Saturday, February 25, 2017

Keep your friends close and...

Al Pacino as the mobster Michael Corleone
There's a famous line from the movie The Godfather Part II where Michael Corleone (as played by Al Pacino), gives this bit of sage advice to an associate:
Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
That's good advice even if our adversaries aren't really enemies, or at least shouldn't be. Simply put, there is no better way to gain a foothold on an adversarial relationship than to be able to get inside the head of the other side, if just to see what's cooking in there.

That said, I'm befuddled why so many Americans are loathe to indulge themselves in the spoken and written words of people with whom they disagree. That goes for people on both sides of the political spectrum, folks who avoid the words of the other side like the plague, as if they somehow might become contaminated by ideas they find objectionable.

For a good part of my adult life I refused to commit myself to an ideology or political party. I prided myself on being a contrarian, the fly in the ointment so to speak, who liked to put the validity of all opinions to the test, most of all those ideas with whom I agreed. In that vein I took pains to be fluent in the language of every side of an argument, in order to make what I considered to be an educated opinion, based upon experience, facts and reason, rather than emotion.

That all began to change after Barack Obama was elected president, and Republicans tripped over each other in order to be the first to declare their opposition to the new administration and anything it supported. Gone were the days of bipartisan compromise; in our government, obstruction was the new law of the land. The joke was that had Obama publicly come out in favor of air, Republicans all over this great land of ours would have held their breath. The GOP it seemed to me, would stop at nothing to get their way not even asphyxiation. In the process, this country became divided to an extent we haven't seen since the tumultuous days of the 1960s.

You might think, having read this far, that I'm about to advocate that the solution to bridge our enormous differences is to immerse ourselves in the words of the other side in order to better understand them. "Just listen to them..." one might say, "...and you'll get where they're coming from." While it may be true that listening might make you better understand the place where the other side is coming from, more than likely these days, if you have a bone to pick with the current administration, or several bones as I do, you're not going to like that place.

Try as I might to grab hold of something, anything, to latch onto, to provide me even a sliver of sympathy for the views of the supporters of this administration, so far, I've haven't been able to come up with a single rational argument to counter the opinions of those people who oppose the current president.

Unfortunately, my contrarian days are over as far as politics is concerned, at least for the time being. I find that to be very disturbing.

So how did we get to this place?

Well as Marshall McLuhan famously said: "The medium is the message."

Many of us see the beginning of the current administration as the dawn of the era of fake news and alternative facts, (among other things). But this stuff isn't new. In addition to being one of the greatest films ever made, Citizen Kane gives an account of the history of American journalism, at least the last 130 years of it. In the 1890s, a young, brash, and fabulously wealthy Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), looking for something to do with his life, decides that "it would be fun to run a newspaper." He settles on the stodgy, old, (and failing) New York Inquirer. The ancient editor of the paper (Erskine Sanford) is aghast when he welcomes young Mr. Kane and his associates, Messers Leland and Bernstein (Joseph Cotten and Everett Sloane) into the offices of the paper. He literally huffs and puffs when Kane announces that business as usual, that is to say, delivering the news as merely giving testimony to a string of facts, would be a thing of the past. In other words, if the facts weren't interesting or entertaining enough to print, find some new facts that were, even if you had to make them up.

In the following, one of the most remarkable scenes from the most remarkable of films, a montage of muckraking Inquirer headlines read by the primary target of those headlines, none other than Kane's former guardian and chief nemesis, Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), concludes with a meeting between Thatcher and his surrogate son...

