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Vulgarians at the Gate    by Steve Allen order for
Vulgarians at the Gate
by Steve Allen
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Prometheus, 2001 (2001)

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* * *   Reviewed by David Pitt

In this rigorous, intelligent look at 'the coarsening of our entire culture,' Allen - the noted television host, songwriter, and author of a number of popular mystery novels - discusses the effects 'trash TV and raunch radio' are having on the people (especially children) who are exposed to it. Using such luminaries as radio personality Howard Stern, singer Madonna, and television talk-show host Jerry Springer as examples of bad taste and low intellectual and moral standards, Allen cries out for a return to - no, that's not right: a resurrection of - the standards of quality and intelligence that, he says, once dominated the entertainment media.

Why, you ask, should anyone listen to the opinions of a television star and mystery novelist? Allow me a moment or two to explain. In addition to being a part of the history of television (he created, and starred in, the original Tonight Show), in addition to being the author of dozens of popular songs, Allen, who died in 2001 before the publication of Vulgarians at the Gate, has long been concerned with the decline in educational and intellectual standards. His 1991 book Dumbth: And 81 Ways to Make Americans Smarter was one of the first, and best, analyses of the trend that has become known as the dumbing-down of America (and, speaking as a Canadian, of the rest of the continent, too). His audiobook for children aged six to twelve, Gullible's Travels (1995), is a smart, wonderfully entertaining introduction to the art of clear thinking and - most important - to the dangers of believing everything we're told. (Dumbth and Gullible's Travels are also available from Prometheus Books.)

In Vulgarians at the Gate, Allen continues his campaign against unreason, his outspoken battle to raise intellectual standards. He speaks out against profane comedians, sex-obsessed sitcoms, talk shows that promote the lowest possible moral standards, and pop music with lyrics that seem to condone violence, sexual depravity, and the utter lack of respect for other people; he agonizes over a society that has sunk so low that most of its members no longer question the appropriateness of exposing its children to wall-to-wall sex and violence on television, in films, and in music.

And yet, somehow, Allen completely avoids sounding either hopelessly old-fashioned or desperately narrow-minded. He has nothing against contemporary cinema, or television, or radio, or music. He doesn't expect anybody to make, for example, television shows the way they were made half a century or more ago. He understands that times and attitudes change, and the entertainment media must reflect contemporary mores.

But, he asks, do the entertainment media have to be so relentlessly, pathetically low-brow about it? Citing numerous examples, drawing on the opinions of a wide variety of people from within and without the entertainment industry, he makes a passionate, and persuasive, case that the entertainment media are rapidly heading down the toilet. You may not agree with him - I have a couple of small quibbles myself - but you must admit his arguments are well reasoned and entirely thought-provoking.

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