Thursday, October 7, 2010

Crystal Balls

I am not a channel surfer. I’m what I might call a “program destinationer.” That is, when I turn on the television I head directly to a particular channel to see a particular show. If the show is not on by some chance (think of pre-emption by a PBS begathon), I don’t go looking for something else to watch. Thus, my knowledge of the world of television programming is distinctly limited. It is only when I am unfortunately cornered in a waiting room, say, or the Laundromat that—like a passenger being subjected to a wayward journey by a clueless cabbie—I get to view things that exist outside my everyday world.

It so happened the other day that I was facing a television set tuned to the History Channel. The program was one of those future-disaster shows—much beloved by the Weather Channel—that informed its audience, through interviews with scientists and engineers, that because of deteriorating infrastructure (the roads, the dams, the bridges, the electrical grid) our country faces calamitous events and a return to Nineteenth-century living conditions. Among other possible disasters, Nashville might end up under twenty feet of water, Southern California might have its fresh water supply cut off, and we might all be subjected—if not to blackouts—to regular electrical brownouts. The scary case the program made for the need for immediate funding for repairs to our deteriorating infrastructure would, it seemed to me, make even the stingiest “small government” politician demand that Uncle Sam get out his checkbook immediately.

When the program ended, I took a deep breath and kept my wallet in my pocket through a long line of commercials, while I awaited the next presentation. Which turned out to be a program on Nostradamus and other alleged prognosticators of future events. We were told of supposed foretellings of the deaths of Popes and emperors and of natural and man-made disasters. The scientists and engineers of the previous show were replaced by astrologers and their ilk. The voiceover announced portentously that “experts believe . . .” without telling us who these “experts” are or what they are expert in. The show was a pandering to mindless loonies and credulous ninnies. As soon as the other person in the room left, I grabbed the remote and switched to the noon news. (Speaking of being confronted by “mindless loonies and credulous ninnies.”)

So this is America in the Twenty-first century: Presented as equally valid, scientific and engineering investigation and bozo prognostication. Something like Fox News plus science.

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