Michael P. Printup, president of Watkins Glen International, one of the country’s largest racetracks, stood with a group of about a dozen race fans at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. Next to him were boxes of free doughnuts and coffee. A line of men with towels, who had spent the night in nearby RV campers, pop-up campers and tents, stood patiently outside the door to a shower room. A light drizzle, one that would turn into a torrential downpour and lead to the races being canceled in the afternoon, coated the group, all middle-aged or older white men. They were discussing, amid the high-pitched whine of cars practicing on the 3.4-mile, 11-turn circuit racetrack, the aging demographic of race fans and the inability to lure a new generation to the sport.
“Maybe if you installed chargers for phones around the track they would come,” suggested one gray-haired man.
But it is not just sporting events. Public lectures, church services, labor unions, Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, Masonic halls, Rotary clubs, the Knights of Columbus, the Lions Club, Grange Hall meetings, the League of Women Voters, Daughters of the American Revolution, local historical societies, town halls, bowling leagues, bridge clubs, movie theater attendance (at a 20-year low), advocacy groups such as the NAACP and professional and amateur theatrical and musical performances cater to a dwindling and graying population. No one is coming through the door to take the place of the old members. A generation has fallen down the rabbit hole of electronic hallucinations—with images often dominated by violence and pornography. They have become, in the words of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, “atomized,” sucked alone into systems of information and entertainment that cater to America’s prurient fascination with the tawdry, the cruel and the deadening cult of the self.
The entrapment in a world of nonstop electronic sounds and images, begun with the phonograph and radio, advanced by cinema and television and perfected by video games, the Internet and hand-held devices, is making it impossible to build relationships and structures that are vital for civic engagement and resistance to corporate power. We have been transformed into commodities. The steady decline of the white male heaven that is NASCAR—which has stopped publishing the falling attendance at its tracks and at some speedways has begun to tear down bleachers—is ominous. It is the symbol of a captive society.