March 5, 2017

George Santayana is Thumbing His Nose at You


There was a time, not that long ago, really, when I thought I had a fairly lucid grasp on the mechanics of human stupidity and the biochemistry of our wildly splintered culture. Maybe it’s the booze softening my brain, or maybe it’s early onset dementia, or maybe I’m just getting dumber, but in recent days I’m finding I simply can’t keep up with the impenetrable and hilarious levels of confounding stupidity and gullibility that have swept through every level of our daily lives. It’s feeling more and more like I’m living in that old Monty Python “Confuse a Cat” sketch writ large, or tripped and fell headlong into Caligari’s cabinet. I hardly know where to begin. Saw a headline recently that read “Scientist Says the Rise of AI Will Render Human Life Meaningless.” Um, you mean more so? I wonder how many people reading that paused to look up from their iPhones long enough to ponder the implications.

            Instead of offering up a litany of the Dadaist confoundments being reported on a daily basis (which I almost started doing but again couldn’t keep up), let me try to lay out yet another historical refresher, pointless as I know it all is.

            Beginning around 1950, Joseph McCarthy, then the junior Senator from Wisconsin, launched what was at heart a deeply cynical campaign for personal power and glory by claiming he was in possession of a list of known Communist operatives who had infiltrated the U.S. government, particularly the State Department and military. The number of names on the supposed list kept changing, and he never shared the list with anyone, but it barely mattered. In a series of highly publicized hearings, McCarthy and his Senate investigative committee destroyed the lives of hundreds of citizens he accused of being Communists—academics, soldiers, secretaries—though none of it was ever proven.

            Despite the Happy Days myth of a sunny, comfortable and prosperous mid-century suburban America, there was a deep strain of paranoia, ennui, fear and rancor running throughout the public, though it mostly remained buried until McCarthy tapped into it. By presenting himself as a populist simply out to preserve the American Way of Life against those dirty, insidious outsiders, he gathered quite a following of true believers. In their eyes, McCarthy was a shining warrior who dared stand up and call out those corrupt political insiders who were selling out the country. Anyone who didn’t follow the party line was immediately suspect, a sympathizer if not an out-and-out traitor. He turned neighbors against each other by presenting them with an imaginary bugaboo and anyone who dared question him became another target. In the end it was his own towering arrogance that got the better of him – his thinking that he could take on both the U.S. Army and a reporter who was much smarter than he was.

            As McCarthy’s anti-Communist zeal was slowly revealed (at least to a few thinking people) to be more a matter of demagoguery than honest patriotism, Edward R. Murrow, then the most respected journalist in the country, decided he should say something about it. He knew a simple frontal assault would be pointless, so instead he devoted a series of episodes of his TV news program “See It Now” to profiling a few of the innocent victims of McCarthy’s campaign. Only after laying out that groundwork did he edit together a frontal assault made up almost exclusively of McCarthy’s own words. At the end of that episode, he offered to let McCarthy come on the show and, without any interference or editing, defend himself.

            Well, McCarthy took him up on it, and in April of 1954, in what we’ll call that unique and uniquely nasal delivery style he’d developed over the years, spoke directly to the American public. Over half an hour, he tossed out a number of patently untrue stories and “facts,” used comically deceptive visual aids, mongered fear about the Red Menace, accused Murrow of having Communist ties, and sweated a lot. It remains one of the most remarkable single broadcasts in the history of television. In the final five minutes, Murrow very neatly defended himself against McCarthy’s charges with a little simple fact-checking, and that was that.

            Millions of people watched the Senator essentially have an on-air breakdown, saw him at last to be as unhinged and frightening as he really was, and McCarthy’s career (though the Army helped a little too) was essentially over. Sadly, in many ways so was Murrow’s. Advertisers terrified of controversy fled the show in droves afterward, and Murrow for the most part was relegated to doing softball celebrity interviews.

            Two things to keep in mind here. First, in 1954 television was still a fairly new and magical addition to American living rooms, and had a certain power. In many cases, it was the first chance many Americans had to at last both see and hear some of these people who were running the country. Second, journalists for the most part were still respected. It was accepted they had certain standards to uphold, tried to remain unbiased, checked and double-checked their facts before presenting them, and really were the nation’s watchdogs, uncovering and reporting the misdeeds of those in power on behalf of the public. Even if that wasn’t always the case across the board, Murrow, like Walter Cronkite after him, was one of the most trusted men in the business. Part of that trust and respect, I think, arose from the fact he didn’t talk down to his audience, which at that time was still capable of understanding polysyllabic words and Shakespeare references.

            Now jump ahead some sixty years. This is where I start cackling despite my deep confusion.

            The country is being run by a cabal of Scooby-Doo villains, headed up by a man who’s so pissed and hurt that he’s no longer wanted on SNL, he’s taken to writing and acting out his own SNL sketches.

            Throughout the campaign and since taking office, he’s been following McCarthy’s playbook to a tee, tapping into that buried fear, paranoia, rancor and racism, but with a different bugaboo. By playing to the basest of fears and the lowest of low common denominators, he’s divided the population against itself, accusing anyone who speaks out against him of being a liar or traitor, while casually dropping the threat of nuclear war if he doesn’t get his way.

            Meanwhile, in the Internet Age the corporate mainstream media had devolved into reporting unabashedly partisan celebrity gossip stories, funny cat videos and inept and sub-literate so-called citizen journalism. Reporters just now seem to be waking up to the fact they have a job to do, but it may be too late, with the president labeling anything that presents him in a bad light as “fake news.” Funniest of all, we have a significant chunk of the public so muddle-headed they accept him at his word, and believe anything they hear in the mainstream media is made up out of whole cloth, while accepting the most insane and ludicrous of conspiracy theories—from Hillary’s Satanic child sex ring in a pizza parlor to those horrific unreported terrorist attacks in Kentucky and Sweden—as the God’s Honest Truth.

            So now you have a man who was created by television, who is perpetually in front of the cameras, and a public which likewise has grown up experiencing the world through screens. He’s clearly much crazier than McCarthy, a deeply troubled man whose incoherent rants are taken as doctrine, and half the people in the country seem to believe he’s honestly speaking for them.

            We no longer have any Murrows or H.L. Menckens, however much we need them. Even if we did, the stupefied mob, so fiercely proud of its own ignorance, wouldn’t be able to understand what they were saying anyway, and would pillory them as pointy-headed intellectuals completely out of touch with what the Real People want. And you know, they’d be right. It’s all just another show, after all. Tune in tomorrow, same batty time, same batty channel.


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