The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Roger Ebert on the culture of gullibility

September 26, 2008 |  2:39 pm

As we noted earlier this week, Roger Ebert has been weighing in on politics lately, having written several critical pieces about Sarah Palin, as well as a deadpan description of creationism that ended up with a joke about Palin's favorite hunting target--a moose. Ebert has now put up a fascinating new post lamenting the fact that his piece on creationism, which inspired thousands of comments on various science blogs and seemed quite clearly aimed at pointing out some of the many inherent contradictions of believing the Earth was created within the past 6,000 years, was widely and often hilariously misinterpreted by a host of bloggers and readers.

Ebertthumb As he writes: "Many of the comments I've seen believe I have converted to Creationism. Others conclude I have lost my mind because of age and illness. There is a widespread conviction that the site was hacked. Lane Brown's blog for New York magazine flatly states I gave 'two thumbs down to evolution.' " Ebert adds that the purpose for writing the piece wasn't to debate creationism vs. the theory of evolution but simply "to discuss the gradual decay of our sense of irony and instinct for satire, and our growing credulity."

Boy, did he hit it on the head. It's impossible to spend a day on the Web without reading a post or story or fusillade of comments that either wildly misconstrue the meaning of simple news events or invent crazily crackpot justifications for simple occurrences. If you think I'm exaggerating, just visit my colleague David Sarno's Web Scout blog, where he could easily spend all his waking hours chronicling the carnival of slippery half-truths, charades and conspiracy theories that endlessly bounce around the Web. I guess I've grown immune to being taken aback, but Ebert sees this as a new, disturbing downturn in our culture. As he puts it: "We may be leaving an age of irony and entering an age of credulity. In a time of shortened attention spans and instant gratification, trained by web surfing and movies with an average shot-length of seconds, we absorb rather than contemplate.... We accept rather than select."

Sometimes it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Ebert nabs a New York Post TV critic who snarkily lambasted "Heroes," saying the show is so full of itself that its characters have taken to spouting all sorts of crazy nonsense, citing a patch of Malcolm McDowell dialogue that goes: "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will." Whoops! As Ebert notes, that nonsense McDowell's character was spouting was a famous speech from "Hamlet."

The scary thing is that we're all guilty of similar whoppers, missing the subtext as well as the text because we're too busy to stop and pay attention. Overwhelmed with information overload, we now find ourselves reading--if that is still the right word--all sorts of stories and messages on our computers or cellphones while we're also talking on the phone, watching TV or driving a car. In one ear, out the other, the figures and facts blurred and confused by our own embarrassing inattention. I'm constantly getting calls or e-mails from people who've totally missed the point of something I've written because they've, at best, only half-read it. Since I started this blog, any number of Hollywood agents or managers or studio executives have sent me instant responses, having just read one of my posts on their BlackBerries. One agent, clearly aiming to flatter, said how much of my writing he'd managed to consume waiting for the valet to bring his car.

If it was meant as a compliment, I can't say I took it that way. But I get the feeling that this same half-brain attentiveness is also given over to reading movie and TV show scripts--how else to explain how so much dreck gets greenlighted, unless the script was largely read while the decision-maker was on the phone, in a meeting or half-watching their kid's soccer match. The sad thing is that it's just a small leap between half-reading a script or a blog post to half-watching a political ad, coming away convinced that Barack Obama is a Muslim or in favor of sex education for kindergartners. It's not that we've lost our minds. All too often, it feels like we're barely using them. 

Photo of Roger Ebert by Chris Pizzello / Associated Press