Thursday, November 25, 2004

America is going through a revolution in “dumbing down.” There is scarcely an idiocy that doesn’t get public attention. Paris Hilton puts her marginal IQ on display for public delectation. Anna Nicole Smith displays her physical endowments and mental deficiency for television audiences who expect her to express incoherent commentary.

Of course idiocy is not new. Even public idiocy has always had its place, as “The Three Stooges” demonstrated. This current dumbness craze is set apart by being a regular feature of television viewing. Being dumb is a television staple.

Jay Leno invites idiots to offer statements on current events. Asked about arms control treaties, the dumb and dumber say “people should be restrained from swinging their arms in public.” Mr. Leno asked two to travel to an unknown locale. When they arrived in Seattle, they were asked to describe where they might be. Seeing the Needle from the World’s Fair, they said, “This is a place where rockets are launched.”

After told they were in Washington, the young lady wanted to know where the Capitol was. Her companion seem mystified. He maintained the state was named Washington because this is “where George cut down the apple tree.” When told Washington cut down a cherry tree, he wanted to know if it also was cut down in Washington.

There was simply no way to extricate these brainless characters from their mental fog. Every answer led to new excursions in silliness. Mercifully, these dupes had no idea they were the butt of Mr. Leno’s routine. My guess is they were probably happy to be on television. One might call it 10 minutes of infamy.

Clearly smart folks occasionally appear on “Jeopardy,” and infrequently some commentator makes an illuminating point on cable TV. But these examples are increasingly the exception.

We might well ask why this should be so. Whatever happened to the “Quiz Kids” who in my youth were widely admired? And when did dumb become chic?

As I see it, radical egalitarianism fostered the view every opinion is valid. Even suggesting some opinions are stupid is to invite a charge of being elitist, a searing condemnation. Opinions are not dumb; they are simply different. In fact, the word “dumb” has entered a condition of desuetude.

It is also true that an affluent society has room for everything, even idiocy. Mr. Leno’s useful dupes now populate university campuses mouthing cliches about freedom in Third World governments that would never countenance any disagreement.

From Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists’ arcane language of quarks to Valley Girls’ shorthand of breathless fools, there is evidence for degradation as well as elevation. America is a nation of every paradox the mind can conjure. Once, to call information in New York you dialed “uptight”; in Los Angeles you dialed “popcorn.”

However, dumb and dumber are gaining ground. One might even say dumb is chic. There were always eggheads and nerds, who were ridiculed. But at the same time, idiocy was generally not admired. Surely no one was given television time for being dumb. Some entertainers got a program for acting dumb.

Reality TV and mass entertainment excesses have converted semi-serious programming into nonsense. The more nonsensical the better. Rather than act, the actors have to be themselves. Find someone whose brain has been fried by drugs (Ozzy Osborne), put a camera and mike in his face and let him rant.

It is hard to know exactly when this trend began, but I’m confident we are now in its full efflorescence. Jay Leno has his own version of the Quiz Kids. Three contestants see who can offer the most stupid answers for simple questions. The winner, of course, is the one with the fewest correct responses.

Even the Miss America contest has gone down this path. Finalists are asked about history and current affairs. Clearly they strive to get the right answers and are disappointed when they are wrong; yet remarkably this supposedly intelligent group invariably knows very little. Is this designed to make viewers who know very little feel better about themselves?

Spoiled kids of the Paris Hilton variety who have money to burn know Versace, but not Descartes. “Oh, isn’t that a dessert?”

This rich society can live with them, I guess. Whether we prosper with them is another question. These moral vacuums spread chaos wherever they go, albeit unbeknownst to them.

Life is a bowl of cherries for Paris, but ask the folks in Altus, Ark. (where her program “The Simple Life” was taped) what they think, and the locals will tell you this airhead left a literal and figurative mess behind.

As I see it, dumb and dumber TV is leaving a mess behind as well. If the brain needs exercise to avoid atrophying, this latest television fare is on its way to producing a generation of mental paralytics. How I yearn for the days of “The Answer Man.”

Just as one needs to pass a driver’s test to get a license, I propose that people who appear on TV pass a knowledge test. I realize some will describe this as hopelessly elitist, but it sure beats mindless and stupid television programming. At least that’s one man’s opinion.

Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute, John B. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University, and publisher of American Outlook.

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