Monday, January 17, 2011


(I though I had this scheduled for posting yesterday, but somehow it never appeared. Or does it not matter? Did I clear the room with my last post?)

In the Week in Review section of today's yesterday's New York Times, Matt Bai offers the usual boilerplate on the question of why we can't seem to stop snapping at one another and unite:

Unlike Americans in the television age, who shared the common ritual of watching an Ed Sullivan or a Walter Cronkite at the same hour every night, modern Americans increasingly customize their information, picking up radically different perspectives from whichever sources they trust -- Fox News or MSNBC, Newsmax or Huffington Post. There is very little shared experience in the nation now; there are only competing versions of the experience, consumed in such a way as to confirm whatever preconceptions you already have, rather than to make you reflect on them.

Er, yeah -- but it's not as if we were happily united in the Cronkite/Sullivan era. Cronkite turned against the Vietnam War in the late '60s -- right around about the time we elected a president and vice president, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, who regularly attacked the media, making no exception for Cronkite. Nixon's predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, was wrong to believe that he'd lost America if he'd lost Cronkite -- maybe he couldn't have pulled off being defiantly at odds with the media and surviving politically, but it clearly could be done.

(And Ed Sullivan? Parents may have found the Four Lovable Moptops charming, but by the time of Jim Morrison in leather pants refusing to eliminate the word "higher" from "Light My Fire" the cultural chasm was widening -- certainly enough to make the something-for-everybody style of Sullivan's show an anachronism by the end of the '60s. When Sullivan's show finally ended, I recall that pundits said pretty much the same thing about entertainment that they say now about politics -- we couldn't unite anymore because we were too atomized in our tastes. And that was decades before we were all on the Internet.)

Frank Rich has a slightly different, somewhat self-contradictory take on the same subject:

[An] inescapable reality was articulated by Sarah Palin, believe it or not, in her "blood libel" video. Speaking of acrimonious partisan debate, she asked, "When was it less heated -- back in those calm days when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?" She's right. Calls for civility will have no more lasting impact on the "tone" of American discourse now than they did after the J.F.K. assassination or Oklahoma City. Especially not in an era when technology allows all 300 million Americans a cost-free megaphone for unmediated rants.

So what's Rich saying? That we've always been like this, and nothing's ever changed, or that we're worse than ever because of blogging and online comments sections?

My take is that we had an era of relative comity, at least legislatively, roughly between the downfall of Joe McCarthy and the rise of Ronald Reagan, and then of Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh. Democrats and Republicans agreed on containing communism and, in the third world, doing what was best for the likes of United Fruit, up to and including coups. Republicans accepted New Deal notions of progressive taxation, regulation of industry, unionization, and a fair amount of affirmative government in general.

The McCarthy/Buckley right didn't accept the concessions most elected Republicans made. And then left-wing groups fought multiple civil rights battles and questioned the war and other manifestations of the Cold War. The left had success -- too much success for the right. The right sought vengeance. That campaign for vengeance has been America's cold civil war ever since.

In the wake of the Prop 13 fight in California, Reagan disrupted the balance -- we were going to overthrow commuism, not just contain it; we were going to cut taxes and deregulate with a vengeance. But legislators still cooperated, more or less. The country, however, was getting snarlier -- that is to say, the right was getting snarlier. After Reagan was gone, Rush and Rupert, along with a lot of Rush wannabes, founded what was effectively a multi-media church -- they were to Reagan what Peter was to Christ. And that's where most of the fighting has come from (though occassionally our side fights back a little).

I still say that all the blogs and comment threads in America wouldn't have a tenth of the power they have now to enrage America if there weren't mass-media outlets to retransmit the rage. MSNBC and HuffPo do it a little; Murdoch and talk radio do it a lot. A lot of crazy stuff is discussed on the Internet, but we're not having a national shouting match about the JFK assassination or whether the moon landings were faked because those subjects aren't on TV. We're yelling about what's broadcast. All 300 million Americans may now have a cost-free megaphone for unmediated rants, but those rants don't get traction until they're mediated, by Murdoch or someone doing what he does.

No comments: