Monday, September 19, 2011

Dumbing it Down

I know that I've touched upon this topic in the past, but after reading a Maureen Dowd op-ed piece the other day, I felt that I could use this post in order to properly formulate and write down my views about the anti-intellectualism, anti-fact, and embracing of stupidity that has become the status quo in certain social and political spheres in our country.
The sad reality in contemporary American - and to a large extent global - society, is that everyone has a different view of how things actually are. Those views are not based (at least explicitly) on traditional historical perspective formulations like family, friends, culture, geography, race, gender, or any of the other myriad of factors that could contribute to determining how you view and interpret what you see and hear. So what are they based up? Where you get your news. It's as simple as that. I think that everything else; your perspective on politics, love, literature, beauty, culture, etc., is all just an extension of where you get your news.
The reason is that the "news media", if they should even be called that anymore, has gone through a terrible transition over the course of its history, that has brought it to be something of a cultural cancer that is slowly eating away at [what we have left of] our democracy. News media started as a medium to disseminate information. And while I'm sure early media pioneers didn't always printed everything about everyone, this bias was much less systemic. The news media, and I suppose media in general, then became so large that they began having an affect on what we thought. They would built up or tamp down news stories, dependent upon whether or not it was politically and economically advantageous to do so. We began to see our world filtered through the news media's prism, and what came out on the other end was not only not related to fact, but was simply a dumbed down ad for some company, product, or idea. However, the contemporary "news media" (again, I think quotes are necessary when describing the current media phantasmagoria) has become so vile, that they no longer have an effect on simply what we think, but they've had a deleterious effect on HOW we think.
How can they do this, you might ask? Well, we've become accustomed to short, fast news stories, that are meant to thrill, but not meant to last. This has become our perspective on the world, personified in our everyday lives by our relationships, our spending habits, and leisure activities. Americans no longer wish to spend years learning crafts, not for money or fame, but for the joy of making something; no, Americans prefer activities that benefit them financially or socially, but which are a low cost to them in time and money. And we don't like to build relationships over long periods of time, getting to know one another well, and learning to depend on each other for comfort and support; it's much easier to talk via a screen, and never have to leave your house. It's easier to have children raised by others, and to have the television educate children, while they eat their dinner in front of it, than to read to kids or take them out for a bike ride. And we don't build things to last anymore; it's easier just to continue buying the same cheaply built garbage over and over again, than to buy things that will stay with you for the long haul. In fact, our society goes so far as to call people who hold onto things for long periods of time "cheap" and "hoarders" (there are real hoarders, but I'm not referring to them), instead of valuing their appreciation for well made products. Houses, cars, crafts, wares, they're all made quickly and cheaper out of poor products these days.

So what does it all mean? I don't know. I'm just as susceptible and guilty as everyone else, but I've always heard that acceptance is the first step in overcoming. A long-time friend of mine and I have discussed this topic many times, and I think he has what might be the best solution in the short-term, and a building block for better solutions in the long-term. The reason we're so easily manipulated into being told how to think, is because there is a void. Parents, friends, relatives, schools, no longer teach kids how to think. They believe that a child should "be able to think for themselves". This is true, but it misses the point. The point is that kids first need to know HOW to think, before they can learn to think for themselves. The activity of teaching kids how to think is not explicit, but rather a slow process of helping children understand that everything they're taking in should not be interpreted as being true. This isn't to say a rejection of facts, but simply being able to interpret a specific type of information. What we need to develop, from the time kids start school until the time they are no longer in school, is a critical thinking curriculum. Critical thinking is the single most important skill to have in today's world, and it is among the least valued in our society. If we all learned how to think rationally, and be able to "separate the wheat from the chaff", we've all be much better suited to deal with the sensationalist news media and society that is going on around us, and attempting to pull in a million different directions at once.
A glut of information is not a bad thing. But too much information, and no way to interpret it is very scary. So to meld these two ideas, we can embrace the modern media phenomenon of a literal orgy of information, but also understand how to sift through the information to find out what is true, real and right.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

After a short hiatus...

So it's been a while since my last post, and a lot has been going on both personally and politically.

