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History Table of Contents
1996 Summer Conference
 
Summer Conference 1996
Citizens of the Electronic Village: smartening up or dumbing down?

Keynote Address

ERVIN S. DUGGAN
President & CEO, Public Broadcasting Service

I will speak less about gadgets [and] less about technology than you might expect, because at the bottom of my motivation to give you a keynote tonight is a concern with the human values and the human purposes that underlie our concern with technology.

I have a youngest son, 16. As is typical of his generation, he completely rejects everything that his parents like; be it values, table manners, you name it, with one exception: he loves the music that his Mom and Dad grew up on. I suspect he doesn't realize that we know that music. If he did, he would reject that too!

But, because he believes it's contemporary music, we listen to a lot of Mickey and Sylvia, The Beatles and The Grateful Dead. And so these days I am hearing — more often and at higher volume than I would like — the wonderful Grateful Dead song about the railroad engineer who leaves his locomotive cab for a few minutes to get a bite to eat. He leaves his pet monkey in the cab of the locomotive and pretty soon the monkey is at the controls of the locomotive chuffing at full speed down the railroad track. Who knows what will happen.

The chorus of the old Grateful Dead song goes this way:

Big locomotive, right on time;
Big locomotive coming down the Line;
Big locomotive, Number Ninety-Nine,
Left an engineer with a worried mind.

I hope you will keep that image in mind as I speak, because the happy monkey at the controls of the big locomotive, barrelling down the track toward who knows what, suggests my thesis tonight — a thesis in which we are the monkey. The big locomotive is digital electronic technology and we are racing happily down the Information Superhighway toward the Electronic Village. Somewhere, surely, there must be an engineer with a very worried mind.

I work in public television, whose founding purpose is to turn technology, to turn gadgets to high, humane and civilizing purposes; to use satellites, cameras, videotape technology — all the gadgetry of the information age — not merely as gadgets, but as tools in the hopeful enterprise of educating and uplifting human beings.

This evening I am not going to talk about gadgets. I want to sound, instead, a note of cool realism about the possibilities of technology.

It seems to me that there is a great deal of foolish utopianism in the air about technology, its purposes and its possibilities.

We modern North Americans — Canadians as well as U.S. citizens — are infatuated with the new. We love technology; we love declaring every innovation, however minor, historic or revolutionary.

Other than the word "free," there is surely no word in the language that is more precious and exciting to us than the word "new." We have had, in recent decades, the New Morality, the New Politics, the New Journalism. There was even for a time a trend that I don't think really existed, but was called the New Celibacy. Fortunately, if it did exist, it was short-lived. It was not successful.

Everything new, of course, summons up another word — revolution. We had the Computer Revolution, the Information Revolution; no wonder our heads are swimming with so much that is new and revolutionary.

In reality, however, it seems to me that the future in our culture has almost always rather closely resembled the recent past. Genuine revolutions have been rare in our cultural life.

Although technology has progressed steadily in our time, with wonderful results in comfort and productivity, I would assert that there have been few genuinely revolutionary shifts in technology. Human history is not that replete with genuine technological revolutions.

The printing press invented by Gutenberg — moveable type — truly was revolutionary. It took learning out of the hands of the political elites and the priestly elites and put information into the hands of the people.

Martin Luther said toward the end of his life that the Protestant Reformation would not have been possible without the printing press, which put the Bible into the hands of individual believers and made possible that phenomenon that Luther called, "the priesthood of all believers."

Steam power and the combustion engine, it seems to me, were also truly revolutionary. They created profound changes in how we produce goods, where we live, how we conduct our lives.

These great inventions, remember, destroyed the magnetic link between home and work and created the world that we know in which the factory, the bureaucratically-organized office, the Superhighway and the distant suburb are the realities that we live among. The internal combustion engine, one might say, made Detroit possible — for better or for worse.

For the most part, however, technology promises more revolutions than it actually delivers.

Visitors to the New York World's Fair of 1939 saw a host of predictions about the future. The Fair promised that people would commute by hovercraft and helicopters. It promised portable houses mounted on masts — the utilities came up through the masts — so that when you moved you took the pod with you and mounted it on a new mast. That was to be the house of the future. It showed a new thing called television.

Of all those prophesied technological revolutions, only television was an innovation that caught fire in the marketplace and came into the homes of Americans. The hovercraft commuting didn't happen. The pod house didn't happen. The Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion vehicle didn't happen

But television did happen. I would argue, however, that even television, for all the changes it has made in our lives, has not truly revolutionized the way that we live.

What about the computer? What about digital technology? What about the convergence of computers with telecommunications? Will these create a genuine revolution?

Well, we don't know.

Will digital technology and cheaper telecommunications reverse that separation between home and work that has characterized our lives since the Industrial Revolution?

Perhaps. We don't know. But, I think we would do well to keep in mind this fact: that in history genuine technological revolutions are quite few and far between.

We can expect that there will be very important and significant business uses for the new technologies. The laptop computer, to which I am addicted, and the marvels of computer-aided design are already upon us with wonderful and impressive effects.

We can expect, also, that the convergence of video technology, computer technology and telecommunications will make possible innovations in diversion and entertainment that will be exciting, especially to our children.

But what more can we hope for? Can we expect that these fruits of the digital revolution can go beyond business and entertainment to create something new in the world of education or human enlightenment?

Will the information Superhighway be only a sort of shimmering video arcade and shopping mall, or can we direct the effects of this new technology toward genuine progress and human science, education, enlightenment?

Can the information Superhighway be a truly constructive instrument of education, of culture and of citizenship?

