On The Loss of the Serious

It seems that every summer and every year has its notable obituaries. That of Teddy Kennedy still echoes in my mind, as I’m sure it will for a long time to come. But there’s one passing that I’ve been chewing on a lot lately, and it’s that of Walter Cronkite.

Luckily, I’m old enough to know what people mean when they call him “the most trusted man in America.” As a child growing up in the 70’s, I remember his face telling me and my family all about Nixon and McGovern, Vietnam, and a variety of other things I just didn’t get at the time.

What I did get, though, is that these were matters of consequence. That meant they were to be discussed at the dinner table, at social gatherings, and whenever possible, in school. More than anyone else, Walter Cronkite modeled a way of relating to the important issues of the day, one which hovered beautifully between stuffiness and the silliness that takes place on so many “news” programs today.

How did he do it? As I recall, it’s because he leveled with me (when you’re in grade school, this means the world to you). He seemed to address me with a candor and directness that I’d only heard adults use with each other.

I’ve heard that called “gravitas.” I can’t tell if that’s a compliment anymore.

Nowadays, the “news” on tv and cable it seems almost deliberately mixed together with “talk,” so much so that opinionating becomes confused with reporting. And the more prestigious the individual, the more “seriously” we are supposed to take what they have to say.

There’s one little problem, however, and it’s immediately apparent to anyone who’s ever watched Walter deliver the news. These guys and gals aren’t telling us anything.

Sure, they’re giving us their (often valuable, sometimes priceless) perspective.  But you can’t have a perspective unless and until you know what the relevant facts are.  People without access to a newsfeed, who depend on the commentators to know what’s going on, simply become clones — liberal or conservative.  And they get progressively more set in their beliefs, which only polarizes the country further.

No doubt this suits some people, but it doesn’t have to suit us.  Or democracy.

What Walter and the newspeople of his generation did best was tell you, as best they could, just what happened, and let you decide what to make of it.  Sure they made editorial choices; but at least they knew the difference between commenting on the news (it used to be called “editorializing”), and presenting it.

However, there’s another dimension to the problem, and that’s what I would call the loss of the serious. At the same time we replace news with commentary, we seem bent, as a culture, on trivializing the kinds of things people used to take seriously.

And no, serious never meant dour or stuffy. It just meant sincere.

It’s no accident that shows like “The Daily Show” are among the most highly rated today, because they feed on the cultural need to make a joke of everything. This is not to say that some things and people aren’t to be made fun of (or constitute walking jokes themselves), not at all. What it is to say is that a culture which also substitutes the silly for the serious loses its ability to decide what’s worth talking about in the first place.

When I was a kid, you knew that some things, like race, poverty, Vietnam, and the Constitution, were meant to be taken seriously, and others, like what kind of jeans you wore (anyone remember Jordache or Brittania?) were not.

Nowadays, people seem just as casual about their religious, political, and moral beliefs as they are about what to have for dinner. Or worse, they exude more passion for their dinner choices than they do for their moral, religious, or political ones.

In losing Walter, we’ve lost more than an outstanding journalist. We’ve lost a cherished guide to something that used to be taken for granted, something that every kid knew, and that today’s kids have to fight, tooth and claw, to get for themselves.

That is the ability to distinguish fact from opinion (especially how opinions determine what gets to count as a fact), and the ability to see life choices as slightly more important than consumer ones.


What I’m Learning This Summer

Since I can remember, August has been a time for moms and dads to pack up the car, put the kids in, and take the family someplace else for a couple of weeks or so. It almost never mattered where we went, so long as it involved some form of access to water, typically by means of a beach or pool.

This time, I’ve had a chance to cull some of the more memorable flashbulbs that went off over my head, including some that happened too quickly for me to Twitter.

Whoever said lost time is never found again wasn’t kidding. It’s good to look back, and think of what could have been, or the choices you would have made differently. But if this meditation leaves you, on the whole, more despondent than inspired to live your remaining years better, you’re probably doing it wrong. Try again or just let it go altogether, is my new motto.

Kids are the best thing that’s ever happened to many people, and this is precisely why parenting is so treacherous.

Loving your kids doesn’t mean turning them into your everything or (even worse) only thing. It goes without saying it doesn’t mean turning them into obligations, nuisances, or other impediments to personal happiness.

Most of all, it doesn’t mean treating them like extensions of yourself, good or bad, or as personal self-esteem farms. Thanks in large part to the way lots of us were raised, I think this is a particular peril we have to struggle to avoid as parents.

More than anyone, Shakespeare taught us there a huge difference loving someone a lot and loving them well. King Lear loved a lot, but it took a Cordelia to set him straight on some of the basic skills. For fellow baseball fans, it’s the difference between having a big swing and an accurate one.

Our nation is still ruled by bullies and thugs. Count me among those who thought the election of Obama might herald a new age of decency, if not respect for people with more brains and compassion than brawn and bullying.

One sad lesson of the healthcare debate is that — and there is just no nice way to put an uncomfortable truth — vast stretches of the electorate are easily manipulated by lies that appeal to their hatred of fellow Americans.

Death panels? Honestly, come on! What kind of person believes this kind of horseshit?

And can we please have an honest appraisal of the motivations of the birthers, deathers, and many of the tea party types? Just ask yourself: where were their protestations over the size of “gubmint” when a white president was wiretapping wirelessly, hijacking congress to give money away to the rich through the reconciliation process, or bankrupting the nation and sending people off to die in a purposeless war?

Answer: sitting comfortably, at home, guns in hand, cheering a white president on.

At times it’s almost felt like I was reliving the worst part of the nightmare that was the Reagan years: when our society found a way to make greed, racism, nativism, and hatred of the poor fashionable once again.

The arguments against health care reform that don’t directly appeal to bigotry are just laughable on their face.

“It’s perfectly appropriate to bring a gun to a town hall, no less when the President is scheduled to attend.” I’m sorry, I’m just speechless.

“A public option is the same as socialism, and is tantamount to a government takeover of health care.” Oh, please. Just because your parents and teachers spent their lives teaching you to hate the word “socialism” doesn’t mean you have to.

Do the the educated among us still have a knee-jerk hatred of all things German, Italian, or Japanese now that World War II is over? And guess what happened to the Cold War?

Oh yes, and public libraries put bookstores out of business. Sure. Just like public schools did to private ones.

“We can’t allow people to have a public option because we love freedom, and things like options are the antithesis of freedom.”

“We can’t allow a public option because people might take it.”

“We can’t allow government to enter the marketplace — it might succeed!”

“While I’m personally on board with a public option, I have to vote against one because the conservative folks in my district might not like me very much otherwise.”

“I have to vote against a public option because we won’t get Republican votes otherwise, and that’s the most important thing of all.”

“I have to vote against a public option because we won’t get a bill through otherwise, and that’s the most important thing of all.”