Monday, December 28, 2015 12:01 PM
I saw two thought-provoking items in the New York Times Art Section today. One was about laser-scanning ancient historical sites under threat from ISIL vandalizing—and the other was about Jennifer Jason Leigh’s return to movies after the birth of her son.
I love the laser-scanning—once completed, a good laser-scan allows us to buy up some real estate down in Anaheim (next door to you-know-who) and recreate an entire site—right down to the texture of the stones—suitable for family visits or archaeological study. Indeed, we live in a world where, before long, even the reconstruction will be unnecessary—virtual-reality headgear will allow us to visit the site without leaving our homes. Meanwhile, science-denying thugs wandering the deserts of the Middle East can crack all the stones they want—was there ever such a display of ignorance?—destroying the remains of our past out of fundamentalist superstition. What children. Our only remaining threat would be Chinese-ISIL—people who could hack our digital heritage sites.
It is fitting that the season of Santa Claus would be a time for Jennifer Jason Leigh to start wishing for a role in a film her five-year-old could see. We parents are careful to keep our children from growth-stunting stuff like caffeine, alcohol, or cigarettes—and we do the same with perceptions. We feel (correctly, I think) that children’s minds cannot mature properly if certain memes are presented too early—vice, violence, betrayal, and despair can overtax a growing mind, killing its spirit before it has a chance to grow strong enough to handle adult issues.
Thus we raise our children in a fantasy world of happy endings, magic, and limited evil—we lie to them about Santa Claus for their own good—even though we must be revealed as liars, in time. Movie stars like Jennifer Jason Leigh act in challenging roles that suit their young ambitions—but when they become parents, they invariably start to think about roles in family-friendly fare—they become Santa Claus actors. Are they surprised, I wonder, when they discover that it is just as difficult to act out fantasy as reality? Ask a children’s-book author—it is as hard to write an engaging children’s story with limited vocabulary, devoid of adult issues, as it is to write adult literature full of big words and complex problems.
And if it is truly necessary to raise our children in a bubble of innocence, why have we never addressed this scientifically? Scientists might be able to determine the exact age at which children are best told that Santa Claus is a fiction—instead of having those uncomfortable confrontations between kids whose parents let the cat out of the bag—and kids whose parents want to hang onto innocence awhile longer. It is one of those ‘givens’ that we recognize, but never study outright. Doctors and nutritionists give careful study to which foods are appropriate for growing infants—when to start on solid foods, etc.—but we leave the decision about emotional maturity to the MPAA, which determines how old you have to be to watch each film being released—and the MPAA, trust me, is not a scientific institution with our children’s mental health as their primary concern.
Of course, even if we studied this issue, there would be parents who would take exception for their kids—as some of them do now, with polio shots and other school-mandated vaccines. Ignorance is an important part of childhood—and we parents sometimes want to prolong their ignorance—yet no parent would admit that they want their children to grow up to be ignorant adults. Even though reproduction is the cardinal activity of living beings, we still have debates over whether we should enlighten our children with sex education classes. That attitude seems more for the parents than for the kids—wishful thinking that our kids won’t have sex. Some school systems even have so-called sex-ed classes that supply misinformation and focus on abstention, rather than giving kids the information they need to avoid early pregnancy or STDs.
We even lie to teenagers—take any class in business administration and show me the chapter that deals with bribes, protection, or corruption—unavoidable factors in real-world business that we nevertheless overlook when we study the subject. Criminality is like an unrecognized sovereignty—it doesn’t officially exist, but any real-world activity must take it into account. This accounts for the phenomenon of college-graduates who don’t know a damned thing about real life—for all the debt being incurred, that seems kind of wasteful.
Eventually, we must admit that the lying never ends—even adults can be grouped into levels of greater or lesser reality-facing. There’s a group that believes in the efficacy of group prayer. There’s a group that believes America is great because it is rich and powerful—and never asks how it got that way, or how it stays that way. People can be categorized by how much childhood innocence and ignorance they retain, and how much, and what kinds, of reality they embrace. We live in a world where, no matter how true something is, there’s a group of people that don’t believe it—and, conversely, no matter how silly something is, there’s a group of people that do believe it.
As T. S. Eliot once wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We have difficulty living in the present. We have difficulty accepting hard truths. Outside of the infinity of truths even a scientist cannot know, there is a further infinity of truths we refuse to acknowledge—it is troubling for me, a seeker of truths, to accept that for many people the avoidance of truth is a valid pursuit. Long ago, in my youth, I used to see religion as the prime avoidance technique—but now that mass media has come into its own, I see that misinformation has no limits. Some people are so insistent on falsehood that they can contradict themselves without embarrassment—or deny that they said something, moments after they said it.
It is fitting, I suppose, in this age when knowledge is exploding in every direction, that misinformation should explode as well—but that doesn’t make it any less tragic.