Dumbed Downer
Jun 2003

I am decidedly not the kind of person who thinks things like "people used to be smarter than they are today." I've learned that broad, negative pronouncements are not helpful for me, wreak havoc on my skin and therefore, not coincidentally, do nothing directly or indirectly in support of getting me laid. So I choose to not let such negativity pollute my joi de vivre, my raison d'être or any other idiomatic expression borrowed from the Freedom (formerly known as the French).

I am, however, exactly the type of person who thinks things like, "Jesus Christ, everyone sure is stupid -- and in all likelihood they don't even know that they are not stupider than they were yesterday, they are MORE stupid." I find that my karma responds well to this sort of constructive, if not educational, assessment of the here and now.

Quentin Crisp blamed music for stupefying the public. Regardless of vector, it is fairly undeniable. Please tell me you've noticed - if not, trust me, the balance of this column won't be to your liking. While popular music certainly plays a role in our dumbification, it can hardly be solely accountable when virtually every media source seems eager to jump into the melee of mitigated intelligence. Even organizations whose credibility should depend on book-smarts are at best succumbing to, and at worst willingly participating in the dumbing-down of public speech.

The CNN sound-bite factory, Headline News, has "Real News. Real Fast." as their slogan. Indeed! Of course, we all know that grammatically, it should read "Real News. Really Fast." but clearly they are dealing with speeds so lightening fast that they cannot spare the time to add the "ly". We also all know that they liked the symmetry of "Real News. Real Fast." more then they cared about the incorrect syntax. And we also know that they know that almost no one would notice anyhow. I suppose they could argue that "real" functions as an adjective in this case, not as an adverb in erroneous syntax - describing the kind of fast (as opposed, perhaps, to an "unreal" kind of fast), but let's face it, that's stupid. So either they know they are advancing the cause of a dumber society or they are, themselves, stupid.

This isn't about elitism - Matt le Blanc can hack apart my native tongue all day long on "Friends" and I'll simply smile, wave, and turn the channel as fast as is humanly possible. But I hope he understands that he's nobody's thinking man - he's simply today's fading Tony Danza. And this isn't just about language. Why, we're dumb in all kinds of ways! Reality television, the PT Barnum of the new millennium, makes explicit what might be nicer if left implicit.

The last time I checked, marriage was a prize on at least a few games shows (reality show, game show: you say po-TAY-to, I say po-TAH-to). These are hugely successful shows. Methinks one is called "Married by America" or something similar. Flip the channel and you might hear about politicians planning legislation to prevent gay couples from marrying - to "protect the sanctity of marriage." If opinion polls count for anything, most Americans and in all probability, most viewers calling in and voting on "Married by America" agree with legislating against gay marriages. But just what is sanctimonious about a union defined by strangers and created only to generate advertising revenue from the likes of Frito-Lay? If you ask me, there's more dignity in being a mail-order bride arriving stateside in a container ship.

Lest I be misunderstood, I want to point out that in no way do I advocate for know-it-all-ism as a remedy for dumbing-down. Nothing is more boring than a person who feels compelled to correct you if you say "buffalo" instead of "bison." I don't know the difference between the two and that's the way I like it. But, if I was presenting myself publicly as some sort of authority of large land mammals of the American plains, that's probably something I should know.

The truth is that we won't think critically about anything we want to believe. The world's most famous mother, über-skank and bitch, Madonna, has recently summed up her past sixty or so years of self-promotion with a self-pitying statement (in support of her new persona for her new record), "I'm telling you that fame and fortune are not what they're cracked up to be." And people buy it. People feel sorry for her. Poor dear! Clearly, she's the victim - a victim of all her misguided desires and all the dirty millions and millions and millions of dollars that came along with it. She simply wasn't strong enough to stop herself. She became a hideous wretched creature for her fans. For everyone but herself. She never wanted this - we wanted it from her. All she's ever done is give. Who cries for Madonna? Hmmm?

Quite frankly, I've got more sympathy for gonorrhea than I do for Madonna.

But I digress. The point is that we don't think rigorously. If I can watch a show on marine mammals and take issue with half-truths and deliberate misinformation for the sake of sensation, then there is a problem. If Madonna feels that she can elicit sympathy for being famous and rich when we all know she'd sauté her kids for breakfast on the Today show, we aren't doing our homework. If senators and congressmen take an important stand and eat "freedom fries" and "freedom toast", then we all have to be prepared to live in a world where the headlines on The New York Times and The Onion are indistinguishable.