Saturday, February 28, 2015

Sorry, If You Get Your Politics From Jon Stewart It Doesn't Count!

It seems within weeks of the Boston Globe proclaiming there absolutely was no "deflategate" they've since asserted Comedy Central guy Jon Stewart "shaped the cultural attitudes of a generation".  Which leads to the question: Was it for better or worse?

We already know, for example, that according to author Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation), the under-30 crowd are foregoing knowledge-based maturity to wallow in a self-confected, solipsistic, social media mirror world of their own egos and selves. The fallout includes their not even meeting basic standards of knowledge for employment, far less earning a degree that actually means anything. (A survey and test several years ago found even a majority of Harvard grads flunked a basic test on American History.)

The entire mental superstructure was revealed in the words of one girl quoted (p. 137-38) when asked by a journalist if she wasn’t worried that she was denied a more in depth  picture of the world by  confining attention to Facebook. Her illuminating retort:

I’m not trying to get a broader picture, I’m trying to get what I want”.

But this may also account for why the same demographic (a good majority of them anyway) gravitates to Stewart's show as a kind of ersatz medium by which to pick up political insight. After all, he's delivered terrific zingers at the likes of the Fox News morons, including Bill O'Reilly as well as the goobers in Congress.

But zingers, or as one critic put it, "shits and giggles",  doesn't make the cut for serious, in depth political news or reporting. I maintain, as I have for many years, that if you don't read newspapers you can't get a handle on the political news. (TV news doesn't cut it either). Even more important, if you don't read widely outside the mainstream media, you will be in no position to master deep politics which now undergirds our political system. Is Jon Stewart going to  bring you into deep politics? Hell no, because he barely touches the normative form.

Bloomberg columnist Clive Crook perhaps put it in plainest terms when he noted "the generation in question relies on a comedy show for its news and engages with politics mainly through jokes"

Adding, that "perhaps I am missing something but that seems less than ideal."

In fact, it not only seems so but is. It proclaims we're incepting a generation of know-nothing goof balls who don't even vote consistently (as in the critical mid-terms) and need the excitement of a personality to grab them. I call them political dilettantes and woefully uneducated on this nation's most pressing issues. Jokes then, don't cut it.

Yes, I also like to watch Bill Maher's Real Time and get some laughs, but I don't believe it's a substitute for reading newspapers and more importantly parsing the PR and distinguishing it from substantive news within them. The latter is enabled by also reading books, on deep politics (including Naomi Klein's 'Shock Doctrine') as well as Howard Zinn's "A People' History of the United States')

It is this reading which amps up one's vocabulary to the point of ably mastering more difficult books, sources and which then confers deeper political and historical insights. By contrast, how can the Jon Stewart followers assimilate a factual basis when the language to describe much of what is happening in the world’s most critical domains exceeds the language difficulty level to which they’re accustomed?

Just take what is happening in the world of global finance right now, with events in Greece - regarding repaying  its debt -  that could affect all of Europe and even the U.S.  (Say if Greece leaves the E.U.) Do the Tweeters and such even know why oil prices recently fell and why they are climbing now? Do they know what's behind the events in Ukraine? How many of the Twitter-Facebook generation are aware of any of this? How many even think it’s relevant to their lives?

As for 'The Daily Show', as Crook points out:

"The problem was the program's fans began to take it seriously, and academics with nothing better to do began to take it seriously, and worst of all the show began to take itself seriously".

Which is to say it became a parody of itself and at that point no longer relevant. (Maybe why Stewart decided it was time to depart, along with wanting to spend more time with family. In other words, he realized that family time superseded the value of the content time on  'The Daily Show')

The trouble is that while political comedy can be entertaining it provides no ballast. Just as no sane person would consume the juicy looking steak depicted in the corner of a cardboard menu in place of the genuine article, so also no sane person should consume comedy and theatrics believing it's the real deal, It isn't.

But perhaps the problem is too many brains have now been so gutted by PR and fake news that the owners can no longer discern what is a serious issue and what isn't.  Hence, the insipid spectacle of millions of  people engaging in a stupid "debate" about the color of a dress sent via Tumblr.  "It was black and blue! No dammit, it was white and gold!"

No people in a serious, politically stable nation would do such a thing - waste their time on such trivial idiocy. But perhaps this is the point most of us have devolved to. Consumers only capable of raising a hue and cry over the color of a dress, but not over our political fabric (or physical infrastructure) and how both are coming apart.

In the end, I suspect false attention to trivial bullshit will only amplify so long as people remain uneducated and unread. (And merely possessing a college degree doesn't ensure this!) More willing to waste time in spurious social media realms with assorted 'likes' and posting images of their kitties boxing doggies than reading and learning about the world they inhabit. As Mark Bauerlein notes (p. 138):

“For education to happen, people must encounter worthwhile things outside their sphere of interest and brainpower. Knowledge grows, skills improve, tastes refine and conscience ripens only if the experiences bear a degree of unfamiliarity.”

What that means, as he further observes, is one must move through and beyond the initial knee-jerk reaction: “I don’t get it! That’s not for me, not my cup of tea!”  Because the intellectual effort in making it your ‘cup of tea’ will then be intellectually rewarding.

In the same way moving beyond the infantile "familiar" world of political jokiness requires a mature temperament, but the required intellectual effort in moving to real politics and deep politics means one can finally emerge as a citizen, as opposed to a consumer.

At that stage, there is a significant intellectual reward, which also serves the interests of one's nation in the best way possible. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his 'Notes on Virginia':
"Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. AND TO RENDER THEM SAFE, THEIR MINDS MUST BE IMPROVED."
Jefferson understood that a citizen "depository" of false beliefs and misinformation would ultimately destroy the Republic on account of the regression of citizens' minds,  not improvement. He understood that citizens to attain this improvement needed to read widely and in a focused fashion and not believe anything without supporting evidence. He might also have added, they ought not substitute frivolous comedic fare for actual knowledge of history, governance and related matters.

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