2020: Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

Beto 2

Journalist Ross Barkan reflects on the “eternal presidential sweepstakes” with the help of Neil Postman.  Here a taste of his piece at The Baffler:

The Beto/Trump hand gesture skirmish—Trump jerks and floats his arms and hands around in even odder ways—was another inanity of this 2020 campaign, one that is sure to be followed by many more. This is because a campaign of this length demands programming. As cable channels peaked in the early 2000s, TV producers realized they had a lot of dead-time to fill and only so much money to spend filling it. Hence, the birth of reality TV: SurvivorAmerican Idol, and, to the detriment of our future selves, The Apprentice. They were all aspirational, promising us stardom, great wealth, or the kind of self-discovery that can keep any average schmuck alive on a desert island.

Today, the hours, days, weeks, and months of the perma-campaign must be filled, too. Beto’s hands, Amy Klobuchar’s salad comb, Bernie’s head bandage, Elizabeth Warren’s beer chug, Cory Booker’s girlfriend, Kamala Harris’s musical tastes while she smoked pot in college. No triviality is too trivial for an underpaid journalist somewhere to bundle into an article, video, or meme in the hopes of attracting attention and driving fleeting dollars to a collapsing media ecosystem. The perma-campaign is the apotheosis of reality TV because the stakes are so high—we are choosing a world leader with the power to drop civilization-annihilating bombs, and therefore every plot twist in the extended marathon can be justified in the solemn, self-satisfied way a political reporter will defend just about every absurd practice of the profession. 

Beto, Bernie, Biden, Kamala, and more—these are characters the American people must get to know through their TV screens and social media. This year and next, they are all Democrats, and they are auditioning for us. They will speak to us, rally for us, and construct events in states ten months before a vote. Why? Well, the show needs content. And if you aren’t producing content, you are irrelevant. Imagine a presidential candidate deciding to take April, May, and June off, arguing that an entire six months of campaigning before the Iowa caucuses is probably enough to win votes. The horror! What will be tweeted, Instagram storied, Facebook lived, and packaged into lively, anecdote-addled reporting for a New York Times political memo?

Thirty-four years ago, the media theorist Neil Postman published a book that is distressingly relevant today. Amusing Ourselves to Death was a prescient indictment of TV culture that drove to the heart of the matter in ways few academic texts ever do. Postman’s problem wasn’t so much with TV itself—people have a right to entertain themselves—but with how the rules of this dominant technology infected all serious discourse. He fought, most strenuously and fruitlessly, against the merger of politics and entertainment.

We’ve only metastasized since Postman’s time, with the internet and smartphones slashing attention spans, polarizing voters, and allowing most people to customize the world around them. What’s remained constant, at least in certain quarters, is the principal of entertainment: most political content operates from this premise first, that it must captivate before it informs. The image-based culture triumphs. Beto told you in a crisp three minutes and twenty-nine seconds why he wanted to be the leader of the free world.

Read the entire piece here.

The Civility Wars

Civility

Last week, Rutgers University historian David Greenberg chided his fellow Democrats for “taking the low road” in their opposition to Donald Trump and failing to practice civility. Here is a taste of his piece at Politico:

Trump and his followers have already shown their contempt for the practices and gestures that help us live amicably with our ideological opposites. Joining Trump in the project of trashing the unwritten rules of public conduct won’t change his policies or governing style. But it will betray our own values and make it harder, once he’s gone, to reconstitute a decent, humane politics. We have nothing to gain from the eradication of a politics-free zone, from a war of all against all that greenlights once-verboten behaviors and permeates once-private spaces.

Besides, as the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s show, the outrageous and obnoxious antics of the militant left ended up hurting their cause. The taunting of public figures isn’t well remembered, and neither will history long record June’s showdown at the Red Hen. But insofar as these actions stem from a determination to score political points by violating civil norms, they—and the repellent and violent methods of extreme protesters more generally—engender a backlash and alienate allies. By 1972, we should recall, a majority of Americans had come to oppose the Vietnam War, but greater numbers opposed the antiwar movement. Nixon cannily positioned himself as upholding law and order—a helpfully ambiguous phrase that lumped together the threats of rising crime, urban riots and rowdy left-wing activism. His invocation of the “silent majority” aimed to bring together those who were put off by the noisy, disruptive and politically extreme protests. Trump, who has openly borrowed Nixonian terms like “law and order” and “silent majority,” has already been using the confrontations with his administration’s officials to shift the discussion from his immigration policies and onto the left’s behavior.

There is a middle ground. It’s entirely possible to take a principled stand against the Trump administration while hewing to honorable methods. In November 2016, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” He wasn’t turned away, yelled at, or threatened. But after the show, one actor, Brandon Victor Dixon, spoke for the ensemble in thanking Pence for his presence and then expressing their fears. “We, sir—we—are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

Read the entire piece here.

