Monday, December 17, 2012

NEWTOWN.....And the Disappearance of Childhood (2)

In his Chapter Seven ‘The Adult Child’, Neil Postman lays out a summary of his thesis on the disappearance of childhood in tandem with defining the modern conception of “adult” and what it has evolved (devolved?) into after the emergence of video culture. As he puts it, the modern idea of the adult “is largely a product of the printing press.” Further, almost all the attributes we associate with adulthood “are those either generated or amplified by a literary culture”. These include:

- A capacity for self-restraint

- A tolerance for delayed gratification

- A sophisticated ability to think sequentially and conceptually

- A preoccupation with both historical continuity and the future

- A high valuation of reason and hierarchical order

He then goes on to warn that as electronic (visual) media have assumed center stage “different attitudes and character traits come to be valued and a new, diminished definition of adulthood begins to emerge”. This new stunted version of the adult which reaches its apotheosis (nadir?) in the adult child has arrived with the television-video age which flattens out all differences between all ages. A typical observation by Postman (p. 101) serves to clarify and lead to a fuller exposition:

“Television redefines what is meant by ‘sound judgment’ by making it into an aesthetic rather than a logical matter. A barely literate ten year old can interpret and at least respond to the information “given off” by a (political) candidate as easily and quickly as a well-informed 50 year old."

As Exhibit A, look no further than the recent phenomenon of  4-year old Abigail Evans, about whose infantile election complaints much was made by our semi-inebriated, blow-dried media hacks who confused her bawling about “Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney” with how real adults interpreted their policies, and the polarizing arguments that ensued. Some in the media actually had the temerity to lead with crappola like: “We’re all Abigail Evans Now!” Uh, no we’re not, and if you think YOU are, Mr. Media Maven, you have more serious problems than can even be described by the latest Diagnostic and Statistics Manual.

But this media hyping is instructive because it eminently proves Postman’s point, that not only are: a) Children now the new “adults”, but symmetrically that (b) today’s adults are the new children, infantile, narcissistic and greedy as only ADULT children can be. Hence, a conflation exists such that childhood has essentially disappeared. I can’t cite every example and case that Postman does, but for anyone interested I suggest getting hold of his book, including his examples of how our corporate hyper-media sexualizes children in films, music and other areas. He notes this would have been unthinkable, for example, as recently as the “Little Rascals-Our Gang” era in the 1930s where teens and tweens were never seen wearing anything other than children’s clothing. And NO, in the 1930s you’d never ever catch a kid appearing as 12-year old Brooke Shields did in the 1978 Louis Malle-directed flick ‘Pretty Baby”. (One of several films he mentions (p.124), along with “Blue Lagoon”, “The Exorcist”, “Paper Moon”, “Carrie” and “The Omen”)

But what is it about video-TV culture that makes it so dangerous? The danger is twofold: 1) Television –video culture essentially opens the “barn door” and lets everything into the house without careful parsing or interpretation, and 2) TV does not call attention to ideas first but rather “atmospherics’, personalities and hot button emotional issues. This makes it almost impossible to have a sane political discussion, for example, in today’s TV sound bite venue.

Even worse, the presentation of TV news, in Postman’s calculations, amounts to a totally unbalanced retelling of the day’s top events without point of view or even import. Events reeled off from the TV anchors’ chairs end up as an endless stream of meaningless drivel. Postman details a typical night’s news viewing of WCBS on page 104, where he assays the time allotments as follows:

- 264 seconds for a story about bribery of public officials

- 40 seconds about Iran

- 22 seconds about Aeroflot

- 25 seconds about Muhammad Ali

- 53 seconds about a New Mexico Prison riot

- 174 seconds for an ‘in depth’ look at depression

- 18 seconds about Suzanne Sommers

As Postman puts it (ibid.):

“This way of defining the ‘news’ achieves two interesting effects. First, it makes it difficult to think about an event, and second, it makes it difficult to feel anything about an event. By thinking, I mean having the time and motivation to ask oneself: What is the meaning of such an event? What is its history? What are the reasons for it? How does it fit into what I know about the world? By feeling, I mean the normal human responses to murder, rape, fire, bribery and general mayhem”

Postman then goes on to make the point that the manner of presentation is such that events are presented without any historical continuity or other context, and in such rapid succession “they wash over our minds in an undifferentiated stream”. Postman’s other questions, observations are equally germane:

- What is the connection between Aeroflot and Suzanne Sommers?

- Why is Iran worth 40 seconds and the results of a basketball game 160?

- How is it determined that Suzanne Sommers gets less time than Muhammad Ali?

The effect of presenting a meaningless string of unrelated acts, events is that there is no sense of proportion to be discerned in the world. To quote Postman: “Events are entirely idiosyncratic; history is irrelevant.”