Can the Electronic Village, in which we are all apparently destined to live, ever resemble the ancient Greek marketplace, where not only business and market transactions took place, but great ideas were discussed and great concepts were born?

We can certainly hope that new technology will bring these results in terms of human enlightenment.

But we should not imagine that technology can do the job by itself. Technology can light up a screen, but it cannot light up a mind. Technology is neutral: a tool, which can either build or destroy, or lie unused.

Utopian notions about digital technology are as silly, it seems to me, as utopian notions would have been about a hammer or an axe. It is simply a tool.

My point tonight is that we must beware of those who imagine that gadgets alone can produce enlightening, civilizing results. These utopians are putting the technological horse before the spiritual, moral and intellectual cart. And I think at the beginning of this conference we need to guard against that kind of Utopian vision of technology that imagines a revolution, when the revolutions truly come from within.

Consider this phenomenon that you have raised in your question, the phenomenon you have called "dumbing down."

The phrase, it seems to me, is shorthand for several trends that are intertwined.

  • The general decline, for example, of student achievement and test scores.
  • Polls suggesting that citizens in our epic know less and care less about public affairs and current affairs and care less about them than citizens 20 years ago.
  • Declining patronage of cultural institutions, museums, libraries and theatres and declining support for those cultural institutions.
  • A general coarsening of public discourse and a popular culture that daily scales new heights of violence and vulgarity.

All of these are a part of the dumbing down of our contemporary culture. And, ironically, all of these phenomena — all of these trends and the dumbing down of society — have occurred at precisely the moment of our greatest advances in information technology.

Indeed, advances in information technology may be responsible for some of the dumbing down.

Somewhere at this very moment, a student is watching entertainment television, when she should be studying her summer school algebra. My son, perhaps, at this moment, is using his computer to play a game of "Doom," instead of searching the Internet for some truly enlightening scientific or cultural bit of information.

Perhaps technology is a part of the dumbing down. It can be used. It is a neutral tool. It can be used for enlightenment, but we bear upon our consciences the possibility that the dumbing down of our culture has occurred at precisely the moment that we've gotten smart about technology.

I am not a thorough-going pessimist. I believe that the potential of electronic technology is great for education, culture and citizenship. I believe, also, that the Information Superhighway can, indeed, lead us — at least some of us — toward those broad, sunlit uplands of enlightenment.

I also believe, however, that a rock slide is blocking our forward progress on the Information Superhighway; a moral, spiritual and intellectual rock slide that I call "the culture of chaos."

Until we resolve the problem of the culture of chaos, our progress — even with the best and most exciting technology — will be fitful or non-existent.

Now, what do I mean by this phrase, "the culture of chaos?"

I use it to describe our modern cultural climate, or atmosphere; a situation in which we share between us almost no agreed upon rules of moral, aesthetic or civic conduct [and] in which virtually all the rules that survive are the occasion for angry and unresolved debate.

Indeed, in our modern, secularized culture, perhaps the only universally accepted rule is that every individual has the right to devise his own rules, and that one person's self-invented rules are as good as anybody else's.

This is the doctrine of the Imperial self, the doctrine of radical, personal autonomy. And the cheerleaders for this doctrine do not acknowledge that it produces anarchy or chaos. They prefer euphemisms like "freedom," or "diversity," or "pluralism." — a misuse of every one of those phrases, those words.

We can call it what we will.

The fact remains that we moderns lack today any broad consensus about what is right, what is wrong, what is good, what is bad, what is desirable, what is undesirable.

We are in constant contention about those issues.

And in the absence of any moral consensus about right and wrong — about shared values — public discourse has become a loud and constant struggle over rights and laws, a kind of legalistic wrangle that is never resolved; a power struggle, in which those who possess the greatest political strength, the greatest legal strength, or even the greatest physical strength, turn out to be the winners, not one set of values over another, but a more powerful faction over another.

And we accept this contemporary culture of chaos and moral relativism as normal, much as we consider the weather to be normal. It is a part of the climate or atmosphere in which we live.

Yet, if we reach back in history to compare, it begins to look less normal. And, suddenly if we study history, we discover something interesting. [We discover] that this culture of chaos of today is a twentieth century phenomenon. It is linked to a collective loss of faith in transcendent values, to our resulting loss of what I call a common moral vocabulary.

Think about the past. Our political and literary ancestors — those who launched our respective national experiments in democracy and the culture that we live in — would surely find the notion of unfettered personal freedom and self-invented rules not a very congenial idea.

Consider what we know of the Founding Fathers, as we call them in the United States, Jefferson, Madison, Adams and their colleagues.

These great figures in their day deplored the notion of unrestrained personal licence; they saw it as characteristic of the mob, but not as characteristic of decent democratic citizenship.

They celebrated self-restraint, self-government and they warned that individual liberty must be tempered by what they called republican virtue. An interesting word. In our culture, the word virtue has a sort of prim, lacy kind of connotation; the Victorian maiden defending her virtue. It denotes a kind of self- righteous, moral purity.

But, if we go back to the ancient root meaning of that word it is the word for strength and competence. Our word virtuoso comes from that original root for the word virtue. And when our eighteenth century forbearers used the word virtue, they were speaking of strength and competence, the strength and competence to govern one's self and to govern one's community, not of that prim Victorian virtue.

The word has become attenuated. It has lost some of its meaning.

When we read the essays and speeches of those founders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one of the most striking revelations is the extent to which they did, indeed, share a common moral vocabulary. For all their lively debates and disagreements about how to organize society, the Founders' public lives and public discussions were conducted in the context of a shared moral culture, to which virtually all people gave assent.

