The Wagging Tail

I have blogged (endlessly some would say) about the tail that wags the dog in Division I athletics. I promised myself I would not go there again  (but I may have had my fingers crossed!).

A recent editorial in Sports Illustrated requires comment. It addresses the ripple effect of the decreasing use of cable TV on college athletics. Because fewer people are using cable since moving to digital technology which will allow them to watch those programs they want to watch and not pay for those they will never watch in their lifetime — or that of their children — the cable companies are hurting in the pocketbook 😢. The sports network giant ESPN, for example, has been seriously affected by the change in viewer preference. While a few years ago they could count on $8.00 per month from everyone who watched sports on their network  ESPN is now in 12 million fewer homes than it was in 2011. In a word, the number of viewers has dropped considerably and the income from cable has dropped accordingly. ESPN recently laid off 100 of its people in a move that had remaining folks on ESPN crying crocodile tears as they breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t them — yet.😥

All of this impacts on college sports, which, as we know, is Big Business. As Sports Illustrated tells us:

“College athletics departments spent lavishly [in recent years because of the huge influx in cash from ESPN and other major TV networks], especially on football. At Texas new lockers were installed at a cost of $10,500 apiece and include individual 43 inch TV monitors instead of the traditional nameplates. Auburn added a $14 million video board at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Clemson’s training complex included a bowling alley and nap room. Even position coaches were making six figures. . .”

Nick Saban, head football coach at Alabama, can be seen crying all the way to the bank as he gets ready to deposit some of his $11.1 million annual  salary; he worries that this trend spells the end of collegiate football as we have come to know and love it. Armageddon is at hand. This, of course, is nonsense as the universities will find ways to support their athletics programs — including raising student fees even higher — most of which (by the way) operate at a deficit. But they all see the big bucks the big guys make and hope that some of it will come their way. The problem will not go away just because figures must be juggled. It’s still a business and it is a HUGE business.

Oh, and speaking of big business, Jay Paterno, son of the infamous Penn State football coach and an assistant coach during the Sandusky era, was recently named to the Board of Trustees at that University. So much for cleaning house. The tail will continue to wag the dog. (But, seriously, a “nap room”??)

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Free Press?

Along with a number of my blogging buddies I have wondered aloud why there is so little genuine press coverage of such things as political debates. Why aren’t the politicians pressed harder by the reporters? Why aren’t we allowed to hear both sides of the issues? I have often thought that many of our problems stem from the fact that news has become entertainment, that, in general, what we are allowed to hear is determined by a few corporations that really want to amuse us and to think alike. When my mind wanders in this direction I hear a small voice in my ear whisper that this sounds like “conspiracy theory.” But the fact is that five major corporations in this country own 90% of the public media. These corporations determine what we hear and see and in large measure the way we think. For those of us who treasure our freedom, this is a serious problem. Some have said that in our day our freedom has increased, whereas the truth of the matter is that it has diminished.  The data in the following article suggest why:

The trend of media conglomeration has been steady. In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the American media, including magazines, books, music, news feeds, newspapers, movies, radio and television. By 1992 that number had dropped by half. By 2000, six corporations had ownership of most media, and today five dominate the industry: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom. With markets branching rapidly into international territories, these few companies are increasingly responsible for deciding what information is shared around the world.

What this means for all of us is that the free press which Thomas Jefferson once said was the cornerstone of our democracy has become the voice of a handful of giant corporations that clearly do not want the citizens of this country to exercise free choice. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that our freedom is largely an illusion, since the corporations are in control of the commercial messages that persuade us in hidden ways to make the choices that will increase profits for those companies that support the media through advertising. And this goes for our political choices as well — with rare exceptions. We are convinced that we have a great many choices, whereas in fact those choices are limited in ways we are largely unaware of. It matters not how many books we have to choose from in the library or the bookstore, it matters which ones we choose or if we choose any at all

But there is more. 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.

Thus, it is not surprising that we now have entertainment in place of news, that the dogged and determined press of, say, the Roosevelt era that helped Teddy bring down the Trusts, is a thing of the past. What we now have is “news” presented by glib, beautiful people whose strings are pulled by a handful of giant corporations which prefer that we know only what they regard as important. That is to say, our democracy has been replaced (as Aldous Huxley predicted) by an oligarchy that calls the shots while the rest of us go through the motions and do what we are told and elect those politicians who are found to be malleable. Radical change is in order, but does not appear to be in the offing.

