Saturday, December 20, 2008

Duffy, the Classics, Luddites, Computers, Wide Combs and Curmudgeons

When you think about it for just a second, someone from one  generation who labels another generation "the dumbest" isn't looking for truth or insight, but instead is looking for controversy, headlines and book sales.

Generational bitterness is one of those bizarre manifestations of golden age thinking which bedevils conservatives. It was always so much better when we were back in the days when everybody had to read every Shakespeare play (and the Bible ten times and Dickens and Milton).

Of course in the case of Milton, if you love him and if you're the premier of NSW, the pundits howl at your stupidity and poor training for the job. It was only on October 4th this year that Michael Duffy, esteemed columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, led his story about the state of New South Wales by making a joke about Nathan Rees' favorite poem being Paradise Lost - "an apposite choice for a man who had just become responsible for the state of NSW".

The Duffster followed up with "Rees is someone of whom we can say with confidence he knows more about poetry than economics" before snidely suggesting that Rees' degree in literature didn't qualify him for anything ("a literature degree might not be the best preparation for running the state").

But that was over a month ago, and it's never wise to expect coherence or anything approaching corporate memory in the world of Duffster columns. Back then reading the Duffster the last thing you'd expect anyone with an interest in the real world or politics should do is get a degree in literature, unless you wanted cheap, snide, half-baked, half-assed shots flung at you by people who don't have degrees in economics but do like to comment on economic matters from a noble height (yep, the Duffster has a BA in English obtained from Macquarie University in 1978 when it was in its redbrick prime and Eating People Is Wrong was probably the primary text for behavior in the English Department).

Having lived through a few generational scares, I remember when dime novels and science fiction were about to create the dumbest generation, though many experts had by then concluded silent movies had already achieved the goal. This was followed by experts who realised that the talkies truly had resulted in a VistaVision of stupidity. But that was nothing compared to television, which visibly reduced the younger generation to profound stupidity as you watched them watching television. The way Edward 'Kookie' Burns combed his hair in 77 Sunset Strip conclusively proved that the apes had taken over the planet, and Charlton Heston was way too late.

Of course television was nothing compared to comics, which in the nineteen fifties caused masturbation and hair on your hands, and which have now resulted in summer tentpole pictures that can reduce you to gibbering madness in a single viewing (and cause lead actors to kill themselves). 

Not to mention rock and roll, which singlehandedly produced more deafness and dumbness than any other art form, or the sex and drugs of the sixties which rock music surely led to, and which singlehandedly made the boomer generation the dumbest generation ever, and therefore surely the most expert generation to write stories about how dumb the following generations became.

Have I forgotten anything? Of course computer games - ever since Pub Pong swept the land, IQs have dropped by a zillion as a result of young people staring at screens. And pornography of course, but let's not go there. 

You can see where this is heading, right into the Monty Python sketch which paid out this kind of intergenerational nonsense in fine style: "I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing 'Hallelujah'." Followed by the inevitable punchline: "But you try and tell the young people today that ... and they won't believe ya'." (you can get the whole sketch here).

Funnily enough, I remember being told that watching Monty Python was a sure sign of my stupidity because the show was stupid and silly. It was an older person who told me this, and from that moment I realised how easy it would be to get people to believe in Thetans. She also liked Kamahl. Case closed.

But inevitably that leads us back to the Duffster's latest folly, bizarrely entitled "Youths today read quickly but that doesn't mean they're reading well". For starters, what a terrible header, showing what happens when Fairfax Media dumps its subs and dumps all claims to being the home of quality journalism. 

Poignantly, the Duffster begins by noting how unsettling it's been for him watching his daughter study English these past two years, reading far fewer of the classics, fewer plays by Shakespeare, fewer metaphysical poems or Victorian novels. Well that's a relief, she might get the qualifications to run NSW.

