Changes: For Better or Worse?

Over 60

As long as there is life on this planet there will be change. Historian Arnold Toynbee suggests that history repeats itself – but not exactly. Like a wheel, while it certainly does make circuitous turns over & over, it also moves forward, adding or subtracting from past recognitions. So the times, they are achangin’ – sort of.

One of the blessings in living a long life is the fact that we can, prima facia, look back and recollect what others are deigned to look up in books or the web pages to experience – all the good, bad, indifferent experiences.

Sad to say, we oldsters have those diverse collections in our memories, but, like Cassandra, have been rewarded with the gift of interpreting where the wheel might be headed, only to be ignored. After all, who wants to hear another story about climate change from some old geezer who’s lived through decades of changes and can almost fully predict why and where we’re headed?

The pundits that have been accusing today’s society as one that headed “dumbing down” ever since it became the ball game of the young and ignorant (they have the money, let’s humor them), with the process continueing from the rebellious 60s and 70s to this day — long enough for most us to have forgotten what it once was like, living as we do today in a society where pinnacles are rarely sought, and perfection rarely the aim.

Samples: fly with me to the “good ole days” before the 21st century, and make a few contrasts from the Germanic need for rules to the relaxed (read that as casual, even sloppy) lifestyle of today:

Remember when rules were stringent – when it came to ways of dressing, socializing, creating, building, entertaining, laboring? When we had definite faith in rules that governed everything in what we planned for, how we planned to get it, and how much importance we placed on anything from faith in one another to belief in something intangible and eternal?

Old timers recall when rules governing an approach to perfection were primary. They shifted with the times, of course, finally accepting an adolescent way of life in how we looked, in social interaction, and in what made us laugh or fear or cry in the entertainments – to the point where we have slowly but surely become “dumbed down.” Memory is short.

There was a time when you asked, “What do you make for a living?” with the proud response, “I make the tips of shoelaces, so well that they outlast the shoes.” By contrast, when you now ask, “What do you make for a living,” the response is simply “$22.50 an hour.”

One good example in the downhill glide is found in National Public Radio, formed in 1970 to “provide an identifiable daily product which is consistent and reflects the highest standards of broadcasting journalism.” The aim was to give listeners something more than commercial stations, much like the one special British station that catered to an intellectual mind, to the airing of things classical.

It’s first broadcast, with 30 employees, was transmitted from cramped quarters in a Washington DC building. It’s chief ongoing event, All Things Considered (ATC), became a pot pourri of incidents of immediate interest, some originating in the cramped DC basement rooms, others with contributions from all 90 charter member stations (of which Michigan Tech’s WGGL was one, incidentally, broadcasting at the time with a humble 10 watts).

NPR’s first ongoing coverage concerned the Vietnam War, approaching it from both political and humane perspectives alike.

NPR’s initial employees were hand-picked, coming mostly of ambitious, dedicated college students, eager to serve the aim that called for something beyond the commercial fare – something new, vibrant, people oriented.

Broadcasting standards were exceptionally high. Technical quality was excellent, and so were the carefully trained on-air personnel, headed by the likes of well educated Susan Stanberg, Scott Simon, and others of their ilk. They delivered their material like the sophisticated people we admired for their broadcasting professionalism.

Progress was slow, but with diligence NPR’s rating crept up. Soon an audience of listeners grew to appreciate the value of receiving ongoing radio that led the commercial station in providing a change from the “canned” menus to new, exciting ways in bringing the world to eager listeners.

That was then. This is now:

A slippage began to occur. Technical glitches would creep into programs, the trend from exceptional subjects went from the classics to pop entertainments, and in keeping with the trend, a mass of females crashed into broadcasting with eager but far from professional adolescent, robotic “dumbed down” results. Worst of all, the one thing which separated NPR from all other radio stations — the lack of commercials – ended when money flowed in to reduce broadcasting material to barely half the on-air time.

Faithful listeners attempted to remain faithful for the still ambitious effort to bring local and international news (now studded with those ineptly false commercials and, worse, with a chain of at least one or two minutes of improvised, repetitive tunes every few minutes during the morning and late afternoon newscasts). The result among disappointed but still faithful listeners were games invented to bypass those agonizingly inept moments: using a handy remote, for example, to leap to another station during the exasperating moments — or simply shutting off.

The “dumbing down” of NPR is just a sample of what we now consider normal, revealing itself in serious disasters in nearly every occupation, from hospital accidents to transportation crashers to imperfect market purchases — and, finally, to the political scene, where demagoguery now fills public offices right to the top.

But change is inevitable; we can only wait for an upward swing. It’s happened before; in a democratic revolt, it can happen again.