Too Serious to Matter

Among the innumerable rituals of the residents of the Casa Verde, the house where I lived in college, was what we referred to as “Casa Talk,” a mixture of stream-of-consciousness banter with a series of gourmet desserts, or what we preferred to call “snax.” We debated the limits of the space-time continuum over Bananas Foster, we paired our Heidegger with crème brulee, and we plumbed the depths of Protestant eschatology over a flaming cherries jubilee. The whole scene was bizarre, and we liked it that way.

Among the deficiencies of American society nowadays is a strident unwillingness to talk about serious issues in a serious way. Because even our cartoons are cynical, we learn early to be coy with our true feelings about matters of any heft. One of the great indictments that can be leveled against a person these days is that “he takes himself too seriously.” In fact, I used to counsel international students in my classes that one of the “secrets” to success in American society is to never look like you’re trying as hard as you actually are. Nonchalance is a French word for an American virtue.

Front door argumentation, like door-to-door sales or telemarketing, only works anymore on the bored or gullible. For most of us, we respond to a front door argument like it’s a home invasion: check the deadbolt, barricade the door with furniture, lock-and-load.

Front door argumentation, as I learned in high school debate, is vanity. It is preaching to the converted and, therefore, serves a primary purpose of galvanizing the faithful. Front door arguments are delivered like glass bottles of milk in the 50s to a smiling and inviting audience. Front door arguments are often disingenuous because they can be. When I already agree with 100% of what you say, you can skip all of that establishing-the-veracity-of-your-premises gobbledygook. I can simply utter a hyper-partisan code word like “raghead” or “born again” or “Hussein” or “homophobic” or “Marxist” or “fat cat,” and my audience is prepared to accept or reject my argument in toto.

Our supersaturated information culture no longer suffers substance. Pixels are like pixies beckoning us on down a moss-covered path through a wood. Link, don’t linger. Sip from the buttercup nectar of a million flowers instead of punching through the stinging paper hive to fetch the honey.

We can only discuss substance by slinking in through the backdoor with humor as a master key. If we want to discuss substance, we have two basic options: talk about substance with an unsubstantial tone, or talk about unsubstantial topics with deceptive substance. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are the masters of shoveling a slurry of substance and satire; SNL, by contrast, specializes in merely lampooning politicians without noodling their significance. Tosh.0 isn’t satire; it’s just bleak mockery. The paradigmatic example today of deceptive substance is Grantland. It is a sports and pop culture site that talks about the most banal topics: Speedos and zombies and Terrell Owens. But they have good writers who often write well and sometimes write striking sentences about stuff that really matters. Like cultural critic Roland Barthes writing about the deeper meaning of ads for laundry detergent, the Grantland folks, on occasion, shuffle through a bawdy sports pub and find themselves catching a double-decker bus toward literary brilliance. More often, though, they are my witty intellectual slacker friend who aims his considerable intelligence quotient at a definitive historical ranking of Air Jordan styles.

Our times are too fatiguing to sling over our shoulders another grave concern. We mash the remote to erase the image of the pathetic African child at our front door. We scan past the Syrian debacle on CNN.com to get to the latest drunken antics of our flash-in-the-pan reality stars. We would rather watch than read, read than write, consume than produce. We choose the momentary over the momentous, the timely over the timeless, the magnified over the magnanimous.

It is what it is. We are who we are. But we shouldn’t be surprised when our leaders are petty and myopic and infected with a lust for broad power and shallow celebrity. They are giving us what we want. And while we ignore the sagging foundations of our civilization, we should each enjoy a slice of warm apple pie.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.