 

Enough Already!

I write this a few hours after Tiger Woods was forced once again to withdraw from a golf tournament because of pains in his lower back. Indeed, we have been given a detailed description of Tiger’s problems, including the fact that his “glutes” tightened up because fog delayed his tee time and he hadn’t had time to warm up properly when he had to actually hit his first shot — something the producers thought America needed to know. I suppose if those producers discovered what brand of deodorant the man uses they would determine that this is something America needs to know as well. Anyway, the whole withdrawal thing has been covered ad nauseam in the public media since the moment it occurred, including uninterrupted coverage on the Golf Channel of his long trip from the golf course via golf cart, his change of shoes, a closeup of his woebegone expression full of self-pity, to his eventual disappearance in his expensive rental car — the hell with the golf tournament and the fact that the rest of the players were still on the course! It does make one wonder.

After Tiger failed to make the cut in his last tournament, turning in a score that would suggest he was a moderately good amateur club player, the TV airways have been filled with endless analyses of his golfing problems, which focus on the fact that he has lost confidence in his stroke and is worrying too much about the mechanics of the game, etc. etc. To which I say two things: (1) Enough already! The man is over the hill and there are other good golfers out there who deserve a little TV time, and (2) Tiger’s problems have nothing whatever to do with his golf swing. They have to do with his utter confusion about just who the hell he is.

Tiger Woods is the reductio ad absurdum of the self-esteem movement that has swept the country and dominates our schools. He has been told since he was old enough to swing a golf club (on national TV at an age when most kids are still sucking their thumbs) that he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Growing up he became convinced by doting parents and an adoring public that he could walk on water. After seeming to fulfill the hopes and expectations of all and sundry by winning stacks of golf tournaments while making an obscene amount of money, marrying a beautiful wife and having two lovely children, he was discovered to be an inveterate adulterer. His wife found out about his infidelities and chased him out of the house with one of his golf clubs (reportedly). Then came his total humiliation, including a very public divorce and a stay in a rehab center where he was supposed to learn how to keep it in his pants, after which he tried to come back to the golf course and win a few more major tournaments. It didn’t happen. He actually won a few minor tournaments, but it was clear that he was a shadow of his former golfing self. Why were we surprised? His self-concept had been shattered. He suddenly found himself up to his ears in the very water he had been told for years he could walk upon.

Though, doubtless, there are some who watch to see if Tiger still has some of the magic that made him one of the best golfers ever, I suspect that much of the golfing public continued to follow him with something akin to morbid curiosity: after all, how often does one get to watch the gradual meltdown of a major star, a superb athlete who could no longer “bring it” the way he had done for years? But those “fans” are like buzzards picking at the innards of a dead carcass; thanks to the entertainment industry the sporting pubic has been fascinated by the man’s demise, refusing to just let it go. Enough already! Let the poor man try to put his self back together, if he can — though a good psychiatrist would be more to the point than another swing coach. But, in the end, we assuredly can learn a valuable lesson from his fall from on high.

As I say, though an immensely talented athlete, he is a prototype of the spoiled child who has been told all his life he was exceptional. Reeking with self-esteem, he suddenly learned he had feet of clay. His sense of who he is has been severely damaged and no amount of stroke correction and no change in coaches can repair the damage that was done by doting parents and an adoring public who apparently never let him learn about failure. He is today a tattered shell of his former self, complete with numerous physical problems to go with a middling golf game. Just listen to his press conferences and read his body language!

Thus, those who think that we do our kids a favor by telling them how terrific they are until they feel entitled to have whatever they want should take a long look at Tiger Woods and reflect on the damage we can do to young people when we lead them to think they are superior beings and forget to remind them from time to time that, like everyone else, they are flawed. We need to let our kids fail so they can learn how to deal with failure. And we need to reserve our praise for those moments when they actually accomplish something noteworthy. Otherwise, they might fall from the heights we place them upon — like Tiger Woods.

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.

