If you’re gone, baby it’s time to come home
There’s an awful lot of breathing room
But I can hardly move
—Matchbox Twenty, If You’re Gone
A couple of weeks ago I was traveling on business, and while scrolling the TV channels in my hotel room I had the misfortune of the remote getting stuck briefly on what I gather was a “reality” show featuring the Kardashians—who for my life I can’t figure out why they’re famous or what about them merits anyone’s attention. Two of them were in the kitchen, where one was preparing some sort of dish in which she was going to eat her own placenta. That is not a typo, and I didn’t even make it up. And for the record: Ew.
But more seriously, this is the sort of garbage with which people are filling their minds? And calling it “entertainment”?
It got me thinking that this is a real reflection of the root of what is so wrong with this country today. Consider that among the top rated television programs today, those that aren’t football consist of offerings like The Big Bang Theory—which centers on a bunch of adults who are still obsessed with comic books, fantasy, and video games—and Modern Family—essentially an LGBT propaganda device. Mix in juvenile remakes of The Odd Couple (Two and a Half Men) and Laverne & Shirley (Two Broke Girls), a half-dozen or so iterations of “talent” shows featuring performers of wildly varying degrees of actual ability, and a few versions of mindless and over-sexed “reality” de-selection shows like Survivor and The Bachelor, and you’ve got the bulk of today’s primetime bill of fare.
I lost 25 IQ points just typing that last paragraph.
It says a great deal when a current ad for the new Playstation 4 video game system features not adolescents, but unkempt twenty-somethings sitting in the wasteland of what had been their video game battleground, eating Taco Bell and taunting their friends for not having bought their new systems in time to arrive before the battle was over. In other words, instead of pitching their latest toy by showing children in their living room playing a game, Sony features ostensible adults living in a fantasy land (a fantasy land, by the way, in which no one ever suffers any consequences, and even if you die you just go back to the last place you started). And they do this for good reason: that’s who their market is.
The problem is, these people who spend their adult time watching the Kardashian sisters and playing video games also vote. And one fears that a growing portion of the voting age population knows more about World of Warcraft than about the Constitution. Unfortunately, there is evidence to support that fear.
Last year, U.S. News reported on an Xavier University study that showed over a third of American citizens failed the civics portion of the immigrant naturalization test (97% of immigrant citizenship applicants pass). Among the lowlights:
- 85% could not define “the rule of law”
- 75% did not know the function of the judicial branch
- 71% could not identify the Constitution as “the supreme law of the land”
- 63% could not name even one of their State’s Senators
- 62% could not identify the Speaker of the House
- 62% could not identify their State’s Governor
- 57% could not define “amendment”
And the Xavier study isn’t an aberration. In a 2008 survey by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute—repeating their results from two previous studies—71% of Americans failed a basic multiple choice test of American history, civics, and economics; the average score was a 49 (I scored a 94, for those who are wondering). Those with a college education fared no better than those without. Again in summary:
- Less than half could name the three branches of government
- Only 21% knew that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
- Only 53% knew that the power to declare war resides with Congress; 40% thought it belonged to the President
- 27% knew that the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits the establishment of an official national religion
- Less than 20% knew that the phrase “a wall of separation” between church and state comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson; almost half believe—incorrectly—that it can be found in the Constitution.
More and more, the people of this country know less and less about where America came from, the idea of self-governance upon which it was originally based, or the rules framework under which it was supposed to operate. They don’t know what their rights are, what the source of those rights is, or what mechanisms the Founders established to protect them.
But they damn sure know who’s in the finals of American Idol. They know the rules of Survivor. They can identify Miley Cyrus’ tongue (or whatever body part she’s most recently put on display). They know how many days Lindsay Lohan spent in jail and rehab last month.
Look, I understand that the whole population can’t be made up of Rhodes Scholars. But you can’t expect a democratic republic to function when so many in the voting base that directs it have so little grasp of—or even know they have a personal stake in—how it works. When people know (and care) more about who is sleeping with whom in Hollywood than they do about, say, Solyndra or Benghazi, they can’t possibly make informed decisions in the voting booth; that is particularly true when they also have no concept of the fact that of those three, two actually affect them and one does not.
But that’s where we are now. People get more of their information about the world from their Twitter feed and vulgar comedians than they do from actual news sources (in fairness, that’s in part because there are virtually no real news sources left). That’s why you have a President who spends more time acting hip and cool on Comedy Central, The View, and Letterman than he does answering substantive questions at press conferences, and yet still manages to get re-elected despite his objective record of abject failure.
As a sovereign people, we have abdicated the throne in favor of the boob tube. The sad truth is too many of us have become too lazy to inform ourselves about what’s going on around us, especially with respect to what people in the District—people who are supposed to work for us, not rule over us—are actually doing. And too many of us have become too soft or too fearful to engage in the critical thinking necessary for self-governance. We’re much more interested in bathroom humor and sophomoric sexual innuendoes than in understanding our basic freedoms. We prefer to experience the repeated death of a fantasy character in a fantasy world over learning about real world current events that affect our real lives.
Apparently some of us will even watch an overweight moron devour her own afterbirth rather than pick up a copy of the Constitution.
Speaking in a slightly different context, future President Ronald Reagan warned us in 1961:
“[I]f we lose that war, and in so doing lose this way of freedom of ours, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening. Well, I think it’s time we ask ourselves if we still know the freedoms that were intended for us by the Founding Fathers . . . If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth . . . We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”
I fear we may be at that point, dragged into the abyss by the albatross of stupidity and willful ignorance hanging about our collective neck.