Remember the TV series “Monk?” Tony Shaloub plays a brilliant and observant detective who is traumatized, reclusive yet lonely, and often ostracized on account of his extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’s learned to sometimes suppress his forthrightness for others’ comfort, but he doesn’t always succeed. One recurrent trope has him laying out a crime-solving hypothesis that at first seems implausible to his former police colleagues. Seeing their skepticism, he shrugs. “I could be wrong,” he says. “But I’m not.”
I’ve never solved a crime and in general, I’m wrong a fair percentage of the time, but I kind of know how he feels. I am struggling with the feeling of having cried into the wilderness these past four or five decades. The part of me that needs my truths to ring out is fighting with the demoralized part that says it ought to be clear by now that my truths aren’t landing. I claim no special powers of prognostication. I wish with all my might that the warnings I’ve felt obliged to offer these many years were unnecessary. More than anything else, I want to be wrong. But so far, when it comes to the price we pay for adjustment to absurdity and deference to illegitimate authority, sadly, I’m not.
What’s got my goat now is the way submissiveness to holders of high office has been bred into the collective consciousness—perhaps pounded into our minds is more accurate. I am an admirer of the late, great social critic Paul Goodman, especially for the fearless expansiveness of his vision. Every time I think about this phenomenon of obsequious obeisance, a few sentences from Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals come to mind. I first quoted them here in 2006, then again in 2012, underlining Van Jones’ warning that we shouldn’t adapt to absurdity:
One is astounded at the general slavishness. The journalists at the President’s press conference never ask a probing question, they have agreed, it seems, not to “rock the boat.” Correspondingly, the New York Times does not print the news, because it is a “responsible newspaper.” Recently, the Commissioner of Education of the State of New York spoke of the need for young people to learn to “handle constructively their problems of adjustment to authority”—a remarkable expression for doing what you’re told….
So we drift into fascism. But people do not recognize it as such, because it is the fascism of the majority.
I wrote in 2006 that “Goodman was famously unhappy that his warnings and exhortations were not not heeded. I am not famous but feel the same.”
This is not a screed about some acquired general character flaw, though it’s true that quite a few of us have absorbed the deference to power and position that has allowed #IMPOTUS to crown himself king and accept as his due the bent knees so many have offered. My real ire is reserved for the mainstream media, which have obliged #IMPOTUS with an astounding amount of free airtime to boast, lie, attack, and mislead the American people and anyone else within earshot. This is well-documented beginning with the pre-2016 election campaign.
This is from a summary of a study from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government:
Donald Trump got the equivalent of about $55 million in free advertising space from the eight major media outlets it studied–and about $16 million worth of that came from the New York Times alone. That number “was more than [Trump] spent on actual ad buys in all media during all of 2015,” the study notes, and the candidate’s total advertising value was 1.5 times what Bush, Rubio and Cruz got.
In a New York Times opinion piece aptly titled “Stop Airing Trump’s Briefings!” Charles Blow laid it out plainly:
Simply put, the media was complicit in Trump’s rise. Trump was macabre theater, a man self-immolating in real time, one who was destined to lose, but who could provide entertainment, content and yes, profits while he lasted….
I fear that history is repeating itself.
The mainstream media are endangering millions of lives and the future health of the body politic by providing free airtime for Trump’s campaign of lies, when they could and should be treating these events like an actual story rather than noblesse oblige. Blow quotes Ted Koppel:
“Training a camera on a live event, and just letting it play out, is technology, not journalism; journalism requires editing and context.” He continued, “The question, clearly, is whether his status as president of the United States obliges us to broadcast his every briefing live.” His answer was “no.”
A few news outlets have stopped airing the briefings unedited, cutting away from segments that are clearly campaigning for re-election rather than imparting information. If you Google “stop airing trump’s briefings,” you’ll find many debates on the question and accounts of TV and radio stations that have limited #IMPOTUS’ daily airtime. At this writing, more than 300,000 have signed a MoveOn petition calling on national and local media outlets to ensure they broadcast “valid, accurate information from medical experts, rather than feelings and diatribes from the President that only serve his own electoral interests.” Perhaps if three million sign it could have an effect, I don’t know.
I am glad to see these signs of life amidst the general complicity with #IMPOTUS’ commandeering of the media. And of course, there’s a tremendous burst of freedom of expression online from “alternative” media. The most encouraging sign for me would be an outbreak of independent thinking and action from members of the mainstream press, as when a fellow reporter yielded his question time to Yamiche Alcindor after she’d been silenced at a White House press event. There have been so many times that #IMPOTUS has attacked members of the press for daring to question him that Business Insider did a compilation; and for almost all of those times, no one at the briefing protested or did more than repeat polite questions. (More than half of those attacks were directed at women, who pay double in #IMPOTUS world for having the impudence to stand their ground.) I understand journalists may feel they are permitted to be at White House press conferences on the tacit condition that they toe the line; it would be nice if a bunch of them tested that, no?
This is training, friends, training in extreme deference to position such that independent thought and action are deemed unacceptable. The people who benefit from our “general slavishness” are doling out the training, and a scary number of us are swallowing it.
What would it take to awaken people to the damage done by a servile relationship to power? I guess a start is a lot more of us talking about it.
“Lies” by The Black Keys.