Histrionics and Honesty

The tennis player breaks serve to even the match and drops to one knee, pumps his fist four times and turns to his player’s box and gives out a primal scream that makes the birds for hundreds of feet around leave their trees in a panic. The defensive end makes a routine tackle, leaps up, raises his head and points to the skies after thumping his chest like a great ape. The golfer makes a three-foot put that places him in a playoff with another golfer and he pumps his fist like he’s trying to start an imaginary lawnmower and turns to the gallery with a look of triumph as though he had just discovered penicillin.

And so it goes. In every sport and at all levels it seems the athletes act like fools every time they make a relatively routine play. One longs for the days of Johnny Unitas who  threw a touchdown pass and casually trotted off to his bench. Or one waits, in vain, for another Rod Laver who always gave credit to his opponent, even if his loss was due to an injury that he never mentioned to anyone but his closest fiends and his trainer, and who celebrated his record number of Grand Slam wins with a trot to the net and a smile and a handshake.

But those were the days before the JumboTron, the giant TV screen on nearly every playing field and court which shows the player his greatness in high-definition. No sooner is the play or the point over then all eyes go to the big screen and the player waits to see if his feats of athletic prowess have been captured in full color. Perhaps they will be played again on Sports Center’s “Top 10” tomorrow! All of this, the TV and the replays on the field and court, have contributed to the histrionics that now must be regarded as a necessary part of sports. We are told it shows us raw emotion, the athlete being totally honest. And it seems to be the thing that “sells” the sport these days. If one dares to suggest that this whole thing is a sham and even a bit sickening one is considered something of a jerk. So the TV cameras get close-in and show it to us again and again…and again. In super slow-motion. (Can we get a close-up of the tears, or the look of agony on the face of the halfback with a torn ACL?? Show that hit again and do a close-up on the celebration afterwards! Play it again!)  We love this stuff!

Raw emotion in our culture has become identified with honesty of character, the more the better. But if we stop and think for a moment, we realize that as a whole we are not all that honest, and a show of raw emotion may have nothing whatever to do with honesty. Honesty is not about what we see on TV or the JumboTron: it’s about telling the truth. It is about character which is formed in the home by parental example, for the most part. And we know that professional (and semi-professional, i.e,, collegiate) sports are just like everything else in this culture: they are a diversion that shows us what we want to see. Nothing more. Sports, at least at the highest levels, are not a breeding ground for honesty and character-building. (Think: Johnny Football.)

Just consider the cover-up culture: the college campuses across this country where it is a matter of course that coaches and administrators tell the public little or nothing about what really goes on in order to keep the big stars eligible to play the game on Saturday. We don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the institution, after all. But despite the cover-ups, the word occasionally leaks out — as it did at Penn State not long ago. But, they say, “everyone else is doing it” (which may indeed be true). In ethics this is called the “two wrongs fallacy.” It’s quite common. But the felonies that are committed are still wrong, no matter how  many people commit them. And the cover-ups can hardly be considered “honest.”

So let’s not hear all that nonsense about how honest we are as a people. We aren’t. Next to politics and the local used-car lot, sports are only the most obvious place where our dishonesty shows itself — from the big-college cover-ups to where the athlete takes out a pen from his sock and signs an imaginary autograph after a touchdown, or pounds his chest just after the routine tackle.  It’s not honesty, it’s pretense, putting on a show. The emotions may not even be honest. At times they, too, seem staged.

It might be wise to stop and think for a minute about what honesty really means. It’s not about cover-ups and keeping a lid on things. And it’s not about chest pumping and letting it all hang out on the field or the court. It’s the little boy who admits to his Mom that it was him and not his friend who threw the rock through the window; it’s the golfer who tells the umpire that he grounded his club in the sand trap even though it costs him a stroke and the match; it’s about the tennis player who tells her opponent that her shot was in, even though it costs her the game; it’s about the woman who admits to herself that the lump in her breast is something she needs to tell the doctor about; it’s about the baseball player who “goes public” and admits that he took performance enhancing drugs, even though he knows it could cost him a place in the Hall of Fame; it’s about the college sophomore who insists on writing the term paper herself rather than buying it off the internet like so many of her friends. It’s about facing up to things and telling it like it is — and accepting the consequences, which are frequently unpleasant. It is often very private and it requires courage. And, sadly, it will never be replayed on the JumboTron or on “Sports Center’s” Top Ten, even though it is well worth shouting about.

