Once Again: Black Friday

I have posted this piece before, but in light of the fact that we now have a mega-holiday that a character in one of the comics I enjoy calls “Hallothanksmas,” and given also that advertisers are now calling November “Black Friday Month,” it seems especially appropriate since we are about to see the ugly face of commodified Christmas once again. The more things change the more they stay the same! I have added a few pithy comments to this version.

The headline read “Woman pepper sprays other Black Friday shoppers.” In an effort to have a better chance to get at the cheap electronics Walmart was using as a lure to get shoppers jump-started this holiday season, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 customers who were in her way. Except for the talking heads on Fox News who think this is perfectly acceptable behavior, everyone is in a dither — but for many of the wrong reasons. Out-of-control shoppers are a worry, but the whole marketing ploy that begins before Thanksgiving [Halloween?] is the larger problem.

We do live in a commodified culture, as Robert Heilbroner told us many years ago, but our values are clearly out of kilter when money and the things that money can buy become the main focus of an entire nation at a time when the theme should be “peace On Earth.” If we take a commodified culture preoccupied with possession of things, combine it with an immense advertising machine that works buyers into a frenzy prior to Thanksgiving, it is no wonder that things like this happen. We shouldn’t be surprised; clearly things are out of focus when money becomes the center of one’s life. Citizens who bother to go to the voting booth any more are there to turn around a weak economy, tighten the purse strings. That has been the rule for some time now: vote out the bastards who are taking money out of my pocket; when you retire move somewhere where the taxes are lower. The real issues, like the spread of nuclear weapons and the damage we are doing to the environment in our determination to raise our already obscenely high standard of living, are largely ignored.

Christmas should, of course, be a time for reflection and thought about others. In this country, and other “developed” countries around the world, it has become a time to get that 30% of the yearly profits that keep the engines of commerce running. It is understandable, since business has become the cornerstone of our culture. But is it necessary to point out that the ideals of business are antithetical to the ideals of the one whose birth we presumably celebrate next month? The fact that a woman in California would pepper-spray her way to the cheap electronics in Walmart is simply a sign of the times and a clear indication that we need to rethink our priorities. But we won’t.

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Critical Thinking

According to Arthur Koestler, who should know, there exists in the Grand Scheme of Things a hierarchy of truths. At the top there is mathematics and theoretical physics whose claims are easily corroborated and verified by mathematicians and physicists around the world, regardless of race, creed, or color. At the bottom (and here I interpolate) there are the headlines of the latest National Enquirer that scream at us from the checkout lanes of our local grocery store: “Hillary is a racist, bigot, and criminal!” We need to know how to differentiate among the types of claims — for they are all claims, some of them well-founded and others outrageous.

The sciences range downwards from physics to the biological sciences, geology, anthropology, the social sciences that rely on probability theory and therefore pass themselves off as exact sciences, to philosophy, history, and the like. Again, we need to know where we are on the hierarchy because each of these disciplines requires a different approach and different types of corroboration. History, for example, relies on first-hand testimony, written documents and independent corroboration from different sources, all regarded as reliable. The key is “corroboration.” The sciences and social sciences, even philosophy, require independent corroboration by others in the field to check on the accuracy of the claims being made. Did Caesar cross the Rubicon? Who says? What evidence is there to corroborate this claim? Thus the historian proceeds to provide us with an accurate picture of what has occurred in the past. The expert seeks to show that the claim is false. If it cannot be shown to be false after thorough study, we can accept it as true. Then he asks his fellow experts to duplicate his efforts and test the claim for himself or herself.

When the National Enquirer makes its outrageous claims we should (but seldom do) ask the same sorts of question: how can those claims be corroborated? Who makes the claims? Are those sources reliable? Can they even be tested? If so, how? These are the types of questions the lawyer asks in a trial when a person is facing possible felony charges and perhaps time in prison. We should all be so circumspect, equally suspicious and demanding of the truth and not satisfied with what are merely empty claims or accusations.

