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In the entertainment chum bucket, it's good to come up for air

July 22, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

In 1870, one out of five Americans was unable to read or write. Today, statistically speaking at least, the illiteracy rate is less than 1 percent.

It's an improvement in numbers, but a degradation in fact.

I dare say that in 1870, those four out of five people who could read and write did so. Towns had multiple newspapers and pamphleteers. Familiarity with Greek and Latin was a sign of a civilized human being. Soldiers in the Civil War wrote elegantly of their experiences, the great books of the era were read by significant percentages of the populace and even a simple letter to mother was a work of art in content and penmanship.

This is not to glorify the good old days. As late as 1940, half of our kids made it no further than eighth grade. And political speech was just as nasty, perhaps nastier, than it is today. Ann Coulter would have thrived in the 19th century, much as she does in the 21st.

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The difference is that the literary classes dominated. They set the agenda and the tone of society. They pulled the lower ranks up.

This model may have been out the door well before the first time a teenager typed the letters LOL in an Internet chat room, but certainly it is our technological intelligence that has facilitated our ignorance.

We've made it so easy to be stupid.

One hesitates to say the bottom has been achieved, but for vapidity it's hard to imagine we can sink much lower into the chum bucket than we did this month with NBC's "Victoria Beckham: Coming to America."

Victoria's fame is, take your pick, that of a washed up British pop star or that of the wife of a soon-to-be washed up star in a sport than Americans don't care about.

In the celebrity food chain, consider this: Kevin Federline made the papers when he visited the Hagerstown Wal-Mart; the only way dear Victoria would get press in the Hagerstown Wal-Mart is if she'd taken 40 hostages prisoner at gunpoint.

Yet there she is, telling the American people that high on her to-do list is to "find a house ... and a manicurist."

And I need to vacuum my car. So?

In review, The New York Post called the show an "orgy of self-indulgence" and marveled at "the gall of these people who think we are that stupid."

As if the Post's wall-to-wall coverage of Paris/Brittney/Anna Nicole is serious journalism, but with Victoria Beckham, NBC has simply gone too far.

It's hard to blame the media, which are desperate for something - anything - that we will pay attention to for more than 10 minutes.

And that's the thing. We are paying attention to - to this.

Celebrities dancing, losers singing, makeovers for the ugly, duping the beautiful, island catfights among nobodies, families passing around wives and mothers like Tic Tacs ... more and more, we are spending our lives making heroes of zeros.

And this playlist is Italian opera next to the Internet, where plain old porn now seems kind of quaint. Private family fights are secretly recorded and broadcast on the Web. Even a reputable, I guess, company selling $800 blenders is hawking them through the "Will It Blend" Web site, where you can watch videos of a clown-scientist trying to "blend" canned cheese, children's toys and, most recently, the new iPhone in its line of kitchen appliances.

And yes, I watched the whole iPhone blending affair, right up to the point where the dude pulls off the top of the blender to a wafting of black smoke. (It's unclear what's smoking, the iPhone or the blender.)

Individually, there's no harm in these diversions and no shame in their indulgence. And certainly, there's a swath of America - the swath without higher aspirations - that will be content whiling away their lives to the cawing of American Idol.

But the men and women of letters in the 1800s never would have been dragged down to the level of the Bowery. Today, however, it seems all levels of society are contenting themselves with drivel.

Rome didn't decline when its people started populating the bawdy bathhouses or watching a big cat rip the lungs out of a zebra. It declined when, in the name of cheap entertainment, its people stopped doing everything else. Pursuit of the simple overtook pursuit of the meritorious.

Keeping up with the merry mixups of Paris Hilton or Victoria Beckham is not a bad thing. In fact, it's fun. But it shouldn't come at the expense of individual self-betterment.

It's a matter of choice. The easy option is to fall prey to easy, technologically inspired entertainment. The harder, but more rewarding choice is to individually raise our own personal bar, if only just a bit.

The sugar rush of the inane is fleeting, but the nutrition of personal growth will stay with us through our lives. When we enroll in a class, volunteer in the community, become politically active, ride a bike or fight for what we believe is right, it provides a lasting feeling of self-worth.

There's time. And if there's any extra, we can still take guilty pleasure in People magazine, cluck our tongues at stars behaving badly or watch belt-sanders drag racing on YouTube.

Meanwhile, however, feel free to read a book.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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