Culture Notes


Issue: "Children of Chernobyl," April 13, 1996

Make everyone show Sesame Street?

Should the federal government require all television broadcasters to provide at least three hours per week of children's educational programming? As part of its it-takes-a-village "pro-child" policy, the Clinton administration wants the Federal Communications Commission to mandate that all local broadcasters include educational TV. Merely sticking a geography fact into a Saturday morning cartoon is not enough-the FCC is insisting on full-blown educational programming. The National Association of Broadcasters, which understandably resists federal intrusions into programming decisions and having to air programs that children may not want to watch, are trying to strike a compromise. Most parents, of course, feel their children are learning too much from television already. The academic potential of television is grossly over-rated, according to media specialists such as Neil Postman, and the present state of educational theory would probably mean programs designed by education experts would be mostly preachy indoctrination with little intellectual substance. Here's a better idea: Let the National Association of Broadcasters voluntarily pledge to develop quality television for kids, featuring intelligent stories, artistic production, and moral themes. The problem is not that children's TV is not educational, but that it's bad. Providing entertaining, non-condescending, and thematically positive shows for children would silence the critics, keep the government off their backs, and even provide indirect educational benefits, as children begin consuming something more substantive than Saturday-morning mind candy.

The Disnification of the universe

Disney is producing a new Broadway musical, Aida, based on the classic opera about tragic love in ancient Egypt. Verdi's music, though, will not be used. Instead, the music will be provided by Elton John. The old Disney, when Walt was alive, gave us Fantasia, in which cartoons were used to introduce classical music. The new Disney gives us grand opera without the music, turning it into a cartoon. Once again, pop culture swallows up the real thing.

The talk-show massacres

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"The worst massacre in syndication history," shrieked Variety, the trade publication of the entertainment industry, describing the cancellation of every new talk show introduced this season. Danny, Mark Wahlberg, Tempestt, Lauren Hutton, and more have all bit the dust. So has Tammy Faye, the ex-evangelist's ex-wife in her latest makeover as talk-show host. The granddaddy of them all, Donahue, has retired. Is this due to the chorus of criticism of sleazy talk shows? Certainly, some of the sleaziest, such as Rikki Lake, are still popular, but there is some evidence that the public is starting to get repulsed at the excesses. Even some of the hosts have gotten ashamed of their work. Geraldo now says he wants to be known as a serious journalist and promises higher standards. To her credit, Oprah Winfrey resolved to change her show to feature positive messages. At first, her ratings plummeted, but she stuck with her principles and now her ratings are higher than last year's. There is little indication that the television industry has learned its lesson-more talk shows are in the works-but never underestimate the power of the marketplace.

Save the fish

Having crusaded against hunting, red-painted the fur industry, and forced filmmakers to swear that "no animals were harmed in the making of this picture," Hollywood's animal-rights activists have a new cause: eliminating fishing. PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has announced a program of protests, media campaigns, and rock-skipping at fishing sites designed to educate people about the evils of hurting fish. Baywatch star Alexandra Paul and Cheers bartender and star of Natural Born Killers Woody Harrelson have already pledged their support. Why do Hollywood celebrities so often back such causes? Perhaps because doing so gives them the exquisite pleasures of self-righteousness without the trouble of virtue. In the meantime, as animal-rights zeal continues down the foodchain, missing from the debate is awareness of the centrality of sacrifice to physical life as well as to spiritual life. As the Old Testament dietary and sacrificial laws underscore, earthly life in a fallen world is impossible without the death of other living creatures which give their lives for our sustenance, pointing to the supreme fact that eternal life is impossible without the sacrifice of Christ.

Psyberspace cychology

"Computers are not just changing our lives," argues Sherry Turkle, they are "changing our selves." In an article in Wired magazine and in her new book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon & Schuster), Ms. Turkle argues that the new technology breaks apart any kind of a single, unified self. The anonymity of the chat rooms, newslists, and role-playing games encourages cybersurfers to develop multiple identities. Men pretend to be women in sex rooms, mild-mannered milquetoasts turn into raging flamers in their interest groups, and solid citizens pretend to be warriors, wizards, or even rapists in the "multi-user dungeons" (MUDs). Ms. Turkle, who thinks this is a good thing, celebrates the "decentered self that exists in many worlds, that plays many roles at the same time." The "modernist culture of calculation," she writes, is giving way to "a postmodernist culture of simulation." Her analysis is a good example of the new postmodernist psychology, which opposes any kind of stable personal identity in favor of constant change, role-playing, and ceaseless "re-invention of the self." Just as postmodernism teaches intellectual relativism (that there is no truth) and moral relativism (that there is no right or wrong), it also teaches psychological relativism (that there is no self). Christianity, if it needs to be said, believes that we each do have a spiritual identity, the soul, which is more than our social roles or imaginative fantasies. Postmodernism, perhaps aided by technology, may literally tempt us to lose our souls. No wonder some are now calling the postmodern age the "post-human" era.


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