Network: When Satire Becomes Reality

I just watched Network, the classic 1976 film. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: our reality today resembles the satire of the past to an alarming degree.

Network predicts the blurring of entertainment, opinion and news on television almost perfectly. It’s as though screenplay author Paddy Chayefsky traveled to our time, watched a couple of hours of cable news and, upon returning to the 70’s, started work on his screenplay.

Already in the 70’s, ratings determined the editorial direction of each news broadcast. Telling the truth is one value; getting as many people as possible to watch your show is another.

If a journalistic institution is doing well, truth has a chance. When times get rough, it’s time to focus on ratings regardless of truth.

Network takes this truth to its logical conclusion. Howard Beale, a respected newsman about to be fired because of bad ratings, calmly states he intends to kill himself on air. The resulting publicity makes him a sensation, and his follow-up rants only accelerate this.

Beale’s rants are perfectly out of sync with the cool headed TV journalism of the 70’s, but wouldn’t seem out of place on Fox News today. At all.

This is what makes watching Network in 2011 so compelling: the shift away from reason and towards a shallow populism is predicted as the inevitable result of the quest for ratings.

The media landscape is radically different today than it was in the 70’s. There are hundreds of TV channels competing for time, and then you have the Internet.

Do we ever have Internet. It’s gotten to the point where a two hour story is considered old, and as such not worth digging into more.

The quest for attention, for ratings, is triumphing over truth. Write the most sensational headline possible and you’ll get high ratings. Throw in some search engine friendly terms, because we’ve got to get traffic up. Avoid overly depressing topics; they won’t play well on Twitter or Facebook.

Throw a cat picture in there; that will attract some attention.

The Internet is a social medium lacking central control. It’s still evolving, and it’s not too late for us to make it productive. It’s not going to be easy, but let’s see what’s possible. Who’s with me?

“The Party” exposes China’s mysterious leadership

Americans love conspiracy theories. Even if you know man stepped on the moon and Bush didn’t cause 9/11, there’s something sickly fascinating about speculating that government has something to hide. At the very least, it makes for great fiction.

Conspiracy theories, so far as I know, aren’t popular in China. That’s a shame, because the people of China are living in the midst of a pretty spectacular conspiracy; one that’s anything but theoretical.

That’s certainly the impression I got after reading Richard McGregor’s “The Party,” a fascinating look at the inner circles of China’s elite. It depicts The Communist Party as bureaucratic, hierarchical and largely effective – though frequently hampered by its obsession with staying in power.

If you struggle to understand just what Beijing is thinking sometimes, this is the book you need to read. The motivations of the Chinese regime is laid out clearly, as are Western misconceptions about it.

Western scholars have long speculated about what lessons are to be learned from the fall of the Soviet empire; in China, the question is anything but academic. Such a fate must be avoided at all costs, and the Party staying in power can ensure this.

This lesson, along with the experience of the 1989 Tienanmen protests, define China’s government to this day. Capitalism, of a certain kind, was found to help the party stay in power by growing the economy and preventing collapse. It’s also made China the world’s second-biggest economy.

The Party isn’t the sort of conspiracy you find in the American imagination; it’s too imperfect for that. There is a surprising number of things over which The Party has no power. Regional politicians routinely ignore dictates from Beijing, for example. Taiwan remains very much independent.

Still, there’s not much about modern life in China not supervised by the Communist Party. The Internet is famously monitored, many families are permitted no more than one child, only approved religions can meet publicly, and corporate leaders can be fired by The Party at will.

Despite all this, however, an overwhelming majority of people feel the country is headed in the right direction, something that can scarcely be said about America. Whatever you think about The Party, you have to admire it at a certain level.

McGregor’s book doesn’t focus on this sort of admiration, however, focusing instead on the consequences of single party rule. A particularly morbid example involved tainted milk being covered up in 2008 to prevent negative press during the Olympics. Children died because of this, so The Party let the company take the fall in early 2009, when the Western media had gone home.

And, of course, speaking against The Party can get you locked up in a hurry. Just ask the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Overall, this book gives me the impression that life is better in declining American than in rising China. It also puts the petty arguments in America, in which Obama/Bush are routinely compared to authoritarians, into context. A highly recommended read.

Bush’s “Decision Points” is profoundly surreal

In the week leading up to the release of George W. Bush’s memoir, reviewers chimed in with their opinions, hoping to define what the memoir means to the millions who read reviews instead of books.