This is the job of critical thinking and it should be taught in all our schools and certainly in all our colleges and universities. We all tend to accept as true those claims that fit in nicely with our closely held beliefs, our belief-set as I call it. But the critical thinker will allow the possibility that a claim that does not fit in nicely with his belief-set might still be true. Those who lack critical thinking skills (whose numbers grow daily from the look of things) will believe whatever they are told on Fox News or read in the Enquirer. The problem is that those who believe whatever they hear or read without subjecting those claims to the tests of corroboration and verification are most likely to be lead astray by someone who, say, might want to steal their vote in an upcoming election, or sell them farmland in the Everglades. They fail to realize that something is not true simply because they want it to be true (it fits in nicely with their belief-set) or because the guy up there with the funny hair and the small hands says it is true. The fact that he said the opposite yesterday is lost on these people because they lack the critical filters that would weed out the falsehoods and lies and recognize the inconsistencies.

Critical thinking teaches us to have a healthy suspicion. Not that we will doubt all claims, but that we will suspect that those that seem outrageous might well be so. We will accept as true only those clams that can be corroborated and verified, like the scientist. We will also recognize among those claims that are scientific but outside our small field of knowledge that claims made by experts in the field, say scientists who have studied such things as climate change or the evolution for species over the millennia, are making claims that we ought to accept as true until or unless they are later shown to be false. We ought not to simply reject those claims because they don’t fit into our belief-set or because they make us feel uncomfortable.

In the long run, it pays to be critical and suspect that many, if not all, claims that are designed to sell us something (or someone) are probably not true, or at least that they demand further investigation and thought. They should not be accepted simply because we read them in our favorite newspaper or heard them on the News. That suspicion is healthy and it is what critical thinking is all about: making sure that we will not be mislead into accepting as true what is blatantly false — or electing a fool as our president.

I Hate Hillary!

I purposely used the “H” word as I did recently in connection with a comment about Lucy Ricardo because the word seems to be all the rage these days — it or one of its synonyms. But I actually hate neither woman. I don’t know either of them so how could I hate them? And yet, there are thousands of people waiting to vote who claim to hate Hillary — or at least to not be able to stand her — even though they do not know her either. What they “know” is a political caricature that has been created over the years by her political opponents and the air-heads on Fox News.

I suspect she is a very private person, perhaps secretive. But that is OK with me because I’m a bit private myself and I realize that on the international stage when one is privy to information dealing with national security one has to be secretive. But, as I say, I don’t know the woman and I cannot say, therefore, that I hate her or that I love her. I simply don’t know her. Neither does anyone else, for that matter — except for her immediate family and a few close friends.

I have made the point a number of times that how we feel about the two candidates should not enter into our calculations of which one we will vote for. This is not to say that character and personality do not count. They do. My blogging buddy, Sue Ranscht, politely pointed this out to me after I insisted that they do not. Even though we do not know either of these two people, we know enough to allow character flaws and personality glitches to enter into the equation. But this does not reduce our decision of whom to vote for to the level of gut feeling. One would hope.

In the end it is the person’s record of public service, their C.V., that is most important. Which candidate has the better qualifications for the office? And while personality does enter in — just imagine Donald Trump in that office dealing with professional politicians and international dignitaries who have walked the world stage for years while he was firing people on reality TV — it shouldn’t weigh enough to allow us to accept or reject that person.

I recently quoted a woman who is determined to vote for Donald Trump (can you imagine?) who said she cannot stand Hillary and that, apparently is her main reason for voting for Trump. I noted that this involves a leap of immense proportions, one that I cannot even follow. How does one get from “I hate Hillary” to “I am determined to vote for Trump”? This leap ignores several alternatives: (1) one could decide not to vote any all; (2) one could vote for the libertarian candidate; (3) one could vote for the Green Party candidate; (4) one could write in someone like, say, Monica Lewinsky — or anyone else. The leap itself cannot be made logically and can only be accounted for in this woman’s case as a leap based on blind faith. At this point it is up to the psychologists out there to determine why someone would take such a leap of ignorance in a matter of this importance.

