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09 April 2009 @ 08:39 pm
Diary of a Mad English Teacher  

I've decided to give this Live Journal page a new sub-title (see subject line above), at least for now. It's a completely accurate and transparent description of one of my favorite activities (writing a journal/keeping a diary -- or as one of my students called such records just today, a dairy), my daily profession, and a state of mind I often inhabit as I exercise it.

I first noticed myself going slightly mad few weeks ago as I was reading a student's essay while riding the bus to the park-and-ride. The essay was written in response to an editorial by George F. Will on reality TV shows.  Will's essay squarely lambasts reality TV programming, and rather than striving to bang a nicely-crafted paraphrase out of my mad, tired brain, I'll just cut paste this deliciously vicious piece of journalism into this entry space:

George Will

  George Will
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Pathetic Americans and the morons who watch them

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- FRED ALLEN, a mordantly sophisticated radio performer, died (mercifully, if not causally) just as television was permeating America, in 1956. He warned us: "Imitation is the sincerest form of television.'' So there will be imitations of "Fear Factor.'' That NBC program, in its first episode last week, attracted nearly 12 million voyeurs to watch simpletons confront their fears, for a fee. In that episode, confronters were covered by a swarm of biting rats. This week the program featured a willingness to eat worms and sit in a tub of them.

"Fear Factor'' is an imitation of an MTV program, "Jackass,'' named, perhaps, for its target viewer. But American television is being imitative. ABC's "Nightline'' reports that French, Spanish and Japanese television have similar programming, although none has--yet--matched the Peruvian show that pays poor people to eat maggots and be splattered with frog excrement.

Last spring NBC concocted XFL football, promising more violence on the field and more cheerleaders' breasts on the sidelines than the NFL provides. The league drew a big audience for the first telecast, but the ratings began to plunge by the third quarter, and the league died after one season.

Optimists concluded that NBC had underestimated the viewing public. The optimists were, as usual, wrong. NBC understood that it had underestimated only the perversity required to rivet the attention of millions in an era when graphic violence and sexual puerilities are quotidian television. So NBC sank to the challenge of thinking lower. But it had better not rest on its laurels because its competitors in the race to the bottom will not rest, and the bottom is not yet in sight.

The possible permutations of perversity programming--the proper name for what is called, oxymoronically, "reality television''--are as limitless as, apparently, is the supply of despicably greedy or spectacularly stupid people willing to degrade themselves for money. (A philosophical puzzle:< I>Can such people be degraded?) But perhaps the monetary incentive is superfluous, given today's endemic exhibitionism that makes many people feel unrecognized, unauthenticated--or something--unless they are presented, graphically, to an audience. Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilized society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of "choice,'' adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments and the kinds of entertainments they are absorbed in--video games, computer games, hand-held games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity.

An optimistic premise of our society, in which "choice'' is the ideal that trumps all others, is that competition improves things, burning away the dross and leaving the gold. This often works with commodities like cars but not with mass culture. There competition corrupts. America, determined to amuse itself into inanition, is becoming increasingly desensitized. So entertainment seeking a mass audience is ratcheting up the violence, sexuality and degradation, becoming increasingly coarse and trying to be--its largest challenge--shocking in an unshockable society.

The primitive cosmopolitans among us invariably say: Relax. Chaucer's Wife of Bath, the Impressionists and James Joyce's "Ulysses'' have been considered scandalous. As the Supreme Court has said, "One man's vulgarity is another man's lyric.''

All right, then: One man's bearbaiting is another's opera. That British pastime involved pitting a chained bear against a pack of dogs, who fought, and usually killed, the bear. The historian Macaulay famously said that the Puritans opposed bearbaiting not because it gave pain to the bears but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. The Puritans were right: Some pleasures are contemptible because they are coarsening. They are not merely private vices, they have public consequences in driving the culture's downward spiral.

A mass audience is its own justification to purveyors of perversity television, who say: We are only supplying a market. As though there was a strong spontaneous demand for televised degradation. The argument that the existence of customers justifies the product distinguishes the purveyors of "Fear Factor'' not at all from heroin pushers, who are not the purveyors' moral inferiors.

How will a "pro-choice'' society object to a program--let's call it "Who Really Wants to be a Millionaire?''--on which consenting contestants will be offered $1 million to play Russian roulette with a revolver loaded with a real bullet? Imagine the audience for the chance to see violent death in living color in prime time in the comfort of one's living room. That's entertainment.

