ROUGHLY FROM THE 19TH CENTURY onwards, the words imbecile and idiot have become synonymous with each other. But throughout the preceding centuries, there was a clear-cut distinction in their meanings. An imbecile was an adult whose mental age was permanently frozen in the region of 6 to 9. In provincial English, the synonym for imbecile was frail. However, an imbecile ranked slightly higher than an idiot but lower than a moron. The old English legal canon defined an idiot as “one who has been without reasoning or understanding from birth, as distinguished from a lunatic, who became that way.” The psychiatric domain defined an idiot as an adult whose mental age was stuck at two years or less and the person could not “guard himself even against common physical dangers.”
Today, the common synonyms for both idiot and imbecile include fool, moron, cretin, stupid, halfwit, dolt, dunce, nincompoop, blockhead, ignoramus, birdbrain, peabrain, airhead, dumbass, jackass, dipstick, dopey, clod, dim-dim, dunderhead…
We have clearly reached a stage in evolution where the race towards self-inflicted annihilation of all that is good, noble, and virtuous is being celebrated in a festive spirit, delivered in zeros and ones. There was some merit in the time-tested wisdom which said that you would become a lunatic or corrupt yourself if you stayed in like company for long. Today, the mobile device in your hand supplies that company against your will. Resistance is futile.
And the media, more than any other institution, is a sponsor, torchbearer and prime enabler of this descent into annihilation. The latest instance is the sleazy, sick, and sustained coverage of the nude pictures of Bollywood’s resident clown-in-chief Ranveer Singh. That this is being treated as news is the greater slap on our collective sensibilities. It is an unapologetic spitting on even basic decency. And like countless similar instances in the past, its purveyors will go unpunished, further emboldening them.
The vanguard and cheerleaders of these depravity-purveyors are editors and journalists old enough to be grandfathers, people who had grown up in an environment bereft of the Ranveer Singhs of the world. Of the triad of Srushti (Creation), Stithi (Order) and Laya (Destruction), Stithi requires the maximum work. Order, which ensures stability, has to be actively maintained through constant vigilance, which in turn requires the force of arms. Order also includes the preservation of the best elements of the past. One outcome of this spirit is the emergence of proverbs such as “leave the world a better place than it was.”
The trajectory of public discourse especially in the realm of culture over the last two decades clearly shows that the aforementioned editors and so-called intelligentsia are actively pushing the Laya agenda. Barring natural calamities, the lead up to a great cataclysm is the innocuous dismantling of various invisible support systems and subterranean linkages that make up order and sustain culture. When this is done in a sustained fashion, this is what we get:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is lost
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.
The worst are filled with passionate intensity. To this, add ideological firepower and media support, you get irredeemable birdbrains like Ranveer Singh and the rest of the Bollywood gang.
The fall has been pretty swift and staggering.
THE STORY OF THIS FALL is clearly available in what is derogatorily known as “regional media.” Roughly up to the late 1980s, readers would eagerly await the Sankranti Special, Ugadi Special, Dusshera Special, and Deepavali Special both of broadsheets, and general purpose and niche magazines and journals. These archival issues are still a collector’s prize. Editors would painstakingly approach the topmost scholars and writers and thinkers and cultural savants and draw out the best from them. Thus, general interest Kannada magazines like Prajamata, Sudha, Taranga, and Kasturi would feature learned essays on history, culture, art, sculpture, iconography, literature and music by stalwarts like Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri, D.V. Gundappa, P. T. Narasimhachar, and Masti Venkatesha Iyengar.
A roughly similar atmosphere prevailed even in the gilded age of the American magazine publishing. Writers and journalists who have now become legends were earning their spurs, churning out spectacular long forms straddling impossible genres. New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s Magazine and Rolling Stone among other notable outlets gave us superstar writers like Joseph Mitchell, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, and Norman Mailer. The political or ideological affiliation of these writers is secondary. What is indisputable is the quality of their writing, the sweep of their research and the depth of subject-understanding.
The same quality spilled over to the visual medium as well. The US produced truly high-quality talk shows. Two come to mind immediately. Firing Line with William Buckley Jr and the archives of C-Span. Back home, Doordarshan in its early years, did some really good work especially in the realm of the arts. It featured colossuses like Balamuralikrishna, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pt. Ravishankar, and Padma Subrahmanyam to name just four.
When we look back, it feels like all of this occurred in Krita Yuga. The reason brings us back to where we began: the destruction of order and stability by the usual vandals of Indian culture. An Ustad Alauddin Khan could produce a Pandit Ravishankar. The unbroken Carnatic classical musical climate of the previous centuries was sustained by M.S. Subbulakshmi and Balamuralikrishna. It can be said without exaggeration that the same is not true of their disciples. The lesser said about classical dance the better.
The outcomes have been entirely predictable. India’s “cultural soft power” has today almost become synonymous with cinema in which we need to strain to spot India. “Mainstream” newspapers like the Times of India have become finishing schools for misspellings and serial crimes against grammar. Magazines like India Today run brazen hatchet-jobs targeting Brahmins when its founder and chief editor is not busy flattering Sonia Gandhi. Then we have the Chinese extension counter in Chennai, The Hindu, a paper once described as sedate, balanced and was actually… Hindu in letter, spirit and conduct. The litany will be incomplete without mentioning news channels. I am yet to watch a programme dedicated to art, music, literature, culture and history. It appears that politics and cinema are their constant obsessions as if nothing else exists in the seventh largest country in the world inhabited by 140 crore people and occupies the high mantle of being one of humankind’s oldest cultures.
The retorts to this is familiar: that it takes lot of money to sustain operations, that old revenue models have been disrupted, that non-political and non-entertainment shows don’t draw audiences, etc. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in all this but the point is about values. About elevating the standard of the readers and viewers instead of pandering to their basest impulses.
I’m reminded of a 1965 letter that a poor farmer from Maddur wrote to Sri Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, then the editor of the monthly, Jivana. Written in very simple Kannada, it is suffused with great emotion describing how he was unable to pay the subscription fees for the previous year due to bad harvest. The farmer continues, “my deepest apologies for the lapse. I am herewith enclosing a money order for the past dues and an advance covering two years. Your magazine remains a constant source of succour. I seek refuge in its pages when I am disconsolate and need guidance. Please don’t stop your noble endeavour.”
Exactly how many editors possess even 0.000000000000001% of this profound standard today?
Which is why they seek unhinged and arrant Bollywood bozos and hawk their depravity as news. Nothing you say will drive sanity or decency into their commerce-driven or ideology-addled skulls. And you should say nothing. And therein lies the brighter side.
The nadir that the “mainstream” media has reached is actually an opportunity for sane folks. Because it can’t climb back up, the vacuum that it has unwittingly created by sacrificing values can be filled by those stick by values. And there are already visible signs of the emergence of this alternative phenomenon. Over the past few years, niche online journals and podcasts and web channels have quietly surged, and some boast of a captive audience that put “mainstream” outlets to shame. In fact, some “mainstream” media establishments have taken notice of it and in some cases, have tried to buy them out. And those who have succumbed to such buyouts have seen their base eroded as quickly. But that is a story for another day.
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