In the end, however, what matters is the candidate’s record and there is only one candidate who is fully qualified  for this job and that is Hillary Clinton. It doesn’t matter if you can’t stand the woman, what matters is that she is almost certainly the best qualified person for the presidency since the birth of this nation. If we were to like her that would be icing on the cake. But if we don’t it really doesn’t matter in the end.

The Real Victim

We have already heard the claim that this election is “rigged” and that Donald Trump may lose as a result. What this translates into it: My name is Donald The Trumpet and IF I lose it will not be as a result of my own failings as a person and a potential president, it will be because the Democrats have rigged the election.” In a word, it’s an escape clause that Trump has built into his ridiculous candidacy, because in his mind he cannot lose fair and square. The facts, of course, do not matter — though his claim is, indeed, based on the fact that the DNC managed to guarantee that Hillary would be their candidate and Bernie Sanders would not be. There is certainly some truth in that (if truth matters any more).

But it is a huge jump from that particular unpleasant fact to the outrageous claim that the entire election will be rigged to guarantee that Donald Trump will not be our next president. Why, we might well ask, should the Democrats bother to rig the election when the Trumpet is managing to undermine his own candidacy by continuing to shoot himself in the foot? If only he wouldn’t open his mouth, he might have a chance. But whenever he opens it another outrageous claim comes gushing forth and another doubter is born (we would hope).

To be sure, things have been done in the past to promote the interest of one particular candidate — Mayor Daily in Chicago practically delivered the election to John Kennedy back in the day. But there have been numerous other attempts, such as Jim Crow laws designed to disenfranchise certain voters (usually Democrats) and help the candidate of choice. And it would appear that Florida was pretty much delivered to George W. Bush by his brother not long ago. But to “rig” the entire election in favor of one candidate over another would appear to be practically impossible.

But that doesn’t matter, as we have learned. It’s not what is the case, in fact, that matters. It’s all about perception and the Trumpet is a master at deception — making the “truth” out to be whatever he says. He will say the word “rigged” enough to convince his mindless minions that it is a fact. And when he goes down in defeat in November (if he is not forced to resign sooner) he will shout “foul,” and his minions will rise up in protest. Let’s hope and pray that they not do so in violent protest — though I would certainly not bet against it.

The real victim in this race is not Donald Trump. If the real victim is not the Republican Party (which may well be the case) it is the truth. It is facts. It is what happens to be the case and not what people perceive to be the case. Truth is the real victim because the consequences of this transformation of lies into The Truth From On High are incalculable. The Donald will, as he says, take a long vacation and then probably work for Fox News and do the lecture circuit to help reimburse himself for the expenses he has incurred in this contest — and keep his face in the public eye. But what his mindless minions will do is anyone’s guess and those consequences follow directly from the rocks this man has turned over and the rage he has ignited in the hearts of so many people who might otherwise have simply remained mute. And, again, the truth will lie in tatters around our feet, unrecognizable and incapable of resuscitation. There’s the real victim.

Protest

The increase in violence at Donald Trump’s rallies of late has tongues wagging and writers furiously pounding the keys. It is indeed disquieting at the very least. Trump himself swears he is opposed to violence even though he is on record as encouraging his followers to hit those who protest at his rallies. He’s even promised to pay their fines! His apologists on Fox News are calling for more violence against the protesters who are blamed for the violence. We now have the interesting scenario of those who hit and those being hit both claiming to be innocent. Sounds like the NFL! Trump, as is his style, blames everyone else, including Bernie Sanders and the president, for the violence that has erupted at his rallies. Now there’s paranoia and delusion together in a most interesting mix.

But the reports of a woman standing quietly at his rallies with a peace sign being roughly escorted from the place, conservative reporters who merely seek answers to obvious questions being grabbed by Trump’s right-hand man and nearly thrown to the ground — and Trump later saying the woman is “delusional” and “made the whole thing up” — or blacks in the crowd who report that they are shouted at (the “n” word) and glowered at simply for being present and even struck by Trump followers as the so-called “protesters” are led (again forcefully) from the arena, all lead one to suspect that the tendency of Donald Trump to encourage this sort of violence is the root cause of the entire problem.

To be sure, it takes two to have a fight, but when one side becomes violent because those who disagree with them are merely present this suggests that the tendency is already there and that the violence is simply a matter of course. It’s not hard to see which foot the shoe fits in this case. But the larger question is: why is this man so afraid of listening to those who oppose him? Or, more to the point, why is this man afraid to even allow those who oppose him to be present at his rallies? One does begin to realize that this man has a very thin skin indeed. Further, he is a bully and filled with hatred toward those who might happen to think he is wrong. He is never wrong — in his own mind at least — and it is the “true believers” like him who are most dangerous. Their minds are closed tighter than traps; they are convinced they have all the answers and that the ends justify any means whatever.

But, again, why this brew-ha-ha over protest? This country is founded on protest. It is not only protected by the First Amendment, it is the very life-blood of this country, the very thing our forefathers died to protect. The fact that the man, Donald Trump, fears those who protest against him is a sign of his stunted personality. The fact that his followers are quick to follow his lead and strike out against those who represent opposing views suggests another pathology. It suggests that there are those among us, growing numbers in fact, who are willing to follow wherever they are led. The world has seen such followers before and the damage and destruction they have left in their wake is clear for all to see. This is what is so disturbing about the violence at the political rallies of late. It’s not about the lies and delusion the leader exhibits — though this is indeed unsettling — it’s about the growing number of folks in this country who buy into his confused and even conflicting ideas and are wiling to swear allegiance to someone who wants only power for himself and uses others simply to guarantee that the power belongs to him and to him alone.

Protest is a good thing. It is absolutely necessary in a democracy if the system is to remain vital. As Thomas Jefferson said the country needs a revolution every fourteen years. Anyone who doesn’t see this is blind to history and fails to understand what a democracy is all about. But violence is not a good thing and it is not a necessary thing either. That one should lead to the other, as it has done in this case, must give us all pause.

Predictable

Following the president’s speech from the Oval Office on Sunday night (something I have said he should do more of) the Republicants predictably lined up to take pot shots at the man who was clearly trying to quell fears and bring civility to the discussion of terrorism. It seems clear to me that the president might have rallied the citizens behind such things as tougher gun laws if he had used his prestige and considerable rhetorical skills in front of cameras addressing the American people before this. But he has been reluctant tho do so — perhaps because he knows he will simply provide an occasion for his political opponents to take aim. And what a group it is! A brief portion of a news story tells us of the response from some of the clowns vying with one another for the Republicant presidential nomination:

“President Obama has finally been forced to abandon the political fantasy he has perpetuated for years that the threat of terrorism was receding,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said in a statement. “We need to remove the self-imposed constraints President Obama has placed on our intelligence community and military, and we need to put in place an aggressive strategy to defeat ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism as I have proposed.”
After the speech, Republican hopeful Donald Trump tweeted, “Is that all there is? We need a new President – FAST!”

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida criticized Obama for saying that Americans should not fall into a trap of discriminating against Muslims.

“Where is there widespread evidence that we have a problem in America with discrimination against Muslims?” Rubio said on Fox News after the speech. “I think not only did the president not make things better tonight, I fear he may have made things worse in the minds of many Americans.”

Aside from the Trumpet’s comment which, as always, is not worthy of note, one must reflect on these comments. Jeb Bush wants to assume the Nazi pose and take a Fascist approach to international affairs. Storm troopers and armed drones against anyone and everyone who thinks or believes differently than us. But Rubio’s claim that this nation is not becoming rabid in its fear of Muslims and reeks of discrimination shows how out of touch he is with reality. Long before 9/11 this nation has shown its ugly side when it comes to those who are different from the norm. As I have said in previous posts, the root of this fear and hate of others is our ignorance of those who differ from us. But to see issuing forth from the mouth of one who would be the leader of this nation words that show him to be blind to the obvious does give me pause. Has the political fabric of this country torn beyond repair? Are we that far gone that we would pay serious attention to people who reside at the bottom of the intellectual pool groveling  in the mud and sludge of utter nonsense and hate-mongering?

