In the depths of an Illinois winter determined to make up for last year’s snowless wonderland, my depression is prompting questions of a profound nature. So what sits at the front of the philosophy parade? A simple set of questions: can America survive a brave new culture led by shows like Amish Mafia and The Real Housewives of Wherever? Is reality truly as unreal as reality TV purports to show? Is our nation’s culture now defined by the lowest common denominator? I’m not so sure.
When I speak with friends, colleagues, and online connections, I get the feeling that the person on the other side of the conversation is normal (by my definition). They tend to have real families, and those families tend to have what for me is a familiar amount of drama and conflict. I have never met an analog for Honey Boo Boo, and have had blessedly few encounters with anyone who might appear on a shoreline in Jersey. The entertainment enjoyed by a culture, in theory, is a reflection of that culture, but I can’t see any evidence that the cornucopia of production houses working to fill endless cable channels with content are reflecting anything real.
Nor do I see our culture represented in other areas of our shared marketplace. What I do see is a marketplace that is driven evermore by cost control over quality offerings. The culture reflected in the entertainment choices I am regularly offered is crude and cheap, and I am not writing a criticism of vulgarity. From the chain restaurants and food processors that offer cheap chemical counterfeits of the bounty of nature, to the TV and movie production houses that offer crude counterfeits of cultural icons, we the people are rarely treated to the quality that we crave. We are given just enough, in the context of an entertainment and restaurant culture with little real variety, to keep us coming back for less.
To make matters worse, our media, endowed with nearly unlimited rights of access, have taken the same low road navigating cost and quality. The major network news services and papers used to have large, well-trained, and well-funded staffs built to gather and report news. In a cost-cutting world, the very same media giants (now far fewer in number…consolidation is the ultimate cost-cutter) employ opinion-makers and trend-setters. Opinions are free, watching news sources for important events and researching complex problems is time-consuming and, by extension, expensive. News networks (to include all cable news…sorry liberal friends, MSNBC included) are essentially wave upon wave of parrots squawking variations on a theme.
All the channels sound the same…it is the paradox of the shipwrecked; floating in a lifeboat dying of thirst, all the while surrounded by water they can’t drink. I come home from a day of teaching or consulting, turn on the TV, and scroll through 100 channels that sound alike. Cable news, cable sports, and even formerly intelligent channels covering subjects like history and science have devolved to pseudo-reality, ancient aliens, and the cheap mythology perpetuated by a nation devoid of classical education. Whether it is news, entertainment, or sports, when the yelling sounds the same regardless of the topic in consideration, one can be sure that the yelling exists of and for its own ends.
Should any of this matter? Won’t the market shake itself out, with poor programming and fact-deprived news organizations going the way of black and white cinema? Sadly, I think not. We the people lack alternatives to our major news services and our entrenched entertainment complex. Competitive markets, defined by the ready access of many consumers to many suppliers, are the ideal machines for pushing prices down and service outcomes up. But in our nation of more than 300 million potential consumers, news, sports, and entertainment are provided by fewer than three dozen organizations. Most towns with more than 5,000 households have at least three dozen firms providing lawn care…unsurprisingly, it costs very little to get your lawn mowed well in those towns.
Would that news stories and movie concepts be as blades of grass.
Typically, this is the point where The Rational Middle provides some notion by way of a solution. Blame assignment is a primary problem in our nation, and I prefer solution assignment. But candidly, I have none. The social networks are now filled with admonishments that we avoid corn, boycott major media, watch the Sundance Channel, or fight the Rothschild Conspiracy by cashing it in and moving to the boondocks. I can no longer tell the relevant and spirited from the daft and ridiculous. And I have no clue what part of the social media advice portfolio has any chance of success.
Or maybe this is just the depression of the Illinois winter talking…
The Rational Middle is listening…