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Print view: So dumb! As we prepare for a painful new focus, we retell a sorry old tale
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NEW FOCUS! So dumb! As we prepare for a painful new focus, we retell a sorry old tale: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JANUARY 4, 2011

Let’s take a look at the record: Facts play almost no role in our culture. For one minor seasonal example, ask yourselves this, sports fans:

How has the Southeastern Conference actually fared, in the past decade, against the other major conferences? If you’re a college football fan, you’ve constantly heard familiar claims about the circuit’s superior status. But how have SEC teams actually fared, on the field, in actual games against Big Ten teams? Against teams from the mighty Pac-10?

Since facts play almost no role in our culture, we’ll guess that you’ve never seen such data. Next Monday, as we prep for this year’s title game, we’ll hand out some actual facts.

Computer ratings aren’t magic, of course: This year, before the bowl games began, Jeff Sagarin’s USA Today computer ranked the SEC second-best. Click here to see his ratings, as of December 12. Note how far down the Big Ten was. Such ratings aren’t magic, of course—and no, they aren’t quite “objective.”

Special report: New focus!

PART 1—SAME OLD STORY (permalink): As a people, are we Americans smart enough to run a modern democracy?

In one major sector, the answer is no—has been no for a very long time. For many years, mainstream press culture has run on The Dumb. Just consider one way the New York Times chose to kick off the new year.

Dan Barry’s piece ran above the fold on the famous paper’s front page—in the January 1 edition. The sheer inanity of the piece was presaged in the headline:

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE: Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65

Say what? It’s true—that headline makes no obvious sense, except for the way it conveys a tired, inane old stereotype. But as Barry’s report began, any doubt about its dumbness was quickly swept away:

BARRY (1/1/11): In keeping with a generation’s fascination with itself, the time has come to note the passing of another milestone: On New Year’s Day, the oldest members of the Baby Boom Generation will turn 65, the age once linked to retirement, early bird specials and gray Velcro shoes that go with everything.

Though other generations, from the Greatest to the Millennial, may mutter that it’s time to get over yourselves, this birthday actually matters. According to the Pew Research Center, for the next 19 years, about 10,000 people “will cross that threshold” every day—and many of them, whether through exercise or Botox, have no intention of ceding to others what they consider rightfully theirs: youth.

This means that the 79 million baby boomers, about 26 percent of this country’s population, will be redefining what it means to be older, and placing greater demands on the social safety net. They are living longer, working longer and, researchers say, nursing some disappointment about how their lives have turned out. The self-aware, or self-absorbed, feel less self-fulfilled, and thus are racked with self-pity.

Intriguing! According to Barry, 79 million baby boomers are “nursing some disappointment about how their lives have turned out.”

Only the dumbest of the very dumb bunnies write “news reports” of this type—“news reports” which turn on silly clichés about tens of millions of people. And this piece did appear as a news report; there was nothing to indicate that it was meant as “commentary” or (good God!) as some sort of “analysis.”

Let’s be fair! Before long, Barry was offering disclaimers about his own foolish method. He noted that “no one person can represent all 79 million members of a generation;” he quoted an expert who “warns against generalizing about baby boomers, especially when it concerns politics.” Barry even noted, in passing, that members of this generation held different views, right from the start, about a wide range of affairs, including the civil rights movement and the cultural changes associated with the 1960s. (Barry has heard that “the hippie contingent of boomers” was somewhat unlike “the Young Americans for Freedom contingent.”) But Barry’s entire “news report” was built on tired old generalizations. Here’s what happened when his “expert,” book-writer Stephen M. Gillon, cleared his throat and spoke:

BARRY: Previous generations were raised to speak only when spoken to, and to endure in self-denying silence. But baby boomers were raised on the more nurturing, child-as-individual teachings of Dr. Benjamin Spock, and then placed under the spell of television, whose advertisers marketed their wares directly to children. Parents were cut out of the sale—except, of course, for the actual purchase of that coonskin cap or Barbie doll.

“It created a sense of entitlement that had not existed before,” Mr. Gillon said. “We became more concerned with our own emotional well-being, whereas to older generations that was considered soft and fluffy.”

In a nation of 300 million souls, there’s always some “expert” out there somewhere tossing off various fatuous comments. Unfortunately, these comments often appear on the front page of our most famous paper, advanced by the unimpressive crowd comprising our mainstream press corps.

Good God, this piece is foolish! Barry ends up profiling Buffalo’s Aloysius Nachreiner on the day he turned 65; allegedly, Nachreiner was the very first of the 79 million boomers. How foolish was Barry’s piece, which turned on the notion of massive self-involvement? Nachreiner, a blue collar worker who is still working, seems like the least self-involved person on Earth. By way of contrast, Barry published Pull Me Up: A Memoir, in 2004, when he was just 46. If you want to bore yourself to tears with excerpts from this compilation of self-involved pap, just look it up at Amazon, where you can “search inside.” Groan! According to Publisher’s Weekly, here’s part of what you’ll find:

PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY (2004): Barry takes readers back to what he calls the Eisenhower years, when gas stations handed out "plaid stamps," women's perms had a distinct "chemical whiff" and delis made potato salad loaded with bacon. He lovingly details seasoning his baseball mitt, oiling, binding and hiding it under his mattress. He relives his Catholic school upbringing, complete with hazing from upperclassmen and pedophilic assaults from Brother Noel, but also those wonderful teachers who helped him realize his calling as a writer.

Six years ago, you had to seek out Barry’s self-involved piffle at a bookstore. On January 1, the Times put the thoughts of this fatuous fellow above the fold on its front page.

Can we talk? Barry’s New Year’s Day news report was really just stunningly dumb. But by whatever turn of the screw, the mainstream press has long since become, on balance, a fatuous pseudo-elite—a small, pampered, very dumb mafia. Overpaid, underwhelming and inter-married, they routinely clutter the national discourse with the type of silly piffle which drove Barry’s “report.” Just check the clownish compendia littering the Times as the old year folded:

Check this fatuous piece from December 30: “The 110 Things New Yorkers Talked About in 2010.” (Number 2 thing they supposedly talked about: “Peewee Herman’s comeback.”)

Check Gail Collins’ fatuous “End-of-the-Year Quiz,” with which she killed her December 31 column. (Inevitably, topics included Bristol Palin, Sarah Palin and Barbara Boxer’s hair.)

An equally silly end-of-year piece appeared on December 29. Mercifully, we can’t find it on-line.

Alas! Your upper-end press corps has floundered this way for a good long while now. Modern nations really can’t function this way. Modern nations can’t run on The Dumb.

We’ve detailed this problem since ’98. This year, let’s adopt a new focus.

Tomorrow—part 2: Iris DeMent to Digby