In any event, I applaud the president for seeking to restore calm after the praise ISIS heaped on the couple who engaged in mass killing in San Bernardino last week. The murders themselves were sufficient to drive reason from the playing field, but the discovery that the pair were Muslims added fuel to the fire and someone needed to say something. The president was wise to make this move and one would hope that it will have a soothing effect and bring civil discourse back into play. But with ambitious, small-minded political candidates elbowing each other out of the way to claim center stage, this may not happen. My goodness how stupid those people are.

What’s Wrong Here?

If you watch television at all you have probably seen this Dish commercial: a teenage boy stands on the porch of his house complaining to his father who waits for him at the car. The boy complains “Oh, come on Dad, I don’t want to visit Aunt Judy. The game’s on and she doesn’t even have a TV!” Or words to that effect. The problem is solved when a small kangaroo-like critter standing at his side takes his iPad and installs an app supplied by Dish that allows him to take the game with him. He walks off the porch toward the car staring at the iPad with a big grin on his face.

What’s wrong with this picture? So many things.

To begin with, his father is presumably trying to teach his son good manners,  the rudiments of social obligations, and his son, in typical teenage fashion, rebels. The rebellion is ages old, as old as teenagers themselves. But the fact that this boy is clearly not going to see Aunt Judy until he is shown how to do so without inconveniencing himself is pretty new. And ugly.

Next, he doesn’t want to visit Aunt Judy because she doesn’t have a television set. This implies, of course, that if he did visit her he would spend the entire time glued to the television set watching “the game” instead of visiting with his Aunt, which pretty much negates the lesson his father is trying in vain to teach him.

And finally, he is now going to see his Aunt, but he will remain glued to the game anyway — this time as seen on the toy he clutches in his hand to the delight of the folks at Dish.,

Now I have no problem with Dish — after all, they are the ones who refuse to broadcast “Fox News” [sic] so they can’t be all bad. And we all know the point of the godawful commercials that fill the airwaves is to sell us things we simply do not need when they are not instilling deep into our collective psyches a love of mayhem and violence. If aliens landed on this planet and determined to judge America’s culture from the TV commercials we view, they would conclude we are a greedy, drunken, self-involved people in love with violence whose male population is in need of a shave and has a serious case of erectile dysfunction and whose women are large-breasted, overly made-up, and can’t stop smiling. Seriously.

In any event, the rebellion of the kid in this particular commercial I can understand, even though my instincts tell me the father should cuff him upside the head and drag him to the car while telling him to shut up and do as he’s told (speaking of violence). In the end I simply ask:  Isn’t it time for the parents to resume leadership of their families, to take the toys away from the kids and teach them that there is a world out there that demands  (and rewards) their attention? That they should grow up and recognize that there are times when we must do things we don’t like to do and simply bite the bullet because it is the right thing to do? That we can’t remain children all our lives, immersed in ourselves and ignoring the things and people around us? Eh? Or are these all dead horses that I should simply stop kicking?

The Civilization of the Dialogue

This post is about conversation (or the lack of it): the gentle art of conversation in which folks actually listen to one another and, attempting to keep an open mind, seek to rethink issues no matter how deeply they feel about them. In a word, it is about the “civilization of the dialogue,” a phrase that arose from a discussion at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California in 1968 focusing on the place of civil discourse in a democracy, a place that everyone involved agreed is central. Of chief interest in that discussion was the publication of several papers — one of which was written by a Senior Fellow, John Wilkinson, a man of considerable sagacity, a wordsmith, and master of the art of dialogue himself. The Center was known for its discussions of public issues, many of them heated, but all deserving of serious attention and almost always productive of insights into the condition of the nation at that time.