Then he cautiously introduces a couple of reality checks by acknowledging the period in which the education system forced lots of adolescents to read relatively lots of classics was in fact fairly brief, and what's more kids today might actually emerge from school with a well rounded education.

Of course the Duffster's chief worry here is that they might not be able to "usefully engage" with critical theory and postmodernism, which is to say they might swallow that hideous nonsense hook line and sinker, rather than spending their time having a good read of Harold Bloom. They might even - here a gasp of horror is allowed - go French.

But after the Duffster does his queasy, double-edged concession to reality, rescue is at hand, and we can safely traipse off into la lah land, courtesy of Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University in Atlanata. It seems Bauerlein has published a work entitled The Dumbest Generation: How The Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardises Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30).

The only sensible response to a book with that title is to ask whether anyone under 30 could be as dumb as the generation that would allow a book with a title like that to be published, or to be discussed in a way that somehow suggests it should be taken seriously, since it's a profoundly post-literate title (though nothing can ever snatch away the mantle of el supremo marketing ploy for  the 'books for dummies' series of titles in terms of pitching dummy books into the dumb American market place).

Here we must briefly revert to the Luddites, who back in 1811 achieved a brief moment of fame by smashing up new wide framed automated looms that could be run by unskilled labor and resulted in job losses. The desire to blame equipment has never gone away - who can forget the fierce battle by Australian shearers against New Zealand shearers deploying wide combs. Well probably only a few diehards, since in 1984 Australia became the last country in the world to permit the use of wide combs.

In the case of Bauerlein, we can see a couple of powerful forces at work - Ludditism and curmudgeon-ism. (A curmudgeon can be of any age but is most typically a "crusty, irascible, cantankerous old person full of stubborn ideas", to which we might add ill-tempered, full of resentment, churlish and grasping).

Bauerlein has a serious fear of computers, and the linking of computers via the Internet. It's an irrational fear, but it leads him to campaign against the idea of computers in schools, in much the same way as I campaigned ferociously against slide rules (a mechanical analog computer, go look them up in Wikipedia for a bit of weird nostalgia),  and pocket calculators and all those other mechanical devices that undid the splendid fun of browsing for hours through trigonometry tables.

Duffy doesn't go into all this in his column since the basic stupidity of Bauerlein is to fear the rational use of tools - and it just so happens that the best tool that's going around at the  moment, with suitable training, is a computer connected to the Internet.

Instead he concentrates on Bauerlein rabbiting on about how using Goggle to search for the answer to questions is fashioning a cognitive habit, and in that habit lies intellectual ruination. 

Now it's true that kids no longer run off to the library to access the banalities of average summaries of then perceived truth in articles in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (sold to richer merchants on the basis that it was all their children would ever need to know). Yes, long gone are the days when you could score a passing grade in English by writing an essay using a Classic Comic instead of reading the original five hundred page novel, and no doubt the world is worse off for the loss of such skills, but everything must pass.

Well, here's a question for the Duffster - should every kid in high school have access to a computer which provides access to the Internet? Or will it spell the end of thinking and the downfall of civilisation? There's an old saying, "a tree's a tree, go shoot in Griffith Park", attributed to the immortal Samuel Goldfish, and I think we can add a tool's a tool, go give kids access to it.

The Duffster prefers to ignore this part of the equation, though Bauerlein has given hope to conservatives around the world, who hate money being spent on public education, hate subsidy and welfare, and hate the notion of poor people having access to equipment that the rich can buy as a matter of course (yes, sob, it's true, I never owned a slide rule).

But the Duffster does quote a revealing slab of Bauerlein on the effect of computers on kids' leisure time - sitting around in bedrooms at midnight, with laptops and chatting up buddies, and writing about schools and classmates and posting pictures. "It's very much oriented around peer-to-peer contact, and the language is crude, the thoughts and sentiments are puerile and adolescents. Kids will be kids, and what the internet has done is empower them to expand all these inclinations 24/7. It's all teen discourse, all the time".

