Have you ever had one of those scary ah-hah moments? Hurtling along the freeway or gazing out the window of a jet plane, suddenly coming to consciousness: Ohmigod, I’m in a metal capsule going much too fast to stop, surrounded by other metal capsules piloted by who knows what! This is crazy! All in a flash, you realize the whole enterprise is sustained by a tacit agreement not to think too hard about it. It’s all held together by assumptions, reflexes and habits. If everyone suddenly took the time to consider the implications, the result would be a huge tangle of scrap metal and human suffering, so you turn up the music and squeeze the thought out of your mind like so much mental toothpaste.
This is what happened to me as I listened to one news personality after another ask the presidential candidates to comment on the Supreme Court’s recent decision to disallow capital punishment for a terrible but not fatal crime. It’s as if TV reporters lined up each morning to swallow a pill containing the vivid if pointless question of the day, a pill they will regurgitate no matter what else is happening in the world. (The Daily Show conveys this perfectly with its clip compilations of TV news’ common script: click here for a hilarious segment from 11 June on the Obamas’ fist bump.)
“Ohmigod,” I thought, “here we are hurtling through history at light-speed, facing decisions and opportunities of the greatest moment, and look how many of us have chosen to experience these times through pre-digested junk thought packaged by the commercial media!” I recognize that this is not a new thought, just as it isn’t new to notice the intrinsically scary character of freeway driving. What’s new is to really take it in. So often we scoff at the media, enclosing that realization in a puff of outrage and bouncing it off the tops of our minds. Just for a moment now, stop the car and immerse yourself in thinking about it: we have so much to talk about, and we are willingly surrendering our power to shape the discourse to corporations using it to fill airtime between spots selling beer.
The commercial media operate on the tacit conviction that perception is reality. Samuel Johnson refuted that proposition a few centuries ago by kicking a stone. But if we believe it, for all practical purposes it becomes true. Right now in the presidential campaign, we are seeing certain perceptions burnished on the nightly news until they take on the hard, metallic glint of absolute truth: no candidate can oppose capital punishment and win; no candidate can endorse same-sex marriage and win; indeed, once a candidate wins the nomination with strong, clear statements that excite and mobilize committed supporters, that person must make a midstream turn, paddling as hard as possible toward what is perceived as the center of political thought.
I am deeply dubious about this. My observation is that the candidate wins who is most powerfully inspiring to dedicated supporters. That is certainly how Obama won the primary. Electoral contests are often framed in the commercial media as turning on who is most able to woo undecided voters and soft supporters of the other party. We hear that thinking so often it slips automatically into our minds, the way an entranced hypnotic subject takes instruction. But the truth is that in politics as in other complex human enterprises, no matter how scientific-sounding the analysis, it is impossible to prove precisely why people act as they do. We can’t X-ray intentions or perform chemical analysis on motives. There’s nothing to weigh and measure. All analysts can do is ask people to share their reasons, then try to spin the answers into something that sounds authoritative. Honestly now, knowing all that you do about human actions and explanations—about the often yawning gap between what people do and what they say about it—can you really certify those opinion polls as proof?
To me, the best moments of the primary—those that most inspired hope and action—were the ones where Obama broke the frame of media consensus to interrogate the questions he was being asked, rather than reflexively supplying canned answers. Remember when he said the following in his great speech on race?
[W]e have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle—as we did in the OJ trial—or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina—or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
He won the primary in part because it was so refreshing to hear a national candidate say, “Wait! We’re hurtling along in this high-speed media machine. Do we really trust the driver to tell us what’s important and how to think about it?” That broke the trance for a moment, and it felt awfully good to wake up.
Right now, I’d like to hear Obama respond to the next hot-button irrelevancy like this: “I’d like to talk to the American people about something else right now. Let’s talk about Zimbabwe and how even a leader who starts out with good intentions can be corrupted by actions that consolidate his personal power. I want to talk to you about my views on executive power, because that is important not just to the people suffering under Robert Mugabe, but to every who believes in democratic checks and balances. And I want to talk to you about a new way of understanding the role major powers like the U.S. could play in Africa in coming years, how to use our influence for good.”
I want to hear him—and every other progressive candidate for office—break the media trance every chance they get.
What about the rest of us? A few decades ago, before the media flood saturated our lives, the influence of mass media, while significant, was a paltry thing compared to these days of 24/7 infotainment. Having more voices is a good thing. It makes real sense that the main response to commercial media domination has been the multiplication of information sources: Web portals, blogs, YouTube videos, email blasts, cell phone programming… Along with countless other bloggers, I’m part of a new collective reality that asserts much more than one way of looking at things. But within that landscape is far too much that regurgitates the daily media pill. So there’s another thing we can do right now, an action that is completely in the grasp of every individual: stop filling our heads with trance-inducing commercial media material.
Imagine what you can do with the extra time and brain cells you save from listen to talking head after talking head pose the same stupid question about fist-bumps or Wesley Clark. You could listen to some news of real significance, like Seymour Hersh’s remarkable New Yorker expose of the Bush administration’s recent covert operations in Iran, for which Congressional leaders of both parties have approved funding, or the incredible interview he gave about it on Fresh Air.
Or, as you break the commercial media trance, give yourself another kind of break: you could visit with friends, cook something delicious, write a poem, have a philosophical discussion, make love or listen to an incredibly beautiful love song by Nick Cave (and surely the only one ever that starts with these words: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God/But I know, darling, that you do”). As we prepare to celebrate the freedoms for which so many sacrificed, let’s quote (and remind) Senator Obama, “We can do that.”