It is no secret that the art of conversation has been lost. It has been replaced by the loud voices of two or more advocates of differing points of view whose minds are closed like steel traps and who are simply concerned to have the listener shut up and agree. I use the term “listener” loosely, since the art of listening has been lost as well. Assuredly, television is one of the main causes of this condition, since it features, day in and day out, the shouting and interrupting voices of “talking heads” who hold forth on issues they may or may not know anything about, from sports to politics to feminine hygiene. I would also fault the lecture system in our colleges and universities which fail to instill what Walter Lippmann referred to as “vital intellectual habits” — such as “the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, debate the alternatives that might be pursued” — all essential elements of the civilization of the dialogue. College classes must be small enough to encourage all to participate, not just the lecturer.

And one must also consider the eradication of the Fairness Doctrine during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a policy passed in 1949 that was designed to guarantee equal time to both sides of complex (usually political) issues in the public media.  With the elimination of this Doctrine the public path was clear for louder and less civil voices in the expression of conflicting points of view. Indeed, there no longer needed to be opposing points of view at all: television producers and newspaper editors could simply present one side of an issue and do so again and again — witness Fox “News.” Preaching to the choir replaced genuine dialogue and any effort to grasp both sides of complex issues. But even before the Fairness Doctrine bit the dust, there were clear signs that the art of conversation, the civilization of the dialogue, was in serious trouble — as was our democratic system. To quote John Wilkinson’s  occasional paper printed in the Center Magazine in December 1968:

“The American republic is running on the momentum given it by a galaxy of political virtuosos nearly two centuries ago. It is vain to rail against any one thing or any one group of persons as the cause of our loss of political momentum.. . . We need not believe that there has been some conspiracy. It is tempting but not necessary to suppose that our oligarchs meet secretly, swearing to do everything in their power to harm the people. The effect is the same as if they had. If democracy is the civilization of the dialogue; if, as Scott Buchanan held, ‘persuasion is the life of politics’; if, as Robert Hutchins has written, ‘With an educational system that does not educate and a system of mass communications that does not communicate, we have become incapable of the discussion of which political issues are determined,’ then it is easy to see why the self-styled political elite must be a cacistocracy when not a single one of them could bring forth a clear and distinct idea if he had lived as long and written as much as Varro himself.”

Aside from the fact that I had to look up the word “cacistocracy” to discover it meant rule by the worst and most ignorant elements, I found this passage particularly thought-provoking. Wilkinson is very concerned that the life is going out of our political body because conversation has forsaken us, we have lost the ability to express ourselves clearly, and very few of us are willing to listen to what the other has to say. And this “we,” of course, includes our  so-called “leaders.” Indeed, in his paper Wilkinson notes that before coming to the Center he had taught at six different universities (all of them so-called “prestige” universities). During that time he tested the vocabularies of his students and found to his dismay that

“More than ninety percent of the students proved, as Freshmen, to have a usable, active vocabulary of about eight hundred words. They could passively understand a further five hundred words in something vaguely resembling their proper meaning. Another fifteen hundred or so words lay in such a penumbra of understanding or misunderstanding that more could hardly be averred than that they remembered having heard them before. Beyond that, Stygian darkness.”

This was before texting and the onslaught of electronic toys, and is sobering indeed — especially in light of the fact that Panbanisha, the chimpanzee, is said to have a vocabulary of 3000 words! But in any case, whether or not one is in sympathy with Wilkinson, or believes that his vocabulary tests prove much outside those six institutions, I can attest that in my more than forty years of teaching at the college level my students increasingly exhibited the same inability to grasp meanings and write and speak clearly that was the case with Wilkinson’s students. They were “verbally challenged” and, as a consequence (since we think in words), their thoughts were frequently jumbled and incoherent. Thus we have in our time not only the reduction of genuine dialogue to a shouting match where the goal is simply to speak louder than one another, but we also have growing numbers of people who cannot express themselves coherently even if they have something important to say. And this in a democracy where dialogue is central to its survival.

Finite Resource

You may have seen the photo of Congressman Joe Barton (R-Tx), who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, staring at the audience with a vapid expression and making the incredibly stupid remark:  the “wind is a finite resource and harnessing it would slow down the wind which would cause the temperature to go up.” The photo with that caption is making the rounds of the social media, though you probably thought it was on Fox News. It may have been.

It does give one hope when a conservative politician admits that there is such a thing as global warming, that what we do can alter the climate. So perhaps we should be pleased with that aspect of the man’s comment. I leave that to the optimists among us, those who insist on seeing the half-empty glass half full. I, on the other hand, think that this man sits on one of the most important sub-committees in Washington that helps determine our energy policies and it makes me shudder. But Barton is right about this: there is a finite resource in this country these days; but it’s not wind, it’s intelligence.

I had a discussion the other day with a local businessman who was chortling over a political cartoon in the paper that showed people shoveling out from under the some of the tons of snow Minnesota has received this Winter while making snide remarks about global warming. It was inevitable: a very cold Winter with a good deal of snow has many folks in this region of the country convinced that global warming is a fiction. They don’t grasp the concept of “global warming.” It’s not just Minnesota and it’s not just this Winter: it’s a trend and the trend is clearly upwards. Just ask the folks on the South Pacific islands who are seeing their villages disappear under higher ocean levels. Or the folks in Alaska who are having to move entire towns further inland as the ocean encroaches. Or California which is experiencing the worst drought they have seen in years.

When I tried to point out these features of the situation, I could see the man’s eyes glaze over as he responded that a member of his church who “teaches science” had assured his fellow parishioners that present-day concern over global warming is due simply to today’s more precise measuring equipment. Global warming is not for real, it’s merely apparent. I didn’t ask what sort of “science” the man taught, at what level, or what his credentials were to be making pronouncements about world climate conditions. In fact, I let the matter drop. After all in a small town one meets these people on a regular basis and sometimes has to do business with them. You just shake your head and smile.

But I came away with an insight about why there is such widespread denial on the issue of climate change. We all know that in Washington the denial is due to the powerful influence of Big Oil that determines whether a politician’s career comes to an abrupt end or continues on its way with plenty of cash to see the politician through the next election. Big Oil doesn’t want those under their collective thumb to talk about climate change, except to deny it. So people like Barton open their mouths and say incredibly stupid things. Sometimes it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. This was one of those times!

Outside of the Washington beltway I think it comes down to the fact that folks don’t want to accept the possibility that their own behavior contributes to global warming because that might mean they would have to alter their behavior. They don’t want to turn down their thermostats in the Winter or up in the Summer. They don’t want to drive more efficient cars or, better yet, walk or bike. In a word: they don’t want to be inconvenienced. Or, as we like to say, they don’t want to alter their “life-style.” So their arguments are accompanied by a closed mind and rest comfortably on the feelings of assurance they get from what they hear from Fox News, like-minded friends, and the science teachers in their church. They are convinced that things are just fine. Weather has always had its ups and downs after all; it has always been cyclical. This is nothing new and its only the liberal tree-huggers who try to tell us otherwise. Those who try to warn us are dismissed with a snort — as is a huge body of scientific evidence.

We humans are very good at dismissing arguments we find discomforting by labeling the speaker: Oh, she’s a liberal, or Oh, he’s one of those right-wingers. Heaven forbid we should actually listen to the things they have to say — even if we don’t agree with them! We are also very good at rationalizing. It takes real courage to accept as true a claim that doesn’t fit nicely into our belief system, especially if it is an uncomfortable truth. It is much easier to reject the claim as false, regardless of the data, and embrace only those beliefs that make us feel comfortable  — which is simply more evidence that intelligence is a finite resource and seems to be diminishing rapidly. Just as the wind would be if we tried to harness it, apparently.

Dumbed Down

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 print media and 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 and papers such as USA Today have 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.

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 have been brought up 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 and it may go a long way toward explaining why Americans could care less about their government’s ongoing violation of the fourth amendment.