Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Same as it ever was

I know I'm in danger of hammering on this point too hard and too long, but it is a hobbyhorse if only because bloggers sometimes write as if they only noticed this problem, therefore it only just occurred. So when Digby says:

Political journalism in America has mostly become an elaborate kabuki dance. Blogs may not be the answer, but they are at least an antidote for those of us who have been watching this show for the past decade or more and are simply desperate for some assurance from others that we aren't crazy --- those guys with the black and white make-ep are performing some sort of ritual, not doing journalism. Moyers went a long way toward putting that together for the non-blog reading news junkies last night. Maybe now it will begin to sink in.
My first thought is: when was it not?

"Kabuki dance," of course, is the latest metaphor for what centers of power always do: accrue lots of layers of hangers on and levels of absurdity until the whole thing crashes to the ground, one way or the other. The more layers, the more ritualistic, the more arcane, the manners of the court, the richer and more fabulous and more elegant it is. After all, the mark of the gentleman has always been the ability to enjoy leisure time. The distinctions (and there are always layers of distinction) quickly become how elaborately you can find ways to fill that leisure time with even more unncessary activity. The French are masters at this, and at observing it. Proust's In Search of Lost Time is mostly taken up with close observation of the social customs of fin de siecle France, when there were still Princes and Princesses. In a wonderful scene in Marie Antoinette, Kirsten Antoinette Dunst awakes her first morning in Versailles to find she must be dressed in a roomful of attendants, each with a specialized and singular task, and the first garment of the day put on her by the highest ranking member of the royal family in the room at the moment. She says, quite reasonably: "This is ridiculous." The reply: "Madame, this is Versailles!"

Even at the end, when the palace is surrounded by the angry mob, it still takes three people to serve the king a single glass of wine. It's at that point you realize how many servants there were at meals in that dining room, and how many of them were performing such specialized functions you couldn't keep up with the machinery of service because it was so elaborate you didn't know what to look for. But the foolishness of power dances and elaborate ritual is not confined to European monarchies. Although Abraham Lincoln used to run sheep on the White House grounds, the D.C. of today came of age after World War II, when the Pentagon was built, and the elaborate federal structure begun under FDR began to take root and metastasize. This is no critigue of tne New Deal, just a recognition of reality. We actually got along quite well without the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI until the Truman and post-Truman era. The other Federal agencies of D.C. have grown up just as rapidly. And with the power they represent has grown the need to establish ever more delicately nuanced rituals of just who is closest to the real power in the capitol.

The elaboration and cliqueishness of D.C. bloggers observe today is nothing new. When David Halberstam named Kennedy's staff "the best and the brightest," the ironic shaft was aimed at their spectacular failure in leading us into the quagmire (his name, too) of Vietnam; but it was also aimed at the isolation and intimidation the Ivy Leaguers and East Coast intellectuals inflicted on LBJ, whom they saw as a rube and a bumpkin. My memory of Halberstam's book is that he made the brothers Rostow and McNamara and the rest equally as culpable as LBJ for the disastrous foreign policy of the US which dominated the 60's and '70's. And most of it was because of who was "in" and who was "out." Who, in other words, was sitting at the "cool table."

As Orson Welles made clear, William Randolph Hearst was as responsible for irresponsible reporting as ever Tim Russert or David Broder (or Chris Matthews, Cokie Roberts, FoxNews, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, stop me when I've run out) have been. Remember the Maine? The only difference now is the number of news outlets anxious to sit at the feet of the powerful and report on their every activity. In that, indeed, we are more like Versailles under the Sun King than we are like Rome. Certainly the level of elaboration is greater. But is it quantifiably different? I don't really think so.

Lewis Lapham, in his years as editor at Harpers, was fond of pointing out how much and how little things had changed over the course of American democracy. He liked to cite the experience of his mentor, Walter Karp, and to refer to his own experience among the rich and powerful, most of whom are easily persuaded the world exists for them and turns its face upward, like the hawk in Ted Hughes' poem, for their inspection and ease of prey. This really isn't news and, again, there is a long history of Christian doctrine, tradition, and teaching related to it. I don't mention that because Christianity has an exclusive lock on such insight, but because it is the tradition I know. It's a very old human story. Indeed, you can see a great deal of it in the plays of Shakespeare; from "Richard III" right through to "King Lear."

Lapham's words in Theater of War, in an essay published 6 months after 9/11 could, with a few changes for technological references, have been written by Mark Twain about American imperialism in the 19th century:

"If I can understand why the managers of the state monopoly regard the privatization of terror as unwarranted poaching of their market, as a prospective consumer presented with variant packagings of the product I find the same instruction on the labels. Fear the unknown, reflect upon the transience of flounders, pay the ransom or the tax bill, pray for deliverance. The message is by no means new. The miraculous births of Fat Man and Little Boy in Los Alamos in 1945 pressed the fire of Heaven into the service of a religion (jury-rigged and hastily revealed) founded on the gospels of extortion. Powers once assigned to God passed into the hands of physicists and the manufacturers of intercontinental ballistic missiles; what had been human became divine, the idols of man's own nuclear invention raised up to stand as both agent and symbol of the Day of Judgment."
Let me put it this way, to prove I'm not just picking on Digby in a lame attempt to boost my own cred. Digby is absolutely right in this post about Ashleigh Banfield. Banfield was fired for telling the truth. But then, even the sainted Edward R. Murrow wasn't canonized for telling broadcasters the truth. Truth hurts, as Mark Knoller showed in his reponse to Bill Moyer's report. Truth will cost you; ask any historian about almost any significant historical figure, and many not so significant figures. So it's not really like this kabuki dance just started a decade or so ago, or like screaming "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore" is really going to change things. Because, as Paddy Chayefsky showed us, even if you do have a TV show and reach millions of people, they're still only watching TV.

The bottom line is: if you want to change the world, you have to do the hard work of changing yourself. And just reading a blog, or writing a blog, or watching TV, won't make you do that. The world is just slightly beyond your grasp. And what is within your grasp, is notoriously hard to get hold of.

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