Sunday, April 16, 2006

Think outside the egg!

Did an interesting West Coast talk show last night, Opportunity Knocks with Tom Stern. It was my first SHAM-related appearance in a while, and though I felt a tad rusty--long-winded and elliptical when I should've been pithy and direct--evidently I gave a good enough account of myself and my gripe with self-help: At the end of it all, Stern, who's been doing Opportunity Knocks for a year now, told me I was the most articulate guest they'd had yet. I mention that less for the pure joy of tooting my horn than for what it says about the dearth of intelligent comment in American media, and how low the bar is set, overall.*

I wrote SHAM for two reasons. One, writing is how I make money--or how I try, in any case. But really, I wanted to spur debate on something that wasn't, at the time, generating much of it. Amid the unrelenting Dr. Phil-mania that had seized hold of America when I began the book, I wanted people to think a bit more about this flourishing $10 billion industry that has gone for so long unexamined, and the role it plays in our culture (a largely subversive one, I would argue). I wanted people to think about the concepts that we take as givens, i.e. assuming with little or no evidentiary back-up that they're good for us (e.g. self-esteem, confidence, personal empowerment and the like). No one was talking about these things before. Which is not so surprising, alas, because no one really examines the givens in any area of society anymore--a fact that was underscored, in another one of those small ways, by the response to my recent, contrarian piece on Barry Bonds. A fair number of readers who got in touch with me seemed to feel it was such a "revolutionary" take on the matter, when in truth it's something that should've occurred to just about any thinking sports fan on his own, were we not so intellectually constipated and set in our ways. I ask myself: How come they're not debating this perspective on the Bonds/steroids controversy on ESPN? How come nobody even seems to see the existence of an "other side"?

Thirty or so years after the emergence of the now-cliched exhortation to "think outside the box," we still spend so much time with our minds taped inside it.

The level of discourse is pretty bad out there, folks. And it isn't getting better. Not when a lightweight like Katie Couric ascends to the same evening news anchor desk once commanded by Walter Cronkite and, before him, Edward R. Murrow. Not when millions of women turn to the insipid Oprah Winfrey to set the conversational agenda in their daily lives. Not when an erstwhile bona fide journalist like Diane Sawyer spends a week touting her "exclusive!" PrimeTime interview with Tom Cruise, then devotes much of the show to going all jiggly over his relationship with another cutesy Katie (Holmes), at one point pretending to a nauseating degree of fascination as Tom rhapsodized about his love of the way Katie's little tongue pokes through her teeth when she smiles. (God help us, I hope Sawyer was pretending.) And not when a blustering, buffoonish bully like Sean Hannity can hail himself, and be hailed, as a paragon of clear thinking and sociopolitical insight. Understand, I'm not attacking conservatism per se; if you've read much of my other work, you'll know that when I venture into politics, I tend to err on the right. I'm simply asserting here that of all the demigods in right-wing radio, Hannity may be the least entitled to the platform he enjoys. And probably has the most damaging effect on actual, productive debate. (Yes, he's even worse than Michael Savage. Savage, for all his eponymous insensitivity and surface vitriol, is a pretty bright guy who asks good questions now and then.)

We need to do better than this. That's my Easter wish for us as a nation: a critical-thinking renewal along the lines of the spiritual renewal that this day is meant to symbolize.

* And let me be very clear, that is not intended as an implied swipe at Stern and his show. He seems like a literate guy, and his sense of humor is sharp and layered with meaning. I'm just saying, radio hosts have come to expect so little from guests nowadays that if you do their show and halfway make sense, without excessive drooling, they treat you as some kind of oracle.


Anonymous said...

Steve I heard the show and thought you were interesting and funny tho I have to agree with Tom and take issue with you a little bit re AA. I know many people who have been helped by AA and probably wouldn't be alive without it. I know what you said about their statistics being bogus, but what worries me is that with your extreme cynicism you turn people off to AA who should be seeking some kind of help, any kind of help, to get them through this terrible affliction of theirs. Having said that again I think you did a fine job, and I have ordered SHAM.
Richard Henneman, Bend OR

renee said...

Thank you for putting into words what I've been feeling for years regarding literate discussion and the public airwaves. I have no doubt you were the most articulate guest Tom Stern has had in forever. Everyone - or nearly everyone - I hear on talk shows or listen to during interviews does nothing but spout rehearsed medocrity and pretend it's real conversation.
You sit there and you think: why? Why have they achived this level of power or notoriety or "stardom" when they are, mmmm, this stupid?
The bar has been set at below sea level.