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cletus spuckler and wife

There is little science on the Science Channel, almost no history on the History Channel, nothing to discover on Discover, and you will look long and hard to find any art on the Arts and Entertainment network.

And if you learn anything from The Learning Channel, it is that America’s intellectual level has dropped from the sky like a disabled alien spacecraft, to crash and burn in a desert of mindlessness.

The History Channel, for instance, now specializes in (as explained on Wikipedia): “mythical creatures, monsters, UFOs, aliens, truck drivers, alligator hunters, pawn stores, antique and collectible ‘pickers,’ car restoring, religions, disaster scenarios, and apocalyptic ‘after man’ scenarios,” to say nothing about credulous explorations of the writings of Nostradamus. ancient aliens

Each of these channels began with virtuous motives, and for their early years, created or acquired genuine documentaries for TV viewers, but as they have come to seek ratings over virtue, each has bitten the bait, and now gives us “reality” programming, sensationalist pseudoscience, and celebrities, celebrities, celebrities.

The prime offender of this last are the cooking and food channels, which at one time gave us instruction on cooking and food, but now concentrate on celebrity chefs, some even with studio audiences to applaud and ooh. Julia Child actually taught us something. david pogue

And it isn’t just that Bravo or A&E have given us the bait-and-switch, but that even once laudable programming on PBS has been dumbed down to provide more “entertainment” and less hard information. Their once-proud flagship program NOVA has become a showcase for the high-jinx of such “info-comics” as David Pogue, “Destroyer of Brain Cells.”

It is as if no one believes that actual history or science or art can hold its own in a world of Gypsy housewives of LA married to lumberjacks who look for gold in Alaska and find Nazi ghosts piloting flying saucers from the future, as predicted by Nostradamus.

(Note to Discovery: I now have a copyright on that idea, in case you decide to make such a series.)

I have no complaints with science writers who make complex and often mathematically dense material comprehensible for laymen, such as myself. That is what NOVA used to do: It was aimed at intelligent non-scientists, people with an interest but without the background and training; it now seems aimed at Cletus Spuckler and his family of slack-jawed yokels from The Simpsons.

Is it any wonder that American students fail so badly in math and science, or that a scary percentage of American voters don’t believe in basic scientific principles, and that a major political party carries on a non-too-disguised war on science? We believe in ghosts, UFOs, and ESP, but not in evolution, global warming or environmental degradation. One scratches one’s head.

At least PBS still maintains a veneer of science or history in their documentaries, the commercial cable channels have given up completely. It is all hokum shot through night-vision goggles looking for trumped up ghosts, or teams of competing slackers moaning and groaning about how hard it is to beat the deadline making spangles for their dresses or how to turn squid beaks into desserts for the panel of judges. TLC

How is America not embarrassed to show its face in the world for presenting Toddlers and Tiaras, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, I Eat 33,000 Calories A Day, Potty Power, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, Starter Wives Confidential, Trading Spouses, Wedding Dress Wars, or Big Hair Alaska? And those are just from Discovery.

The History Channel (now, of course, rebranded as History, keeping the only part of their name that doesn’t describe anything true about itself) has offered: Ancient Aliens, Ancients Behaving Badly, Angels and Demons: Decoded, Ax Men, The Bible Code: Predicting Armegeddon, Big Shrimpin’, Cajun Pawn Stars, Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, God, Guns and Automobiles, Hairy Bikers, Ice Road Truckers, Shark Wranglers, Swamp People, and, of course, UFO HuntersPawn Stars photographed by Blair Bunting

Its highest-rated show, Pawn Stars, exemplifies one of the unpleasant trends in this new field of television.  So many “reality” shows (I can’t help but put quotes around the word “reality,” since the word is so horribly misused in this application) rely on having a bully at its center, whether it was Simon Cowell on American Idol or here, with “Old Man” Richard Harrison, a truly repulsive ignorant blusterer lording it over his clan like a cartoon patriarch, an uneducated know-it-all, with little sense of curiosity — there is no glow in his ball-bearing eyes, just the dull, yellowish glare of a sluggish dragon guarding its horde.

