A second episode of The Middle (not a favorite, but not bad so far as family entertainment goes) was rudely interrupted by a swirling, whirling graphic spinning out the words “ABC News Special Report” while a deeply resonant voice in the background read the screen for me. I was thinking something serious had happened, such as the bombing of another office building, or the shooting of another dozen college kids. No. It was a special report that intended to carry live Obama’s speech at the ceremony honoring/commemorating the Arizona shooting victims. It was about ten minutes until the start of Modern Family, the only television comedy or drama on network TV that’s good enough to actually plan watching. I’m thinking, they’re going to preempt the best show on network TV for this?
Cokie Roberts and George Stephanopolous then appeared, and in somber, serious tones, told of how Obama would speak to help heal the wounds, blah, blah, blah. Ugh. We watched long enough to see President and Mrs. Obama stride into the auditorium, which looked more like it was hosting a political rally than a memorial service, and then turned the channel.
We searched all the cable channels for our usual favorites, but couldn’t find anything, so went back to the broadcast networks and stumbled across a little gem on PBS, which was the only broadcast network not playing the President’s speech. The show was called The Masters and was presumably a series. Tonight’s subject was the film career of Jeff Bridges. All the way from The Dude to Rooster Cogburn. What a terrific actor. The show was itself masterful, highlighting Bridges’ career with film clips and interviews of directors and fellow actors. Quite an enjoyable diversion, even if it meant we missed watching the antics of Cam and Mitchell and Gloria and Phil, and etc. on Modern Family, or at least thought we had. But by the time the Bridges piece was done, the party in Arizona had concluded, and Modern Family was back on, so we still got to see it. It’s the only show that all four of us–my wife and our two teenagers enjoy watching together.
Network television broadcasters bask in the glory of national tragedies, real and imagined. It’s no accident that the national broadcast networks and the collective identity and purpose for America’s empire arose at about the same time. Beginning with the Roosevelt Administration, through the Great Depression and WWII; the Civil Rights era and the Cold War; and then 9-11 (the identity and purpose gruel was drawing pretty thin by then), it’s the broadcast networks, first with radio and FDR’s fireside chats, and then with TV and its searing images of real-time events, that have shaped and defined the cultural identity of Americans. Mass communications, like all those roads leading to Rome, created the American Empire. It allowed the empire builders to tell the people what to think and what to think of themselves, and how it all fit together in a grand manifestation of our destiny.
But now, the empire is pretty much built out. Whither then, will viewers come? Without the fear of terrorism, holocaust or depression, or the common cause of Civil Rights, what now will bind the empire? Ah, the trick is to simply manufacture political theater for the masses. Proclaim a senseless and ultimately meaningless shooting in Arizona a national tragedy. Stir in a few contrived controversies provoked by ridiculous commentaries on the violence, and voila, you have a nation prepared to melodramatically accept some healing that will bind their hearts to the empire’s purposes, if only for a little while. The politicians and the broadcasters and the commentators abide (but not like the Dude), in a symbiotic relationship, parasitically feeding off the mass psychosis they help each other to create. Never mind that individual psychosis was the beginning and the end to the reason for the whole sorry incident–both that of the shooter and of the idiot commentators that tried to equate his madness with a political ideology.
Bipartisanship is become the common, rallying cause. “Be polite”, President Obama essentially said last night, but with much greater rhetorical flourish and flair, if the reports on the speech can be trusted (I absolutely refuse to ever watch a genuflecting politician’s speech on TV). But what, exactly, does he mean? Does bipartisanship mean giving up the principles upon which a representative campaigned and were elected to uphold just because others in Washington might disagree with them? Does being polite mean “peace in our time” like Chamberlain promised with the meaningless swatch of paper he had coaxed Hitler to sign? In a republic, aren’t politicians specifically charged with being partisan? Isn’t bipartisanship just another word for exploiting the agency costs that come with representative government? Isn’t that done commonly enough that we needn’t make a cause celebre out of it?
I get that people wish desperately to imbue life with a purpose greater than simply the continuation of existence. I don’t get why they seem so willing to look to a political organization to find it. Political organizations are living organisms, not unlike a human body. The trillions of cells in a human body cooperate to ensure the continued existence of the body such that its genetic code can survive to the next generation. The individuals comprising a political organization behave in much the same manner, cooperating to ensure the organization’s existence and survival. But just like there are times when a human organism faces no discernible threats to its existence–it has more or less insured its needs will be met for the immediate future–there are times when a political organization lacks threats to its existence. Since political organizations arise foremost for the purpose of providing protection for the individuals comprising it, the lack of an existential external threat is itself a threat to its continued existence. Just as human beings living the easy life suffer existential ennui, a political organization suffers a sort of angst from its success for having eliminated external threats. Humans often turn to drugs or religion or of course, identification with political organizations, to relieve the angst. Political organizations try anything–drugs (prescription and otherwise), charismatic leadership, contrived problems and tragedies–to ensure they suffer no loss of relevance or power due to having successfully accomplished the task of protection for which they first arose. Contrived purpose fairly well describes most everything the United States government has done since at least the end of the Cold War.
Thus we have the spectacle in Arizona of the parties most vested in the continuation of the republic as it now exists–the leaders, commentators, and communications platforms that all depend on a national, unified culture, attempting to imbue a meaningless, more or less random act of violence with purposeful resonance for all the peoples in the land. And it seemed to work. The people desperately need to believe that life has more purpose than just being, and the national political organization desperately needs to prove its relevance beyond mere protection. It is a co-dependent relationship, the people and their government, finding purpose in and through each other. Some might call it a psychosis.