Some said Bush is as stubborn as ever, insisting that history will show him in a kind light despite evidence to the contrary. Some found factual errors and highlighted them. Some longed to return to Bush’s presidency.

No review I read, however, pointed out my deepest feeling after reading Decision Point: the book is profoundly surreal.

Here is a president who defined his career by his decisiveness. The guy actually called himself “The Decider.”

Yet, reading his memoirs, I got the distinct impression that Bush never really made a decision in his life. Whether it’s following his dad’s example or listening to his close advisers, Bush’s own words gave me the impression that he is a man who floated through life and happened to become the president of the United States of America.

He went to two Ivy League schools, seemingly just because he had connections and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life anyway. He got mediocre grades in both schools. Then he drifted for a decade or so, doing some labour and starting the occasional unsuccessful business. Then he got married and decided owning a baseball team would be fun. Then he ran for governor, and eventually for president.

Perhaps others will read it differently, but to me Decision Points reads like the memoir of a trust fund kid who happened to stumble into the presidency. Bush comes across as sincere, as someone who loves his family and took his responsibilities seriously, but if you’re looking for deep reflections on the use of power in the 21st century look elsewhere.

And if you’re looking to learn from someone who lived intentionally, who took control of his fate and made the most of it, Decision Points is not a book I’d recommend.

***

It’s September 11, 2001. I’m starting grade 11 at a small Christian high school in Ontario. The first class of the day is history, and we’re talking about what history is.

Mr. Korvemaker is one of those teachers who teaches best when he asks questions, and today is no exception. Everything he asks prompts conversation as we try to figure out what, exactly, history is.

What becomes history, what doesn’t become history? Is it the moments of the past that we, as a civilization, assign value to? Or are there some moments that are just intrinsically historic?

We are well into the conversation when we are interrupted by the PA system. Planes crashed into both World Trade Center towers in America, and no one is really sure what’s going on. Our vice principal, a lifelong educator typically sporting a sincerely happy demeanor, is fighting back tears. We later learn he has a friend working in one of the towers.

It seems insane, in retrospect, that our discussion about what history is could take place during a moment destined to go down in it.

***

“Where were you when it happened” stories have become a genre. Telling these stories is a sort of religious ritual, one in which the storyteller places their lives in the context of history.

Bush’s memoir contains this ritual early on.

He describes how he started his day on September 11, 2001. Reading the Bible, jogging, showering, breakfast, CIA briefing. His manner of describing everything is downright ordinary.

Most people know where Bush was when the planes hit: promoting his education reforms, reading to children in the Emma E. Booker Elementary School of Florida. It was a press-oriented visit, meant to boost No Child Left Behind.

His chief of staff whispered in his ear after both plane crashes. Bush kept reading.

“I saw reporters at the back of the room, learning the news on their cell phones and pagers,” he writes. “Instinct kicked in. I knew my reaction would be recorded and beamed throughout the world. The nation would be in shock; the president could not be. If I stormed out hastily, it would scare the children and send ripples of panic throughout the country.”

And so continuing to read a children’s book is heroic.

Not that I think he reacted poorly. On the contrary, I would do the same thing under the same circumstances. That’s not the point.

He shouldn’t have been doing the press-oriented school visit in the first place.

Modern presidents are pundits as well as politicians, a long tradition but one we should question. More would get done if politicians stopped campaigning once elections concluded. That Bush was promoting his work instead of working when the planes hit is a symbol of how out-of-sync with reality the modern presidency is.

Bush describes the rest of his day, riding Air Force One from location to location. Like most of us, he had no idea what was going on. He kept calling Washington to find out, but the entire government seemed to be in chaos. It was hours before he found out Al-Qaeda was to blame, at least by his telling.

The entire time Bush kept telling his people he wanted to get back to the White House, but for safety reasons this was continually delayed.

He made it eventually.

“Landing at Barksdale felt like dropping onto a movie set,” says the most powerful man on earth about seeing his own air force in action.

What a mediated world we live in.

***

It’s November, 2003. I’m halfway through my first semester at an small Christian university in Michigan. I’m figuring out what identity politics is.

Growing up in Canada ideology wasn’t something I thought of much. Mom and Dad voted against each other during a couple of elections, and it was more a joke than a fight.

Not so in Michigan, I soon learn. Here many accept political affiliations as though they are born into a caste.

“I’m a genetic Republican,” I hear more than once. A friend of mine explains she is a Democrat because of her New England upbringing.

This makes very little sense to me. What do ideas have to do with genetics or upbringing?

