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Not Seen on Television

Yesterday morning, I dragged myself out of bed only to pitch headlong into the slough of despond. Reading the Times only made things worse. It occurred to me to issue an SOS: can anybody out there buck me up? Gradually at first but then quite quickly, the malaise evaporated.

When I wake up, I think of all the things that I have planned for the day. Normally, they amount to something to look forward to, but on days like today they're empty burdens, chores to be performed for no good reason. Except for that best of all reasons: don't make things even worse.

What's causing this spontaneous negativity? A dread that I have to talk myself out of every day - a dread that the United States is in a rudderless little boat heading straight for Niagara Falls. Does it matter which particular rocks destroy the ship and its passengers? An oil shock? A debt shock? The evisceration of the Republic's vitals by theocrats? The rudderless little boat is, of course, the Administration. We're still too far from the precipice for outright panic. But the anxiety is wearing.

We liberals stand by uselessly while our countrymen swallow the line from Washington. Here's a sterling example of how stupefying that line is, taken from a Times editorial about the White House's refusal, so far, to do anything about New Orleans.

But the Bush administration refuses to support the plan of Representative Richard Baker, Republican of Louisiana, which would give everyone the capacity to rebuild and which had the backing of the mayor, the governor and the state's Congressional delegation. (To add insult to injury, two days after the White House shot down Mr. Baker's proposal, President Bush suggested at a news conference that Louisiana's problem was the lack of a plan.)

How does the man get away with it? Thomas Frank sheds some light on the problem in the current Harper's (February 2006). Mr Frank has been trying to understand how Bernard Goldberg's 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America has held onto its Best-Seller listing. After all, as Mr Frank is able to show, there is nothing, quite literally nothing, in Mr Goldberg's book that could not be cobbled together from popular conservative Web sites. How can it be that so many book-buyers lack the critical acumen to see that Mr Goldberg brings nothing new to the discussion? (And that they are really - unless they wish to support Mr Goldberg - wasting their money?) Mr Frank eventually hit upon an explanation.

Like so much of today's right-win thought, 100 People owes its success to the remaking of American consciousness by television. The book's episodic structure, for example, reflects TV's amnesiac style: Each little hit-piece flickers by, the previous installment's outrage instantly forgotten, the staggering, mind-stopping contradictions between them (were Goldberg somehow to critique himself, he would no doubt call them "hypocrisies") flowing without narrative consequence.

Mr Frank does not leave it at that, but goes on to suggest why television has such mindless impact.

A convenient rhetorical benefit of this emphasis on electronic speech is that it solves the difficult problem of real-world power - by which I mean a problem that is difficult for conservative populists who like to depict themselves as society's victims. If offensive speech is the raw material of politics, then things like ownership or wealth distribution are not worthy of consideration. Nor can the threat posed by liberals be minimized or made to seem less dire by pointing out those liberals' inability to win elections: as long as liberals exist, getting their ten seconds on TV or posting their liberalisms on the Internet, the danger to America is clear and present.

Just as speech trumps deeds, so do individuals trump larger social forces. In the world of the right, as in the world of TV, personalities rule. Character is king. "There is no such thing as society," Margaret Thatcher said; there are only individuals.

And so Bernard Goldberg scolds Kenneth Lay of Enron but has nothing to say about the moldy climate that has spread through the nation's executive suites as the sun of federal regulation has been dimmed. I want to take Mr Frank's point one half-step further, if only because I've never thought of this before and am feeling somewhat eureka-ish: television can't handle institutions. It can only reduce them to individual representatives or spokesmen. Institutions, insofar as they are more than rude collections of individuals, are necessarily abstractions. They're very real abstractions: they own property and file lawsuits about it all the time. But when television inquires into a bit of litigation, it can't see the abstraction that is, say, the General Motors Corporation. It can only see lawyers and executives - individuals all. You, meanwhile, following the camera and trying to understand what it's showing you - you will find it very hard to keep the abstraction in your mind, no matter how bright and sophisticated you might be. The only way to judge television footage critically - to discover, that is, what is being ignored or withheld - is to have seen it before.

The invisibility of abstract institutions, from the "Federal Government" on down, is dandy for conservative pundits, because if we could see institutions on television we'd be asking a lot of questions about how, for example, so few people own so much of the country. Instead of which we see the occasional plutocrat, on his way to prison or not as the case may be. We don't see his wealth, however. We see a few of the things that it has bought, but we will never learn from television that most of the assets of the rich are highly liquid, and therefore much too boring to look at. (Television is also constitutionally incapable of registering quality, obvious to the naked eye, on the screen. That's what makes the home-shopping networks so successful. Visit a TV set if you doubt me.) And we will never see "the rich." So they don't exist - on television. There are only rich people, and someday, if you're lucky, you might be one of them. Although that's highly unlikely, given the collective power of "the rich" to keep you right where you are.

Torture:Others :: Watching Television:Self.


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Seeing Alito's face on the front page of the newspaper of record makes me cringe. The thought of three more State of the Unions from the Liar-in-Chief makes me sick. The compliance of the American people amazes me. And the Conservatives have mastered the use of television and the general ADD of the public to perfection. Sound bite books, sound bite news, sound bite Bill O'Reilly. And the aged left thinks a filibuster of Alito is the answer.....

As for television, it is good for:

movies I missed
Law & Order
Robin Byrd

Dear RJ,

I managed it!

You said in your last you can't keep away from the blog. The paper I mean to give at Montreal is to be about cyberspace: what we feel in our experience of it. I've been reading a number of articles and books comparing the experience of physical with cyberspace, about the parallels between the way men and women react in physcial and in cyberspace.

I don't know what I'm going to do with it, but I think I should try to talk along the lines of the interaction and doings of people in local places with the people they meet and what they do in cyberspace.

The question might be how one can empower the person locally through cyberspace and _vice versa_.

I enjoy blogging too. We are establishing an identity through performance with words and


TV, especially TV news, is simply an electronic billboard displaying the stream of messages, à la E L Bernays, necessary to keep us all in line. The subscription base of any major magazine of merit, say Haper's for example, amounts to just the smallest fraction of TV viewers any given hour. Should any large number of people ever become truly informed in this country we would likely have riots in the streets again. Smoke, do you smell smoke? We must be getting close, the damn basket we've all been plummeting downward in is starting to burn. All along Dick's been telling Dubya it's a hot air balloon and we're just going down to refuel. Don't forget to tune in tonight for Dubya's report on our voyage.

Remember it's 2006 throw the bums out, vote, organize, agitate!

By the way, there at the bottom

Torture:Others :: Watching Television:Self
is that a new DB acrostic or crypto fodder for the NSA?

I am a kottke.org micropatron

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