Monday, July 2, 2007

The Hollow (and Vain) Voice of Indignation

I have grown weary of Bill Moyers. I suppose I became first aware of this when I encountered his fumbling attempt to play with irony in a forum that was supposed to be making the complexities of the Net Neutrality issue more palatable. Then there was the interview he gave to Rolling Stone that became the basis for the usual kind of rhetoric-without-logic attack from Bill O'Reilly. However, while every foolish word from O'Reilly's mouth seemed to make Moyers look better and better, the real hero from that episode was Marvin Kalb, who tried to hold his own position for serious examination of text in O'Reilly's presence until O'Reilly cut him off, probably for making too much sense. Moyers was in absentia for that episode, present only through his words in Rolling Stone, while Kalb had to confront O'Reilly in the flesh.

Still, Moyers may have learned a lesson from O'Reilly about the value of rhetoric. If people watch O'Reilly because his rhetoric of hatred is so flamboyantly spectacular, then it may be that Moyer's greatest appeal is his rhetoric of cool and disciplined reason rather than the underlying logic itself. Moyers, after all, has a preacher's background and knows full well that the power of the pulpit does not derive from the text of Scripture but from the rhetoric through which the preacher delivers that text to the congregation. This is not to attack the value of rhetoric; but, back before the Reagan administration gutted its budget, Public Television could satisfy the appetite for ideas to a degree that viewers would be eager to talk about what they had "consumed." Now, as the old joke goes, you come away hungry five minutes after the meal is finished.

I found myself thinking about all this because Truthdig decided to post the video clip of the tail end of the last Bill Moyers' Journal, which amounts to a barrage over the bow aimed at Rupert Murdoch lasting a little under four minutes. Perhaps this was just Moyers doing to Murdoch in absentia what Murdoch's employee had done to Moyers in absentia, this time motivated not by Rolling Stone but by Murdoch's intentions towards The Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine Murdoch paying much attention to Moyers with any response other than the immortal words of Boss Tweed (“What’re ya’ gonna do about it?”). The ultimate truth resided not in Moyers' rhetoric but in an observation volunteered by Truthdig reader "THOMAS BILLIS" in a comment on the Truthdig page:

The ultimate responsibility for Murdoch is the public that buys his crap newspapers and watch his crappier news programs.If people would watch Shakespeare on television it would be on 5 nites a week.Television is an exact mirror of the populace because those whores will show whatever will make a dollar.

This comment then invoked the memory of Ed Murrow, who for so many years was the voice of a commercial radio and television network, to support this demand-side analysis.

This left me wondering if Moyers was doing little more than preening his own vanity, along with, perhaps, the vanity of those who watch him. My thoughts were already in this channel as a result of an open letter that appeared in The New York Review in protest of the detention of Dr. Haleh Esfandiari by the Iranian government. The partial list of signatures is filled with names that will resonate with any New York Review letter: Ian Buruma, Noam Chomsky, Mark Danner, Natalie Zemon Davis, Ronald Dworkin, Jürgen Habermas, Stanley Hoffman, Tony Judt … you get the idea. Are any of these names likely to have an impact on the Iranian government? Does this gesture do anything more than encourage some of us who are less "elevated" to add our names to the petition? Will more names add to the impact? Have all the names on petitions for the release of Alan Johnston had an impact? For that matter, were O'Reilly apply his style of rhetoric against either the Iranian government or the Army of Islam, would he have any more effect than these more high-minded efforts?

I have become tired of the silver-tongued rhetoric of cool reason. It is just as hollow as any other stock-in-trade rhetoric these days and does little more than cultivate another sense of vanity. As I have argued before, if we really wish to see actions taken against egregious offenses, we need to sharpen our weapons of ridicule and use them more effectively!

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