By John Steppling
The theatrical circus of electoral politics has reached the home stretch — meaning the TV phase of the candidate popularity contest.
In an age when people more or less watch TV 24 hours a day, although often (if not almost always) in a highly passive manner, the corporate media has reacted to this fact by adjusting its product to become a constant stream of advertising, with sound bite dramatic or comedy narratives interspersed.
The excellence of a show like The Wire notwithstanding, the basic network and cable format is to just run this stream of PR, non-news and seriously dumbed-down infomercials on a 24/7 basis. Given this, the current Presidential race is approached with more cogency from the meta-narrative level.
Since the debates require zero information actually be communicated regarding the alleged topics of interest, the actual horse race is won in the realm of surface perceptions and *feelings*. This brings me to Sarah Palin, way before I get to Barry and John. Sarah Palin’s three interviews have been so mind numbingly disastrous, that one almost feels sorry for the fundamentalist beauty pageant runner up. This is a woman better suited to ok your checks at Tesco, or greet you as you enter a four star hotel on some resort island and hand you a comp ticket to the evening’s buffet dinner. She is painfully and visibly stupid. She is also an unpleasant person. Reagan always struck me as senile, as far back as 20 Mule Team Borax ads and certainly as governor of California. But he was affable. To most people, anyway. This was always a surprise to me, for such affability has always, in my experience, cloaked a mean-spirited pettiness. Beware the affable! Anyway, by the time we get to Clinton we see a deeply disingenuous narcissist, but with Bush Sr. we enter the realm of east coast mandarins………those nasty pinched WASP souls that inhabit the rich enclaves of places like Kennebunkport. I always tried to imagine the dinner table scenes of the Bush family, half drunk, nasty, and without any warmth from the turkey-necked monster of a mother for dumb George Jr.
But Clinton seemed affable, and Bush Sr. seemed, well, not Dukakis I guess. Perceptions are curious in an age of media marketed reality. The PR firms go out and create a persona. The point is that such personas bear little connection to reality. It’s what is projected through the medium of television. People have been trained now for several decades to interpret television via a marketed perspective — and the constant stream of talking head commentary is there to reinforce an established national narrative. When one looks at who talks the most on major media outlets, one sees very conservative people, if not outright reactionary and racist nut cases. One does not ever see the left. When an Al Franken or that goof who sits opposite Hannity are marketed as *the left,* there is an obvious distortion. But provide enough chatter from Bill Kristol or David Broder or whomever, and keep airing the far right in the person of Ann Coulter or Krauthammer or whomever, and you provide legitimacy for racism and crypto fascism. Meet the Press, or the McLaughlin group. Let’s see— what’s the prevailing master narrative for these shows?
Now most people don’t even watch news, or if they do they grab ten minutes while eating dinner or while seated at the sports bar. “Someone turn the god damn channel! We want ESPN not CNN!”
So the short hand is really hyper short hand. This is why the attack dog campaigns work so well. Swift Boating Kerry and now Obama is a Muslim or a Marxist. These distortions gain traction because they are very easy to digest. McCain is a war hero…….easy. Palin is a hockey mom, spunky and kinda hot too…..easy.
The fact is that this debate was about exactly nothing. Or rather, it was about telegenic perceptions and impressions. Mostly impressions that are carried below the individual’s conscious radar. And on that note, McCain is not doing well. What most people took away, even supporters I suspect, was an old grumpy man with a nasty yellow toothed smirk and a strangely wandering left eye. Obama coasts along on a pleasant baritone voice. And Obama seems sane, one has to say, and that can’t be said for John and Sarah.
This brings me back to a television culture in general. The corporate media is distinctly right wing. When the best news is Jon Stewart, a comedy show, you know things have become quite strange. A debate that did NOT include any questions about Africa and nothing about the sheer violence of American Imperialism (the occupation of Iraq is assumed as a given–something that will not be and cannot be questioned) is indeed a totally managed reality. Imperialists will usually move to a neighboring country when the occupied one resists too much. Hence, Pakistan seems next, and likely Iran. But nothing of real substance was asked about any of this. The Wall Street debacle wasn’t examined — the Service Employees International Union has suggested a plan that would invest massively in public services and health care and include reforms preventing foreclosures that would demand banks deal a bit with their bad loans. Or you could just give the $700 billion to those homeowners….or better, use the $700 billion on health services.
But by virtue of the fact that the media controls most people’s thought processes these sorts of questions are never asked, and if they were floated out there most people would react to them as if they were insane scenarios. Now, it is true that a majority of Americans think the bailout plan is bad, but these very rational feelings are quickly neutralized by the media onslaught. Same with troop withdrawal. I mean this is easy; central command issues an order and everyone comes home. To try and obscure the absolute clarity and simplicity of this with hand wringing (the Euston manifesto liberals come to mind) about a blood bath, etc, is another conditioned reflex created by the media. People may instinctively think the occupation is wrong, but again such feelings are *officially* discounted by the mainstream media narrative.
Does the average US citizen ever hear a reasoned discussion of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez? Or of Lukashenko and Belarus, let alone Putin? Do they hear about Rwanda and Kagame, or about Musaveni? Do talking heads reflect back on Pinochet or the death squads in Central America– trained by the CIA? Does the Capital Gang talk about CIA covert ops that put the loathsome Shah in power in Iran? Do American TV viewers ever hear about Iranian history? For that matter, do they hear about the Stern gang and King David Hotel bombing? Do they hear about Suharto and the coup in Indonesia? The answer is of course, *no*. The prevailing discourse is about American exceptionalism, and even the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are deemed acts of patriotism that ***saved*** lives. There are plenty of people who distrust these official media storylines, but this distrust is usually couched in a simple cynicism, and such cynicism is an easily co-opted idea. As Adorno said, cynicism is just another mode of conformity. The mainstream corporate media allow token opposition, so long as it does not stray outside the bourgeois parameters of this prevailing narrative. So millions tune into these debates expecting nothing more than a chance to get a look at Barry and John and see how *Presidential* they seem. Nothing more, because there is nothing more on display.
Do TV pundits ever talk of US deals with Hitler? Never a word, or of Stalin and the USSR’s courageous fight against fascism in WW2…..nothing. So we have this season’s debates and the talking head pundits blathering away. The most cogent analysis of Sarah Palin is that performed by Tiny Fey. The best news coverage is Stewarts.
Obama is human, but he is also a Democrat and saddled with that machine. One certainly hopes he wins, because there is a glimmer of promise in his humanity and in the symbolism of his race, but the real change cannot occur until a populace awakes from the bad dream of corporate newspeak. The frames within frames have established a fixed set of coordinates about our existence. From the myths of 9/11 to bullshit about spreading democracy and the demonizing of Muslims, the media machine chews up opposition as it chews up history and reality. Token leftists like Bill Maher or Keith Olbermann will still, in knee jerk stupidity, refer to Chavez as a thug and Venezuela as a rogue state. I forgive Obama a bit, because he is simply being a realistic Presidential candidate in this era of mass delusion. But can a population survive when it is so deeply brainwashed and so incapable of independent thought? I don’t know.
But hell, the vice presidential debates this week should provide, at the very least, the same strange and perverse pleasure one gets from watching a train wreck or a building being blown apart.
Senior Editor of Arts and Culture with Cyrano’s Journal Online, playwright, director, screenwriter and teacher, John Steppling was an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival and has had his plays produced in London, LA, New York, Paris, San Francisco, and Poland. Steppling lives in Lodz with Norwegian director Gunnhild Skrodal, and teaches at the Polish National Film School. He co-edits with Guy Zimmerman Cyrano’s celebrated VOXPOP blog on theater, cinema & politics.