Tag Archives: P.T. Barnum

Such Entertaining Cranks They Be

“America’s always been a great place to be crazy. It just used to be harder to make a living that way.”
Charles P. Pierce, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

I am NOT amused.  I am sad. I daresay I am afraid.

I’m not afraid of ISIS, not particularly anyway.  I’m not afraid of global warming (well, I am, but not in a gut-wrenching way…yet). I’m not afraid to drive my car, even though my odds of being in an accident each time I drive is about 1 in 16, according to this film by The Science Channel.

What I’m really afraid of are the cranks that abound in this country, and the fact that it’s quite possible that one of those cranks may — heaven help us! — someday be elected President of our great nation.

The main premises of the book “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free” are:

  • Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
  • Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
  • Anything can be true if someone says it loud enough.

These points are taken from this review of “Idiot America.”

The book also introduces the concept of “cranks” in America’s history; and I can recognize a lot of them on the GOP side of the aisle. But the crank that scares me the most is The Donald.  There is a fair chance (as of this writing) that he will win the nomination at the  Republican National Convention.  And, depending on who the Democrats send from their convention to run against him…?  Things appear to be up for grabs when a Commander in Chief is elected.

“Together, this new ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world – a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.” — p. 77, Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

I also can’t help but think of the entertainment value of all these cranks. They are water cooler fodder, just as the TV show Lost and the trial of O.J. Simpson were in their day. In the 60’s and 70’s, Americans used to watch the same news on TV; we all participated in the same reality.  Today, we get our news elsewhere (cable news channels, on the Internet, or other sources)n and so we  have individual realities now.  And it’s packaged as entertainment, or maybe info-tainment.

The election cycle in the U.S. is a protracted affair, with daily polls, occasional “debates” among the candidates, and coverage of candidates’ speeches.  (As an aside, does anyone remember when audiences were silent during debates? Moderators asked them to refrain from applause until after the proceedings concluded.  Those attending complied.  Not now.  Now it’s more like a pep rally than a debate.  And we all know that a pep rally is more entertaining than a debate, right?)

A book I read several years ago, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” (quoted above) by the brilliant Neil Postman, has really changed the way I look at our culture and the way we are presented with and consume information. The book, published in 1985, is a timeless work.  Read it and you’ll be changed forever (I know I was).  It will be impossible NOT to see nearly everything as having the quality of entertainment. 

Even the nightly news: let’s stand up, let’s hold our copy, let’s have more and more “fluff” pieces in that precious half-hour.  Why is that? Because people won’t stick around for straight news.  They want to be entertained. 

But, getting back to the cranks.  America is entertained by these cranks; can’t you see it?  And if America elects one of these cranks to the Presidency, well, as an original crank from way, way back once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

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