blended into the mix — fly overs, bands blaring, and plenty of flags waving while men and women in camouflage are conspicuous and constantly touted as “heroes” fighting a war on terror that these powerful men have encouraged (because it’s good for business). This will keep the viewers occupied for much of their free time and convince them that they live in the greatest country on earth. As such, they will be much more willing to believe what they are told — more malleable, if you will.

But to augment this effort, this group decides to make sure that the vast majority of the citizenry is either unemployed  (and thus dependent on the State) or holds mindless jobs for meager wages that lead them toward drugs, drinks, and the entertainment that is always ready at hand. Indeed, they promote inventions that guarantee that these folks can take the entertainment with them wherever they go — even while they drive to work or to the wide variety of recreation made available to them.  Further, the schools will be teaching practical, “hands-on” courses like computer science and various technical skills that might lead the students to whatever jobs that are available and away from any course work that might get them to think – such as history, literature, and philosophy. The idea here is to guarantee that these folks are attending to things that simply don’t matter and, like those watching a shell game, are unaware under which shell the pea is hidden: keep them occupied on mindless drivel. And to put the icing on the cake, they encourage violent television shows that keep people engrossed and on the edge, a bit fearful and better able to control. To add to the mix, through the NRA, which they control, they decide to promote the purchase of hand guns and automatic weapons to guarantee that frequent acts of violence occur that are discussed in the media they own while the Congress, bought and paid for by these corporate giants, debates what course of action not to take. This heightens the sense of danger and the fear in the population that makes it so much easier to control what the citizens do and (more to the point) what they think. And while they’re at it, these men (who make more than 400 times what their average employee makes)  encourage social media that guarantees that these people ‘s attention, such as it is, is turned on themselves so they don’t have the faintest idea where the pea might be hidden.

This, of course, is pure fiction, smacking as it does of a conspiracy theory. It is the fruits of a disturbed mind that borders on paranoia. Wouldn’t you say?

Losing Our Faculties

When philosophers first started exploring the human mind in a study that eventually became psychology, there was virtual unanimity that the human mind was comprised of a number of “faculties.” This eventually became known as “faculty psychology,” which, I am given to understand, is no longer accepted by all members of the psychology fraternity. I, however, find it most helpful in attempting to understand myself and my fellow humans.  Two of the human  faculties that have received a great deal of attention over the years are memory and imagination and much of the effort in the schools in bygone days was devoted to developing both of these faculties. But no longer.

Students are seldom asked to memorize passages from poetry or literature or even the times-tables in arithmetic: it is all available on the student’s i-pod. Whatever needs to be known can be looked up and there seems to be no need to develop the child’s memory, which is a shame, since memory is an integral part of human intelligence. But even more to the point is the lapse in attention to the human imagination, which is an essential part of being human. I have touched on this before, but it bears repeating. Besides, I have another point to make.

Take sex. In reading Balzac’s Cousin Bette recently the point was driven home by the circuitous way the author has of describing the wiles of his very sultry and sexy protagonist Valérie Marneffe who, while a married woman, manages to entertain three lovers at the same time. She is a remarkably beautiful and talented woman! But Balzac merely suggests this; he does not lay it all out there for us to lap up. He relies on the power of suggestion and the lively imagination of the reader to construct the complete picture while provided with mere hints. That’s the way things were done in his day — the nineteenth century — even in France! Take the following description of Valérie’s seductive attentions to one of her lovers, the wealthy and very bourgeois Célestin Carvel. He appears before her deeply troubled by a scene he has just witnessed and Valérie is determined to get his mind back on more important things, namely, herself. As Carvel enters her bedroom, Valérie is having her hair combed by her maid.

“Reine [her maid] that’ll do for today. I’ll finish my hair myself. Give me my Chinese dressing-gown, for my Monsieur looks as rum as an old Mandarin. . . Valerie took her wrap, under which she was wearing her vest, and slid into the dressing gown like a snake under its tuft of grass. . . .[Later] she struck a pose in a fashion that was enough to lay Carvel wide open, as Rabelais put it, from his brain to his heels; she was so funny and bewitching, with her bare flesh visible through the mist of fine lawn.”

You get the picture — I hope. Here we have a sketch that the writer presents to the reader allowing him or her to fill in the details. It is sufficient to create an image that Balzac wants and it is very effective. But it relies on the reader’s imagination. Without that, there is no picture. And this is true of art generally: it requires an effort on the part of the reader or spectator to complete the picture, whether it is drawn, painted, or written — an effort of imagination.

