Mick Hume, editor of Spiked, happily skewered Hattie Ellis, author of Planet Chicken in his review, Stop Planet Chicken, I Want to Get Off. He says that if she is able to view the production of abundant cheap food as a bad thing, her values are off. Ellis is not a vegetarian but she thinks that it is only acceptable to kill and eat chickens if they have lived a full and healthy life. The problem with Hattie Ellis’s viewpoint is that she would let her sentimental ideas about the welfare of chickens and her ideas about natural foods interfere with things that have made it possible to provide affordable nutrition to people who don’t have the time to raise free range chickens or the time and money to buy them.
From AL Daily, top of the page on June 26/07, the Commencement Address by Dana Gioia to the graduates of Stanford University on June 17, 2007. Worthwhile and quotable. Speaking of the media and culture in the 1950’s:
I don’t think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement.
I grew up mostly among immigrants, many of whom never learned to speak English. But at night watching TV variety programs like the Ed Sullivan Show or the Perry Como Music Hall, I saw—along with comedians, popular singers, and movie stars—classical musicians like Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein, opera singers like Robert Merrill and Anna Moffo, and jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong captivate an audience of millions with their art.
The same was even true of literature. I first encountered Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, and James Baldwin on general interest TV shows. All of these people were famous to the average American—because the culture considered them important.
Today no working-class or immigrant kid would encounter that range of arts and ideas in the popular culture. Almost everything in our national culture, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, or altogether eliminated.
The loss of recognition for artists, thinkers, and scientists has impoverished our culture in innumerable ways, but let me mention one. When virtually all of a culture’s celebrated figures are in sports or entertainment, how few possible role models we offer the young.
There are so many other ways to lead a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money or fame. Adult life begins in a child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.
Of course, I’m not forgetting that politicians can also be famous, but it is interesting how our political process grows more like the entertainment industry each year. When a successful guest appearance on the Colbert Report becomes more important than passing legislation, democracy gets scary. No wonder Hollywood considers politics “show business for ugly people.”
Everything now is entertainment. And the purpose of this omnipresent commercial entertainment is to sell us something. American culture has mostly become one vast infomercial.
I have a recurring nightmare. I am in Rome visiting the Sistine Chapel. I look up at Michelangelo’s incomparable fresco of the “Creation of Man.” I see God stretching out his arm to touch the reclining Adam’s finger. And then I notice in the other hand Adam is holding a Diet Pepsi.
When was the last time you have seen a featured guest on David Letterman or Jay Leno who isn’t trying to sell you something? A new movie, a new TV show, a new book, or a new vote?
Don’t get me wrong. I love entertainment, and I love the free market. I have a Stanford MBA and spent 15 years in the food industry. I adore my big-screen TV. The productivity and efficiency of the free market is beyond dispute. It has created a society of unprecedented prosperity.
But we must remember that the marketplace does only one thing—it puts a price on everything.
The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us.
The Bitch in the House was a bestselling book in hardcover in 2002, and the first shot in one of the many battles in the so-called American culture wars. In the editor’s postscript to the 2003 paperback edition, she professed satisfaction at having had a dialogue with women. Some of the reviews, friendly and hostile, are on the book’s web site. Megan O’Rourke’s review appeared in Slate.
Made to Stick, Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die is a pretty good book. It’s marketed as a business book by some major bookstores, but libraries may shelve it under social psychology. The Duke University Business school has promoted it on its web page. Co-author Dan Heath is a consultant in the Duke program. The web site for the book has links to other reviews.
It starts with a retelling of the urban legend of drugged travelers and kidney theft. The authors, the Heath brothers, ask why this story is likely to remembered and repeated. They suggest that the ideas that stick are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional stories. They work through those 6 concepts, using case studies from business and the general media.
Which corporate mission statements provide a useful framework for decision-making by employees and customers? Southwest Airlines in the low-cost airline. Their customers know it, and the whole organization knows it. The discussion of corporate mission statements is good, and it’s quite funny. The Heath brothers deflate several meaningless and pretentious mission statements, and that has started a sort of buzz on the internet. Their book blog has tracked stories about moronic corporate mission statements.
Remember “where’s the beef”? Remember the urban myth of poisoned halloween candy? Why is sportsmanship a dead idea, and how has the idea of respect for the game replaced it?
The Heath brothers explain why some ideas are believed by some people, and remembered, even if not believed, by most people. They also look at the business end of psychology – which stories get people to buy products, send money to charities, act better, or simplify decisions.
The book provides a good working explanation of the psychology of decision making, which explains why there is more to persuasion than logic. In spite of the bad name given to rhetoric by Aristotle and other classical philosophers, it works.
Last Sunday, I drove to Ladysmith. I have had a cold, and I didn’t have the energy to ride, so I took a short trip up island. On the radio, Michael Enright and The Sunday Edition, with Enright interviewing Richard Dawkins. The interview is accessible as a Real Audio file – it runs to a little over 36 minutes. The interview was mainly devoted to Dawkins’s identity as a public atheist and his arguments against religion, presented in The God Delusion. Enright gave Dawkins a chance to cover the main themes of the book, challenging him mildly on a few points. Dawkins was consistently polite in his tone, but he lived up to his reputation as an intellectual Rottweiler because he just doesn’t back down or let go.
Another new article on happiness studies, linked by AL Daily, from the online magazine Cato Unbound, called Are We Happy Yet? The Cato Institute, from its own Web page, seems to be a libertarian, probably right-wing body, which partially explains their disagreement with Richard Layard’s book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. Layard is a New Labour academic, whose book advocates the idea “Happiness should become the goal of policy, and the progress of national happiness should be measured and analyzed as closely as the growth of GNP.”
It’s time to shake up the category list. Social Practice becomes Zombies. In the next few weeks Culture will be folded into Zombies. Politics is Liege & Lief, which is obscure but accurate, with an arcane folk music reference. The old names were too formal, and I had too many subcategories. I will phase out some subcategories, add MT tags to my entries and let the tags lay the trail.
Daniel C. Dennett’s 2006 book Breaking the Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomenon reached the bookstores a few months ahead of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
AL Daily had a link to the Detroit Free Press online, which ran David Crary’s AP book review . The book is getting some buzz – this morning CBC news was running an interview with Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me, Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable than Ever Before. The publisher and the author have done a nice job with this site – a lot of information consolidated in one place. The theme of the book is that all those things that are supposed to boost self-esteem and make kids feel happy about themselves has created a generation of people with a sense of entitlement, persistently dissatisfied. People never feel as happy as they feel entitled to feel.
On that point, AL Daily has been running a link to Michael Shermer’s piece in Scientific American, “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” reviewing the more sensible books among the recent books about happiness. Happiness seems to be making publishers and bookstores happy.
While visiting Winnipeg for Christmas, I stopped at the downtown McNally Robinson store and looked at a copy of Don’t Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking, by Thomas E. Kida. I did not need to buy this book, but I thought it addressed some key things that contribute to bad judgment.