If we imagine culture to be a river in which everyone swims, or a stream from which everybody drinks, the culture of our forbearers was created out of two great tributaries whose headwaters reached to Athens, on the one hand, and to Jerusalem on the other: the Greco-Roman secular, classical tradition and the Judeo-Christian biblical, or religious, traditions.

Two great tributaries which merged and in which everyone swam or from which everyone drank to form a kind of common moral consensus or moral vocabulary.

Thomas Jefferson was not conventionally religious. The people of his day considered him a sceptic and he considered himself unconventional in the religious sense.

He wrote about himself, "I am a cult unto myself." Yet, he accepted the idea of a "Creator," what he called the "Author of Liberty."

Benjamin Franklin, his colleague, was similarly not conventionally religious. Yet he, like Jefferson, was deeply knowledgeable about both the biblical and the classical traditions. Though he was not religious himself, he was friendly to religion.

The writings of both men are replete, though they were not religious, with biblical references.

Franklin spoke with no embarrassment of the new nation that he was involved in founding as, "the new Israel" or "the new Jerusalem." It was natural for them to use those religious illusions.

References by those same political forbearers to the classical tradition are equally commonplace. The fledgling United States was also called by the same founders, "the new Athens." And their hope was to create a civilization as brilliant and as free as fifth century Athens.

What the modern reader is struck by, when you go back to those ancient papers and speeches and writings of the founders, is not that these early, highly-educated leaders were themselves steeped in classical and biblical lore. The striking thing is that they assumed a similar knowledge of these two great traditions among the plainer, less-educated people to whom they spoke. They assumed that the culture shared the same knowledge dipped from those two great tributaries that they knew so well.

Flash forward to the nineteenth century, to Gettysburg, where Lincoln and Edward Everett were the speakers of the day. Both of those principal speakers — Lincoln in his short speech of fewer than 300 words [and] Everett in his much longer oration — both drew from the two great tributaries in their remarks. And both appear to have been totally confident that their audiences had also drunk from the same double stream; the immediate audience at the dedication and, later, the audience that would read their words.

Gary Wills a few years ago wrote a brilliant book called Lincoln at Gettysburg in which he takes apart the Gettysburg Address and the whole experience at Gettysburg. And he points out that Lincoln, when he used the term "a new birth of Freedom" was using a biblical illusion to the Gospel of John and he could be confident that the language of spiritual rebirth in the Gospel of John would be understood by all the people in the crowd at Gettysburg and beyond.

His Gettysburg address was also patterned, Wills writes, on classical funeral orations of Greece.

Lincoln was a rail splitter, he was a backwoodsman, but he was deeply read in the classics and he was familiar with the funeral oratory of Pericles and the colleagues of Pericles, who constructed their funeral orations according to a certain formula that Lincoln also used in the Gettysburg Address.

Edward Everett filled his two-hour address with rhetoric that similarly was dipped from the two great traditions. He used cadences that evoke the King James version of the Bible. He used direct biblical language. He quoted the prophet Amos and the Apostle Paul. He evoked scenes from ancient Greece as well, comparing the dead at Gettysburg to the Athenian heroes of the Battle of Marathon. And his illusions are so glassy that it is obvious that he expected his audience to understand and know about the Battle of Marathon without his giving any deep explanation.

I emphasize the importance of these two great traditions in the minds of our political, spiritual and literary ancestors in order to make a crucial point: both of these traditions, the great secular Greco-Roman tradition and the biblical tradition deriving from Jerusalem had one important feature in common. Each accepted the notion of objective values; each asserted the reality of something called truth, with a capital "T."

The religious tradition asserted that God was the source of this Truth, this ultimate authority. The tradition arrived at objective values and Truth through divine revelation. But the Greeks also believed in objective truths and absolutes. The dialogues of Plato show Socrates and his proteges searching for the highest good — the summum bonum, and for objective ideals of justice, beauty and truth, discernible, in their case, not through revelation, but through reason and rational discourse.

These two great tributaries of the Western tradition, in short, gave our founders, our forbearers, their common moral culture and their common moral vocabulary: a culture that generally accepted the notion of transcendent truths and values: truths that existed — that were there — whether or not foolish mortals chose to acknowledge those truths; rules that had authority, whether or not fractious and disobedient mortals chose to obey the rules.

Even the moderate and pragmatic Aristotle developed a coherent set of rules of aesthetics and politics, which he believed not to be self-invented, but to be objective — to be out there in the universe the way mathematics is believed to be out there in the universe.

Now, contrast that to today's culture; today's style of angry but inconclusive moral and political discourse. These exist — the confusion, the chaos in our society — with no reference to the great traditions; the two great tributaries. It's as if we've abandoned our memory of those two great tributaries.

Today's absence of moral consensus; today's culture of moral relativism and near worship of the unfettered, uninhibited, unregulated Self, suggests that our twentieth century culture has been drinking from some other stream than the great river formed by those biblical and classical tributaries.

I ran across a book a couple of years ago by a scholar named G. Edward Veith. The book has a very disturbing title. It is called, Modern Fascism, Liquidating the Judeo-Christian World View.

Dr. Veith puts forward in this disturbing little book the idea that our secular culture in modern times can be traced — not to the two great traditions, but to another river: the dark and turbid headwaters, which start with the nihilists and Nietzsche in the nineteenth century and course down through Heidegger and the European existentialists.

This additional stream of thought, Dr. Veith reminds us, has as its object the total overthrow of the two great traditions, the classical and the biblical traditions; the Judeo-Christian spiritual heritage.

It was Nietzsche, for example, who proclaimed that religion was just a projection of our infantile wishes on to the universe. Since that was true, "God," he said, "is dead."

It was Nietzsche who denounced both Judaism and Christianity as "slave religions." And it was Nietzsche who advanced a new version of the summum bonum, the highest good: the Aryan ideal of race, of breeding, of privilege,"whose chief exemplar would be a New Man, a Superman who would be" — and I quote here the chilling words of Nietzsche — "capable of creating pain and suffering, and would experience pleasure in so doing..."

Modern scholars tend to underestimate Nietzsche as a sort of operatic prose stylist, who didn't attract much attention beyond aesthetic attention.

In fact, his thought attracted serious adherents and had real consequences. The celebrated existentialist philosopher of Germany, Martin Heidegger, became a Nazi, one so radical that his Nazi superiors finally parted company with him over his desire to persecute Catholic students at Freiburg. And Heidegger, like his fellow existentialists, seized upon the idea of self-invented values as creative acts, as liberating.

"To make one's own rules," he said in his rectorial address at the University of Freiburg, "is the highest freedom." Almost an inscription above the portals of the culture of chaos.

For such thinkers as Heidegger, rebellion against the classical tradition and against the ancient traditional religions was a creative act. He and his colleagues celebrated the imminent, the earthly, the immediate; they celebrated primitive notions of race and blood and violence. They derided older notions of traditional norms and objective values. Such ideas have had far-reaching consequences.

Ten years after the end of World War II, Walter Lippmann wrote in a little book called, Essays in the Public Philosophy, that although our Western democracies had triumphed militarily in that great conflict, they may have been defeated spiritually and morally and emotionally.

Certain alien ideas had crept into Western life and thought, Lippmann wrote: Ideas that caused post-war civilization in our industrial democracies to be philosophically and politically "deranged."

Lippmann, was not himself at all religious. Yet, he deplored the West's modern loss of faith in transcendent values; the loss of what he fondly called "the mandate of Heaven."

And here are Lippmann's words from that little book:

"If what is good, if what is right, if what is true, is only what the individual chooses to invent, then we are now outside the traditions of civility. We are back in the war of all against all."

Lippmann traced the derangement of traditional values to a new philosophy that emphatically was not drawn from the two great tributaries of Western thought; a maligned new philosophy that argued the primacy of human will that glorified in power, that found glamour in violence.

Such notions, he wrote (and he was writing in 1955) eroded the very notion of citizenship, sapped the power of leaders to govern, and made civilization, as he put it, dysfunctional. Writing in the relatively calm air of the 1950s, Lippmann defined the two great tributaries — Judeo-Christian thought and the classical tradition, reaching down through the Enlightenment — as part of what he called, the essential "public philosophy."

Without a firm grip on a shared public philosophy (what I call a moral consensus), Lippmann wrote, civility, and perhaps even civilization, would die away.

"The crucial point," he wrote, "is not whether naturalists and supernaturalists disagree. It is that they [should] agree that there is a valid Law, whether it is derived from the commandments of God, or from the reason of things; law that is transcendent — not someone's fantasy, wish or rationalization — but there objectively it can be discovered. It has to be obeyed."

Is our modern North American culture unwittingly fascist, as Dr. Veith avers? Or is it merely "deranged," as Lippmann wrote?

One need not agree with either author totally to grasp that our moral and spiritual dysfunction today is quite deep, compared to the moral consensus that our forefathers and foremothers shared.

Today's cult of the Imperial, autonomous self has been disastrous in social terms. Unmoored from ancient traditions, "liberated" from fidelity to the idea of objective Truth, our modern culture of chaos values self-expression above self-discipline: The self, without self-government.

The rise of moral relativism and enthusiasm for self-invented rules has produced, as Lippmann predicted, a culture of chaos and perpetual contention, recalling, indeed, the spectre of Hobbes' "war of all against all."

I have said that I believe the Information Superhighway that we revel about so often is blocked by a kind of cultural, moral, spiritual and intellectual rock slide; and that our hopes to use technology as a tool of true intellectual and spiritual progress for "smartening up" the global Electronic Village depends on our resolving the crisis of culture and values, of moving the rock slide off the highway.

Unless we do this, our marvellous electronic tools will simply enable us to add to the confused chatter, noise and contention that symptomize the culture of chaos.

Unless we address ourselves to the cultural task that confronts us, our electronic tools will have inadequate benefits; some commercial benefits, some entertainment benefits, but not benefits that help us achieve the "smartening up" that humanity so desperately needs.

Having advanced so gloomy a diagnosis, what cure might I suggest?

Let me put forward four things that we need to achieve, all of them quite difficult:

  • First, we need to re-establish the notion of truth as the highest good — and to assert this idea of truth with a capital T against the foggy relativism that haunts our age. This notion of Truth with a capital T is not hostile to the idea of democracy or pluralism. All that democracy or pluralism requires is that as we debate our various ideas of truth, our various approaches to truth, (that) we debate them civilly and peacefully, and in ways that protect the rights of all people. But, civic discourse has no meaning unless it has the destination called truth. It becomes simply a struggle for power, unless we believe there is some destination called truth.
     
  • Second, we need to give up our false supposition that education can be "value free." Education should be the setting for a democratic debate about values; a setting in which people are invited to form, to test and defend their values. Let us never imagine that we can create in the educational setting a "value free zone." To attempt to do that encourages, rather, a vacuum of values and a further descent into the mean and angry power-struggling of the culture of chaos.
     
  • Third, we need to end our obsession with data and information and begin to aspire, once again, to judgment, to intelligence and even to wisdom. If I were drawing a diagram of this notion, I would draw a pyramid: At the bottom, in broad and plentiful supply, would be data and information — chaotic, unprocessed, unassimilated, plentiful and of relatively limited use. Higher up, toward the centre, we would find intelligence. Information that has been considered, judged, edited, and made ready for productive use. It is rarer and more precious than mere data. At the top point in the pyramid and scarcest of all, we would find that elusive thing called wisdom, which should still in this epic of data and information be the destination that we aspire to.
     
  • Fourth and finally, we need to support, to nurture and defend those institutions that seek to use the tools of technology for the advancement of education, culture and citizenship. And this will not be as easy as it sounds. We live in an age of "free market fundamentalism" — the false notion that the free capitalistic market can provide every social, intellectual, moral, aesthetic good that anyone might want. That fundamentalism is hostile to public institutions of education and culture; to libraries, to museums, to theatres and to the institution that I represent, public broadcasting. And I see that free market fundamentalism, which imagines falsely that the marketplace can give us everything that is good, as faulty in two ways. First of all, it is contrary to history. History has shown and we know that education is not generally provided for everyone by the marketplace. Private schools co-exist with much more numerous public schools and we aspire democratically to public education. Public libraries co-exist with book stores, but we don't imagine that book stores can provide everything that a learning society needs. The second defect in this free market fundamentalism is that it threatens to destroy far more than it can build. Once we allow these public institutions of education, culture and citizenship to wither and die, it will be very difficult to reconstruct them. The danger is of destroying far more than we build with a free market mania like that [which] now characterizes our societies.

When I advance in conversation these four suggestions, I am often accused of wanting to "turn back the clock." I must confess I have difficulty understanding why that is a bad idea.

If the clock is wrong, there are only two ways to correct the time: we either turn the clock decisively back, or we turn it decisively forward to another time. We correct the time.

What a pregnant and portentous phrase that is, to correct the time.

If we have taken a wrong turn on the path or highway, no one questions the necessity that we retrace our steps until we find again the right path.

Every time we play and enjoy an ancient sonata or oratorio, we turn back the clock. Every time we preserve and refurbish a fine old building for modern uses, we turn back the clock. To hack our way through the chaotic underbrush and find, once again, those ancient rivers of wisdom, may be to turn back the clock. But it may also be literally a way to "correct the time."

I love my laptop computer. I love the convenience of e-mail and the endless public library of the Internet. I love all the gadgets and possibilities of the Information Age. I want to live in the new Global Electronic Village; although I want to live in one that is "smartened up," and not "dumbed down."

I am convinced, however, that mere gadgets cannot take us there. We must first clear the intellectual and spiritual rock slide of which I have spoken, or we are likely to build nothing more than a digital electronic Tower of Babel.

And so I end, as I began, with the image of that happy monkey at the controls of the locomotive:

Big locomotive, right on time;
Big locomotive coming down the Line;
Big locomotive, Number Ninety-nine,
Left an engineer with a worried mind.

Questions

[Tape unclear] The question had to do with PBS's efforts to resist attacks against it and whether the speaker had any advice for Canadians concerned about the CBC in Canada.

I hesitate to give advice to my colleagues north of the border, because I don't know their situation.

When Speaker (Newt) Gingrich announced [after the '94 election] he felt it would be a good idea to cut out [PBS's] 14 per cent federal government funding, our strategy was not to be passive. We believed deeply in what we were doing; that, on balance, [it was] good for the country. We believed we were a frugal and productive spender of government funds.

So, we decided to get up on our hind legs and fight like heck. I found myself going around the country, often into the districts of Republican opponents of our enterprise, speaking to civic clubs and political groups.

One of the things I said was [that] we get 14 per cent of our funding from the government. And we use that to go and attract 86 per cent from people who believe in what we're doing — foundations, corporations, individual givers.

I said I think this is a model for the way government should spend its tax dollars. I believe that if a Congressman wants to go on a trip we should give him 14 per cent of the cost. And let him do what we do; go out and justify his projects to the American people. And if they believe in it they'll give him the 86 per cent. We got a strong positive reaction.

I have a question about destination truth. Whatever you want to choose as a subject, there are so many different truths. How do you arrive at a commonality of truth?

I don't think we're ever going to arrive at the commonality of truth. Even as the two great traditions that I described were forming and maturing they debated and searched for the highest good. They didn't know what it was. They were on a search and it seems to me that is the spirit that should guide us. But, it seems to me quite nihilistic and disruptive to imagine that there is no such thing called truth and so it doesn't matter what people believe.

Would you not think that many [of the] turning points throughout history came about because of cultures of chaos...that the chaotic situation is cyclical and that time has to be a factor? In Plato's time truth was much easier to acknowledge. Now, there are a variety of judgments that have to be made by many more people than those who made the judgments in Plato's time. Isn't life that much more complex?

Certainly, there are more people contending; there's a higher noise level in our society. I'm not sure there's ever been a time — even in fifth century Athens — when there was total unanimity. The philosophical schools disagreed vigorously with one another. What all of them believed was that there was something called truth.

I'm not a believer in cyclical theories of history, but I hope you're right.

I believe that when things get bad enough there's a reaction. I think that the social consequences of the total failure of the philosophy of unfettered personal freedom are so visible — from teenage pregnancy to drive-by shootings to drug addiction to who knows what — are so terrible that I think we can begin to detect a certain shifting of the social landscape.

So, I hope a new cycle is beginning.

How does your 16-year-old son learn the truth?

It's more difficult for my 16-year-old son to learn the truth in terms of enduring values than it was for his parents, or their parents.

I went to school in one of the 100 poorest counties in America; a poor rural county in South Carolina. The per capita income was extraordinarily low. My family was thought to be wealthy. By normal standards they were not. But by contrast to the living standard in this rural agrarian county, my family was well to do. But it was a terribly poor place where the educational standards were quite low.

But, when we went to school we read the classics; we read Mark Twain, Jack London, the dialogues of Plato. The curriculum was based on the classics and the enduring issues of humanity and the enduring truths of humanity were put on display for us.

My children, in their public school in an affluent neighbourhood in one of the richest counties in America, read Judy Blume novels about a 12-year-old girl whose parents are getting divorced. Sort of life adjustment problems that are not the sort of enduring issues of all ages.

Though they are being educated in an affluent neighbourhood and I was not, the education that I got put me more in touch (with) enduring truths and large issues. I was more culturally aware and better educated at the end of my high school years than my children will be.

In an era when PBS is having trouble in the United States getting mass support [and] CBC is having trouble getting mass support, is there some way of making public media more compelling to the younger generation — or is Jerry Springer going to win in the end?

We are moving our programming at PBS up the age scale. Traditionally, the children's programming really was for pre- schoolers and very young elementary school children. And you see us now moving up toward what we call the Sesame Street graduate. Wishbone appeals to children from the fourth to the sixth grade level, though younger and older people watch.

We're moving up the age scale, but I don't know what will happen when we reach the teen-age level; whether we're capable of reaching them.

It's no surprise to me to see people like Newt Gingrich and all his free market fundamentalist friends up in arms about government funding for PBS. I was rather shocked last year to read an article by Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's Magazine, [which] was a scathing attack on PBS. In fact, he was opposed to further government funding for PBS as it is presently constituted...I'd like your response to that article and what new mandate your organization is moving on?

I read the Lapham article. Mr. Lapham strikes me as a bit of a sourpuss. Everybody has a style and I think a part of his style is to take a kind of adversary position that is deliberately counter to what he perceives the conventional wisdom to be. If the conventional wisdom is that PBS is a good thing and has high quality programming, a part of his style is to go against it.

One of my reactions was that this was a sort of dyspeptic writing, perhaps for effect.

The other thing that I noticed was that he wrote a personal anecdote at the centre of his article about having an idea he had — a program that he took to PBS — and had rejected. And to me that makes him a party at interest. He had a program about books that he wanted to sell with himself as the personality.

And it seems to me that his analysis of the goodness or badness of PBS became immediately suspect when he, as party at interest, wrote about taking an idea to PBS that PBS didn't think was very good and didn't buy. And he immediately decided, and this is characteristic of every would-be producer that if we don't buy their program they immediately go on the war path and decide that we are on the side of evil, rather than good. I don't maintain that everything we do is perfect.

I certainly believe we are a more frugal and productive spender of our small amount of federal funding and when you look at the tremendous outreach to educational institutions, two-thirds of the country's colleges and universities getting distance learning by satellite from PBS, when you look at the fact we are making these programs of education self- supporting. I think we're a very frugal and productive spender of our funds.

We spend on our entire national budget in public television less than Fox spends on one program. Their budget for NFL football is $1.6 billion. Our entire annual budget for everything we do — every station, every salary, every program, Sesame Street, MacNeil-Lehrer, the Metropolitan Opera — everything we do — nationally and locally costs $1.4 billion a year.

And we win, disproportionately, more Emmies and more awards for our programming than commercial networks do — given what we spend. It seems to me that we're incredible frugal and cost effective and productive for what we do. So, we don't apologize either to Speaker Gingrich or to Mr. Lapham.

Did you take any of the criticism seriously and are there any new directions you're pursuing?

Sure. One of the criticisms, which is quite valid is that PBS has — in the words of critics — abandoned its position in American drama. One can see good British drama, one can see Rumpole.

The programming philosophy of PBS over the last decade was to try to compete in American drama, largely through a series called American Playhouse, with large made-for- television movies on commercial television — $3-to-$10 million apiece. That is simply beyond the economic reach of PBS. And so PBS abandoned American drama. And the critics are absolutely right that a part of our obligation and mission should be to do cutting-edge drama for the American people from their culture. The British stuff is wonderful and we have a tremendous audience for it and it's a very high quality. Co- producing with the BBC reduces our cost.

But we should feel an obligation and a mission to recapture our position in American drama. My suggestion to our programmers for the way to do it is to go back to the golden era where the face of the actor was the stage and the text itself was a part of the appeal of the drama and not feel that we have to spend $3-to-$10 million on location shooting.

Do it in the studio. Do it in black and white. And it would seem to me a turning back of the clock that would be a leap forward; to bring new playwrights, new actors, new performers, new material to the air in an experimental way, in a cutting-edge way that recaptures a position in American drama which says, we don't accept the conventions of the commercial networks and Hollywood, we're going to do it in a different way.

And I want us to do that and the critics are perfectly right that we should be doing it.

Eric Hoffer in The Ordeal of Change and The Temper of Our Times talked about revolution and the fact that no substantial social change has ever taken place in history (to date, anyway) without revolution and that the change is always a result after the revolution. Would you comment on the chances that the monkey [at the controls of the train] is going to get creative before he meets another train?

I'm a great admirer of Eric Hoffer, but...to imagine that progress is only possible through cataclysm and a sort of bloody revolution and through catastrophe is not to assess reality accurately.

One of the fascinating things to me about recent history in the United States, where we flail and assail ourselves about our failures, [is] the civil rights revolution of the 60s. [That was] a relatively non-violent and bloodless revolution; violence at the margins, but largely a society making up its mind to change — the federal government leading a process of largely peaceful change. [It was] not without confrontation and trauma, but with a surprising lack of blood and lack of violence and with a perfectly admirable horror when violence did occur and national revulsion — signs saying the whole world is watching.

This is one of those cases where the media assisted a profound social change. If you look at the change of the status of women in our societies, so that in the United States parity in law school and medical school enrollment — as many young women are choosing to go to law school and medical school as young men. We see a profound change having occurred in the last 25 or 30 years without violence, without cataclysm.

The revolution in the status of women, whatever one thinks of it; the entry of women into the workplace. Sixty per cent of the senior executives at PBS now are female. There's been a genuine revolution, but a bloodless and non-cataclysmic revolution in the status of women and it's probably going to reverberate to other parts of the world. Part of the genius of Western society in recent memory has been our capacity to accommodate profound social change incrementally, without blood, cataclysm, social upheaval. And I think we should be very proud of that.

I agree with your comment about the need for public discourse and your attack on relativism. My question is, where do you draw the line in terms of truth? There's sort of truth at the level of categorical imperative; you know, Thou shall not kill, or whatever. And then you start moving down progressively into the kinds of truths espoused, for example, by the religious right in the United States. Where do you draw that line and how you reconcile those things?

One place at which I draw the line is at coercive advocacy, or dogmatism that has coercion behind it.

My problem with the religious right has nothing to do with the religious beliefs of the religious right. It has to do with a coercive impulse that would impose its point of view, not through open democratic debate, but sort of by seizing the controls and coercing people into agreement. I think that is quite fundamentally at odds with the democratic tradition; a tradition which ironically arose largely from the Judeo-Christian view — the idea of the universality of all human beings and the work of all humans. This is a religious idea that's been translated into the political sphere.

For me the proper model for religious people coming into the public square to debate is the model of Martin Luther King, who clearly came into the civil rights debate, into the public square, into the political debate as a religious person.

He said my belief about human rights is derived from my religious faith, I am commanded by God to have these beliefs. But he didn't try to impose that through burnings at the stake or coercive means. He entered a democratic debate. And often it was a very intense debate in which he would create a crisis, but not in a coercive way, not in a way that did harm.

And it seems to me the difference between Martin Luther King's correct way of bringing his religious beliefs into the public square and the way that many of the religious right bring their beliefs — [by] attempting to coerce the rest of the society — is one point where I find a fault line; I draw a line.

I think it's true that sometimes people who went to a one- room schoolhouse emerged more educated than a typical high school student today with all the modern bells and whistles. As a purveyor of quality programming, you and your colleagues must be concerned that, perhaps, with the dumbing down of the population there will be fewer potential viewers for quality programming. As you have a network across America and much of Southern Canada of community leaders and involved people — I imagine that your viewers and supporters are more educated than viewers of commercial television — are you trying to motivate these people, aside from lobbying and raising money for PBS as a sidebar to lobby for, say, the restoration of history and genuine literature in the curriculum?

Let me begin my answer by responding to your assumption that our audience is more educated and people often assume our audience is also more affluent than the general population. The surprising and inspiring fact about our viewers is that they look like the rest of the country. The PBS audience pretty well tracks the demography of the country as a whole, teenagers excepted. The black hole is from 13 to 24. But the typical viewer of opera on PBS has less than a college degree; has some college, but not a college degree and an income of less than $40,000 a year. The myth of the elite audience is just that; a myth.

I would say we do worry about the dumbing down of the country. But we have a certain cockeyed faith that it you build they will come. If you put something wonderful on the air the audience will come and the audience will love and the audience will be like everybody.

The concert performance of Les Miserables; the tenth anniversary concert performance that we broadcast in March was a stunning success. The stations ran it again and again because the audience responded so powerfully. That was a surprise to us. We knew it was a wonderful program. We didn't know it would hit that nerve in the way that it did. And it's a wonderful, inspiring thing to find that if you build it they will come; if you present it and it's good, they will materialize.

Given that we are talking about a global Electronic Village with a multiplicity of tradition, quite distinct from the Western tradition, it would seem we lack the essential, cultural vocabulary to even communicate the need for a valuing of truth. So, how do the media, especially the electronic media, disseminate that message?

I think an interesting example [is] the Roman Catholic Church [which] has been extraordinarily successful in recent years with a method of spreading its doctrine of establishing churches in Third World countries that they called enculteration, where they educate priests and religious workers in the language and the culture of the countries that they are to establish churches in. And they allow the folklore and folk culture of the community to come into the church with setting aside the fundamental beliefs of the church. It seems to me that is a good model.

I don't think just because we speak different languages and are different on the surface, the superficial aspects of culture, that it means we cannot speak to one another or share enduring values. When you look at the success of great world movements, whether they be religious movements, philosophical movements, what have you, they tend to have that capacity to transcend culture, to speak to people in their different situations, despite those cultural differences.

So, I don't think cultural differences are, in and of themselves, an obstacle to human communication.

How does the media disseminate that message? If we cannot use allegory the way that Lincoln did, how do we communicate to a global audience the need for a search for truth?

By asserting it. It seems to me that great figures in history, Winston Churchill, for example, have a way of transcending culture. Churchill was very much of his culture. He was the quintessential Victorian, English gentleman of a certain class. And yet there was something universal about his courage, something universal about his eloquence, that transcended culture and Churchill is a hero for people, as Roosevelt is a hero for people, as Mother Theresa is a hero or heroine for people around the world because of what they are and what they believe, despite culture, despite the fact that they are of their cultures, or were of their cultures.

Something about them; some essential thing transcends culture and I have a certain amount of faith about the power of ideas to transcend and rise above those differences of culture.

I was curious about your discussion on the three levels of knowledge; that being data, intelligence and, of course, wisdom. I got a sense that you were somewhat pessimistic about your son's generation and those leading up to mine. You seem to have implied we should return to the classics as a means of getting those fundamentals that will lead us forward. In light of the new technologies that are evolving, the capabilities that are there, from your vantage point do you see a means of mixing the two to bring about a new kind of wisdom which does not isolate the past, per se, nor does it deny the possibilities that the future has to offer?

First of all, every father is pessimistic about the progress of his children. I have a 21-year-old son, in addition to the 16- year-old. The amazing thing to me is how much improvement occurs with time. The irony to me is that most of the improvement occurs after they leave home. My feeling is, however, that the educational system is failing. I don't think it's necessarily accurate to make a radical disjuncture between the past and future. G. K. Chesterton had a wonderful paragraph about tradition. He said tradition is the democracy of the dead; it is doing dead people the courtesy of believing that their ideas could be just as good as anybody else's.

We consider it democratic and admirable to imagine that the janitor's idea could be just as good as anybody else's and we congratulate ourselves for being so democratic as to believe that the garbage man, or the janitor or the cleaning lady — whoever in a lower social status — could have a good idea and be as worthy of vote and voice as anybody else.

Why deny that vote and voice to people just because they're dead? Tradition is the democracy of the dead that honours their wisdom and brings it into the present and the future and relies upon it, not as something that must be an old and discredited, but has vitality for the present and the future; that has stood, as the old folks used to say, the test of time — has survived.

I don't think that just because an idea or a thinker is old and dead, or white and male for that matter, that we should discredit it. It may have value for the present and the future and I would fault the educational system — the public educational system today — for being so mired and paralyzed in the present and for not honouring the contributions [of the past].

I think the classics became the classics because of something that was universal and enduring; that was good to be known and absorbed by everybody. And the classics, like Aesop's Fables for example, have transcended culture — the simple wisdom of those fables has been a classical artifact in cultures despite their language. I think the schools are failing when they turn out Judy Blume novels, but don't know Aesop's Fables. I think the future would be served and the present would be served by honouring tradition in that way.

I am somewhat disturbed at the perspective that does not recognize that technologies are continuing to advance, regardless of traditional views. The chip speed available doubles every eighteen months, the Internet will advance, new technologies will become available.

What I'm curious about is whether you've considered what your view is on how these new technologies can be integrated into the problem that exists. And it's not a new problem, technology simply accelerates and magnifies it; it doesn't change it... the Internet provides an example of a possibility. It's certainly not stood the test of time, in terms of discussion groups. But I am curious. Television is but one media. Print is another. Where does that fit in to the world — where you'd like us to go?

I didn't mean to say anything that would deny or ignore the progress of technology. I was intent on disabusing us of the notion that technology in and of itself is somehow valuable beyond just being a tool.

I love the Internet and we are very excited at PBS about the possibility of the Internet. We see it as a kind of missing link. Television is a top down medium. It disseminates from one point to many points. And it is not interactive and a tremendous amount has to be edited out.

In the Front Line documentary on the Waco tragedy the producers had hours of interviews or negotiations between the FBI and the David Koresh believers that were burned and they could use only a minute of two minutes of those negotiations in the production to fit it into the container of a one-hour documentary.

They were able to put on the Internet all of the interviews and 250,000 people, when they saw the Web site address at the end of the documentary, came onto the server and crashed the server because they were so eager to hear those negotiations.

What they were looking for was a deeper and more complete experience, so that the executive producer of Front Line said, we now consider the one-hour documentary the executive summary and we're putting on the Web site much deeper — all the material that previously we couldn't use, we now can use and the viewer can come on and experience that, can comment on it, can share those comments with other people and the learning experience and the viewing experience of the documentary becomes a much more rich and multi- faceted thing.

What I will go back to always is that the technology itself is just a tool. It is neutral. The values we bring to the technology are the crucial determinant of how it will work. What we're trying to accomplish, what content we put through the pipeline is much more important than just the pipeline itself, however marvellous the pipeline is.

The second thing is that some editorial processing or some editorial intelligence has to be at work to transform raw unassimilated data into something that is of true value, that helps us get toward wisdom; that helps one mind communicate in a productive way with another.

And what we're trying to do with the Internet is not just make a public square in a kind of undifferentiated way, but to apply that intelligence and help people use it in a way that reflects good values.

I do think that we have missed something in using the analogy of the public square. I think the Internet has the potential to be a great public square and a more public square; a larger place for discourse.

But there are some dangers and defects and one of them is the danger and defect of anonymity. Anonymity is a very dangerous thing in public discourse. Letters to the editor are often rejected by good newspapers if they're not signed; if they don't have a name and address.

There's something sinister about anonymity; there's something sinister and dangerous about the Ku Klux Clansman coming into the political drama wearing a mask, wearing a hood. People do bad things when they are masked, when they're anonymous.

The mob, the disciplined violence of the mob occurs, in part, because individuals become anonymous in the mob. And I think that one of the defects or dangers of the Internet is giving permission to people to disguise themselves or come into discussions anonymously; to shuck and shed the canons of personal responsibility that we normally apply.

And I think we have to deal with that, or the public square that the Internet promises to be will fall short of its promise.