Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Great Dumbing Down

The more I read articles about current events, made available on the Internet, the better I feel about my ability to understand and interpret the news of the day. But a counter phenomenon has begun entering my consciousness—the rapid commentary on the various articles. And the commentary has begun overwhelming the actual news reporting and interpretation by the various journalists and officials who are responsible for most of the articles.

In olden days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, we all gathered our news and interpretive writings from our newspapers, reinforced at a later stage by radio and television reporting. Television was often a series of quick-takes on local, national and global events. One could, of course, learn something of what was happening “out there” from television, but the absence of deliberative thought behind much of the reporting, and the press of deadlines has always made television somewhat less than coherent. I say this, realizing that some of our television news was a fairly widely respected source of news and interpretation. Edward R. Murrow on radio and TV gave us a reasoned understanding of world events, largely unduplicated in today’s news media. Today, only the Public Broadcasting system even attempts to provide the kind of careful analysis and discussion of world events we used to expect routinely from Murrow. Bill Moyers was one of the last great sources of intelligent news programming on the air.

Still, in those olden days, if we were driven to comment on world events, or the analysis/reporting that appeared at our breakfast table, or our nightly news programs, we had to sit down at a table and put pen to paper. Then we had to place the paper in an envelope, place a stamp on the envelope and send it off in the post to our friendly neighborhood newspaper, or TV station, hoping that some editor might find our musings interesting enough to publish or broadcast. The effort required to create our own commentary probably made us at least pause before even deciding to sit down and write. We might even think about what we wanted to convey. We wanted our opinion to matter, so we thought before we wrote.

Enter the Internet. The Internet is both a marvel and a nightmare at the same time. We subscribe on-line to the BBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. These news sources also require you to comment via E-Mail, or actual snail mail. In either case, there is no guarantee that your comments will find their way onto the screens of your PCs. Editors still exercise judgment on what is published, and of the many submissions, only a few make it into print or onto the screens of these news outlets.

But we also subscribe to many Internet news sources that are collections of articles from many sources, usually aggregated around some theme or point of view. Most of our subscriptions represent the middle to the political left. For these sources—both of the Left and Right persuasions-- instant commentary is possible: All one need do is to trail down to the end of the article to the comments section, and write your own commentary on the article. It is a form of instant gratification; since one can see one’s own words appear magically for the entire world to see. Little forethought is required for such commentary, and even a casual perusal of the extensive commentary suggests that indeed little forethought characterizes most of it. It is akin to all of the other forms masquerading as modern communication—texting, tweeting, Facebook postings, even blogging. It is as though speed actually is of the essence, brevity is important, and forethought largely irrelevant. What matters mostly in these commentaries is your vote on the subject, cast in the harshest terms possible. Some even use the all caps approach—equivalent to yelling. Reasoned comments are largely drowned out by the flood of verbal abuse heaped on one another and on the article writers. The great middle or indeed subtlety seems not to exist in these communications venues. It represents, to me, a form of the great dumbing down of America.

It seems doubtful that people in America are actually growing less intelligent over time, although the continued 35-40% dropout rate from our high schools might contradict that optimistic view. But I think what is happening is that the Internet allows and even encourages group-think, and also allows anyone to voice their opinion in open forums.
We now have organized social and political venues on-line that allow like-minded people to collect and “talk” with one another, as though they were in the same room. Since like-minded people tend, over time, to support the views of their chosen kind, the views seem to be moving to one side or the other of the spectrum of social/political thought. This group-think is amplified heavily by entertainment media such as Rupert’s Faux News Network, in which actors or actual delusional sociopaths dominate the airwaves, pounding home the view of the opposite party as “the enemy”, or as inherently evil. The continued, and indeed expanded, financial support of the largely right wing groups—think venues by such groups as the Koch Brothers-- gave rise to such phenomena as the Tea Party, an entirely Astroturf political group, but a potentially dangerous one for our Republic.
How to counter these growing forces driving the Nation into two camps is a problem we ignore at our peril. Our elected representatives in Congress are supposed to find ways to forge solutions to our Nation’s problems, solutions often based on compromise. What we see instead is the same movement to the right or to the left by our representatives, and actual problem solution has disappeared, replaced by attempts to Defeat the Other. Increasingly, the President is faced with the equivalent of two warring camps. Where are the adults in the Nation? Perhaps they all migrated to Canada?
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