As we start a new week and also reach the end of September, there are things to contemplate. There always are, of course, but sometimes things stand out. Obviously this varies, but part of what gets my attention often these days is wondering about and sorting out what gets attention from other people. It occurs to me almost every day now how much we have on our hands that come down to problems involving some kind of mass attention deficit disorder, or intensely focused misdirected attention.
Little things can sometimes be not so little, really, when you stop and reflect seriously on what it might mean in the bigger picture. In the domain of intensely focused misdirected attention, you can find a perfect example in the way that the formerly good and valuable CNN network treats its chosen mission of providing news to the public. It doesn’t take much attention and thought to notice what should be the dazzlingly obvious by now, that, to state it bluntly, CNN has turned to shit, and this isn’t some new development, it has been going downhill, badly and rapidly, for years now.
Beyond the endless recycling of very little actual fact, more of the CNN programming has turned to assorted entertainment programs, with some people being hired for this, such as CBC talk show host George Stroumboulopoulos being hired to do a talk show on CNN much like his show on the CBC once known as “The Hour” (and now bearing the host’s unwieldy name as title), and the sudden disappearance of Anthony Bourdain from his long running home on the Travel Channel network to do more or less the same thing on CNN.
Bourdain’s show (or shows, I should say, covering them all, including past series on the Travel Channel) is an example of a rare thing in the mass of American television and dozens of cable/satellite channels, television that actual makes you remember what a great thing television can be, something really interesting that gives you a window out into the wider world). It just isn’t news.
All that, of course, also brings with it another bit of the obvious, that what was the CNN Headline News channel, separate from the CNN main network, once served a valuable purpose, continuously cycling through reporting of, you know, headline news stories, so that around the clock, people on odd schedules could grab a bit of time and get a bit of actual news about what’s happening, at any time of the day. That has been gone for a while now, replaced by the channel with the meaningless label of “HLN”. There is no headline news on “HLN”, it’s a meaningless set of letters. That television network turned completely into what is essentially a television version of garbage tabloid papers on sale grocery store checkout line for distracted morons.
Right now, a couple of things seem to dominate at least part of American public consciousness, in the portion of American humanity we might call television based man. One is the looming deadline of crisis of dysfunctional governance in the spectre of “government shutdown” as a result of the Congress failing to do its job like sane functionally intelligent adults. I can almost guarantee that if I turned on CNN right now, that would be the one thing happening in the world according to these guys, with loads of chatter recalling the words of a Shakespeare play, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The other Big Thing in American culture now is probably the fictional drama TV series Breaking Bad coming to an end with its grand finale last episode. I’m not a huge fan and constant viewer of that series, having seen occasional episodes, just enough to be able to follow what was happening over the arc of the story. It is a very high quality well done body of work, which merits the praise for its quality, but it’s also pretty depressing and grim. It is, in general categorical terms of theater, a tragedy, a very grim one, that also brings in applicable descriptive terms like cautionary tale or morality play.
Somebody made an interesting observation about the Breaking Bad story, which is that you wouldn’t have a character like Walter White in Canada. Finding that he was seriously ill would not immediately have him freaking out about thoughts of certain financial ruin for his family, and leading him down his path of badness. There is something to digest in that, as idiotic political squabbling increases to levels of complete dysfunctional noise about the law that is such a royal clusterfuck of a subject in so many ways that it’s a long and absurd subject all its own.
Looking at the blast of attention given the series finale of Breaking Bad, I think about how much of the public focus of attention is focused more on entertainment than reality. I also wonder how many people really absorb the essential tragedies of that story. How many people are simply engaged in the more superficial things, like “it’s great cliffhanger suspense” or even some notions that the transformation of the main character into some sort of criminal mastermind evil genius gangster is somehow cool, not tragic?
Fiction and drama, in the various media forms it uses to play out, can be a great thing, an important artform for humanity (and let’s skip trivial squabbling about what should be called “art” versus “entertainment”, because they really should be one and the same). What’s maybe not so good is how much the domain of fiction and entertainment is about people avoiding reality, rather than getting a healthy brief (or more lasting) shift of perspective. The same thing for the comedy realm.
All that is an old subject of discussion, obviously. People have always discussed the role of fiction and drama and comedy in human culture, and that has to include dramatic presentations of real stories from history (such as the movie currently in theaters that I just saw), including how it all can either be a positive learning event, or it can be an escape from reality that might be healthy, or might be very unhealthy, depending on various factors. My concern and thoughts about this is that something like the Breaking Bad drama might often not really reach people in the way it should. How many people really absorb and reflect upon the deep and multifacted tragedy in that long narrative (60-some episodes of an hour show, minus commercial breaks)? How many people are just enamored by the cliffhanger suspense drama, never really understanding the whole morality play lesson, all the aspects of “pay attention, don’t be like these people!” to be derived from it?
How many people actually thought the tragic transformation of Walter White was something cool, because they thought he was wimpy, a nobody, and became a badass gansta, yo, and accumulated massive amounts of money from the awful work he chose to do?
Beyond that, it’s a great concern for me to look around and see that so many Americans are so immersed in an alternate reality world of TV entertainment diversions and video games and amusements of their latest magic pocket digital devices that they just become profoundly detached from reality, with little or no sense of how truly deranged they, and many people around them, have become as a long gradual result of all this?
Now, of course, we have a fairly new recent phenomenon that tosses a new item into this stew, the oxymoron that is the term “reality television”, which is more often than not a pretty warped view of what’s supposed to be “reality”.
Pile all this up and saturate yourself with it, and something very bad can slowly take shape. I see more and more people who have become so warped by a constant diet of pop entertainment that profoundly distorts reality that actual reality has become, somehow, more and more incomprehensible or misunderstood, or even completely unbelievable to them. Soak in a mental diet of bullshit long enough, and people can reach a nasty state where they percieve truth of reality as bullshit, because it clashes with the alternate reality spell holding them. This is ugly stuff. This is no joke. I find myself dealing with it too often, and I’m not alone in this.