A National Numbness in the Extremities.

We are what we watch.

Right now, we are watching the typical national hand-wringing our cable news loves to plaster from one wall to the other. This time it’s over the terrible shootings in Tucson.

Predictably, the pundit-vultures are circling over the kill, swooping in on cue to give us their oh-so-important, self-serving opinions. They extend their blowhard brands and tell us with faux moral authority that the victims didn’t deserve it. As if we didn’t know.

Also predictable is the speed with which motives and blame are being assigned to one or another side, with the players on our two national teams kicking the political football all over the field. The media plays along, pondering the possibilities every hour, on the hour.

Is he simply deranged, or a right-wing terrorist?

Did he follow a mysterious inner voice, or march to the militaristic tune of Sarah Palin’s campaign slogans?

Is this the watershed event that will force us to change our divisive, rapidly escalating political rhetoric?

I know what my side said, but did you hear what their side said?! Hey, they are saying bad things, too! Rubber. Glue. Bouncing off me, sticking to you!

Unfortunately, the unease we feel about this event cannot be placed neatly into a political box and placed on the doorstep of this person or that group. Many of us would like to trace these tracks back to Mama-Bear Palin’s den. Some would be satisfied to expose a supremacist organization or, perchance to dream, a GOP campaign official. Others want to retreat to the safety of the crazed, lone gunman story or an easy NRA boogeyman.

But what if this violence shows us something else? Something messier? What if it’s little more than an outgrowth of the teeming Petri-dish of culture we find ourselves in?

Let’s face it. We are what we watch.

In the midst of all the weekend’s wall-to-wall coverage, a telling promo for a new show punctuated a three-minute segment of hyperbole and indignation. The show is “Hardcore Pawn.” That’s right, yet another reality show thrown into the gaping maw of America’s TV-viewing public. This time, though, the producers promise to take us deep into the angry, violent and turbulent world of…pawn shops!

The promo uses rapid-cut images of violent outbursts, scowling faces and the dramatic exchange of angry words. Yup. For those who need their “pawn,” but want it to be “hardcore,” the clever play on words captures even the most prurient of imaginations…and, sadly, this peculiar moment in American cultural history.

The inaptly-named TruTV is airing this ginned-up attempt to break through the mechanical malaise and desensitization of the American cultural psyche. But it’s a small drop in the dirty bucket of over-sold sensations we call television.

Also airing now is: “When Vacations Attack!” Nope, you cannot make this crapola up.

The Travel Channel refuses to rely on boring, scenic explorations of exotic locales and cuisines. No, they’ve actually found a way to turn the very idea of a vacation into an attack scenario, imbuing your long-desired, pleasant respite with all the fear and rage of…Shark Week or another installment in the “Saw” franchise!

Take a step back and scan through your on-screen cable guide. Note how many shows are themed or sold with violent and angry language, focused on prisons or murder or death or warfare. Look at what we look at. Some reality shows are based on vicious, back-stabbing competitions, with contestants being “eliminated” or “kicked out” or “kicked off.” Other reality programs dwell on the failures and foibles of your fellow man. There is a meanness to everything, even the advertising that assaults the senses in-between the programming. Products get sold with a quick laugh at the expense of a dopey foil designed to make you feel better about yourself and their widget.

Over the years, it all just ratchets up…getting more and more intense as it becomes harder and harder to rise above a vast, noisy din or to take a moment to examine their often-ignored affects. Computer Generated Graphics upped the ante in films and games, introducing all-too-much realism to the shooting and fighting and killing.

Have you seen the “Call of Duty” gaming franchise? Kept up with the latest in Grand Theft Auto? Does the once-burning controversy over the latter now seem almost quaint or irrelevant? We crossed that line of desensitization with computer generated ease.

Now, everything that makes a buck is “in good taste.” Money tastes good.

So, toward that end, an all-action yawner titled “The Expendables” just went ahead and showed heads being rapidly removed by barrages of bullets, depicted whole bodies being torn in two by explosions and winked at the audience along the way. What the hell, right? Every year we need it to be harder, more intense and more extreme. And we need to be less affected by it, too.

Even boxing, a brutal sport which we’ve seen take a terrible toll on once-proud men, is not enough. Now we have “Ultimate Fighting,” where the gloves are nearly off and almost anything goes. We cheer the pounding like modern Romans at the games. We revel in capitulation and the blood-stained victory of the last man standing.

For that matter, Google “last man standing.” Marvel at how many shows use that branding. Implied attrition is a marketing bonanza. We love attrition and the extreme situations that select out the weak.

Almost comically, we even have a restaurant chain called “Extreme Pizza.”

Really? You mean, regular-old pizza just ain’t gonna cut it in this hyper-desensitized society? We now need our pizza to be extreme? Are they served on sharpened pizza-pans by heavily tattooed wait staff who will violently menace you if you “disrespect” them by tipping less than 20%? Do the delivery drivers look like the cast of The Road Warrior? Does the pizza explode if you don’t eat within a set time limit?

But it’s no joke. That’s where the marketing gurus are taking us. Taking television and movies and advertising and, even now, something as wholesome and happy as pizza. And vacations.

So, should we really be surprised by the political campaigning, political talk radio or the sloganeering leaflets of the day? Are we really outraged by the “climate” of “our politics.” Do we really think that it is leading us into an abyss of violence?

Or, is it merely following us down the path we’ve so readily blazed with our tastes and preferences in entertainment and television? Are the people getting what they want?

The simple fact of the matter is that the people are still watching. Still buying tickets and game cartridges and tuning in to radio. Sex sells. People publicly exposing their problems and lives and families…that sells, too. Violence sells even more. And we buy it all.

Setting our sights, so to speak, on yet another individual fall-guy or fall-gal misses the point. An easily sacrificed lamb will do little to stem the tide. We have to watch what we are watching. Perhaps even reintroduce the idea of shame, standards and limits.

Remember, we are what we watch. And we don’t seem to like what we see.

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'A National Numbness in the Extremities.' have 3 comments

  1. January 10, 2011 @ 11:06 pm Donald Goldmacher

    It would appear that you are channeling Morris Berman’s 2000 book, The Twilight of American Culture.” BTW, his 2006 book is”Dark Ages America.” Go Joe. Write on.

  2. January 11, 2011 @ 9:35 am admin

    Huh, I thought I was channeling Paddy Chayefsky. And Berman and Bloom reject popular culture outright. I like some good ‘ol pop culture. Just want the Petri dish to be less diseased.

  3. January 11, 2011 @ 8:03 pm leslie

    Good to the “EXTREME!”

    You forgot “Immorality” sells too these days.

    I miss the America I believed in as a kid.

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