But we are no longer asked to make that effort. The above scene would be written today in lurid detail in an effort to shock and stimulate — but not to ask the reader to imagine. The writer or painter, or photographer, sets it all out there for the viewer to see in graphic detail, the more vivid the better. This is certainly the case when it comes to sex and violence, but it is true generally of the media today that seek to sensationalize all human emotions. Lost is subtlety and suggestion. Lost, too, is the sense of mystery that surrounds the unmentioned. The human imagination is in danger of becoming flaccid, emaciated, unable to stand on its own, much less run and leap. As Henry Adams would have it, “. . . the feebleness of our fancy is now congenital, organic, beyond stimulant or strychnine, and we shrink like sensitive plants from the touch of a vision or spirit.” And he noted that long before i-pods and video games!

But so what, you might ask? The answer is that the human imagination is necessary for the possibility of ethical behavior. This is something that is seldom noted but which is worth pondering. The so-called “Golden Rule” which lies at the heart of so many religions and ethical systems requires that we imagine the effects of our own actions and treat others as we would imagine they might treat us in the same circumstances. Without imagination there can be no sympathy, much less empathy, which many would regard as central to ethical actions. We do the right thing by others because we can imagine ourselves in the same straits and we care enough to act to relieve their suffering. Again, without the imagination, there can be no action.

Thus while the entertainment industry works hard at devising new tricks to present to masses of viewers the latest in technical expertise and trickery, they threaten to render impotent the human imagination. Not only will art suffer in the end (as it has already) and our lives become shallow, we are in danger of losing our faculties — not only memory, but, more importantly, imagination. The mental faculties are like muscles: they need to be exercised to gain strength.

Defoe’s Eroticism

I am no historian of erotic literature, by no means. But I am aware of the writings of the Marquis de Sade (who was declared insane) in the  eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century most erotic literature was apparently written by persons who preferred to remain anonymous (perhaps because of the infamy that was heaped on Sade).  And in the twentieth century the writing style improved and serious writers such as Anaïs Nin, D. H. Lawrence, and Vladimir Nabokov wrote novels that had readers tittering nervously behind the bathroom door. Edith Wharton even tried her hand at it and wrote some steamy passages that she never attempted to publish. But the covers have been removed in our day as the “progress” in erotic literature, like other art forms, has taken us to the point where nothing whatever is left to the imagination.

Early on, when the Victorian writers, even the great ones like George Eliot, wrote love scenes they merely suggested what was about to happen — like the picture fading as the lovers embraced in the early days of cinema. The rest was left to the reader’s imagination — as well it should be. Some things are better left unsaid and merely hinted at. One might even argue that such suggestions are even more powerful stimulants than graphic descriptions of sex and violence (think of Hitchcock’s murder scenes in movies such as “Psycho”).

What is interesting in this regard is the early novel by Daniel Defoe, written in 1683 about the “fallen” woman, Moll Flanders. The author takes several carefully written pages in an “Author’s Preface” to brace his readers, prepare them for a story about a woman whose life was a series of adventures involving more than a dozen men of all shapes and sizes and even a brief marriage, including three children, with her brother. As age begins to catch up with her Moll resorts to theft and pickpocketing in addition to the occasional liaison. Defoe is careful to point out that he is writing about this woman in order to teach his readers to be more virtuous. Every carefully crafted scene — which again, relies on suggestion and hints — is followed by a lesson, as, for example, the following: “. . . yet you may see how necessary it is for all women who expect anything in the world, to preserve the character of her virtue, even when perhaps they may have sacrificed the thing itself.”  At one point early in the novel he takes several pages to give a lecture about the necessity for women to do a better job of “vetting” their prospective husbands, not to “run into matrimony as a horse runs into battle.” He warns that jumping into marriage simply to avoid the life of a spinster can lead to great unhappiness.  As he puts it:

“No man of common sense will value a woman the less for not giving up herself at the first attack, or for not accepting his proposal without enquiring into his person or character; on the contrary, he must think her the weakest of all creatures, as the rate of men now goes; in short, he must have a very comfortable opinion of her capacities, that having but one cast for her life shall cast that life away at once, and make matrimony, like death, be a leap in the dark.”

Much of his advice is wise and understanding of the women in his day who were abused and miserable because their society demanded that they marry early and start having large families. The author is clearly in sympathy with Moll Flanders who was born into poverty, taken from her mother at birth, and who must somehow do whatever is necessary to stay out of the poor house in a society where there are too few options for women generally. One might even argue that Defoe is one of the earliest feminists. The book is fairly racy in a tame sort of way: in its day it must have been rather sensational. It is certainly interesting.

