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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 16, 1997

Posted to HotWired 16 Sept 97

Hm... hard to follow a post like that!

Seriously, this was a really bad column, full of list of errors, half-truths, exaggerations.

First, communications technology is not a product of American culture and not unique to American culture. As previous writers have pointed out, the basic technology was invented by Scots and Italians (though we Canadians like to claim Alexander Graham Bell as our own). It's probably worth pointing out that it was the Russians who launched the first satellite. Perhaps Katz means media culture? But contemporary mass media is as influenced by Italian westerns, British farces and Japanese disaster movies as it is by Disney and the networks. Even this century's most authoritative commentator, Marshall McLuhen, was Canadian. And let's not forget that the World Wide Web was invented in Switzerland.

Second, showing one's emotions in public is not particularly American. If anything is unusual, it is the British tradition of the stiff upper lip. Most cultures are quite open about their feelings, especially of grief. While Diana's funeral was taking place we got to watch Haitians openly weeping as their loved ones were drowned in a ferry accident, Jews visibly angry and upset at a series of bombs in Jerusalen, and of course, Mother Teresa's death, which draw widespread anguish across India.

Third, even were the Queen's message broadcast live (a previous writer says it was not; I don't know), it would not by any stretch be her first live broadcast. I have seen and heard the Queen live on television many times: her annual Christmas address, for example, or welcoming messages at sporting events.

Fourth, the Queen did not bare her soul, vent, wail, or do anything remotely extraordinary during either her address or Diana's funeral. As a previous writer points out, her speech was very carefully written and crafted to describe the event, not her own emotions. Throughout the funeral (and yes, I watched it beginning to end) she was for the most part stone-faced.

Fifth, the cult of the celebrity is not uniquely American (though it surfaces as evidence that American society has not really progressed as much as they think it has). The names Mao, Hitler, Tito, Castro, Mobutu, Kenyatta, Gandhi and Hirohito spring to mind just from this century, and none of these were Americans. History is replete with larger than life personalities and mass adoration. Think of Marc Anthony riling the crowd after Caesar's death - was this so different? Or do you prefer people who are famous simply for being famous? Well, we could start with Marie Antoinette and work from there...

Sixth, revolutions are not fought on TV. Only Americans think they are fought on TV. Real revolutions (which is not what happened in the U.K.) are fought on the streets. Ask the people of former Zaire, perhaps, or the survivors of Tiananman whether their revolutions were fought on TV.

Katz calls this the "American Century". They're welcome to it. The American Century was characterized by the bloodiest wars in human history, the onset of global climactic change caused by pollution, mass starvation and disease on a scale experienced only during the years of the black death, economic depression, and massive extinctions. The creation of the Disney Channel and McDonalds hardly stands as fair compensation.

The tragedy of this century is that the world's largest power - the United States - has for the most part been utterly ignorant of what is happening outside its borders. Sometimes the results have been tragic, as they were in Biafra and are now even as I write in North Korea. And sometimes the results are a laughable farce, as is the case with Katz's column.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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