Saturday, March 31, 2012

America & Books

It’s a curious feature of American history that some of its major turning points are best summed up by books. In the years just before the American Revolution, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was the book; it had a huge role in focusing colonial grievances to the point that they were ready to burst into flame. In the years before the Civil War, it was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; that’s the book that made the North redefine a troubled national dialogue over a range of regional differences as a moral debate over slavery, pure and simple, and so pushed both halves of the country into positions from which they couldn’t back down short of war.

This is quite true; now, we are defined "as a propositional nation", not by propaganda via books, but by the Great Stereopticon, the Television set, which tells us, not what to think (they don't care what factoids we choose to swallow, and which to refuse), but how to think, a mindset. They set the parameters of Thought, or what passes for thought these days. For instance, when the "talking heads" come on the tube, we know that something important is about to be announced, beyond the day-to-day bombardment of tripe. They then "debate" the "issues", either "burning questions of the day" or "critical events": their "real meaning" or their "import". After endless shouting or droning on, there is a final question: "So what can we take from all this?" (the great American bottom line). There is then a "zinger" or quip or (more sadly) sentimental moral tripe, or (worst of all) "moral outrage". Again, we are free to choose one of these modes ourselves, and modulate it (with sensitivity) the critical impact of the event (eg., joking about racial issues is off limits, always, although one can get away with some amount of sangfroid if phrased with political correctness.

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