Victorian Values

The two major forces that brought the Victorian age to an end were industrial capitalism and the demise of the Christian religion after the First World War, the “war to end all wars.” What lies at the heart of this struggle for survival of the paramount Victorian values, as we see it working its way out in the conflict between the social classes in England at the time, and in the expansion of suffrage, is the struggle between Self and Other: which is to be paramount? Victorian intellectuals, such as Anthony Trollope, were greatly alarmed by the coming of the steam engine and the rapid changes it entailed. Among other things, it meant the displacement of birth and privilege by wealth. This was disturbing because for the Victorians birth and privilege implied duties on the part of the landed gentry to those of lower social standing, those upon whom life itself depended and who were assumed to be in need of guidance.  And while there were abuses of this responsibility (as George Eliot showed in Adam Bede)  in large measure the landed gentry cared about their dependents and saw their own good tied up with those who depended upon them. We get a glimpse of this in the recent popular TV show on PBS, Downton Abbey. It was by no means clear that the new, wealthy landowners in the provinces, many of whom had moved from the large cities as they acquired wealth, would feel the same obligations to those who worked for them.

As capitalism grew by leaps and bounds and wealth changed hands from the “well-born” to the nouveau riche, power also changed hands. It was a painful process, as those who saw their power and prestige slipping away regretted the sudden appearance of those “middle-class upstarts who want to rank with gentlemen, and think they’ll do it with kid gloves and new furniture,”  as Rev. John Lingon remarked in Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical.  Anthony Trollope, like his contemporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, saw the issue clearly, as he struggled for years trying to determine what exactly makes a “gentleman”;  whether the term could be said to apply in an age of increasing wealth and prestige among the lower and  middle classes, given the corrupting effects of money, especially upon men who had never had much. In a remarkable passage in Trollope’s The Three Clerks, the narrator tells us that one of the three clerks, hovering between virtue and vice, is learning what there is to know about

“the great utility, one may almost say the necessity, of having command of money; he was beginning  also to perceive that money was not a thing to be judged by the ordinary rules which govern a man’s conduct. In other matters it behooves a gentleman to be open, aboveboard, liberal, and true; good-natured, generous, confiding, self-denying, doing unto others as he would wish that others would do unto him; but in the acquirement and use of money – that is, its use with the object of acquiring more, its use in the usurer’s sense – his practice should be exactly the reverse: he should be close, secret, exacting, given to concealment, not over troubled by scruples; suspicious, without sympathies, self-devoted, and always doing to others exactly that which he is on guard to prevent them doing unto him – viz., making money by them.”

To simplify somewhat, then, we can say that the growth of industrialism and capitalism and the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few helped promote the sense of self-importance we see so prevalent today along with the desire on the part of the majority to imitate the wealthy and identify success and happiness with wealth and position rather than the obligations we have toward others and the desire to make the world a better place. The Victorian era had its many problems, to be sure, but when we rejected its values we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath water.

Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire

There are a couple of excellent sources for checking the facts after political speeches and such “major” TV events as the current presidential debates. One of my fellow bloggers even gives a synopsis after the debates so we can see who told the biggest “whoppers.” This raises some interesting issues.

To begin with, both debaters tell falsehoods and half-truths and do so repeatedly. As one reads the fact checks one notes that while the facts have been checked before a number of the falsehoods are repeated even though the deception has been pointed out, perhaps several times. Strange. But more to the point is the obvious consideration that the average listener has no way to tell in the course of a debate or a political speech that a lie has been told or a half-truth has suddenly appeared from the politician’s hat. This is why the debates are so untrustworthy and leave us little else to go by except impressions. It really is all about theater — as I noted in yesterday’s blog. Consider the following fact check item:

Romney: It’s “already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons”
The verdict: False
The federal ban on manufacturing some semi-automatic assault weapons that President Clinton signed in 1994 expired in 2004, and wasn’t renewed. There are other regulations and restrictions still in place — the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968, and the Hughes Amendment in 1986, says Brian Bennett at the Los Angeles Times. But ”fully automatic weapons — guns that fire continuously when the trigger is held down — are legal to possess in the United States.”

