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Published: Wednesday, January 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Changing channels

WASHINGTON -- No one forced me, but I finally decided it was time to discover what all the business was about Honey Boo Boo.
Even though I've made reference to the show featuring a former beauty tot, now 7, and her family, I'd never actually watched a full episode. I still haven't, but I watched enough to need a jaw adjustment.
Alas, a few minutes with "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" confirms that even mindlessness has its limits.
It gives me no pleasure to add to the ridicule of Honey, whose real name is Alana, or her family. That they have willingly participated in this spectacle -- and, one hopes, are getting filthy rich in the process -- is of little consolation. Far more offensive than the show is the fact of an audience.
Obviously, people watch because it is so awful. You can't believe it and so you keep tuning in. But is it right to watch? Only to the extent that it is acceptable to accompany strangers to the restroom.
Such diversions are reminiscent of carnival sideshows of my childhood -- the bearded lady (who perhaps suffered hormonal excesses) or the fat lady (whose rolls of adipose were spectacularly offensive and, for her, no doubt tragic). Responsible parents steered their children away not only to protect them but also because, we were taught, it wasn't right to enjoy the misfortunes or disadvantages of others.
No such lessons seem to prevail today. If we don't revel in the hilarity of poor, uneducated people, neither do we protest their exploitation. Our silence conveys approval while ratings disprove objection. Culturally, we are all complicit in the decline of community values.
Whereupon, we reluctantly praise free speech.
I, too, argue -- mostly with myself -- that we tolerate the worst in defense of the best. We don't need a First Amendment to protect the sublime or the popular, but to protect what is unpopular and, in collateral damage, the grotesque.
Of course, such notions originally were aimed at unpopular political speech. The goal was to liberate ideas, which is not the same as exploring man's basest instincts. One needn't be a scholar to infer that our nation's Founders were little interested in sharing the details of their ablutions or such bodily bloviations as are aired on so-called reality TV. Reality, after all, is what civilization attempts to mitigate.
The Honey Boo Boo family proudly shares even that which Beano intends to prevent. During the episode I watched, one was privy to a family weigh-in on a scale deserving of pity, the labor pains of what appeared to be a teenager, and a smattering of remarks about various anatomical regions once quaintly referred to as "privates."
In urgent need of purification, I changed the channel and, lurching past my usual flat-line pursuits, landed in a documentary about Alexandria (ancient Egypt, not modern Virginia.) How do you spell relief? (Don't ask Honey Boo Boo.) Hearing about a day 2,300 years ago, when knowledge was valued as much as gold, was like sinking into a warm bath.
Alexander the Great, who had conquered much of the world by age 24, had learned early during his tutelage under Aristotle that knowledge is the greatest power and set about to make his city the aggregator of the world's intellectual bounty. Alexandria's library, ultimately destroyed by future hordes, was the largest on the planet -- the World Wide Web of antiquity. Outdoor classrooms were as ubiquitous as Starbucks today.
Undoubtedly, there were plenty who, unable to avail themselves of Alexander's noble intentions, happily would have cradled a remote control device that permitted them passive depravity. But what was striking is that the larger culture collectively aimed at something higher.
Yes, as some are bound to note, there was blood in the streets. Alexandria through its history was home not only to some of mankind's greatest intellectual achievements but also to some of the human race's vilest expressions of violence.
Notably, in the fourth century A.D., Christian mobs dragged the beautiful and brilliant Hypatia -- philosopher/mathematician/astronomer/teacher -- from her carriage and commenced to strip, flay and chop her into pieces before burning her body parts on a pyre. A confessed pagan, she was a tad too smart for divinely inspired men -- what with that astrolabe she was always toying with.
So not all was lovelier in other times. But culture does matter, as Alexander knew more than 2,000 years ago. Would that our attentions today were as riveted by our Hypatias as by our Honey Boo Boos.

Kathleen Parker is a Washington Post columnist. Her email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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Herald Editorial Board

Jon Bauer, Opinion Editor: jbauer@heraldnet.com

Carol MacPherson, Editorial Writer: cmacpherson@heraldnet.com

Neal Pattison, Executive Editor: npattison@heraldnet.com

Josh O'Connor, Publisher: joconnor@heraldnet.com

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