A recent program on the Public Broadcasting System about the role of art in the 21st century made an interesting point about the state of our society.
The point was this: Art is good for the soul in a society that has become less dignified.
Those words bear repeating - "a society that has become less dignified."
As we reflect upon the possibility of a society that is less dignified we are reminded of the response of a Wallowa County teenager who was interviewed for our "Street Beat" column this week. The question was, "How closely are you following the news of the war in Iraq?"
His answer was, "I have to follow it because that's what my dad watches all the time. I just like to watch it when the big bombs are going off."
We suspect that statement is fairly typical of American teenagers, who have grown up watching characters get blown away in video games, in cartoons, and in the movies. In their eyes, pictures of bombs going off on T.V.. is just an extension of the video game graphics they have been viewing their entire lives. There is no connection in their minds to the real human suffering underlying images beamed back from Iraq via satellite. Through mind-boggling technological advances we have relegated war to television entertainment and desensitized our people to its real life effects.
In the process we have devalued human life and, in a sense, our own souls. Killing is now as easy and as painless as pushing a button on a remote control or video game controller. At the same time we frown upon dictators like Saddam Hussein and his brutal Iraqi regime and condemn them for their "atrocities" and lack of respect for the sanctity of human life.
The truth is we have been moving in the same direction for a long time, from road rage on our nation's highways to air rage in what used to be advertised the "friendly skies of United." There seem to be no limits to the nastiness of our political discourse, lawsuits are increasingly mean-spirited, and corporate politics are absolutely cutthroat. We throw unborn babies into garbage cans at abortion clinics without a second thought.
The only significant movement in the other direction, toward a kindler, gentler and more respectful society, was in the days immediately following the tragic events of September 11, 2001 when 3,000 Americans died in the collapse of the World Trade center. For a few brief moments in our national psyche we acted as if we truly valued human life, perhaps because so much of it had been taken away from us so violently. For a few remarkable days civility and family values prevailed. People practiced the Golden Rule. In spite of the pain wreaked by thousands of deaths, those were says when America shown.
We can only hope that as the body bags begin to come back home from Iraq that Americans will realize that there is more to war than watching big bombs going off on T.V. and that civility and respect for human life will begin to again emerge as important national values. R.S.