Kane's egalitarian words near the end of that scene inspire applause when the film is shown in public, especially among young, idealistic viewers. Sincere as he may have been when he said them, those words, as Kane's life is revealed through the course of the film, prove to be empty. This scene brilliantly portrays the birth of a demagogue. In 2016, life did not quite imitate art, but came pretty close, as Kane's attempt at a brilliant political career came to a screeching halt after his indiscretions were revealed to the public. In another brilliant (and prophetic) scene, as it becomes clear that Kane will lose the election for governor of New York, in the print room of Kane's newspaper, Mr. Bernstein has a painful decision to make:

Well into the era of electronic broadcasting, newspapers remained the primary source of news for most Americans. Radio, which became popular in the 1920s and a household fixture in the'30s, added two new dimensions to news, intimacy and immediacy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first American president to exploit the new medium's potential to communicate directly with the American people. He did so in a series of thirty radio addresses where he promoted his agenda as well as provided the country a sense of assurance during very troubling times. Despite having been delivered from the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House, these informal speeches (by their day's standards) were dubbed "fireside chats". Interestingly enough, those chats were conceived in part as a means for the president to speak directly to the American people, thereby making an end run around the newspapers who were at the time controlled by his opponents, mostly Republicans.

Radio played a major role during World War II. King George VI of Great Britain delivered the most important speech of his life, live to his people and to the world. That speech was broadcast over the radio on September 3, 1939, two days after Germany invaded Poland. In the speech, the king announced  his country's declaration of war against the Third Reich, marking the beginning of the biggest conflagration in human history.

On December 7, 1941, about an hour after the first Zero fighter plane entered American air space, and still in the middle of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans first learned of the attack via radio bulletins that interrupted their regularly scheduled Sunday afternoon programming.
The voices of legendary war correspondents Winston Burdett, Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevareid and most famously, Edward R. Murrow, came into American homes every night, and defined the art of broadcast journalism.

Despite all that, in its golden age, radio remained predominantly a medium devoted to entertainment, even during the darkest days of World War II when not a single family wasn't directly touched by the war. Listening to programs from that era today, no matter how frivolous they may have been, it's very easy to see how essential that function was.

While some historians mark the beginning of radio as the end of the golden age of the newspaper, print journalism, especially major papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, continued to be the news of record throughout the war, as they remain to this day, despite the objections of the current president.

Radio could have gone away altogether with the advent of television, but it didn't. As TV took over the role as the primary medium of home entertainment in the fifties and sixties, radio reinvented itself. In those days, devalued radio meant it was relatively cheap to buy airtime, even your own station. This meant a proliferation of radio stations catering to the fringes of society, as the much more exclusive television networks, went after the general public.

Starting in the sixties, TV and to a lesser extent radio, started to become the go-to sources for folks who wanted their news quick and easy, while newspapers around the country, began to disappear. At that time, the format of network TV became set in stone, with news broadcasts presented in the early and late evening and entertainment programing sandwiched in between. It remains that way today. Radio in the meantime with much less at stake, became more free-form, and programmers could experiment with different formats and approaches to broadcasting. Stations devoted themselves to niches such as all news, talk, or music programming. Those categories were then divided up into sub-categories appealing to an ever more select group of listeners set apart by age, ethnicity, religion, musical tastes, personal interests, and eventually, political ideology.  

Concurrent with the changes in print and electronic media, society was changing, as the generation who was born after World War II came of age. Without the experience of the unifying, tragic experiences of the Depression and World War II, the Baby Boomers were born into a much more complicated world where good guys and bad guys were not so easily defined. The major news events of their formative years, namely, the McCarthy Era, the struggle for Civil Rights, Vietnam, and Watergate, tore the nation apart rather than unified it. The result if I may be so bold as to say this is that the unifying trait of this generation, my generation, is cynicism.

Simply put, the creed of the cynic is this: "nothing is sacred". The problem with that is there is a deep down longing in human nature; we need to believe in something. That in a nutshell, is why we have religion. Without anything to believe in, a person is a shell, left adrift in the world. For people who are completely devoid of all hope or faith, things usually don't work out very well. On the other hand, if religion isn't your bag, you might turn to another cause, perhaps justice, freedom, patriotism, nature, or simply loving your neighbor. Perhaps you believe strongly in the rights of the oppressed, of women, of minorities, of the unborn, of animals, of whatever. Some people choose less than admirable things to believe in, No need to enumerate them, I'll leave those things to your imagination. Many of our generation want to have it both ways, we want to believe that nothing is sacred, but still desperately want to hold on to something in which to believe. So we pick a cause or two close to our hearts, then determine that nothing (else) is sacred.

