The View from Mars
July 24th, 2012
It has been decades since I watched television news for anything other than immediately breaking events such as the September 11 attacks. Television seems to me to be the most worthless of our “information” sources, with the spurious immediacy of its imagery and the breathless shallowness of its verbal content. Somewhat over four years ago, I dropped my subscription to the Burlington Free Press, our “local” Gannett franchise. It wasn’t telling me what I wanted to know about the place I live, at least not $140/year worth. I got my information about current events primarily from listening to public radio, reading the New York Review of Books and our genuinely local weekly newspaper Seven Days, and surfing among half a dozen blogs. Especially with the blogs, I found it possible to feed an almost obsessive interest in the minutiae of politics. How dare John McCain say this or that. What advantage did Obama lose by using one verb rather than another. This poll says that, but it is less reliable than that poll, which says this. Outrage outrage outrage. At last, when I found myself screaming daily at my car radio during the drive to work, I realized that for my mental health I had to back off.
I backed way, way off. I had lost much of my faith in public radio when it became apparent that NPR reporters were unwilling or unable to call torture by the name appropriate to it, that is, “torture,” instead of “enhanced interrogation” and other such euphemisms. We have no right to deride the Chinese media for restricting itself to feelgood inspirationalism and sentimentality in covering the recent massive floods there, if we can’t bring ourselves to say that waterboarding is torture, and I have no interest in listening to anyone’s propaganda. So it was easy to switch off the radio. Not altogether – I like the sounds of the voices, and sometimes they tell amusing or touching stories. But bring on Cokie Roberts or Mara Liasson, or any other “analyst,” or the latest horse-race politics story, and I’m gone. I’m also gone at the sound of any national Republican spokesperson. Why should I listen to these people? It is like volunteering to be the target in a pissing match. For similar reasons, I eschew the political blogs I used to haunt. I don’t really need to know about the outrage du jour, Ms. Huffington, and I don’t really need to dissect the second-guessing of the verbiage in some administration spokesperson’s latest statement on whatever happened yesterday, Mr. Kos.
The New York Review provides me intelligent, thoughtful, in-depth journalism every couple of weeks. Seven Days keeps me in touch with what’s most au courant in Vermont, and I dip into VTDIGGER, an online news source by local journalists about my home state, for more reporting. I check the headlines at the Free Press’ web site every once in a while, just to make sure that no two-headed boy has been born in Orwell lately. And that’s about it, except for a daily dose of Matt Yglesias and Paul Krugman.
In some ways, of course, I feel very out of touch. I am not clued in on a daily or hourly basis to the developing media scene, as I was. Oddly, though, I find myself feeling as if I understand certain things better than I did when I was, by conventional standards, “better informed.” For example, why people don’t vote. Oh, when I was all aghast over every drop of slime that dripped from Mitch McConnell’s or John Boehner’s or Paul Ryan’s lips, in a constant state of apprehensive excitation over David Koch’s most recently revealed nefarious manipulation, atremble with disbelieving indignation at the latest instance of the Tea Party’s unhallowed influence, it was a very great mystery to me why so many people do not seem to care about electoral politics and do not take the trouble to exercise their franchise. How could this be? The fate of the world hangs in the balance! How could they not get it? I avidly engaged in this or that theory to explain our nation’s popular apathy, and the related tendency of people to vote against their self interest. What’s wrong with Kansas. What’s wrong with the media. What’s wrong with campaign financing. Etc.
Now, I think I’m starting to get it. Dribs and drabs of the presidential campaign trickle through to me, as they unavoidably trickle through to everyone. I have moved into the news-saturated, information-deficient universe of the common herd. What strikes me is that nothing, I mean, literally nothing that these campaigns and campaigners say has anything whatsoever to do with life as I live it. Oh, they mouth words like “jobs” and such, but really, they are not talking about any kind of inhabited reality. Everything they say either lacks content altogether or is code for some abstracted political concept. Is Mitt Romney an out of touch rich guy. Is Obama a socialist. Was Romney an outsourcer. When Obama sings Al Green, does that make him seem “alien” and “other” (read “nigger”) whereas when Romney sings a patriotic song does that make him seem, well, patriotic. Really, who gives a flying fuck about any of it? Not me. They are so far off from the reality that passes before my eyes every day, the sights and sounds that affect my heart and mind as I move through places and among people. No wonder folks don’t “tune in” to politics until the last minute, if at all. No wonder they make their electoral decisions, if they do vote, on the basis of aesthetics (“he seems like a guy you’d want to have a beer with”) and superstition (“the president is responsible for the economy”).
It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. I remember when I got excited about Obama. It was listening to his speech about race, when he was running for his first term. Here was a politician with the courage, compassion and insight to describe the racial substrates that run through all our lives, to talk about real things in a real way. Joe Biden’s of the same stripe. Not only is he capable of talking like a human being, he can talk like he knows something about what it means to be human. On the other hand, you’re not going to hear anything like that from Mitt. That’s the main reason why I’ll vote for Obama again. I wish he would do more of it, though.