Well fuck a duck, talk about irrational inter-generation hostility. Teenagers indulging in teen discourse when they should be writing like Shakespeare. What do they think they are, teenagers??!! Fuck me dead and bury me pregnant, and here was I thinking that growing up we were much more sophisticated ... especially in the country where the First Thirteen were thought of as demi gods (and did win the University Shield two years in a row), and where wogs and poofters and retards and girlies and intellectuals clustered in a corner of the playground hoping no one was going to notice, and the jocks talked of trains and what they'd persuaded the sluts to do at the party the night before while pissed as parrots ...  and we all loved to sing:

My father is a bastard,
My ma's an S.O.B.
My grandpa's always plastered,
My grandma pushes tea.
My sister wears a mustache,
My brother wears a dress.
Goodness gracious, that's why I'm a mess.

I understand now, that was our pre-computer generation's attempt to relate to Wittgenstein, no crudity there, no teen discourse all the time. In fact I well remember the class clown who later went on to play for South Sydney reading from The Merchant of Venice ... oh the stumbling, bumbling clown who could hit you like a brick shithouse, when he did Shakespeare, it was poetry, sheer poetry, and the computer and the Internet has taken it all away from this dumb young generation. The tragedy of it all ...

In the end, even the Duffster isn't buying and tries to have it both ways. How's this for a bit of half baked equivocation: "I suspect there's a lot of truth in what Bauerlein is saying but he doesn't give enough weight to the good things about modern culture." The Duffster even manages to quote Steve Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good For You, in praise of computer games and television dramas - and so he should, since the week before he was busy pointing out just how good a show like The Wire was and how this kind of really inventive, clever drama had replaced Dickens, and where, for god's sake, is the harm in that?" 

But he can't resist a final downer, a "We shall see" about a future left in the hands of his own daughter and others like her who haven't had a decent introduction to the classics.

Fortunately none of this nonsense counts for anything or amounts to a hill of beans. The world goes on, times change, and conservatives who seek to hold back the tide are always wrong. I guess it fills in a week's column and an hour of radio, but for the first time in years I suddenly feel the need to ingest a little data, a cleansing, thoughtful classic. Must go off and load up an episode of The Wire.

So to this week's score:

Willingness to traffick deliciously with Luddites: 11
Willingness to share curmudgeonly thoughts: 11
Ability to trash people under 30 without a care about the source of his pension, suggesting he's reliant on superannuation, hopefully not in shares: 11
Ability to yearn for a golden age while coping with the age of lead in which he lives: 11
Desire to have conservative cake arguments and eat them too: 11
Likelihood of joining in a campaign to ban wide combs and computers from school: 0

By the way, as a follow up to the Duffster talking last week about the joy and beauty of mobile homes for pensioners, I found this little article by of all things a Duffy, explaining how mobile home park investment can be a money tree.

It's a compelling read, as it shows exactly how as owner of a mobile home park you can screw your tenants big time and make a fucking fortune. The bit I most liked was point E: "Most of the time, the person will be late on a payment or two and will flee during the middle of the night. In that case, the property is 100% yours again, you've pocketed the $2000 option payment and you start the process over again".

Yep it's a grand world where the best option is for your tenant to do a midnight runner. It seems like wherever you look there's a Duffy working out ways to make the world a better place.

And finally, last week the Herald published a story "How city living fights the waistband sprawl" which suggested that city living and walking was better for you than living in the suburbs and driving everywhere to shops and services (those bloody University of NSW researchers with their fancy airs and scientific ways, typical, why the hell would they love Kellyville like the Duffster). 

Here's hoping we can look forward to the Duffster explaining just how his beloved master-planned estates (through the streets of which no public transport buses can weave their way because of the lack of planning) can't be harmful to the health of their inhabitants, and certainly aren't contributing to the obesity epidemic gripping Australia. Here's hoping ... we shall see ...

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