Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why I kinda dig 1963.

As per usual, the United States of America is in an uproar this morning. Last night Ellen Degeneres officially replaced Paul Abdul on American Idol and we as a country didn't know how to deal with having our favorite incoherent washed up pop star replaced by our favorite lesbian on our favorite karaoke show, so we lashed out. We lashed out and yelled things at the President.
I'm not sure how I feel about Joe Wilson's now infamous "YOU LIE!" outburst [Though I did love Nancy Pelosi's "Bitch, oh no you didn't!" stare], mainly because they are always yelling at each other like this in the British Parliament and I find it rather charming. But that's what revolutions are for and we can't act British any more, so I guess hey, your bad Joe Wilson.
The true point of the matter is, this week has already been a little crazy aside from Ellen and Joe - our President was also giving scandalous speeches to our nation's youth, a crazy guy was trying to hijack a plane in Mexico and it was Labor Day so no one wanted this week to go past Monday anyway. People were already freaked out about last night's health care speech because - wait for it! - it was going to be shown on every single channel! Well, except for on Fox, which obviously couldn't bring itself to not show another episode of So You Think You Can Dance, which is curious because I thought that show just freakin' ended.
Therefore Fox should clearly be commended for its defiance for a] picking Ellen despite her lack of apparent musical knowledge and for b] ignoring the President's request for airtime because really, how dare he want to address the nation about something vaguely more important than a reality competition show.
Now before I go any further, if you haven't noticed, I love me some Barack Obama. Not really just because of politics, but I do love the man himself - in that I think we could probably hang out, have a beer and discuss our mutual love of Abraham Lincoln's word choices together sort of way. So needless to say, I wouldn't be the first person to complain if I had to watch those adorable large ears on every single channel. But I think this TV Station Uproar would be unfounded no matter who was president, even if it was someone who's large ears I found gumpy, not adorable [cough GWB cough].
But let us stop the panic and think about this for a hot second America: Is it really so terrible for our President to command our airwaves for an hour on a Wednesday night?
Because I'm an East Coast Liberal Elitist, who watches shows like this, I'm going to answer my own question using an episode of Mad Men. To me the most striking moment in last week's episode was when little Sally Draper, trying to escape the horror of her beloved Grandfather's death was relegated by her mother to watching TV, only to see on the screen the horror of the precursors to the Vietnam War in the form of a monk immolating himself on the street. Today Brian Williams would warn us four times before such an image was shown on the nightly news, if at all, but here was Sally watching wide eyed a person's real life suicide.
Mad Men is of course not real life, but the moment was so striking because it called into sharp relief the fact that in 1963, really what else could Sally watch? If she changed the station [which she could only do a few times], the chances were good she would see the same news on every channel - a fact made plain as the episode's story shifts from household to household and the same newscast in heard in the background. There was no Disney Channel or Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon to take little Sally's mind off grief and death, instead her television merely served as a reminder that death was happening all the time, and all over the world:

What is so strange then is that some of the people who panicked at Obama's speech last night seem to overlap with some of the people who are forever advocating a "return" to values, implying by asking for a "return" that values are something we had and then lost. It's as if 1963 has some sort of inherent morality simply because it was "back then" and is now clouded with the rosy glow of nostalgia - but in 1963 monks were setting themselves on fire in protest, our president was getting his brains shot out and the bulk of the Civil Rights Movement was just something vague on the horizon. Credentials don't matter at all on Blogger, but the biggest thing I learned from earning a degree in history is that the world has always been pretty fucked up, and we're not going to get back to better times because there really were never any good times in the first place. Nevertheless if there's one place I wouldn't mind seeing a return to 1963, it's on our television screens.
Today TV is all about choice - what 24 hour news network do you watch? FOX? MSNBC? CNN? Do you pay for basic cable? Or premium? Isn't there a premium-premium where you get everything? Not satisfied with what the stations are playing right now? No bother, just order something off Pay Per View!
If the moon landing were tonight, how many people would get bored listening to Anderson Cooper and switch over to Bravo instead? As hard as the Jonas Brothers try, they'll never be as famous as the Beatles - they are too easy to tune out, to flip over when they are on TV, to not be heard when we can listen to our personalized radio stations on XM or Pandora. Everyone knew the Beatles, and everyone watched them on Ed Sullivan [famously, people even put off pulling crimes to watch!] but can you tell me who is on Dave Letterman tonight?
These choices have been good for us as individuals, but not necessarily for us as a nation. Lately all we've been doing is yelling at each other [literally, which is scary] at town halls and even now in Congress, so maybe its time we shared a bit more. When he came to the United States in the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that it was governed by the "tyranny of the majority," which is probably a bad thing, but after all these centuries also probably the only thing holding a country as large and diverse as ours together.
With our vast array of choices we tend to forget that television's true strength is that it can be a shared experience, a medium capable of being everywhere at once, from sea to shining sea. So let's all watch the President together and let's all watch Ellen's first night on American Idol, and then we can all have something to talk about the next day at work. And then maybe we won't feel the need to yell at each other because hey, even though that lady you met at the town hall from Arkansas doesn't want universal health care like you do, she thought Ellen sucked at her new job too, so maybe you two do have more in common than you realized.
This isn't to say that Americans didn't hate each other even when our television choices were limited [um, hello HUAC!] or even before television when the thought of fighting a war against each other on our own soil was not only conceivable, but totally real. But like I said I love Lincoln, so to paraphrase the man in the stovepipe hat, our "mystic chords of memory" seem to be growing more and more tenuous and it's time we found a little bit of common ground America, even if the only thing we share is our mutual annoyance that So You Think You Can Dance has been preempted for yet another damn speech.

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