Friday, August 10, 2012

Stupidity, Postmodernism, and the Shallows

Occasional columnist and former radio personality Bruce Maiman had a piece a couple of days ago in the Sacramento Bee entitled “As stupidity becomes fashionable, we all lose,” which unwittingly makes the author complicit in the title’s assertion.

The Recovering Bureaucrat almost always reads Mr. Maiman’s columns, not so much because of his powerful insights about our political economic problems and what to do about them, but because at least he cares about their complexity and is not necessarily wed to conventional viewpoints of them.

This column is an example of the value of his contributions.  Almost no one in the MSM tackles the issue of the dumbing down of our public discourse—unless it’s to offer the inanity that conservatives are stupider than liberals, based upon nothing more substantial than projection.  Since such contentions simply confirm both liberals and conservatives in their prejudices about each other, it’s essentially just another rotten tomato in the left-right food fight.

Mr. Maiman uses the occasion of the death of author and liberal gadfly Gore Vidal to wonder how we all got so stupid in the course of a generation.
We had a moment some 50 years ago when intellectualism and literacy were prized in American culture, when writers, artists and scientists were also genuine celebrities, fixtures on talk shows and in socialite columns, not only for what they wrote, painted or theorized, but because they were thinkers cultivated by a nation that aspired to intelligence.
Since Mr. Maiman is a Baby Boomer himself, it’s a puzzle to the RB that he actually believes this goofiness.  The RB was ten when John F. Kennedy brought Camelot to Washington DC, but he remembers—and histories of the period confirm—that the glitz was more important that the commitment to serious inquiry.  

The 60s were the zenith of the Industrial Age with its blind belief in the physical sciences as the epitome of all necessary knowledge.  The Kennedy-Johnson years celebrated the muscularity of the era by assiduously promoting the Washington-New York power axis, built upon the unprecedented wealth of America’s industrial might, which had dominated the global economy since the beginning of World War II.  As ruthlessly portrayed in the AMC series Mad Men, the America of that period was already being seduced by the bling of the emerging consumer economy that the profits of the time made possible on a national scale.

Among the “innovations” of the period was the creation and spread of what we now deride as “the mainstream media.”  But the dynamics of the age required significant accumulations of capital and therefore political power to wring as much value out of industrial production as possible.  Profitability was based on mass production and distribution, and by the mid-1960s the mass consumer market impacted almost all elements of the American middle class.  As Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson demonstrated cogently in his insightful book The Long Tail, the communications technology of the times dictated that only large corporate organizations, such as the three national television broadcast networks, nationally distributed magazines like Life and Time, and large-circulation daily newspapers in every urban center, could operate profitably.