How many people listening to a rapid-fire (sorry!) debate will know enough to realize that one of the speakers just told a whopper? And he did so on a vital and controversial issue that many people care deeply about, one way or the other. The matter of gun control is a hot topic and as a general rule very few people who argue with one another in bars about this issue have bothered to gather the evidence and check on their “facts” beforehand. That’s to be expected. But one does not expect this from seasoned debaters like these two politicians. Romney told the lie noted above, but Obama didn’t call him out.

How many people know that the second Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms is couched in language that makes it clear that the “right” is tied to a militia that was supposed to make it unnecessary to have a standing army? More to the point, how many people listening to this debate know that the federal ban on semi-automatic weapons was even signed in the first place, or by whom — much less that it expired in 2004? The central question here is whether or not this matters in the least. Will either of these men be asked to make important decisions on their feet? Does the quickness of their minds and a grasp of all relevantl facts really matter when important decisions will be made behind closed doors with well-informed advisers and time to reflect? Of course not. It’s about who presents himself better to the TV audience.

In any case what occurs in these events is that the politicians (all of them) have learned that if you say something with conviction and then repeat it often enough your listeners will accept it as true. The important thing is to have the “ring of conviction” in your voice and look the camera straight in the eye (as it were). It matters not whether what you say is true or false. No one “out there” knows what the hell you are talking about — and very few will bother to check the facts later on. So just let it go and let the (buffalo) chips fall where they may. Truth be damned: it’s all about getting elected!

Gentle Humor

My wife and I have started watching re-runs of “As Time Goes By” on PBS. They are many years old, but we find them delightful. The humor is generated by clever dialogue and complexities arising from the fact that two people who were in love as young people have come together after years with other spouses and other lives and discovered that they are still soul mates. It is beautifully done and the writing is not only superb, the acting is top drawer as well with Judi Dench as the leading female character and Geoffrey Palmer as the leading male character. The relationship between the two is believable and very touching.

Contrast this with what I take to be “typical” American sit-coms (though I have not viewed that many and have not compiled a catalogue). But the ones I have seen draw their humor from cutting and hurtful remarks between the main characters. It may have started with Archie Bunker’s constant cuts at his son-in-law “Meathead” who could do nothing right. Though they were not “sit-coms” I don’t recall that the sketches on “I Love Lucy” or “The Carol Burnett Show” relied on cutting remarks and humor designed to put people down.  But my list of shows that do this includes “Friends” where such characters as Phoebe repeatedly cuts those close to her, especially Ross, the guy who seems a bit out of step with the other pleasure-seekers around him as his interests are so much broader than theirs. And I can also recall Raymond’s parents who were always downright mean to their daughter-in-law Deborah, the constant brunt of nasty and at times cruel remarks — all designed to be laughed at, judging by the annoying laugh-track that prompts the audience at home when to laugh.

But there is also the group of nerds, especially Sheldon Cooper, who make fun of Howard Wolowitz who “only” has a Master’s degree (from M/I.T. of all places). And there is always Charlie Harper who was relentless in his cutting remarks to his brother Alan who moved into Charlie’s house after his wife “threw him out.” Alan was down on his luck and the brunt of countless remarks not only from his brother but also from his brother’s housekeeper who joins in “all in fun.” And Alan’s son, Jake, is the brunt of countless jokes at his expense as the “dumb” son. Apparently the message is you can hurt someone if you call it teasing: this sort of thing is regarded as funny and, again, our laughter is prompted by the constant intrusion of the damned laugh-track.

I confess that this sort of cutting humor leaves me cold and eventually forces me to look elsewhere. But I wonder what to make of this? The British comedies are not always as gentle as “As Time Goes By,” to be sure. Doc Martin certainly became a bit nasty after the first season.  But I can think of no American comedies since Lucy and Carol left TV that draws on that sort of gentle humor in which no one is hurt. I hesitate to generalize because I have not seen that many American or British comedies lately. But I can certainly take note of the differences I am aware of. Again, what to make of those differences?

