What does it say about us as a people that most of us can name ten brands of perfume or handbags or yogurt, but can’t name ten US presidents?
When I was younger and living overseas, I would frequently get good-naturedly ragged (I assume it was good-natured) about the average American’s reputation for being uninterested in anything that happens outside of America. Living in a foreign country, I was amazed at how interested everyone in my host country was in foreign news. New Zealanders will pour over news from South Africa or Japan with nearly the same interest as their own island. I knew what they said about my country was true—most people I knew “back home” didn’t know or care to know about things happening outside the country.
I have a not-so-funny anecdote about my best friend in the States who, when I said I was moving from New Zealand to the UK, asked me if that was closer to Atlanta. (She has a graduate degree and is an accomplished clinician. She just never bothered to look at a map beyond the borders of the U S of A.)
You know what I think? If anything, we’ve gotten worse.
Why is it that the xenophobic Americans have gotten even more stand-offish? I don’t think it has anything to do with fear of terrorists or a baseline distrust of other countries. If anything, you’d think a heightened concern for our safety abroad would prompt an obsession in the average American regarding the motives and goings-on in other countries.
No, I think it’s more insidious than that. I think it’s us.
I think the cable and ready-availability of nearly 24-7 celebrity news and lowest common denominator action films has helped us lose our ability to focus on things that really matter in lieu of who got married to whom or who is having whose baby out of wedlock.
I grant you it’s easier to listen to silly gossip or watch semi-famous people dodge photographers than it is to sit through a Ken Burns documentary or listen to a pundit explain our sorry political situation at the moment, but apathy does not explain this phenomenon—not at all. You have to ask yourself: why are we more willing to watch something that has nothing to do with us instead of something that fundamentally impacts the way we live?
What does that say about who we are?
At the very least, I’d say we are a nation of drastically shortened attention spans. If you look at the popular movies and books of today and slap them up against what was “in” just twenty years ago, you’ll see more exposition and description in novels back in the eighties; more leisurely approaches in movie settings and characterizations. Today, we’re so impatient to ingest the story, our books read like scripts—mostly white space and dialogue because everyone knows readers won’t trudge through descriptions to set the scene.
By catering to the fast and easy, the get-on-and-get-off mentality of the typical American consumer (and if you’re selling to them, baby, you’re catering to them), we have permanently altered the pace and methodology of how we deliver information, entertainment and even education.
I found this amazing quote that supports my theory from a popular politician who made a stunning prediction that, I think, brings us to the cusp of where we stand today. He said:
“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step in and crush us…? Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio (River) or make a track on the Blue Ridge…in a thousand years. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
That comment by Abe Lincoln is more relevant today than it was when he delivered it in 1838. The way we live today—dedicated to a culture of gossip and consumerism and fast, painlessly delivered data (and that mostly nonsense)—is a personification of us as a country, a noose coiled around our collective necks, kicking the stool we’re standing on.
And the hell of it? We can’t avoid where we’re going because—even though we’re determined to wear blindfolds for the trip—we are still the ones in the driver’s seat.
18 thoughts on “What are YOU watching these days?”
I agree completely with what you said. I don’t understand why we continue to let our children get “dumbed-down” when we know we need the bright minds to come from India, China, etc. The most effective destruction is an implosion on the inside and as you indicated, that’s where we are headed.
A couple of commenters have also used the phrase “dumbing down,” Rebecca, and I think that really nails it. It kills me that we are doing this to ourselves. Thanks for jumping in!
I say we’ve forgotten small pleasures, books, movies, stories. the jealousy of million dollar adventures have stolen from us the simple pleasures of a walk in the woods, the taste of cool spring waters, sunrise alone or with a friend from the bow of a small boat under sail twenty minutes from the beach it was launched from, the taste of just caught trout sizzling in a frying pan over a camp fire, the rising of the moon, introducing your best girl at a neighborhood block party, teaching your grandson to play the banjo, tasting Chinese food for the first time, reading a good book. today we are inundated with so much big stuff, impossible stuff, massive stuff and earth changing stuff that we forget the important stuff, the small stuff, a book, a poem, the song of a small bird, the paw print of something that passed in the night, an evening in the tree house, pen on paper, brush on canvas, the warmth of the fire. everything doesn’t have to be a world record, or cost fifty billion dollars, the trick is to enjoy the pebbles in the stream as much as the boulders at the top of the mountain, the kindling in in a small campfire as much as the forest fire, the friends next door as much as those across the ocean. small barefoot first time steps as important as footprints on the moon. love what you’ve got and more will come, it ain’t a competition, it’s a life, drink from it.
