Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Asinine Fever Epidemic

Right now there is great concern about swine flu. But our society also is plagued by an epidemic of asinine fever.

Toward the end of Carlo Collodi’s novel Pinocchio (1881), the puppet once again disobeys Geppetto. Instead of going to school as he’d promised, Pinocchio steals away to the Land of Games with his friend Lampwick. After five months of non-stop play, a terrible thing happens: Pinocchio and Lampwick grow asses’ ears. They’ve come down with asinine fever, and like all the other boys in the Land of Games, they completely transform into donkeys.

Collodi’s message is clear enough; those boys who ignore their studies are condemned to be asses. An ass, of course, symbolizes ignorance. In the class-structure of nineteenth-century Italy, however, it was also a social metaphor. When Italy was a predominantly agrarian society donkeys were beasts of burden. Collodi cautioned his young readers not to disregard their education, or else they’d spend their lives as menial laborers.

And in fact, that’s precisely what happens to Collodi’s Pinocchio. Eventually he’s sold to a circus, but when he breaks his leg, he suffers the fate of any working animal in the nineteenth century. His owner ties a rock around his neck and hurls him into the ocean. Fortunately for him, the fish eat the flesh off his skeleton, which consists of… a wooden puppet.

So Pinocchio reflected the realities of nineteenth-century Italian society. But is it still relevant in the twenty-first century? When Disney turned Collodi’s tale to a cartoon in 1939, one of the few scenes they kept was the Land of Games. Disney rendered it as an amusement park with roller coasters, carousels, and fun houses. Disney’s interpretation of the Land of Games is an indictment of the modern entertainment industry. Entertainment is synonymous with amusement, which is also synonymous with diversion. The etymologies of all the words convey the idea that entertainment is really a distraction. A distraction from what, we might ask.

Nowadays, entertainment is everywhere. But the entertainment industry is not about the real world, about hard choices and complexity. It holds a pacifying mirror up to its viewers, telling them that a simplistic understanding is all that’s necessary. Evildoers do evil because they’re evil; but not to worry because eventually the hero will dispatch them with a one-liner. The consumers of mass media entertainment delude themselves that they are knowledgeable of the world. The real result is a pseudo-sophistication built on trite aphorisms and wish fulfillment. It is, in short, a game. And its worldview has permeated even the news industry. TV journalists routinely speak in platitudes and simplified language. During the last presidential campaign, they chided Candidate Obama for his “nuanced” answers, forgetting that the world is, in fact, nuanced. The next time a shark attacks a swimmer, see how long it takes before the anchor describes the animal as a “mindless killing machine.” Do they even know that they are citing the movie Jaws? The institution designed to inform the citizenry has reduced itself to the intellectual level of summer blockbusters.

Yet diversion can take many forms. Nowadays people are more distracted than ever by electronic gadgetry. It seems that text messages, cell phones, Twittering and other social media are everywhere. On the surface it appears that people are continuously hard at work. But at least one recent study shows that people who “multitask” actually perform their activities worse than they believe. They’re not so much working—not in any real sense—as turning their attention away from their immediate circumstances. Other researchers recently demonstrated that people who compose text messages behind the wheel are as dangerous as drunk drivers. That study is disturbing for the safety of our roadways, of course. But it also suggests another troubling conclusion: doesn’t this mean that the people who spend a lot of time “multitasking” are living much of their lives as if drunk? Listen closely and you can hear the braying right now.

For decades the United States has been the economically dominant force in the world. But nothing lasts forever, and we are currently in the worst recession in decades. And what about Collodi’s Lampwick? What happened to him? Just before Pinocchio transforms into a boy, he resolves once and for all to work hard. He takes employment turning a mill to replace a dying donkey. Pinocchio goes to him and comforts him as he breathes his last. Lampwick, like all the other boys from the Land of Games, dies an ass.

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