Freud tells us that humor is a displacement of sadistic impulses — a release of “cathexis” that allows us to experience the sadistic impulses we all have without actually harming anyone else. (And he insists that we all have them, whether we admit it or not.) The prototype of this sort of thing is the pie in the face of the clown, or the chair pulled from beneath the sitting person at the dinner table. As long as no one gets actually hurt, we laugh and the laughter releases the sadistic impulses. The hurtful sit-coms I mentioned all have this element present — some in large measure. If this is so then ironically the American TV shows I mentioned may be psychologically healthy. It is certainly better to laugh at someone on the TV who is not really hurt by the verbal cuts and bruises than to load up the shotgun and take out our neighbor’s dog whose barking annoys us. I do wonder, however.

It is interesting that people we call “insane” and institutionalize don’t seem to laugh at all. I recall seeing “Titicut Follies” years ago which took place inside a mental institution in Massachusetts and the thing that jumps out is the complete absence of laughter of any sort. So perhaps even the mean and nasty humor of the American sit-coms has its use in a nation stressed out from a frantic pace of life, a weak economy, and almost constant war. It helps us release pent-up frustration and animus toward our fellows. But I would prefer if the humor were derived from the clever words and complex situations the protagonists find themselves in rather than the verbal lacerations that seem so constant. I don’t know about you, but would prefer that our humor were not so nasty.

TV “Debates”

My name is Hugh and I did not watch the presidential debates on TV.  I must be honest: I did not plan to watch them because I did not expect to learn anything important from them. They are not designed to inform; they are entertainment staged for a TV audience. And I don’t find them terribly entertaining.

In such a TV event speeches are timed and each player is allowed a few minutes to speak and a few more to “rebut” the other — with an emcee carefully watching to make certain that neither goes over his allotted time. There will be no time for real rebuttal — an examination of assumptions, development of arguments with premises made explicit, counter-arguments (as opposed to charges and counter-charges, of which there usually are plenty). In a word, there is no intellectual discussion of the most important issues confronting American voters. Instead, there is a televised event in which two performers parade their stuff before the viewing audience which is known to have short attention spans with the goal of making the strongest impression. The “winner” is declared not on the grounds of which speaker made the most sense, but which “came off” the best, which one mentioned the most things that resonated loudest with the larger group of people.  It’s all about impressions in the Age of Entertainment. Like school and church these days, politics is show biz!

I am generalizing on the basis of past experience, but I am also developing a theme that Neil Postman argued in his provocative book Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he makes the case that TV marked the end of the Age of Exposition — which started to die with the invention of the telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century — and the full flowering of the Age of Entertainment. With the death of exposition we saw the gradual disappearance of the “sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.” Postman makes a strong case. Can you imagine one of today’s TV debaters pausing to think?

He asks us to consider the Lincoln-Douglass debates in 1858 in which men and women stood for seven hours in the hot Illinois sun and listened carefully to two men debate the serious topics of the day, incorporating into their speeches such devices as story, sarcasm, irony, paradox, elaborated metaphors, fine distinctions, and the exposure of contradictions. The audience listened carefully and picked up on the subtle nuances they were hearing. In a word, there was a true debate involving the meeting of two minds on complex topics of the day in which the audience was asked  (and able) to follow closely and critically for what seems today an impossible length of time.

Consider Douglas’s opening comments in one of the debates: “Ladies and Gentlemen: I appear before you today for the purpose of discussing the leading political topics which now agitate the public mind. By an arrangement between Mr. Lincoln and myself we are  present here today for the purpose of having a joint discussion, as the representatives of the two great political parties of the State and Union, upon the principles at issue between those parties, and this vast concourse of people shows the deep feeling which pervades the public mind in regard to the questions dividing us.” How many modern listeners would (or could) follow this comment to the end — much less listen closely for seven hours?

