The Wasteland

Robert Pirsig has authored two great novels: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila. The narrative substance of either book is considerable and I would recommend them to anyone who likes to think.  But I mean only now to point out the subtitle of each. Zen was “an inquiry into values,”  Lila “an inquiry into morals”. Along the way, Pirsig discusses the concept of quality, as in how we sense one thing having more of it than others, and how it is virtually impossible to explain how various perceptions of quality of a particular entity/idea can be radically different from person to person. He asks, essentially, what is quality and how does one describe its features?

I preface this blog entry with a tip of the virtual hat to Robert Pirsig’s iconic literary efforts as an entrée into the rather bewildering, if not disturbing, state of our current political and pop culture landscapes. At the top of what I consider to be a hybrid trash heap are Donald Trump and the mainstream news’ obsession with his cartoonish, hot air machine pronouncements, and in pop culture the continued mass appeal of reality TV (from whence came candidate Trump!), trash TV, (think Maury Povich) the myriad variations on Judge Judy, endless CSI spin-offs and similar sappy police dramas, the usual assortment of canned-laughter-infested sit-coms,  vapid late-night, can-you-top-this? shows hosted by “Jimmy” this or that, and now even Steven Colbert, bailing on his clever, creative cable show to sell-out for stodgy, cookie-cutter, network programming. Quality, anyone? What am I missing here?

Social media?  Have you had your Facebook fix today?

Old school, TV. The “vast wasteland,” as asserted fifty years ago (!) by Newton Minow, then head of the FCC, remains ever-more-vast and still mostly a massive waste of time. You know, “900 channels and nothing to watch!”.  In this 21st century, however, TV is but one fragment of media’s myriad outlets. Finding this seemingly undefinable “quality” amidst our digital options for content is, in my opinion, quite the challenge. There are guilty pleasures, sure, and I have mine from time to time, but most of what my eyes and ears encounter or have learned of, emanating out of every device from giant I-Max screens to surround sound 65″ plasma TVs to iPads, laptops, watches, Google glasses and of course ever-smarter smart phones, providing endless content, compels me to ponder: how much more constant empty calorie consumption can the public ingest before digital diabetes and computer-coded coronary artery disease sets in?

Currently, there appears to be a glut of Trump spewing forth on our gizmos. Obviously, a lot of people apparently must value Donald Trump’s bluster as he chides women and vilifies people from south of the border, to name but two of his headline-grabbers. But he’s an “outsider” as the media spin proclaims, and people are sick of beltway insiders. So I guess that matters most and he’s allowed to get away with denigrating others while offering no substantive ideas on how he’ll realistically solve any problems facing the U.S.  His poll numbers are high enough that many of the consumer public must like his renegade brand of political sausage, regardless of the toxic ingredients contained in it. So, he has quality?

These days, anything is possible as far as media content goes, be it “entertainment” or “news” which has morphed pretty much into infotainment. What I sense is the cultural bar has been lowered dramatically over time, regarding the content being transmitted and waiting to be received by one device or another. Over at least the 50 years since Mr.Minow uttered his pejorative proclamation of television being a vast wasteland, that bar certainly hasn’t been raised!

So, besides 24/7 Trump-vision what’s up? Who’s this Sanders guy? Bernie, right? Hmmm. I think he’s running for President too, but he must never, EVER have much interesting to say. Besides, he’s an insider, a sitting U.S. Senator. I think he’s for the working slob. Dreamer! Trump is the real deal. He’s the oft bankrupt-filing real estate mogul who inherited $200 million as kick-starter funds, AND he had that reality TV show! What did he say today?! Paging CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR,  and newspaper coverage and their commentators. Trump said what? STOP THE PRESSES!

Hillary? Clinton, right? Isn’t she the one who has an email issue? Sure. Must be. That’s all I hear about her presidential aspirations. No, actually what I keep hearing about Hillary also has to do with that Sanders guy. The media do notice Bernie, but only insofar as he is getting decent poll numbers and thus the cameras and mics immediately are turned to Hillary, so she can explain this “problem”. Oh, right. Must be those emails. Or Benghazi. Or are those two “problems” one and the same? I have no idea what Hillary’s actual campaign proposals are. She must not have any…

Whatever, eh? Enjoy the steady stream of mass media content, delivering pop and  political cultural encased sausage. Be happy! Consume! Watch, listen and enjoy the latest Trump-isms, and those compelling dramas and sit-coms, as the world churns. You might feel woozy and bloated when you de-couch, but you likely won’t stumble over our cultural bar, the one that has been lowered so much that by now that it’s flush with the floor. The wasteland is as flat as Kansas and about as scenic.

Time to check those Twitter feeds…

About jharrin4

mass communication/speech instructor at College of DuPage and Triton College in suburban Chicago. Army veteran of the Viet Nam era.
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1 Response to The Wasteland

  1. catt23 says:

    A cogent analysis of how we have reached our dire state of affairs as a nation. Where are we headed? Would that we could reach a crisis point that would awaken the American people to the price they are paying for choosing to be ill-informed and easily misled by a leadership that is in denial about matters of fact and science, such as climate change. Unfortunately, it appears that this crisis, decades in the making, has a different trajectory. It seems most likely that the American public will simply continue to enter a deeper slumber under the soporific effect of infotainment masquerading as news, and will fail to recognize the one way ticket to irrelevance and self destruction that they have thoughtlessly purchased.


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