The message is also the medium. We, the Baby Boomers, and our successors who have inherited most of our cynical traits, the Gen X'ers, became the most sought after demographic groups for advertisers who paid the bills of the broadcasters during the last forty or so years of the twentieth century. Consequently "the media" have bent over backwards to accommodate us, explaining why cynicism has been such a powerful force driving much of the creative world since the mid-sixties. A British comedy troupe set the bar high for its no-holds-barred brand of comedy which first appeared on these shores in the seventies in the form of their TV show, Monty Python's Flying Circus. For the Pythons, literally nothing was sacred and they pushed the boundaries of decorum and good taste with every endeavor. Their schtick became the defining symbol of detached hipness, which would be embraced by almost an entire generation.

Nothing is sacred became a genre of its own on the radio with the advent in the mid-seventies of talk radio, and perhaps its most enduring invention, the "shock jock". These radio personalities who say or do outrageous things to get attention, made it their mission to defy "political correctness", long before that term was coined, even though at the outset, their schtick was not intended to be overtly political.

Today, the broadcast media have been augmented by a vast array of information conduits made possible by the digital age. It is now possible for anyone, no matter how obscure their interest, ideology, or fetish, to find a website, cable channel, podcast or blog to cater to his or her needs. Unlike the days of old, most people don't receive their news from the same source as we did, back in the day. If you happen to be a news junkie, you have a tremendous number of sources, all coming from a slightly different direction from which to choose. The competition for subscribers, as it was back in Charles Foster Kane's time is fierce. Unlike that time however, today we have agencies that do nothing but check facts, so an honest to goodness news agency with any claims of credibility, has to be accountable for getting its facts right.

News sources today not only have competition from each other, but also from entertainment venues that have pretentions of being something beyond merely entertainment. A good many Americans claim, even boast, that these venues are their main source of news.

One could say that the Pythons and the shock jocks serve as the paradigms for two vastly divergent entertainment outlets that provide information about the world to two equally divergent ideological groups.

Like the Pythons, with their snarky humor, their sense of cool, smart, detachment, and their obsession with the absurd, comedians such as Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert turned their late night comedy shows into conduits for news that have been eaten up for years, mostly by college educated white folks on the moderate left.

On the other end of the spectrum, ultra-right commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Mark Levin owe their very existence to the shock jocks of the seventies and the eighties.

These non-traditional outlets of news have resulted in the broadcasting of information that no longer concerns itself with presenting facts or heaven forbid, a meaningful exchange of ideas, but rather, opinions, often in a non stop profusion of righteous, invective filled diatribes, intended to enforce ideas already held by the faithful, often at the expense of the non-believers.

There is little or no accountability as far as accuracy is concerned because these public figures can legitimately claim they are in the entertainment business, not the news business. The only accountability these programs have is to their sponsors whose only interest is ratings. Success along those lines means spoon feeding their consumers exactly what they want to hear. Neither Maher, Stewart or Colbert, Limbaugh, Savage or Levin, expect listeners who don't agree with them to tune in to their programs. If they do happen to tune in, its only gravy for their ratings.

The most common thread between these two groups of broadcasters is their cynicism, obviously pointed in different directions. To the TV comics, traditional American values like patriotism, capitalism, law and order, the second amendment, and Christianity, (with the exception of Colbert), are fair game, while civil rights, women's rights, immigrants' rights and reproductive rights, are sacred cows. For the radio guys, it's exactly the opposite. To the right wingers, words like "liberal" and "progressive", are spoken with the same disdain as words they might use to describe the experience of crawling out of a dumpster filled with putrid, maggot infested meat. But they save their most bitter vitriol for the concept of political correctness. Just as their ancestors the shock jocks, existed to tumble the walls of decency and decorum, the commentators of the ultra right take special joy in belittling the sensibilities of people who value the idea that all people deserve to be treated equally, with dignity and respect, the very things which are in fact the core values of so called political correctness. Then, when they are criticized for their offensive speech, they cry foul that their first amendment rights are  being violated.

Since my current political leanings are closer to those of the TV guys, I never watch them as, if I need to reinforce my opinions, I turn to more reliable sources. Therefore any opinion I have of the late night TV comics is quite useless. But for a sense of perspective, I do listen to the right wing radio guys when I get the chance, that is, until my head starts to ache from banging it against the wall.

The truth is, if you want to keep Donald Trump supporters close to you, in a Michael Corleone kind of way, you need to listen to folks like Rush Limbaugh and his ilk. There you'll find the germ of every excuse, every conspiracy theory, every unfounded charge against his opponents, every red herring, that comes out of the mouths of every Trump supporter, at least those who have stuck by their man after one dismal month in office.

If you wonder for example, where they get the idea that it's ok that Russia hacked into our presidential election, Rush Limbaugh will tell you (erroneously) that all governments including our own, hack into foreign elections. He'll then tell you that "the lying left wing media" will lead you to believe, (no they won't), that the Russians' mischief actually affected the votes in the election enabling Trump to win. If you wonder why Trump supporters have no problem when the president calls the free press, "the enemy of the people", Mark Levin will go into a diatribe about how the New York Times is indeed an evil enemy because 75 years ago, the newspaper rarely mentioned the treatment of Jews during World War II, and when it did, the news was relegated to the back pages. If you question why people think the judiciary who ruled on Trump's travel ban is corrupt, the radio guys will tell you these are the same courts that time and again violate both the spirit and the letter of the constitution and the fundamental rights of all Americans by making rulings enforcing even the slightest form of gun control. And I'll give you three guesses where Trump supporters get the idea that Hillary Clinton is behind the protests against the administration and that George Soros is paying all the demonstrators.

I wrote this post about Limbaugh a few years ago. Back then he was irked because Pope Francis spoke some cautionary words about "unfettered capitalism". Rush excoriated the Pope without realizing, (or more likely, bothering to mention), that the pontiff's two predecessors, whom Limbaugh couldn't praise highly enough, both expressed during their pontificates, the same sentiments as Francis. This is Limbaugh's modus operandi, there is always a modicum of truth in what he says, so you can never accuse him of delivering "fake news", yet he leaves out relevant details that spell out the truth of the story. He's like an add for a movie that prints a quote from a review that says: "this is not a very good movie" but leaves out the word "not".

If you listen to Limbaugh and his proteges, it doesn't take much time to realize they are filled with hot air and their words have little substance. Unlike the left leaning TV comics, the radio guys seldom give voice to the opposition and when they do, they make sure to save the last word for themselves.

What makes them so very effective, is the way they brilliantly take advantage of the medium of radio, especially its immediacy and intimacy, just as FDR did for the first time over 80 years ago. In what other medium could they come into the homes of tens of millions of Americans, and relentlessly bloviate their spite filled rhetoric non-stop for three hours at a pop? If they don't induce a headache for listeners as they do for me, all their huffing and puffing, their ranting and raving, their temper tantrums and moral indignation are in fact, quite compelling. Studies show that when people hear the same thing over and over and over again, pretty soon they will begin to believe it. Being subjected to these guys for any length of time might even cause their listeners to develop a case of Stockholm syndrome, the condition where hostages begin to identify with their captors and their causes, simply out of self-preservation.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Limbaugh and his ilk are largely responsible for the election of Donald Trump in 2016. These guys are extremely popular in the places where the president did well, and if his success can be attributed to the anger his voters feel about their lives, Rush and his minions did a wonderful job of throwing gasoline on their fire.

And they continue to do so. No matter how bad things will get with this administration, every time it lies, ignores the rule of law, incites our allies, or unnecessarily provokes our adversaries, no matter how close it gets to becoming a bona fide tyranny, you can rest assured that its most powerful mouthpiece, the right wing radio dudes, will bloviate on, throwing more and more gasoline onto the fire of discontent among their listeners, convincing them that those of us who support our country, its institutions, and the values it stands for, but don't support this president, are the real enemy.

If there is any silver lining to all this, we can be assured that Rush's listeners won't heed Michael Corleone's advice to keep their enemies close, because Rush won't let them.

I dare say that those of us on the other side, can't afford that luxury.

No comments: