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The Trouble With Talk

AMERICA is more than ever a talk culture. The 1990s are a talk decade. Vox populi is in: Radio talk shows, TV talk shows, call in, give an opinion, what do you honestly think? Let's talk about it - now, live! We have a talking administration in the White House. Ross Perot's candidacy began on CNN's Larry King Live (and may have ended there after his NAFTA debate with Al Gore.) Two of the top bestsellers on the New York Times book list are by talk show hosts, Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern.

Talk derived from an interest in issues is a good thing; it's part of the participation of an informed people.

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Yet as media culture defines so much of what we think and say (``breakfast for your head'' as one network describes its morning talk show), it is a problem when so much media focus is on the trivial and diverting, emphasizing a kind of tabloid confessionalism. Popular culture gets reduced to talk, talk becomes gossip, and gossip sells.

This is the holiday season, a time for real communication with those who are our dearest friends or relatives. Is ``the Michael Jackson story,'' which has filled the airwaves for several days, really the best way to spend our time and thought as we gather?

Do ``allegations'' regarding Mr. Clinton's private affairs have as much claim to our attention as the issues of Russia and Europe and North Korea and the poor and the ill-educated and the disadvantaged in this country? These involve White House decisions that will affect literally billions of lives.

In the recent movie ``The Piano,'' the most expressive and communicative character is a mute woman whose daughter says that her mother hears so much talk, ``but so little is said.''

The larger danger of a merely talk culture, of course, is that people begin to believe that problems are solved simply by talking about them. Talk becomes a substitute for action, for hard moral choices, for serious thinking, for courage. Let's talk about it - rather than face it. If you want to deal with homelessness or illiteracy, hold a conference. One notes that most of the mass murder taking place over the last 20 months in the former Yugoslavia happened while all parties ``talked.''

Moreover, participatory talk, by itself, is not necessarily a virtue. The exploitation of a Howard Stern, or the genial racism of a Rush Limbaugh, can bring out and magnify qualities in people that do little real good, but can cause self-obsession or division.

Perhaps one thing to talk about in the New Year: Is silence golden?

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