Monday, January 7, 2008

Hate Makes the World go 'Round

I was so perplexed by Bob Franken's blog post this morning on Huffington Post that I had to remind myself who he was. Fortunately, his biographical statement (probably written by himself, as is the case with similar statements for actors that one can read in Playbill) quickly tweaked my memory:

Bob Franken has been doing history’s play-by-play for decades. Through Bob, millions of viewers around the planet have been brought to the front row at just about all the world’s major news events…war, political, legal, you name it, he’s been right there.

Bob has specialized in live coverage, with a knack for taking the story, tempestuous, or complex, and making it understandable. He is famous for a sardonic style that looks for irony, and finds it.

An Emmy-award winning reporter, recently inducted into the Society for Professional Journalists Washington Hall of Fame, he covered combat in both Iraq wars, the White House during the George W. Bush administration, the Clinton scandals, the Supreme Court, Congress for ten years. He forced world attention on the Guantanamo Bay prison camp with his extensive reporting from there.

He’s been there live through dramas like the Terri Schiavo tragedy and countless natural disasters.

Bob Franken can share a unique perspective on the news of our time…how every story is different, how each is the same, what’s the first thing he looks for when he arrives to go “Live From the Parking Lot.”

Ah, yes, he is one of those all-too-familiar faces from the world of network news, who are usually best at providing us with (as we used to say at MIT) insights into the obvious. At least his Road to Hell was paved with good intentions. The reason I started reading the post in the first place was because it promised to be a nice bit of text about the overuse (and probably abuse) of the noun/verb "change" in the wake of the Iowa caucus. However, the insight into the obvious reared its head once I got "below the fold" (Web-browser style):

This campaign is fueled by nothing short of hatred. We have nothing that resembles the common-goal "competition of ideas," where advocates on either side of an issue respect the other.

Since I had to be reminded of his roots in television journalism [sic], my first reaction was that he had been reading too much of Jürgen Habermas' idealistic visions of the European Community as a new culture of mutual understanding emerging from a community of ideas; but, even when Habermas has spoken to the general public in crystal clear language (a far cry from the way he writes his essays and books), I do not think he has ever registered a blip in any American media channel other than The New York Review.

The fact is that Americans are a contentious lot; and they have been ever since the representatives sent to the Continental Congress that signed the Declaration of Independence recognized just how much the people they represented differed over what would eventually be documented as the first statement of our "founding principles" (the difference of opinion over slavery being the example that probably provoked the most serious consequences). Furthermore, just to make sure that the blame is shared, there is just as much contention across the populations of that mass of land that we now call "Europe," not to mention the many tribes that inhabit the African continent, the land that constituted the Fertile Crescent, and most of Asia. What is more interesting about American history is the ways in which a highly robust social system managed to emerge from all that contentiousness that gave little, if any, truck to such elevated concepts as "respect."

If Franken were really good at looking for irony (as the above biographical statement claims), he need look no further than the simple proposition that some intuitive sense of governance always manages to prevail over all that contentiousness. However, the nature of the government that emerges from that intuitive sense is not that different from the way in which Karl Marx described history in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.

Nevertheless, however intuitive that sense may be and however much it may be battered around by a context that, as Marx put it, "weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living," the social system itself keeps going with the persistence of that pink bunny that commercialism has now embedded in our consciousness. I suspect the reason it prevails is that, while those who make it are always making messes, our culture seems to have been endowed with a talent for compensating for those messes. In other words, if we have any common goal at all, it is to apply our lives and fortunes to get out of a mess once we wake up to the fact that the mess is biting our collective asses.

All this, of course, is anathema to not just Franken but the whole culture of the mainstream media; and the problem has nothing to do with whether or not those media are being run by a handful of conglomerates more concerned with quarterly reports than with the concept of a "public trust." Rather, the problem is a narratological one: the need to deliver a "story" that not only addresses the classic 5WH formula of journalism (who, where, when, when, what, how) but brings the ingredients of that formula to some form of closure. Closure requires that any mess be "cleaned up" and delivered in a "neater package," under the assumption that readers do not want to be left feeling that the mess is still there. I suspect that is one reason why The Wire has played much better with critics than the general public, since every "story" it has told since its initial season has always concluded with the grim reminder that "the mess is still there." However, the only life that is not about cleaning up messes is a utopian one; and, as Isaiah Berlin has observed, as appealing as utopianism may be, it ultimately leaves us without any purpose in life, which would be a bigger mess than any of the ones that confront us!

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