- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2000

Celebrating ignorance

"The celebration of ignorance that characterizes America today can be seen in the enormous success of a film like 'Forrest Gump,' in which a good-natured idiot is made into a hero; or in the immensely popular TV sitcom 'Cheers,' in which intellectual interest of any sort is portrayed as phony and pretentious, whereas outright stupidity is equated with that which is warm-hearted and authentic. If my colleague at Midwest U now has a student who never read a novel, how long before he has a student who asks him, 'What's a novel?' … If the students don't recognize Browning now, how long before they have never heard of Shakespeare? How long before the New York Times and The Washington Post fold for lack of subscribers, or until the English language becomes as inaccessible to the majority of Americans as Chaucer's Middle English is to them now? How long before intellectual excitement is regarded as a historical phenomenon, or a bizarre frame of mind, or just not regarded? …
"[Author] John Simon notes that a whole world of learning is disappearing before our eyes, in merely one generation. We cannot expect, he says, to make a mythological allusion anymore, or use a foreign phrase, or refer to a famous historical event or literary character, and still be understood by more than a tiny handful of people."
Morris Berman, from his new book, "The Twilight of American Culture"

Sexual surfeit

"In a culture saturated with sexual messages, where consenting adults seem to hop into bed at the bat of a feathery eyelash, a small minority are willingly dropping out of the game.
"Calling themselves 'born-again virgins,' they embrace abstinence not so much on moral or religious grounds, but to cleanse themselves and reassert self-control… .
"There has been a recent outpouring of books, manuals and screeds advocating celibacy… .
"The most scholarly offering is 'A History of Celibacy' … by Elizabeth Abbott, the dean of women at Trinity College at the University of Toronto. 'Thanks in part to AIDS,' she writes, 'and much more to the stultifying surfeit of mindless sex, celibacy has emerged from clandestineness and has crossed back into the mainstream.' …
"Amy Spencer, a senior editor at Glamour magazine … scoffs at the notion of celibacy. 'It's not the sex that's bad, but the emotional baggage these women have accumulated,' she said."
Ruth La Ferla, writing on "The Once and Future Virgins," in Sunday's New York Times

Media disasters

"[By the end of the 20th century] journalism, which not everybody called a profession, did not escape the common revulsion. The press had abandoned the ideal of impartiality; every newsman editorialized and colored the truth, while also responding to the supposed demotic need that news be 'human.'
"Instead of the former 'lead' summarizing the facts, a novel-like opening described the scene, then quoted the predictable comments of a person chosen at random to typify the situation. Often, a string of experts also expressed an opinion before important points were disclosed. It was a suspense story. A new professional, the 'investigative reporter,' invaded privacy, abetted the theft of confidential documents and claimed immunity for 'the public's right to know.'
"It was not unusual for someone to learn of his promotion or dismissal by reading the paper a week ahead of the official announcement. To public figures, the reporter was the dog of uncertain temper, pacified by fresh news. As for broadcast news, it was meager, repetitious and limited to what could be photographed; natural and other disasters were its best raison d'etre."
Jacques Barzun, from his new book, "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life."

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