I take everything in stride, but a few things confuse me so much that I have to question them. Among them is a picture I see every day.

The picture is on the door of the dorm room across the hall from mine. It features a soldier manning a large gun in a desert, with a caption I never forgot:

“You aren’t the ones taking bullets in the desert. SUPPORT YOUR COUNTRYMEN.”

I was never against supporting troops. God knows I don’t envy them their job.

But that was rarely the purpose of signs like this in the early days of the Iraq war. The argument that one should support the troops was frequently twisted into a means of telling people to support the war in Iraq.

I reject this logic completely. One does not necessarily need to support a war just because there were troops fighting; that would mean accepting any war regardless of its morality.

So I write an article about America invading Canada to make this point. It probably convinces no one of anything, but I have fun with it.

I found a new passion: writing.

By the end of that year I write a regular satirical column in the student paper.

***

The Iraq war, through Bush’s telling, was completely logical. Saddam was a dick. Saddam ignored international law. International organizations were unwilling to do anything about this. America, and her allies, did it without their consent. Now Iraqis are voting, and the world is a better place.

This telling isn’t completely out of touch with reality. Saddam had been ignoring, and gaming, international law for decades much like North Korea and Iran do today.

Opponents of the war never argue these points. They argue that America doesn’t have the right to ignore the institutions, like the UN, which she built to make the world a better place. To hear Bush speak of the UN, however, you’d think it was just a conspiracy to stop America from properly taking care of everyone.

The war ended up being much longer than Bush imagined. Of course it cost the American economy billions. But to Bush, this is justified because the cause was just and the security of America depended on victory.

Ideological arguments like this will probably give way to reality in the coming century, as America’s wealth faces limits. Wars will be opposed on fiscal rather than moral grounds. America will no longer have the means to impose its order on the world, whether it wants to or not.

All of these arguments will look very different by then.

***

It’s April, 2005. My second year at Calvin is winding down, and I’m helping the staff at the student paper put the final touches on its annual parody issue.

The parody issue has a half century of mocking the school’s status-quo behind it, something we’re all aware of as we put all of our spare time into this year’s project. Editors have been fired, donations have been pulled and the school has more than once been forever changed for the better.

Simply put: truth is good. If God is good, falsehoods should be mocked. Parody is our way of mocking falsehoods, a responsibility we take very seriously.

This year we’re doing a mock version of People magazine, and it’s been exhausting. The layout is a pretty good recreation and the articles cover everything from closeted homosexuals to the hubris of certain communications professors.

Finally we think it’s finished and we’ll be able to go to bed at night instead of staying up working on the publication.

It’s not meant to be. The morning we wrap it up there is an announcement: George W. Bush will speak at our college’s commencement this year.

Well shit. Now we need to throw something about Bush into there. The exhaustion, however, eventually turned into school-child giddiness as we worked on our last-second addition to the publication.

The design we eventually settled on felt nothing short of genius. Our collective minds, as though one, choose the famous cowboy image of Bush on his ranch and turned it into a parody Marlboro advertisement.

“Come to where the Savior is,” it read, “Come to Bush country.”

We intend to point out the sacrilegious overlap of religion and politics in contemporary America. Bush was the ultimate symbol of that, only highlighted by his decision to speak at our Christian university.

We also think our ad is hilarious.

***

History’s always been a nebulous concept, leading at least one 20th century automaker to call it “bunk.”

That being said, most people don’t spend our days wondering how history will judge them. For the most part, the average person assumes nothing they ever do will be taught in classes later on in life.

George W. Bush felt he had no such luxury. Late in his presidency Bush more than once mentioned his belief that history would vindicate him; that his current unpopularity is a momentary thing.

It makes sense, then, that the very first thing Bush mentions in his book is how important his book will be for future historians.

Maybe it’s because I’m young.

Maybe it’s become I came to political consciousness in Canada, where the stakes are so much lower, before moving to America.

Maybe it’s because nothing Bush did every really made sense to me at the time.

Whatever the reason, I can’t really describe Decision Points using any word besides surreal.

Freakonomics: A Fun Film Your Brain Will Like

As a huge fan of the Freakonomics books I was thrilled to see the new film based on them last night. I’m still not sure if the film lived up to my massive expectations, but I am sure I enjoyed it.

More of a film festival than a film, Freakonomics is about a lot of things – sumo wrestlers cheating, abortions lowering crime rates and bribes encouraging children to study, to name a few. The central thesis of the film, much like the books that inspired it, is simple: incentives matter. People react to incentives, but not necessarily in the ways you’d expect.

For example: real estate agents. Early on in the film it’s pointed out that a realtor’s best interest isn’t necessarily aligned with yours, because you getting an extra $10,000 isn’t necessarily worth them working an extra week for a minor increase in commission. In the film Levitt states you can prove this by comparing how long realtors take to sell clients houses to how long realtors take to sell their own houses.

These kinds of scenarios are played out a few times in the film, the product of 6 different directors. The film is divided into four different short films, tied together with segments featuring Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (co-authors of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics.)

The first segment, directed by Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock, examines whether a given name can cause a child to turn out a certain way. Paced quickly in Spurlocks typical style, this segment concludes that your name doesn’t so much cause your future as tell you a lot about the socio-economic situation you were born into. There are some cheap laughs here, which I enjoyed, and it’s a great short to start with.

Next up is “Pure Corruption”, which examines the prevalence of cheating in sumo wrestling. Director Alex Gibney, who brought us Enron: The Smartest Guys In Room, connects the corruption of sumo wrestlers, and Japanese culture’s inability to admit there’s a problem, to corporate America’s corruption. The change in pacing from Spurlock’s section is dramatic, and yet somehow this more reflective section works well.

I wish the same could be said for It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life, the third section. This piece examines infamous study about the effects of legalized abortion on crime, which concludes that the dramatic drop in American crime in the 1990’s is directly related to Roe V. Wade passing 20 years earlier. Considering this argument is one of the most compelling in the original book it was disappointed to see it translate so poorly to film, but

Happily things picked up during the finale: Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady made one of my favorite films, Jesus Camp, in which they excelled at letting kids talk for themselves. This segment excels at that too, as economists try to encourage kids to do well in school by offering cash incentives. I think this was my favorite part of the movie, because the kid’s motivations were so clearly defined and because the incentives didn’t seem to work the way you’d expect.

Overall Freakonomics is a lot of fun with a bit of educational value. Don’t expect to see as much information conveyed as in the books, but expect to have a good time and do a little bit of unconventional thinking. I’m not sure the film meets the massive expectations I had, but I certainly enjoyed myself.

Official Freakonomics Movie Site

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Superfreakonomics: Barnes and Noble, Buy.com

‘Grapes of Wrath’ and the Great Recession

It’s difficult to think of anything new to say about The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s masterpiece. But recently I, after years of Kathy insisting I do so, got around to reading it. I couldn’t help but notice a few things relevant to the here and now, and seeing as I have a computer I figured I’d post them on the Internet.

Our Recession is Lame

Yeah, housing prices are low. Some people don’t have jobs, and many are spending less than they’d like.

Very few American children are starving to death, however.

To even compare the economic events of the past few years to the Great Depression is, I think, insulting to those who actually lived through it. Our modern unemployment rate, hovering around 10 percent, certainly leaves something to be desired; it is, however, minor when compared to the 25 percent rate nationwide in the 1930s.

Comparisons between our modern recession and the great depression seem even more foolish if you imerse yourself in Steinbeck’s epic, where entire families wander from town to town in hopes of finding a single day’s work.

Many today are without work, yes, but the vast majority of them wouldn’t even consider physical labor as a way to feed their family. Far better to collect unemployment until something comfortable comes along.

Okies/Illegal Immigrants

But you know who is willing to do physical labor? Illegal immigrants. Steinbeck’s description of depression-era “Okies” to me almost perfectly mirrors the modern illegal immigrant.

Both leave everything they’ve known behind to build a better life for family, both are more than willing to work hard to do so and both are generally regarded with suspicion–even anger–by the people they are working for. Depended on and despised.

The fact that these Okies were in the country changes nothing. Californians in Steinbeck’s novel are determined to define the incoming white American masses as outsiders, so they do so. Much of the rhetoric they use to describe these outsiders parellels contemporary to the point where it’s easy to mistake one for the other.

Cars/Computers

Al and Tom Joad both understand cars. They can drive them, they can repair them and they can tell when something’s going wrong with them. Many older individuals, however, seem to have no comprehension of how these machines work–despite depending on them.

Sounds familar? It does to me, because computers simply make sense to me. Almost every day, however, I help someone who–though depending on a computer to make a living–has almost no idea how they work.

I suppose the point I’m making here is that new technology, to the young, is normal.

This is an enormous advantage, career-wise. I’ve no doubt that Al eventually found his way into a garage and made a decent living. Likewise, I’m not worried about my employment prospects so long as there are people who can’t find their googles and as such think they have a virus.

Someday, however, my skills will be obsolete. Young people who understand future technology will infuriate me.

Barnes and Noble, Borders, Buy.com.

‘Idiot America’ shows how truth became a product

You might not guess it from the title, but Idiot America is perhaps the most loving tribute to the United States on book shelves right now. In many ways an extension of his famous October 2005 Esquire article Greetings From Idiot America, Charles P. Pierce’s latest book covers everything from the Terri Schiavo circus to climate change denial to Sarah Palin to the story that started it all: The Creation Museum. All of this is done with love and wit, aimed to both amuse and highlight the absurdity of our present national dialog.

For example, here’s how Pierce introduces the Creation Museum:

“Outside, several [people] stop to be interviewed by a video crew. They have come from Indiana, one woman says, two toddlers toddling at her feet, because they have been home-schooling their children and they have given them this adventure as a kind of field trip. The whole group then bustles into the lobby of the building, where they are greeted by the long neck of a huge, herbivorous dinosaur. The kids run past that and around a corner, where stands another, smaller dinosaur.

“Which is wearing a saddle.

“It is an English saddle, hornless and battered. Apparently, this was a dinosaur used for dressage competitions and stakes races. Any working dinosaur accustomed to the rigors of ranch work and herding other dinosaurs along the dusty trail almost certainly would wear a sturdy western saddle.

“This is very much a show dinosaur.”

Excerpts like these are combined with a wide variety of stories from America’s past and present to promote Pierce’s central thesis, which is simple to grasp: America, once the mindchild of Enlightenment ideals, is becoming a place where truth doesn’t matter so much as marketability. Calling the place America is becoming “Idiot America,” Pierce claims we live in a society where expertise is regarded with at best suspicion and at worst hostility. Idiot America is based on three main premises:

  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
  2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
  3. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

Throughout the book Pierce does a great deal to defend what he calls The Great American Crank. He devotes quite a lot of ink to Ignatius Donnelly, a 19th-century congressman and amateur scientist whose book Atlantis : the Antediluvian World (Barnes and Noble, Project Gutenburg) made the concept of Atlantis a phenomenon at the time. Pierce calls Donnelly the quintessential American Crank, a person outside the mainstream of the day who pushed the nation’s imagination to places it otherwise wouldn’t go.

The problem, to Pierce, isn’t the cranks. Cranks are an essential part of our national fabric, part of what makes America great.

No, the problem is that we’ve made our cranks into commodities. They have TV shows and book deals, and if they sell enough books or yell loudly enough what they say is just as valid as the opinion of a scientist or any other expert.

Or moreso.

Essentially, Pierce states that we live in a nation where everything is in the wrong place. Religion is mixed with science, entertainment with journalism and politics with faith. All of these things are weaker for being mixed together.

Particularly vivid, to me, is Pierce’s discussion of one of the most surreal election in America’s history:n 2008. McCain, previously a moderate, campaigned against legislation he wrote in order to garner votes in Idiot America. The nomination of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate was perhaps the epoch of the craziness:

“The more people pointed out Palin’s obvious shortcomings, the more the people who loved her loved her even more. She was taken seriously not merely because she had been selected to run, but also because of the fervor she had stirred among people in whose view her primary virtue as a candidate was the fact that she made the right people crazy. Their faith in Idiot America and its Three Great Premises was inviolate. Because the precincts of Idiot America were the only places where his party had a viable constituency, John McCain became the first presidential candidate in American history to run as a parody of himself.”

The book is worth reading if only because it’s the first thing I’ve read that made sense of the 2008 election, but there’s a lot about this book that makes it worth picking up.

Not that it’s without shortcomings. Pierce doesn’t mock the premises of Idiot America in action on the left nearly as much as he does on the right (he claims this is primarily because the right was in power as he wrote the book.) As someone who lives in Boulder, Colorado, I have to say that these three premises are alive and thriving on the left. It also seems, to me, that there is something iconic about Pierce criticizing the way truth has become a marketplace via a book with an extremely marketable title.

But perhaps I’m nitpicking. What Pierce does best here is contrast the crazy notions of the past with the crazy notions of today. For example, his conclusion regarding the Creation Museum:

“Counternarratives are designed to subvert conventional ideas, but there is nothing at all subversive about the Creation Museum. The ideas in it are not interesting. They’re just wrong. It’s a place without imagination, a place where we break our dragons like plow horses and ride them.”

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