From P.J. O’Rourke, Editor-in-Chief, American Consequences:
Great literature is gone. Good journalism has disappeared. Philosophy dove off the highboard of thought only to find the pool of thinking had been drained. Even comic books have been ruined.
Let us consider Superman, his alter ego Clark Kent, and Lois Lane, the woman who loves them both.
Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the 1930s, at the height of print media’s influence.
For Superman to be at the scene and take action against villainy, it was natural for him to disguise himself as mild-mannered newspaper reporter Clark Kent. That’s what newspaper reporters did 80 years ago – be at the scene and take action against villainy (albeit with the power of the press rather than with being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound).
What if Superman were created today? The Daily Planet is long out of business. Clark Kent and Lois Lane are bloggers. They meet in a chat room but never see each other in the flesh (“ITF”).
Sometimes Superman will “sext” Lois with pictures of himself posing in his blue jammies, red underpants worn on the outside. And she replies, “LOL,” because Superman has gotten very pudgy sitting at the computer all day. He’s still living at home in Smallville with his adoptive parents, the Kents. He has an apartment in the basement.
Due to computer hacking, everybody knows that “Clark Kent” is Superman. Besides, there are no phone booths left for him to change clothes in. (He’s too fat to fit into a phone booth anyway.) And the places where he could change clothes are monitored by security cameras.
Superman continues to believe in “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” But he’s confused about which “way” to go with it. He gets all his news from wackadoodle websites, alt-right podcasts, and presidential tweets.
Therefore, when he flies off to fight villains… “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a blimp… It’s a hot air balloon… It’s… ” The villains often turn out to be imaginary.
Superman will come crashing through the ceiling of the MSNBC set for “Morning Joe” only to find that Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski have pre-taped the episode.
Of course, the villains in the original Superman were also imaginary – Lex Luthor and Mr. Mxyzptlk. But that was in a comic book.
Comic books are a medium for idiots. And so is the Internet.
Literacy is hard to attain. And we’ve quit trying.
Learning to read and write is very difficult. Homo sapiens evolved about 300,000 years ago and for 295,000 years they never wrote anything down. Imagine the inconvenience of their grocery lists. Primitive man had to drag along gnawed mammoth bones, chewed cave-bear fat, and the skulls of his enemies with their brains sucked out to remind him what to shop for. But that was easier than writing a grocery list.
With the spread of reading and writing, mankind’s long journey out of mental darkness began… Then the computer arrived and mankind’s long journey up from mental darkness came to an abrupt halt.
And even when people did begin to write grocery lists, in Mesopotamia, in the fourth century B.C., there was no one to read them. Literacy rates in civilizations where written communication was first developed are estimated to have been less than 1%.
You’d take your grocery list to the grocer and he’d say, “That’s just a bunch of cuneiforms. We’re out of cuneiforms. But have you tried the figs?”
Over the next five millennia, things did not progress quickly. In 1550 in Western Europe, arguably the most advanced and developed part of the world, the literacy rate was less than 20%. In 1950, the global literacy rate was still only about 56%. I have a copy of my Great Grandfather O’Rourke’s marriage certificate with an “X” where his signature should be.
Although, maybe Great Granddad had been drinking. People would rather drink than read and write. People would rather do anything than read and write.
People would rather thump on a tub, blow into a bottleneck, listen to a banjo, and sing 96 verses of “Old Stewball.” Folk music is a perfect example of how desperate people are to entertain themselves by any means other than reading and writing.
Reading rubs us the wrong way because to be human is to be dyslexic. Which direction does what chicken scratch go? What squiggle sounds like which squawk? Have I got my hangers where my pothooks ought to be?
It’s a problem we’ve had forever. Look at the ancient Greek alphabet: ?, ?, ?, and ?, for example. The ancient Greeks had the “L,” “V,” and “U” upside down and the “E” sideways. No wonder nobody could read.
Reading is as hard as thinking, and people hate to read just as much as they hate to think. Never mind that reading and thinking are good for them.
The world would be spared a lot of trouble if people read and thought more. Take the invasion of Mongol hordes, for instance. What if Genghis Khan had thought it over and read up on the subject? He would have said, “Wait a minute… I’m invading Kazakhstan? For what? I think I’ll stay in the tent with my 500 wives.”
To read is to think. Higher thought is impossible without a means of transcription. How could Albert Einstein explain “E = MC2” without writing on a blackboard? He’d have to tell the physics class, “There’s a stick sticking straight up with three more sticks pointing out of it this way. After that two flat lines, one on top of the other. Then a picture of a mountain range and a silhouette of a breast plus a mark that means one-two, but little bitty and up where the breast’s shoulder should be.”
With the spread of reading and writing, mankind’s long journey out of mental darkness began.
From the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, there was a golden age of print media. People would read anything. People read poems. People read really, really long books.
An empty ship bound for Australia could use the weight of one copy of an average George Elliot novel for ballast.
Big cities had so many different daily newspapers that there weren’t enough plucky young newsboys shouting “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” to sell them all. Sometimes the newspapers had to double up on the plucky young newsboys and have them shout, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Twice!”
Working men discussed James Joyce in pubs. One workingman would say to another, “Now yer Finnegans Wake, like, it goes takin’ the form of discontinuous dream-narrative is wot oi sez.” And the other workingman would reply, “Too right, mate. An’ oi sez it blends yer English lexical items with yer neologistic multilingual puns.”
True, early in that golden age people didn’t always know good reading and writing from bad reading and writing. Sometimes they’d get off on the wrong track and read Das Kapital or Mein Kampf. But by the 1950s, everybody was reading Peyton Place and it seemed as if we were headed into a world of well-informed and clearly-reasoning citizens. (Unless the Commie Russians dropped the complete works of Dostoyevsky on us and we were all destroyed.)
Then the computer arrived and mankind’s long journey up from mental darkness came to an abrupt halt.
Even in the 1960s era of punch cards we had quit looking things up in books and started to “ask the computer.” The computers of the day, of course, had very modest computational capacities and could only answer “0” or “1,” but that was enough. You can see what computers did to our minds in the well-informed and clearly-reasoned plan for a Vietnam War: Vietnam 1, USA 0.
Computers instantly reduced our attention spans to less than instant. I know that for a fact. I Googled it.
Will something new and wonderful arise from the digital revolution to replace the masterpieces of print media?
We can hardly count ourselves human without the aesthetic and intellectual feelings brought forth by Shakespeare when he wrote…
To be, or not to be? That is the question –
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles…
Those feelings will always be with us. Except now they’ll look like this:
From P.J. O’Rourke, Editor-in-Chief, American Consequences: