Lost in the cultural wasteland

January 14th, 2008
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It’s common enough to look down long noses at the Great Republic south of 49. By some accounts it’s a vast cultural wasteland of reality TV and tabloid journalism, strip-malls, Wal-Mart; one interminable brainless tailgate party. That attitude is common enough to infect millions with a certain Rick Merceritis, being convinced of the universal dumbness down south.

It may then come as a surprise to find a burgeoning library system in an average southwest Florida town, the equal of much larger Canadian cities. And opening the “Our Town” section of the same burg reveals a veritable cornucopia of cultural activity. Apparently rising spontaneously out of the subtropical sand is a full broadsheet page of goings on, day after day, week after week.

Notices of various Ukrainian Christmas and New Year’s celebrations sit cheek by jowl with other church and service group activities. Hobbyists of every description announce their meetings no matter how seemingly odd their bent. A group called “Friends of Trees” for instance sees nothing ironic, or even remotely Pythonesque, in proclaiming its intention to instruct “how to easily identify the most common local tree varieties”.

Several book clubs describe the weighty tomes of fiction, some admittedly from the Oprah lists, they wish to discuss. From the titles one pictures groups of golf widows – or just plain widows – but intellectually active ones in any case.

One interesting entry in the “cultural mosaic” is something called the “Southwest Florida Humanists”. They offer the screening of a documentary on disbelief, with discussion to follow. The show in question is hosted by the noted Briton Dr. Jonathan Miller best known for his early work in comedy and later success with the theatre, opera, etc.

If the picture of Miller on the site is any indication, the series doesn’t look like a laff-riot. Miller’s picture looks downright sullen, so clearly this isn’t a “Praise the Void and shout Hallelujah” kind of disbelief. Presumably it’s just the thing to keep idle Floridians out of the Mahjong parlour.

I was obviously wrong in thinking that one benefit of disbelief was escape from the pew and thereby many free hours not thinking of perdition. I’d imagined that, having decided definitively on all the important religious or cosmological questions one could put these aside for good and spend the rest of the time on some really serious hedonistic diversions. I mean, what good is disbelief if you have to sit down and discuss it with others?

I’d also thought, perhaps incorrectly that – unlike faith – disbelief would be kind of clear and certain with no need to seek reinforcement from other disbelievers. But if you look up a term like Secular Humanism there’s clearly some serious disbelief going on, worthy of Dr. Miller’s sour mien.

From what I can tell, perhaps “anti-belief” might be a better term to describe the point of that meeting, plus a lot of strict ideas on how society should be organized to preclude religion. Too bad, you’d think liberation from all that presumably stifling, socially crippling belief would be just a little more fun.

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