Bear in mind that neither Lincoln nor Douglas was running for president at that time. They were two men debating public the issues of the day. Today’s TV presidential debates offer a sharp contrast not only in style but in substance. Instead of ideas painstakingly developed we have thought-bytes, slogans and clichés (Yahoo News wondered in print how many “zingers” Romney would get off). As Ortega y Gasset noted when the Age of Entertainment was aborning, we have ideas but we have lost the power of “ideation,” the ability to develop an idea to its full expression. In staged TV debates we are not asked to engage our minds, we are asked how we feel. And the person who makes us feel good will “win” the debate — not the one who speaks the truth (whatever that might be) or explains fully and carefully what he or she plans to do in leading this nation for the next four years. Because this is 2012, the Age of Entertainment, and the one who makes most of us feel good will eventually be elected President of this country.

I will of course vote. There are important issues at stake, including at least one possible appointment to the Supreme Court and the matter of taking steps to save of our planet. But my vote will be cast on the basis of what the candidate has done in the past and what I have reason to believe he will do in the future — as best I can tell. I have learned that what politicians say on TV is nothing more than a political commercial: it’s designed to sell the product.

TV And The Human Brain

The thing about studies is that they often confirm what common sense tells us. Most people know that watching too much TV will addle the brain. Moreover, there is evidence that TV watching is addictive. As Marie Winn says in her interesting book The Plug-In Drug, “The entry into another world offered by reading includes an easily accessible return ticket. The entry via television does not. In this way television viewing, for those vulnerable to addiction, is more like drinking or taking drugs — once you start it is hard to stop.”

But more serious than its effects on adults, are the effects it has on our children. Parents tell their children over and over “it will turn your brain to mush.”  Studies since as early as 1972 tend to confirm what we all know in our gut: TV has deleterious effects on brain development. It may not turn the brain to mush, but it doesn’t allow the left hemisphere of the brain to develop properly. It is not only addictive, it is stupefying.

Jane Healy wrote the definitive book on the subject, as I see it, when she wrote Endangered Minds. She was very cautious in her conclusions, but her book draws on a number of studies — such as the ones in 1987 involving Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans) that show that “environmental factors can alter neutron pathways during early childhood and long after.” This was startling news at the time as there was considerable disagreement whether environmental factors had any effects whatever on brain development. But the studies show disturbing effects. Children, especially at early ages, need human interaction. They learn language from humans, not from TV and radio. As a New York Times science writer said at the time the studies were conducted, “The words have to come from an attentive, engaged human being. As far as anyone has been able to determine, radio and television do not work.”

The problem with TV, radio, computers, iPhones, iPods, etc. is that they are not human and they do not engage the brains of the users fully. They are essentially passive media and the user simply acts like a receptor, not fully engaged in what is happening. Note how young children stare trance-like at the TV when viewing their programs.  Even highly regarded TV shows like “Sesame Street” engage only a part of the child’s brain and leave the major portions of it untouched. This is critical because there are small “windows” in the child’s brain development and once those windows are closed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to engage that part of the brain later on. In a word, TV (for example) has long-lasting effects. And those effects involve such vital things as language development. As Marie Winn points out in the book referred to above, “… a carefully controlled study designed to explore the relationship between television viewing and the language spoken by preschool children discovered an inverse relationship between viewing time and performance on tests of language development; the children in the study who viewed more television at home demonstrated lower language levels.”

The hampered ability to use language handcuffs the child throughout school and on into later life. Language is essential to thought and more than ever we need people who are not only articulate, but also able to think through the masses of information that overwhelm them each day and separate the nonsense from the essential truth — if there is any. If this is not always apparent it is especially so as elections come around and voters are called upon to make decisions that can affect them and their descendants for years to come.

In a word, parents would be well advised to turn the TV off for several hours at the end of each day and spend time with their kids talking, telling them stories, reading to them, having them read, and having them make up stories themselves. To refer again to Marie Winn’s  book referenced above, “TV Turnoffs organized by schools and libraries throughout the country. . .demonstrated that when competition from the TV is eliminated, children simply and easily turn to reading instead.” Further, I don’t think we should be overly anxious to have the schools incorporate electronic devices into the early years of a child’s education, either. Human contact and human interaction are essential. The more kids use words the more adept they will become and the more active the left hemisphere of their brains will be — and this is essential to their future success.

And as a footnote to this discussion, it would seem that we should look elsewhere than at our teachers when pointing to low test scores and the inability of our kids to do well in math and language. Teachers might do better than they do, perhaps, but it all starts at home.