On a video that made the Reddit rounds in early January, geek icon and The Next Generation starchild Wil Wheaton threw a rant about the depressing state of culture. “Why do I try so hard to add value to the world when I could just be a dumb, worthless piece of shit and a multi-millionaire?” he asked. And to secure this quip viral status, he added, “The Kardashians are more depressing to me than Hitler.” The expected “whoa now” from the audience mixed with patched applause.
Now he makes a just point through an extreme analogy. Pulling the Nazi card, even through comedy, is not offensive but low. You know, we have heard it enough; it is no more than a capsuled, low-hanging platitude sputtering the most elementary notion of evil. It is not in bad taste, just laziness.
I defend his statement, however, because Kim and the whole Kardashian family do not deserve any better. They do not deserve the comparisons to Stalin, Ivan the Terrible or our current murderous scumbag in Syria, al-Assad. They do not deserve any minute interpretation or thought. They do not even deserve the current 81.2 megabytes of RAM Microsoft Word harnesses to type these words. But, for only a few more hundred words, I will deign to reiterate what the informed reader already knows and what the mass consumer will not find out. I will, if I can paraphrase the recently emancipated Kris Humphries, “hit it and quit it.”
Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Jersey Shore and similar company slide quite smoothly down America’s present gullet. Social networks have continued gossip through other means, glorifying the everyday minutiae of your friends and half-friends. In particular, Facebook has both inflated noxious egos and crushed weak ones, granting idiocy and hate a “like” button. People are stupid — something we have known forever — but now everyone has their own online vuvuzela at hand to swell the louder cacophony. We are turning into increasingly narcissistic, insular lizard brains.
So, if all that is true, it should be no surprise ogling brainless, buxom bods is on the rise. There has always been a specific industry for this purpose, but now these cable programs, slightly less explicit yet equally vapid, rule ratings and talk. Setting role models in the cast of these reality shows is a very real reality itself, as kids look up to those they see on the magical television. By the sociological bell curve, the masses may not boast high intelligence, but since when has the opposite slope been so broadly championed?
Saying all of this, the state of intellect remains strong. Online tools do stimulate thoughtful debate for the libertarians, socialists and activists of all causes who have built their own digitized podiums. Those who cherish knowledge (and easy grades) thank Wikipedia. The inexpensive costs to create art — like music, graphic design, film and games — encourage risks while online distribution methods reach millions. These are user-created hubs of communication and exchange, in new forms unrecognizable from the media of the past.
As awesome as these modern strides have been, they emphasize how primeval the rest of media remains. Film distributors play it safe with the featured rom-com of the week yet forgo the shocking, smaller pictures piquing interest in just as many, if not more. (Ithaca’s Cinemapolis and Cornell Cinema are noted exceptions.) The brooding, contentious Melancholia surprised its producers when its early Video on Demand premiere reeled in more dough than any other new release. People want great films, but the money in Hollywood now rules with the cliché checkbook. Consider how The Godfather and 2001: A Space Odyssey broke box office records for their time.
Those serious about music no longer look to the Billboard charts for quality. Our aforementioned love of dirt scrutinizes the talented anomalies that are there like Adele and Amy Winehouse — quite literally — to death. The Best New Music hums underground, distinct from the mass market.
Which is where we find the root of the problem. An ugly trend of normalization has stripped craft from the masses. Those who know better look elsewhere while the rest just soak in what is left. Passive faces do not question whom the television tells them to hate, dress like or vote for. Misanthropy tells me not to concern myself with these people, but we have reached the point where I must engage. We are at the nascent decline of culture, a word synonymous with civilization, or at least any civilization worth living in.
I offer no panacea to the issues we face. People have already taken notice, as seen from the globe-spanning Occupy protests to the far more innocuous Amazon.com rage over the recycled trite of Modern Warfare 3. “Change!” we scream. Maybe your own life needs a little bit of it. A recent study linked Jersey Shore watching to acquired stupidity. As much as you are what you eat, you are what you watch.
In the 1976 classic film Network, “mad as hell” news anchor Howard Beale shouts to the camera, “I am a HUMAN BEING goddammit! My life has value!” So does everything around you, to varying amounts.