I find this to be a terrifically funny and spot-on indictment of the truly mindless material that fills
TV screens across America (and world-wide, apparently). I won't start on my extreme confusion
at how enamored so many people seem to be of American television, reality shows or any other
varietyof it. I don't understand it at all, but life is full of things I don't understand.

Back to my English teacher madness. A completely sincere and hard-working student wrote a
responseto this essay in which she expressed her deep agreement with Will, emphasizing her
position by referringto the "besotted programs" appearing in American living rooms on an unthinkably
regular basis.There am I, riding on a bus at 9:30 p.m., and when my eyes alight on these two words --
besotted programs -- I am overtaken by what the French "un fou rire." I feel an intense, irresistible urge
to to explode in laughter. It's convulsive and it overtakes me in such a way that people looking at me
might think I was sobbing  (and maybe in some corner of my mind, I was).

What is it about juxtaposing word concepts in certain weird ways that sets humor-sensing circuitry
in my brain ablaze? I found a web page of posts debating the nuances of the word
which I found interesting in the sense that other people find the word rich enough to discuss at
some length, but a simple dictionary definition of besot seemed to deliver a clearer indication of
what hit my funny bone.


To muddle or stupefy, as with alcoholic liquor or infatuation.

[be- + sot, to stupefy (from sot, fool; see sot) or from assot, to befool (from Old French assoter, from sot, foolish).]

The student's wording brought to mind TV programs that were themselves -- as grotesquely
personified entities -- muddled and stupified; bizarre, living mirrors of the people watching them.

There were other bits of wording that preceded and followed the besotted episode that set me up
for the laughter meltdown and then perpetuated it. Maybe I'll be able to share more when I have the
writing in front of my eyes.

Finally, the word besot calls out to my French brain. I have always found sot to be a very funny
French word.I particularly love it in this famous quote:

Citation : Le sot projet qu'il [Montaigne] a de se peindre !, PASC. , Pens. VI, 33

That was the French philosopher Blaise Pascal sucking his teeth at Michel de Montaigne, the
originatorof the essay form of writing. Way back there in the 16th century, Montaigne had the
complete audacity to write little personal reflection pieces about himself which completely
disgusted Pascal and occasionedthe criticism quoted above: The idiotic project he's undertaken
to describe himself!

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Current Mood: mad
kragen on April 10th, 2009 06:12 am (UTC)
You might want to put Will's column in a <blockquote> or something; on my friends page, it looks disturbingly similar to your own text.

There are numerous details to attack in Will's piece; "Fear Factor" had contestants eating maggots years ago, for example, and I'm sure that at some time or another its contestants have been sprayed with the feces of some kind of animal — and is that really what Will thinks constitutes human degradation? I used to think of him as an intelligent man, but this idea that choice of cuisine, or pickiness in eating, represents some kind of virtue puts the lie to that. To me a person who has the courage to confront and overcome their arbitrary cultural conditioning is to be honored, not treated with contempt. Perhaps he thinks the French are "degraded" because they eat frogs and snails, too. I'd hate to be his plumber.

Leaving aside the details, the overall trend of progressively increasing degradation Will purports to identify simply does not exist, and his evidence for it is not so much wrong as incoherent. His example of bear-baiting (outlawed generations ago) begins to illustrate the problem, and to it we might add hunting, sex with farm animals, marital rape, and lynching, all depraved pastimes that have declined considerably in recent decades; but mere anecdotes about frequencies fail to prove the case one way or the other.

To do that, we'd need a comparison that's a little more apples-to-apples. For example, if we had two versions of a particular TV program, one of which focused on, say, sexual objectification and violence, while the other focused more on other aspects of the subject matter. For example, if there were one football league with better players, and another with more boobies and violence. Will's reasoning predicts that the second would immediately overtake the first in popularity.

Fortunately, Will's column provides us with such an example — the XFL vs. NFL competition is exactly the kind of natural experiment we'd need to see if there's anything to Will's thesis. Somehow he fails to note that it demolishes it, proceeding merrily on his oblivious way, repeatedly declaring his moral superiority over the population at large on the flimsiest of premises. (How, exactly, does it make him morally superior to me if he watches a movie in a theater and I watch it on my laptop? Is it a virtue somehow to be spendthrift and passive? Or perhaps he doesn't watch movies at all, thinking it morally superior to write incoherent rants about the immorality of the public, while puerilely fantasizing about the levels such depravity could possibly reach.)

I'm disappointed to see you propagating such self-righteous venom.