But, in the end, novels that preach, even if the sermon is one we should take to heart, are flawed as works of art. And novels are above all else works of art. Or they should be. Didactic literature fails as art simply because the writer is telling his reader what to think or how to feel when that is better left to the reader. The same flaw can be attributed to graphic erotic novels that leave nothing to the imagination. Above all else, art requires the exercise of the imagination and works that are graphic and leave nothing to the imagination, like works that preach, cannot be said to be works of art.

All of which leads me to the consideration that today’s graphic movies, television, novels, and games cannot be said to be works of art by any stretch of the word. Moreover, they cripple the human imagination in the process of deadening the sensibilities to the subtleties of suggestions and hints — possibilities that are never explicitly mentioned but clearly intended. Works of art demand considerable effort on the part of the spectator to appreciate what the artist is doing, to fill in the gaps for herself or himself. And, more than anything else, that effort is one of the imagination. The more art degenerates into entertainment the less able will future spectators be able to engage complex works and appreciate them in their full presentational immediacy — as works of art that touch us on a variety of levels, and don’t simply get us sexually aroused or scare us to death, killing the imagination and rendering us devoid of feeling.

The Race Card

You have doubtless heard about the outrageous behavior of Richard Sherman, cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, after virtually saving the N.F.C. title game for Seattle on Sunday. He not only blew his own horn so loud it drowned out the record crowd, but he also “dissed” his opponent and called Michael Crabtree — the intended receiver on the play in question — a mediocre player, giving the choke sign in the process. He is apparently a fairly bright guy and he has apologized for his behavior, after a fashion: “It’s who I am.” But he has been fined by the league for unsportsmanlike conduct and the talking heads have waded in, so we will doubtless be hearing about this behavior ad nauseam in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.

The marketing people are hovering around Sherman like vultures circling a dead corpse, their mouths positively watering at the thought of the money to be made from this incident. And comments from various Monday morning quarterbacks have ranged from “bush league” to “refreshing,” as everyone and his dog enters into the discussion. But what I found most interesting was the virtual unanimity on “Around The Horn” — ESPN’s showcase for talking heads — in saying that Sherman’s behavior was not “over the top,” that since football is entertainment one would have to give Sherman high marks for the great entertainment value he has provided to spice up our drab, wretched lives. The talking  heads are all sports journalists and doubtless they see only grist for the journalistic mills. They are not known to give high praise for self-restraint and decorum; they prefer their emotions raw and juicy. They called the Seattle quarterback “boring.” I have blogged about this before, so I won’t go there, except to say that this is yet another example the entertainment industry is setting for our kids.

Where I will go is to Sherman’s comment in response to the reaction to his behavior, referring to those who find it offensive as “racist.” This raises a most interesting point. Are we not to judge a person’s behavior as offensive if that person happens to be a member of a minority? Isn’t it possible that Richard Sherman behaved like a jerk and, regardless of his race, that sort of behavior should not be tolerated? If we would be quick to condemn this action of a white player, wouldn’t it be racist NOT to mention it in this case because Sherman is African-American? I would have thought the idea is to treat everyone alike. In a word, are we to look the other way simply because a person happens to be a member of a minority and excuse his or her behavior no matter how offensive it might happen to be? I beg to differ!

I recall some years ago the comments made by an actress in a popular TV show who complained about the fact that she was not getting the attention she thought she deserved; she insisted that this was due to the fact that the folks who handed out awards were sexist. In fact, she was a terrible actress and deserved to be overlooked. But she attributed the fact that she was being ignored not to her lack of talent, but to prejudice on the part of those who should know better, as she saw it. I suppose it is easier live with the fact that our critics are racist or sexist than to admit that we have no talent or are behaving like fools: one finds comfort in the delusion.

The fact of the matter is that certain types of behavior, when engaged in publicly, are deserving of condemnation. If they were performed in private that’s another question. But public behavior sets an example, good or bad, whether we like to admit it or not. And when it is offensive, it should be duly noted and even condemned — if for no other reason than to send a message to those observing the behavior that such things are unacceptable — regardless of their “entertainment value.” It’s one thing to be tolerant, and I applaud the effort to expand our levels of tolerance in a country founded by Puritans. But it is quite another thing to insist on silence when it is clear that certain types of behavior are simply not to be tolerated. We are urged on all sides not to be “judgmental,” but there are times when judgment is called for. I am not talking about a call to arms, drawing and quartering, much less castration. I am talking about expressing concern and voicing objections. Indifference should not be mistaken for tolerance and held up as exemplary. And whatever “entertainment value” behavior such as that of Richard Sherman might have, it sets a terrible example for young kids watching their heroes parade before them strutting their stuff and ridiculing their opponents. Enough is enough. Some times, it’s just too much, regardless of race, creed, or religion.