The Blue Raccoon

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Parade As It Goes By
Not Comcastic

[Image via]
A few days ago I met an actress and production designer, probably a decade younger than me, who has never owned a television. Friends of ours raised their children without the box--or Christmas. Another friend of mine recalled that as a girl, the television was covered by a sheet and turning on the device meant having to uncover the screen.

I'm meeting more of these people who have either chosen to go without--much like a smoker who decides to quit cold turkey--or even undergo periodic media fasts.

The average U.S. household has at the very least three televisions. Heck, they even make refrigerators with one embedded in the door. They come in the back of car seats. I cannot rail too much about electric soma. Our household meets the national average. But in terms of actual viewing, there is far less than more than what's estimated as the average -- more than eight hours a day. The Partner-in-Art may keep a movie channel on while she's working, but like many of us, she's not actually "watching."

Me, I get caught up in Discovery and History channel programs. And the news. But, with whatever seriousness with which we engage television, this is all entertainment. The television is part of our attention and what we do in lieu of something else more productive. Nowadays, between television and online surfing, many folks in the U.S. spend more time consuming media than sleeping. We are distracting ourselves dreamless.

Once upon a time, a meditating-yoga-posing writing friend of mine suggested that most people would say that focused meditation, as the yogis do, is crazy. Yet they'll stare at an appliance with moving images for hours. Would you watch a toaster for that long? Television blocks our selves from ourselves.

The convention of the Kurt Vonnegut story Harrison Bergeron has people given implants that emit distracting noises that interrupt their thought processes. People who exhibit remarkable talent or intellectual prowess are given restrictions by the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, a humorless woman who shoots a ballerina on live television. Nuff said.

On Broadway these days there's The Farnsworth Invention. I'd like to see it; one of my favorite writers, Aaron Sorkin, created the script and Hank Azaria is David Sarnoff and Jimmi Simpson as Farnsworth (pictured). The reviews have been so-so. I wouldn't care. It's Broadway. [Image via NPR, Joan Marcus]

Philo Farnsworth didn't intend for television to turn into what it has. I first encountered him in an excellent novel, Carter Beats The Devil, about an historic 1920s illusionist who navigates a "a magical -- and sometimes dangerous -- world, where illusion is everything, and everything is illusory" wherein Farnsworth thinks his invention may inspire world peace.

After all, he observes, how can you kill a man when you can watch what he's eating for breakfast? How far we've traveled where I can sit in my breakfast nook and watch U.S. tanks roll across the Iraq desert, as I did during the Second Gulf War, while eating brunch. And the total voyeurism--voluntary and otherwise--of the Internet further twists the concept.

So while shoveling the cat boxes and performing household chores this past Sunday, I had on Flags Of Our Fathers, which I'd wanted to see. This examination of the circumstances surrounding the iconic photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima (in fact, the second one), and the celebrity that accompanied the men captured in the picture (not all of whom were recognized at the time), which did a big number on their heads and subsequent lives.

The film stakes ground between the genuine heroism of soldiers asked to make the ultimate sacrifices when fine jingling words seem quite distant indeed, and the propaganda and opportunism that war breeds. The story compiles tragedies, piled upon tragedies. You do understand better why the U.S. in the end dropped its atomic bombs: to end the slaughter, stop the drain on the treasury (and demonstrate to the Soviets that we had a bigger stick).

Anyway, as compelling as Flags is, the advertising that came toward the end was even more interesting. Not quite fnords, I guess, but for me, wont to extrapolate from slender tendrils of information, curious. After the film's conclusion, a trailer for Breach came on. This concerns the famous spy case of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent convicted of selling secrets to the Soviet Union--for years. After this came a trailer for Baghdad Hospital: Inside The Red Zone, an HBO documentary shot by a physician working in some of the worst conditions imaginable, as doctors try patching together residents of Baghdad after the bombs have blown up and the snipers have done their gruesome work.

So, we go from war horror/celebrity propaganda/obscurity and alcoholism to James Bond-religion deluded/traitor/outed to busted nation/wrecked people/stuff we don't see otherwise on television.

We never see the whole story of war or even politics; we wouldn't want to and most couldn't bear to watch, and there are always those who either work the system, or think they can, and cause their comeuppance. Problem is, that never comes soon enough -- if at all-- while billions are spent and millions of people are damaged and die. And the great names that today inspire respect, fear or loathing, in the end, are like that stranded statue of Ozymandias.

That said, we cannot resign ourselves to mundanity -- and yet many of are willing to do just that.

I think, too, of the recent passing of political events, in this world where "illusion is everything, and everything illusory." The recent endorsement of Barack Obama's candidacy by Caroline Kennedy and Sen. Ted Kennedy comes across as political theater designed to capture the spirit of Kennedy's high flown rhetoric, but deflect the realities of his record.

Kennedy was a conflicted and contradictory man and a great president, but one whose full legacy is forever impossible to determine because the course was cut short. Kennedy, who due to injuries sustained during World War II while in battle in the Pacific used pain-killing drugs and was at times in need of a backbrace, nonetheless projected an image of virile vitality.

Kennedy sent "advisors" to Vietnam and meddled with the Diem government when he should've stayed out, and then there's Cuba. Of course, he also stared down Khruschev and the world didn't end in October 1962.

[Adlai Stevenson shows aerial photos of Cuban missiles to the United Nations in November 1962., via Wikipedia]

Kennedy was a womanizer, but he also took up the cause of civil rights, inaugurated the space program and inspired a generation of young people to commit to national service. These combined overshadow the legacy of any of the presidents from the past 30 years.

But why does Obama need to have the mantle of a false U.S. "Camelot" placed upon him? Under 40 voters won't care, or not much, and the over 40 voters are looking more for somebody who doesn't have Clintonian baggage and can stand on their on two feet and look you straight in the eye and tell you the truth.

Or am I fantasizing? This is a world of illusion in which we are all co-conspirators. As Aaron Sorkin's famous phrase was put in the mouth of Jack Nicholson, "You can't handle the truth." What we should demand is not "leadership" but "citizenship." We should want someone who'll let democracy work as intended, not by imposing a top-down counterfeit version. What Obama (or Hillary) should've been doing is coming into town meetings and taking notes from the audience. He would listen, more than talk, and try to form some kind of consensus from what he heard to devise policies, rather than running an obstacle course set by opponents, and by accepting what is tantamount to bribes from special interests--just like everybody else does.

The people are supposed to be the leaders of politicians, not the reverse. Waiting for one to receive a public anointment is a bad sign, if you ask me. And it's our damn fault. But if you're Barack Obama, and you want to be president in the current regime of U.S. politics, you can't very well decline with a gracious speech. You smile, wave and let the cameras roll. And hope that your contradictions and conflicts don't make too much noise in the next coming weeks and months. And you know that's going to happen, sooner or later, no matter what. Best to have what armor you can find, in Camelot.

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