So much of TV is either aimed at or about the unwashed, uneducated and superstitious, as if all of America lived in a trailer park and had only half its teeth. It’s the Jerry-Springerization of America, and it cannot bode well for our future.

So, the rest of us find ourselves either leaving TV altogether, or braving the ridicule of our friends and family, tuning in to C-Span 2 on the weekends to watch Book TV. It’s the last bastion of a medium that used to bring us Omnibus, Young People’s Concerts and BBC nature programs.

 

darrylstrawberry

I once met Darryl Strawberry before he was Darryl Strawberry. That’s not technically true — even when I met him and he was a rookie outfielder for the Triple-A Tidewater Tides of Norfolk, Va., he had an aura of superstardom about him. He may have hit .235, but he had the glow. He was Darryl Strawberry.

Still, the meeting was awkwardly unsatisfactory. It always is when we meet someone famous. Before the game, Strawberry sat in a corridor at the stadium at a card table piled high with programs. He was there to sign them for the fans. It is a standard practice, and he showed neither enthusiasm nor disdain for the process. lucy ricardo

He smiled, signed the program, or the glove that the kids offered him, and said things like, ”Hi, glad to see you. Enjoy the game.”

Meeting a celebrity seems attractive at first, when you think you will get a chance to rub up against something bigger and greater than everyday life. But it never works out that way. What happens is that you shake hands with a goofy smile on your face, you say something like, ”I’m so happy to meet you. I’m your biggest fan.” And then you realize you are an idiot. It’s the Lucy Ricardo syndrome.

But what else is there to say? It isn’t as if you will discover some secret you have in common: ”Oh, Mr. Redford, you own a Pacer, too? Great car, isn’t it?”

Or that the bonds of friendship will open up: ”Sure, Ms. Taylor, I’d love to join you and Michael Jackson for dinner.”

Meeting a celebrity is a dead end.

AN INARTICULATE DUMB-SHOW

I think I first learned this when I was in sixth grade. New York Yankee first-baseman Moose Skowron came to visit our Boy Scout troop one night. What I saw was a very large man with a permanent smile standing like an oak among the shrubbery of adoring Little Leaguers. They all wanted to talk to Skowron, but they didn’t have anything to say to him.

And, of course, he didn’t have anything to say to them, either. What was supposed to be a treat for the kids turned into an inarticulate dumb-show.

Later in life, I have come across various celebrities and semi-celebrities, and the result is invariably the same.

When I was unofficial staff photographer for the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C., I was sent to the airport to pick up world-famous cellist Leonard Rose, who was going to give master classes. I carried his bags, put them in the trunk of the car — he carried his cello — and I drove him to his hotel. He sat as silent as a pumpkin for the entire ride.

What was I going to say — ”I love your Dvorak, but don’t you think a looser vibrato would add some warmth to the second movement?” Yeah, right.

USING EACH OTHER FOR MUTUAL GAIN 

It is all very different as a journalist, doing interviews.

In such cases, the celebrity does a well-rehearsed dance with the journalist. We have something to talk about — the upcoming book, play or concert. And the celebrity usually reiterates the best lines and choicest anecdotes from previous interviews. When you are lucky, something new, deeper or more genuine pops out. teller

But you haven’t really met the celebrity, you have used each other for your mutual gain.

Occasionally, the interview goes somewhere odd: When talking to the silent half of Penn and Teller recently, we got off on a long conversation about the difficulty of translating Virgil’s Aeneid. Teller is a former Latin teacher, though you would never know from their act that either of them can even read.

And even in an interview, Lucy isn’t always far away. Once, when interviewing Tom Seaver, I wound up asking for his autograph, and, what is worse, it was ”for a friend.” It really was. But I felt like a dweeb anyway.

I have made it a general rule of conduct never to bother a celebrity if we chance to come in contact. If I see Alice Cooper at a string-quartet concert, I leave him alone. If I see Hugh Downs forking pasta at a restaurant, I won’t even look his way.

What would be the use? Celebrity is a sort of wall around certain people, constructed of a palisade of smiling teeth.