It is in this context that the aftermath of the Newtown slayings must be considered, and how the national media treated the young surviving victims. Because if events are ultimately “idiosyncratic” and can “just happen” while proportion is lacking in the presentation (so that feelings are also absent), then it means the media presenting the stories must create ersatz emotion where none would otherwise exist.

Thus, we saw in the wake of the Aurora shootings, microphones being shoved into the faces of victims while being asked “How do you FEEL?” How the hell do YOU think they felt, Mr. Media Hack? Thus we also, on Friday, beheld microphones shoved in the face of children who were psychologically victimized by the Sandy Hook killings.

Denver Post columnist Joanne Ostrow perhaps put it in the most salient terms (DPost, Dec. 16, p. 17A):

“Does it serve any journalistic purpose to put children on live television in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting? Is it ethically permissible to put shocked parents on live TV, to give the nation a taste of the horror? Clearly it serves no purpose other than titillation to put shocked, underage and vulnerable people on TV to give the nation a taste of the horror.”

Exactly, but more importantly, to invoke Postman’s thesis: this has to be done to fabricate ersatz emotion because the very nature of video news on a 24/7 cycle is to neutralize and flatten all emotional response. Beyond that, the constant emphasis on the horror can play havoc with young, impressionable minds ….i.e. those of KIDS!

It is for this reason, Dr. David Schonfeld, Director for the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital has warned parents across the country to be careful about letting children consume media coverage of the events. Or indulge in obsessing over the events via Twitter, where real time events take precedence.

The problem is that it may already be too late for any of this, since the genie has already escaped the bottle. The omnipresence of a video connection wherever one goes, as well as a web connection or camera phone, has assured none of us can now escape the ever-present video reality. The most we can hope to do is temper it, and use it judiciously – or try to – and that means being aware of its effects, including how the news cycle is also “dumbed down” and trivialized by the intermittent presence of commercials. To quote Postman one more time (p 106):

“The news, in a phrase, is not an adult world view. Otherwise we would not be shown four commercials celebrating the affluence of America, followed by the despair and degradation of prisoners in New Mexico.”

Even worse, is that the commercially-dominant idiom fuels private consumption and accelerates the turn into infantile, ‘me’ behavior. Benjamin Barber, author of ‘CONSUMED’ is clear on the connection to capitalist-market privatization and infantilism (p. 159):
“Examining the dynamics of privatization, as we have done, suggests that private relates to public as childish stands to the adult. Prioritizing the individual and rendering the community private in a way that makes it look like an aggregation of individual wants and needs is a puerile way to construct the social world.”

As I’ve shown before this also applies with particularly strong force to 2nd amendment fetishists of the type who uphold owning automatic weapons and multiple-capacity clips. They – including the automatic weapons aficionados in Newtown itself, have placed their own childish demands and needs ahead of community security.

And, of course, author Mark Bauerlein ('The Dumbest Generation'), has already shown how the social media obsession has infantilized the under-30 generation by enabling them to create virtual worlds, Facebook pages etc. that “mirrors their own woes and fantasies, a pre-packaged representation of the world, a ‘Daily ME’”

In other words, a solipsistic world of puerile narcissism. Bauerlein (p. 137) underscores this by citing a quote from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, purporting to reveal the secret of his site in terms of never having to “hear a dissenting word’:

“That’s kind of what we are doing here, but with ‘what’s going on in the world with these people I care about’. “

So, all the things that bother and bore them are blocked out. The people they don’t know and don’t want to know they can exclude at the touch of key. A new bomb may have been developed by Iran, and an earthquake may have killed thousands in China, but in the case of Facebook users it’s the old monkey show: “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” .

A delimited reality is confected which deliberately excludes the harsh outside world, and confines the personalized reality to chirpy “how r ya’s”, or gossip, mainly in deformed English which Bauerlein ranks just above the reading level of pre-school children’s books. Again, consolidating Neil Postman’s thesis that we’re all reverting to a conflated adult-child/ child adult society that likely will be unable to handle the next real mega-crisis.

By extension, the “news cycle” to which most of us are exposed, is infantilizing and regressive if it’s the only source from which we obtain our perspectives on the world. If don’t read widely, including newspapers, we will become the adult –children that Postman holds up to ridicule, the ones who inevitably end up in a Jerry Springer world, whether by choice or accident.

As for the children, as in Newtown and other places, one can only hope that their parents will now assure them some measure of genuine childhood as well as genuine security, and not thrust them too quickly into the adult scene ….including training them to fire automatic weapons and explode propane gas tanks at nearby “freelance” (unregulated)  ranges!

Calling all adults! Any? At all? We need you to show up and take responsibility! Not go out with your tyke firing rounds with automatic weapons at propane gas tanks!

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