I believe we value entertainment more than enlightenment, distraction more than education, and the superficial more than the substantive.
Granted, as I attack our culture, I am well aware that I am part of the problem as well. When I sit at home, unwinding from a long day of attempting to educate and make a positive impact on the world, I surf through the world-wide web, generally with two browsers open. In one window I will skim the headlines of CNN and MSNBC, peruse the latest alerts from Moveon.org, read the on-line New York Times, and check GLSEN for any educational updates. Then in the other window, my first stop is TheSuperficial.com, where I can discover the latest embarrassing snapshots of stars, followed by Cinescape.com, Aintitcoolnews.com, and TVGuide.com, so that I can learn all the latest changes, rumors, or intimations of developments in the world of television, video games, and movies. And I should not forget my frequent visits to The-Leaky-Cauldron.org for all the latest Harry Potter news or to TV.com where I discuss theories on the latest episode of Lost.
Of course, Lost is the perfect symptom of this infection within our souls. As an addictive television show, it is one of the best, and the writers have filled it with references to Dostoevsky, The Prisoner, and philosophers, leaving suggestive clues that the island is either Purgatory, a government experiment, a compound of escaped and deranged psychics, or some combination of the above. Have I mentioned that it may exist outside of time? Truly though, at its heart, it is only a soap opera: a weekly examination of which couple would be perfect together, who’s really a villain, and how perfect life can seem to be. It is perhaps the educated youngest son who managed to escape from the small town of Tiddlywinks and the ingrate family of Days of Our Lives. It is television that makes us feel more intelligent.
As I sit and digest it, I’m generally working through the week’s magazines: TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, my wife’s People, and Rolling Stone. Of course we also get Time and Newsweek, but those are just flipbooks—except for the funny quotes of the week, the cartoons, and the stories. We have started to get some other more scientific journals—I am married to a geophysicist—but I really just like the pictures in those. The bedside table is no better: There are stacks of new novels and several texts that have accumulated from the various teacher workshops I have attended. Several books on teaching for social justice, award-winning literature, and classics all sit patiently gathering dust, and what do I reach for to take me to slumber? The most recent Neil Gaiman or Joss Whedon graphic novel or a “classic” of Alan Moore or Frank Miller of course.
The most popular television today involves “reality,” though in truth it is as artificially constructed and contrived as any other work of fiction. In one of my favorite seasons of the ironically named Real World, the post-production storyboard editors created an elaborate romantic relationship for a lesbian woman and her best male friend simply through the use of careful cutting and editing techniques. Of course I have sworn off reality television in the past. Post September the 11th the idea of people voluntarily going to Africa to fight over rewards of food and luxurious conveniences seemed ridiculous. Naturally as I sit here typing with my “SaveDarfur” green wristband I cannot wait to find out who’s been eliminated on tonight’s episode of Survivor.
I teach Fahrenheit 451 so I can readily make the connection about television and the internet’s impact on our society—perhaps some of my students can too (they may have found the answer on Sparknotes.com). A culture that values entertainment most (how much does a Hollywood movie star or high school “graduate” playing professional sports make?) is one that will create more and more instantaneous distractions so that we transform reflecting, thinking, and contemplating into blasphemous acts. Life in all of its emotional and philosophical complexities will have less and less value, until thought itself will simply become obsolete. There have been times in my life where I have said I would never own a cell phone or Tivo, times I swore when I would never blog or play a computer game “on-line” with someone. Slowly I have plugged myself more and more into the machine. Our world has become one of science fiction, and I’m pretty sure that it won’t end well. At least it never does in the movies.
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