On a personal note, I participated in the 30th Annual Hood to Coast Relay Race. For those of you not familiar with this race, there are approximately 1,200 teams that run approximately 200 miles from Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood (the exterior of Timberline Lodge was actually used for the film "The Shining") through Portland, OR and onto Seaside on the Oregon Coast. Each team has 12 members, with six team members in each of two vans. I was recruited onto this team by a woman from work, who was in the other van, so I knew no one I was doing the race with. I'll tell you what, as a first experience, I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to do this race with. Everyone was so supportive, and made the running and the overall experience incredibly enjoyable. It's amazing how quickly you can bond with a group of people by spending nearly 36 hours in a van with them; especially since we're all sleep-deprived and exhausted from running anywhere between 15 - 20 miles. We saw each other at our highs (right before the runs) and lows (right after the runs) and I think it really contributed to the sense of team camaraderie. Our team did not come in first and I think our pre-race time actually disqualified us before we even began, but none of that really mattered, because the experience was more of a team/personal accomplishment than actually completing against the other teams (it's my philosophy of running, personified in a relay race). The finish was also quite wonderful, because not only did we get to meet up and hang out with the other van and the rest of our team members, but I also got to see some old New York co-workers who were also participating in the race on another team. I didn't stick around for the beach party, because the four hours of sleep in three days had definitely taken a toll on me. Overall, it was a great experience, and if you haven't done so before, you should consider forming or joining a team and applying for a spot (that's another thing, the race is VERY difficult to get into - nearly 10,000 team apply, and only 1,200 get spots).

In politics, it's been a pretty exciting month thus far. We had the president giving a much-anticipated jobs speech, with Republicans rebuking him days before it was even giving, and then following that up with another Republican primary debate where they threw the president's plan and reason out the window. And then there was the whole ten year remembrance of September 11, 2001, but I'll get to that later.
The president's speech was, as expected, a heavy-handed call on Republicans to work with Democrats on doing what needs to be done to create jobs. The plans and ideas, though vague, seemed to be a road map of how the president plans to blame Republicans if they fail to help him institute this nearly $500 billion plan. The problem is that Republicans have been unfazed before in the face of the president's threats (and the potential public outcry), and the most likely scenario is that their obstinate politicking will continue, despite the deleterious effect the high unemployment and low economic growth is having on our economy. While I think that the president's speech was more political posturing than anything else - the real proof will be in the bill itself - I think it was necessary posturing, considering the Republicans unwillingness to work with anything that might have even a small positive impact on the president.
The Republican debate was a bit more interesting with the inclusion of the newest person to jump into the fray, Texas Governor Rick Perry. I'm not a big fan of Perry, and I think he has no chance of winning the general election - though his chances of getting the Republican nomination are pretty high - but I think he adds a much needed Texas Governor (asshole) to the race, which had been sorely lacking. The funny thing about Perry getting into the race, is that he basically makes Michelle Bachmann irrelevant, and severely limits the possibility of Sarah Palin getting into the primary (unless of course she thinks she can beat him in a head-to-head fight for the fringe right - something she might very well be able to do). All Bachmann could do during the debate was continue to bring up "Obamacare" over and over, trying to tie it to every question asked, regardless of relevance. What Perry does for this Republican primary that none of the other candidates are able to do is bridge the gap between the party establishment and the far right (including the tea party). Rick Perry will stand up and talk like a well-seasoned politician, but then in the next sentence will call social security, probably the greatest social program the government offers, and serves what are probably the most important (politically speaking) constituents to winning an election, a ponzi scheme. His brand of Texas talk is the standard "in your face, if you don't like it we're doing it anyway", kind of politics that those on the far right adore; while his actual politics (policy-wise) puts him much more in line with standard Republican ideas and ideals. It's still anyone's game, with the first primary a little less than four months away, but I think we're seeing some standouts as the debates weed out those unqualified for the office (although none of them seem to be getting the notice, because we haven't seen anyone else drop out since Tim Pawlenty).

Finally, I think that I should address the remembrance of September 11, 2011. The horror of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center will certainly be something that I will never forgot. However, not at the time, nor at any time after, have I lived with the illusion that we all of the sudden became some hyperbolized haven for liberty and tranquility, and that our subsequent military interventions were benevolent conquests to spread freedom to people that were wallowing under the manacles of violent despots, just waiting to be released.
However, I'm don't want to get into the manipulation and sickening use of the attack for political purposes; instead I think it's important to remember that there were nearly 3,000 people that were killed, and that those people were innocently murdered for the sake of a radical religio-political ideology whose aim it was to strike fear into our hearts, and disrupt our way of living. The people who were killed were fathers and mother, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. Many thousands of people that were nowhere near the World Trade Center, The Pentagon, or the field outside of Shanksville, PA, were affected by losing someone they loved. The ability to deal with and move on from this tragedy has been different for everyone, and some people grieve best by getting revenge. Some people grieve by withdrawing, and closing themselves off to the outside world until they've had time to figure things out for themselves. Some people go on with their lives as if nothing has changed, constantly trying to not remember the horrific events they've witnessed, or the loved ones they've lost. Others simply weep at the unimaginable destruction that was wrought, both to the planes and the buildings that were crashed into, but also in the hearts of people who cannot comprehend what would compel someone to do something so awful to others. The truth is that there is no comprehension of how people can come up with, plan and execute such a ghastly endeavor; but I guess our goal should not be to comprehend, but to feel sympathy not only for ourselves, but also for those that harbor so much hatred and anger within themselves.