As usual, Jon, well said! Thanks for commenting.
The dumbing down of society carries on, and it can be bloody frustrating for those of us who expect better of the world around us.
So true. Plus, it’s embarrassing when we travel and have to represent a whole nation of celebrity-gawkers or people who are just uninformed as to our whole political landscape. I think some of it has to do with apathy or a sense of “what can I do?” but too much of it is just laziness and reaching for the low-hanging fruit because it’s easy.
I’m afraid I’m one of a dying breed. I don’t watch TV at all, and I get my news from about a dozen websites, some of them international. But I don’t know diddly about perfume or handbags, and can name maybe two brands of yogurt. Way back, when people still read books about serious issues, Neil Postman wrote one whose title describes what’s happening today: Amusing Ourselves to Death.
I love the title of Postman’s book and will check it out. I do think it’s harder for writers or scholars or anybody who’s focused on examining life around them to get sucked into mindless TV watching. Or maybe it’s just the opposite? Thanks for jumping in, Sylvie!
Well, the US has 1/20 the world’s population…
More seriously, I think insularity is a cultural characteristic of the US in ways it generally isn’t in other western nations. Expressed as isolationism in the 1930s, for instance. And to the extent that the US is such a widespread, varied, polyglot country that’s a reasonable perspective.
But there IS a bigger world out there, and New Zealand is part of it…same land area and population, by and large, as Finland. Or Colorado.
The shallowness of current media is a serious worry. It’s happened here too – that attention you noticed here in NZ to world affairs has been re-channeled now through the notion of news as entertainment. There has been a sharp drop in the quality and calibre of Kiwi journalism. We get better commentary from informed bloggers – some of whom, of course, are old-school journalists who’ve been thrown on the scrap heap because they don’t fit the fluffy and instant image now demanded by news media. Transience, gratification and entertainment all seem to have supplanted reason, depth and consideration of issues.
Sounds like the US isn’t much different.
I wonder if the “pendulum” will swing back the other way? Probably not in my lifetime but surely this can’t be the direction we’re all heading in? Entertainment and Rush Limbagh as news? I personally know people I consider sane and intelligent who listen to “talk” radio and can’t tell it apart from impartial news sources. Disheartening to know the shallowness of our current media is happening in NZ, too. I suppose it’s just human nature to want to turn to the light and the fun as opposed to the harder work involved in the truth and the real? 😦
What makes it even worse is when it actually affects other countries. Like when its time for elections in your country and all you see in the news is elections for America. How many countries voted for Obama?
This just makes me think it’s almost like it’s all a show or a drama. Pretty soon “real news” will look like a soap opera because that’s more palatable to the consumers–no matter where they are in the world. I get so sick of “election mania” over here for the two interminable years before we finally pull the lever, I cannot imagine having to endure it at length from another country’s POV! Thanks for commenting, Nigel.
I agree and find it appalling, especially as it seems to be endemic across the entire population, as evidenced by the link attached. When students at our supposedly preeminent institution of higher learning can’t identify the national capitol of a neighboring country, that’s pretty sad. I will say that I was gratified that both our 30 something sons answered the question correctly without hesitation. I surmise that, as you said, it’s really more about what kids are encouraged to do at home, rather than what they learn in school.
Yes, but peers probably trump home influence, I have to say. If your kids had great friends, you’re half way home.:-)
So am I the friend with “a graduate degree and an accomplished clinician”? It’s been bothering me for days : )…. Did I say that? Nice blog by the way.
Haha…no, it was someone I used to hang out with in Atlanta. I stretched the truth a bit on the “best friend” thing. 🙂 I’m sure YOU knew where NZ was in relation to the US! But it’s nice to have proof that you do read my blog!
When I worked in Dallas Tx, but lived in Eagle River Alaska. My husband flew to Dallas so we could go back to Alaska together. A friend asked how we were getting to Alaska. I said we were driving back. I was informed we could not drive back. Thinking the Al-Can was closed, oh boy take the Casiair hwy. rougher but doable. No, she told me we couldn’t drive back because Alaska was an island.
What happened to Canada? Didn’t I know Alaska is an island down by Hawaii and the Gulf of Mexico!
Haha…love our friends’ world perspective! 🙂 Thanks for chiming in, Trish.