Sunday, October 31, 2010
Media Stars and Media Power
Just when everyone was focused on the various assaults, stompings and arrests that have arisen during the current contentious election season, hundreds of thousands of Americans ventured onto the Mall in DC to Rally for Sanity and/or Fear. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert conducted the festivities under the bright fall sun, while satellite Rallies took place all over This Unhappy Land to boost and celebrate whatever position one has, either Fear or Sanity, depending.
Attendance at the Sanity and/or Fear Rally was apparently far greater than the Beckapalooza in August and the One Nation event earlier in October. Beck used the sophisticated and allegedly unlimited media power of the FOX conglomerate and the dazzling star power of Sarah Palin to turn out what may well have been fewer than 100,000 people to "Restore America." The One Nation rally relied on the sophisticated and allegedly unlimited organizing power of the unions to turn out perhaps 50,000 on the Mall, and Stewart and Colbert used the not inconsiderable but not particularly sophisticated and certainly not unlimited star and media power of Comedy Central to turn out hundreds of thousands of exasperated Americans who simply want the political bullshit to stop. Or so they say.
Media Stars and Media Power. Glenn Beck has long eclipsed FOX's honored elder Bill O'Reilly both on the basis of overt psychosis and on the basis of ratings and fandom. He is the titular Leader of the Tea Party "Movement" -- step aside Sarah -- and has a strongly messianic view of his own sweet self that practically anyone who's dealt with People In Recovery knows all too well.
Beck's star power and FOX's media power is -- or was until yesterday -- unparalleled in the cable teevee realm. Until yesterday, his ability to rally Americans to his incoherent, religiously insane "cause" was considered the surest sign of the political direction of the masses, and that direction was obviously to the Right, much farther to the Right than America's rulers and the elites who serve them want to go just now, indeed, so far to the right that the specter of Fascism looms -- and is welcomed by his followers.
Stewart and Colbert have brought the Media Power of FOX and the Star Power of Beck (and Palin) into... question.
The notion that what's left of the unions had the kind of organizing power they once did is foolish at best, often just a deliberate distortion. Unions have been faltering and diminishing for decades in this country, partly due to the furious assaults on them from the corporate and political sphere, and partly due to their own internal weaknesses and dysfunction. The One Nation rally had no star power to speak of and it was not given the kind of Media boost that Beck got from FOX and most of the rest of the major mass media. The One Nation rally was barely acknowledged by the ostensibly wild-eyed "activist" Blogosphere.
Not surprisingly, its attendance was "modest." There were many tens of thousands there, to be sure (Washington is a union town, after all), but not as many as at Beck's "I Have A Nightmare for You" event.
Comes now Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, a couple of comic stylists in the satiric vein, both of whom have shows on the cable teevee on Comedy Central (a Viacom Company), both of whom present mock "news-talk" shows that often feature politically high and mighty guests. Even the President himself appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart the other day.
While there was considerable pre-rally coverage of the Sanity and/or Fear event it was by no means as relentlessly flogged as the Beckathon had been by FOX and many other news outlets. It was initially thought of as a sideshow, a carnival of pranksters and freaks, a relatively feeble effort to capture some of the spotlight from Beck and Palin. Stewart and Colbert are very highly regarded as observers and commentators on the passing scene, at least among "liberals and progressives" (whatever they are these days), but they have never been seen as either movement leaders or ralliers for any cause.
From his Brazilian hide-away, however, Glenn Greenwald spotted something that disturbed him in Jon Stewart's growing media presence and personna: the problem of false equivalence. The issue for Glenn and others is that some political positions and policies are so odious and dangerous they simply cannot be equated with positions and policies that are relatively mild and benign. By trying to bridge the gap between "one side" and "the other," by making mock of both, Stewart and Colbert (to a lesser extent) run the risk of falling deep into the error of fostering beliefs about the political realm that have the effect of supporting the ever more rightward and authoritarian tilt of the status quo, and worse, inspiring passivity about it.
And that, not surprisingly, has been the biggest criticism of what happened on the Mall yesterday. Passionate people are incensed that these Media Stars would mock them and call for comity, mutual respect and understanding. Absurd! OUTRAGEOUS!!!!™ Impossible! The Other Side is the Purest of Evil; to suggest otherwise, let alone to act upon it, is the Work of the Devil. It merely empowers Satan!!!!
I don't have cable teevee, so I don't watch what the cable "news" personalities or their mockers have to say more than occasionally when I see it on an InterWebs replay or I'm in a hotel. Not having cable means that I haven't been brainwashed -- yes, I think that's the right term -- by the very strange interplay between the Powers That Be and the constant marketing efforts that emanate from the cable all the time. Because I don't watch it regularly, I don't obsess on what this or that cable personality says -- the way, for example, Digby has made a Blogospheric career out of her obsession with Chris Matthews and his spittle-flecked Wrongness.