Chris Lehmann of The Baffler is not buying Greenberg’s argument.  Here is a taste of his piece “No Country of Civil Men“:

More telling still is the—wait for it—“middle ground” model of protest that the tongue-clucking Greenberg can see his way clear to approve of. That, gentle reader, was back in the early days of the Trump White House, when Brandon Victor Dixon, a cast member of Hamilton, briefly stepped out of character to chide Mike Pence for traducing our diverse republic and its noble immigrant traditions. What made this protest civil and honorable, Greenberg argues, is that Dixon thanked the vice-president for attending Broadway’s deeply confused celebration of one of our least democratic founders. “We truly hope,” Dixon sonorously announced to the erstwhile shock-jock bigot now commanding the trappings of state power, “that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

By Greenberg’s own preferred metric of backlash-provocation, Dixon’s appeal to the better angels of Mike Pence’s nature was clearly a miserable failure: Trump’s administration is more devoted than ever to transforming virtually every arm of our executive branch into a bastion of white supremacy and moneyed corruption—waving the standard of backlash politics in the abject service of the continued rule of the one percent.

Yet as is always the case with our civility policers, the public displays of protest that win their coveted approval are much more a reflection of social mood and elite consensus than any vulgar quest for measurable policy results. And here, of course, the setting says everything: a $2,000-a-ticket Broadway extravaganza rehabilitating the civic reputation of a bona-fide American autocrat. This is the high civic culture that the David Greenbergs of the world see imperiled by public confrontations with the Trump administration’s corps of on-the-make racist apparatchiks.

To which one would just add a small historical disclaimer—our recently minted liberal saint Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel, fought over the results of the 1800 presidential election (so much, it seems, for the myth that our founder promoted decorous intra-ideological comity in designated spheres of private repose, quarantined from ugly political confrontation). That’s something to ponder, genteel liberal tone policers, over a cheese plate to be shared with the loyal child-caging opposition.

Read Lehmann’s entire piece here.

Both writers make some good points.  (I am sure Lehmann will accuse me of trying to find a civil “middle ground” here).  I think Greenberg’s concern about civility is on the mark.  Someone needs to take the high road.  On the other hand, Greenberg fails to realize that American politics have never been civil.  Moreover, Lehmann is correct in pointing out the class-based roots of “civility.”

The Declining Vocation of the Social Critic

BafflerTom Whyman explores the decline of the social critic in the recent issue of The Baffler. He starts his piece by decrying much of what today passes for social criticism.  Warning: Whyman pulls no punches:

AS THE INTERNET AGE OF AUSTERITY continues to accelerate, few of us could be blamed for barely holding on, living paycheck-to-paycheck at our humiliating, precarious gig-jobs. Still, if there’s one group of people who really need to tug hard on their bootstraps—if only to find an anchor as the shitstorm of Progress rages from the heavens—it’s people like me, and a lot of the rest of us who write for this magazine: “cultural critics,” if that label doesn’t sound too grand—book-learned nonconformists who have made it our business to understand, see through, and perhaps even transform society and culture. As Theodor Adorno puts it in his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” our unsolicited charge is to help the mind identify and “tear at its bonds.” If this is indeed our vocation, just look at how badly we’re failing to honor it. In the face of historical cataclysms like Brexit and Trump, our positive contribution is pathetically marginal, our insight vanishingly small.

Maybe it’s just that the pool of ideas has become supersaturated, a dank swamp. Our public discourse is dominated by peppy TED talkers, cheerleading for the Three Horsemen of technological barbarity: AI, Automation, and Neuroscience. Dull-as-dishwater professional atheists like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett pose as swashbuckling freethinkers as they pedantically reduce everything that matters about human experience to dead, grey matter. Our most prominent political commentators are greasy petty-fascists and dogmatic party hacks; the left’s loudest voices in the media contribute little more than morale-boosting for causes that we know to be already lost. Our best known “public philosophers” seem determined to conceal whatever wisdom they might conceivably possess behind blithering idiocy, from the empty platitudes of Alain de Botton, to the edgy nonsense of Slavoj Žižek.

Who knows? Perhaps this only seems like a problem because of my epistemological position. Perhaps there are effective cultural critics working today—it’s just hard for me to see what impact their work is making because, you know, ideas work slowly and I’m living through their development, day-to-day. Perhaps if I were living in the 1830s, reading The Edinburgh Review, I’d be lamenting the crassness of Carlyle and wondering why he couldn’t be more like Coleridge. Perhaps come 2117, when all news is filtered through Snapchat, my future-equivalent will be looking back on the early days of the internet as some sort of hallowed golden age. Perhaps all of this is just projected self-loathing: a sign that I need to stop writing, get off my computer, and take to the barricades (although frankly, even our most industrious activists seem unlikely to achieve anything beyond the physical expression of their own defiance). But I’m not so sure about that. Rather, it strikes me that today there are identifiable reasons that cultural criticism might find itself in crisis.

Read the rest here.