But I do see these things from time to time, and to an extent I follow the running commentary about them that is not just a feature of Digby's Place, but is pervasive throughout the Blogosphere, on both sides of the political spectrum, and is in fact a core function of the Blogosphere. Without constant furious media criticism, there would be nothing to talk about on the InterWebs, né? Well, Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen, but how long will that last? You see?
So. I'm aware of, but not particularly involved in the constant sniping at the Media from the Blogosphere. I've staked out a tiny little niche in my own Blogospheric and commentating efforts where I sometimes offer criticism of the critics as it were. So often, it seems to me, the furious criticism of the Major Mass Media and the Political Class it serves utterly miss the point.
How so? Simple: Stewart and Colbert were making mock, but they were making a point, too. The political system is broken and the media's partisanship makes things worse. We need to Come Together Right Now to solve the serious problems that affect us all. Stop the Violins, Visualize Whirled Peas! That's all well and good. There's a problem with it, though.
Our political and governmental system (at least to the extent it involves We the People) is not intended for the People's participation in the Solution To Problems. I would go so far as to say it never was, and on those very rare occasions when the People are actually consulted, the result is often enough governance contrary to the public interest and will.
This is a severe flaw in our political and governance structure, based in the Constitution itself and the long history of self-government under it. We the People simply don't get a vote on the major issues of the day nor on the policies and programs Our Rulers choose to institute. That's not what elections and the political process are for. At best, an election serves as an advisory on how quickly and how harshly programs and policies already adopted or in the pipeline for adoption should be implemented.
We do not vote, for example, on whether or not Our Rulers will pursue Empire. They do it, we have no say in it. We may or may not be able to influence how the Empire is instituted and consolidated, but not whether it is done, at least not through our votes.
So it is with all the major policies and programs of our Ruling Class. We the People have so little say in what they do that the notion of America's Great Representative Democracy is a complete joke.
None of the Media Stars get into that. (Beck skirts it, but only from a partisan perspective -- "They prevent us from exercising Our God-Given Sovereignty... yadda yadda," they being the ObamaSocialistFascistMaoistCommunistStalinist Hitlers, not the Benign Corporatists who simply want What's Best For Everyone and will exterminate all foes.)
We have a fundamentally corrupt and non-responsive government run by and for a diminishing cadre of the Ruling Class for its own (generally pecuniary) purposes. Our vote is irrelevant to them, and nearly irrelevant in the vaster scheme of things.
As Chris Hedges pointed out in a talk and article I linked to in an earlier post, it's delusional to think that we can change this state of affairs with our votes. We can't.
But what we would have to do to really change it is so disturbing to think about it's hardly even talked about. Even Hedges is reluctant to get into the gory details.
Neither Stewart nor Colbert will address that fundamental truth, except by accident. Beck will discuss it, but only from his messianic and purely partisan perspective. He wants what he wants himself, on behalf of his sponsors, and he will brook no opposition, opposition being Of The Devil and all.
We're in a very strange situation. As I've said many times over the years, if there is a forceful and violent Revolution in this country, it will come from the Right, not the Left. Every single indication demonstrates the truth of that observation. The largest contingent in the middle will continue to attempt to mediate (as Stewart and to a lesser extent Colbert try to do on their shows, and they tried to point out was the Best Way at their Rally yesterday), but the fervor and the energy that could lead to Revolution is all on the Right -- where it has been for many years.
The Bushevik years, for example, were filled with Revolutionary action at the top of the political and economic pyramid. The Revolution they were conducting at the top is being consolidated by the current regime, and We the People have essentially nothing to say about it.
Stewart and Colbert can see what's going on, I think, but they advise doing nothing about it besides pleading with Our Betters to be less hostile with one another, and excoriating the People for Taking Sides.
That's not a matter of Glenn Greenwald's false equivalence, it's a matter of fundamental institutional collapse. Since We the People have no say in what is done by Our Rulers, and they're off on a completely different track than that of the Public Interest, the problem isn't comedians trying to mediate between what are basically phony "sides", the problem is the collapse of our often faulty Republic and its replacement with Empire on behalf of a small and diminishing Ruling Class.
So far, few but the most radical libertarians have noticed, but they offer no comprehensive (or desirable) alternatives.
As is often said, "We Are Doomed." Well, at least until we take matters out of the hands of the Ruling Class and their Running Dogs.
That'll be the day.
[The best part of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear for me was Stephen Colbert's Giant Puppet of Fear Puppet, "Fearzilla", a subtle yet appropriate skewering of the widespread Blogospheric denunciation of Giant Puppets at various anti-war and other rallies in the past.]