Parody and Paranoia
My brief entry on Chile yesterday was prompted at least in part by this fascinating piece by Ariel Dorfman at Tomdispatch. Dorfman is a well-known Chilean who fled Pinochet’s Chile and became a renowned writer. He is recounting a speech he gave at the MLA, a speech in which he claimed the speech itself had been seized by Homeland Security on his entry into the U.S. In fact he was using that idea as a way of illustrating the absurdity of our era, the insanity of ‘security’ as it is defined and practiced by the small-brained employees of the government. But the folks at the MLA conference mostly didn’t get his crafty allusions and satirical references that he was sure would reveal his purpose. Instead, many of the people there, many of them hopeful MFAs and Ph.D.s seeking university employment, expressed outrage and solidarity with him, and some were quick to panic at what they feared would be their own near-term fate.
Dorfman laments our loss of satire, the incredible heights of pure insanity that have completely exceeded our ability to parody. The behavior of the Bushists and their coterie are so far over the edge of acceptability or sanity, that trying to lampoon them only sounds like more of what we are becoming all too used to hearing as commonplace events. His experience at the MLA underscored too how ready most of us are to believe that the all-powerful government is already on to us, just about to break down our door or seize us at the airport. The NSA eavesdropping scandal, and the lawsuits just filed by the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, reinforce a widespread, believable paranoia that everything we say and do is being observed by a nearly omniscient (and ill-intentioned) government.
But the government is enormously incompetent, as are most businesses and bureaucracies. Attributing the kind of power to them that this kind of paranoia does says more about individual powerlessness than any real capabilities of the authorities. It’s a Wizard of Oz fantasy not based on any kind of truth or real experience. The severe erosion of truth and accountability is a crucial foundation for this fantasy of governmental omniscience.
I lived through that weird time in history in which the truth became far less potent. Somewhere between Nixon and Reagan, probably during the late 1970s when Jimmy Carter was president, the millionaires who own the press (and have since greatly concentrated its ownership and control) decided that endlessly carping on the illegality and illegitimacy of presidential behavior was bad for the country. I pin the moment on Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Reagan, because Reagan’s reputation and poll numbers were tanking really badly right after getting elected (a election achieved with the dirty trick of a secret deal with the Iranian mullahs and students who had control over the U.S. hostages there). As soon as he was shot, he became a great hero, and never again was he held accountable for anything, least of all having a grasp of the world around him.
It was still easy and quite fun to parody the absurdity of the world in those days. We were publishing Processed World from 1981 onwards and satire and detournement was a major piece of our work. The much-touted “Modern Automated Office” that we were mostly working in was a laughable simulacra of efficiency or usefulness. The intensity of work increased over the years though, and the flabby spaces of corporate America that we were thriving in gradually got narrower and more difficult to survive in. Nowadays corporate jobs are incredibly intense, highly competitive, and more stupidly useless than ever, but who has time to stop and think about that? And when you might fall off the merry-go-round at the next stop, holding on is much more important than questioning why.
So that’s part of the demise of parody I suppose. But I think it’s the tidal wave of impossibly outrageous assertions and actions that makes it even harder. Jon Stewart at The Daily Show manages to do a type of satire, but it’s really juvenile most of the time, and when it hits the mark, it’s more like an I.F. Stone-style rebuke of politicians with their own words rather than creative parody. The kind of critical sensibility and contrarian awareness that satire really depends on seems to be at low ebb. Or maybe I just can’t find it anymore (please send me suggestions for good satire!)…
I’d like to unpack the relationship between the defeat of sincerity by irony during this same period, and the demise of truth and accountability that these days seems completely normalized. I was listening to National Propaganda Radio (NPR) yesterday and the woman was interviewing James Bamford, author of Puzzle Palace and other stuff on the NSA. When he made the simple claim that the law had been broken by the recently revealed NSA domestic spying, the interviewer scolded him with sickening condescension. She emphasized that the “White House” had a very different “interpretation” of the legality of the program. It was a compelling example of the demise of truth and accountability. The FISA law is really unambiguous about wiretapping and authorization and the limits of executive power. Bamford tried to make that point, but she just used that unctuous tone of voice that made his position seem like a mere opinion, when it’s an incontrovertible fact. The old ‘he said/she said’ style of news reporting is part of the problem, but there’s an incredible self-censorship and complete suspension of fact checking that is now normal among TV and radio news reporters. The recent echo chamber attack on the thoughtful investigation of Alito’s record by Knight-Ridder reporters shows how the system works now. Try to make a factual analysis and draw the obvious conclusions and you will be attacked and dragged through the mud, and find yourself as a journalist having to defend your “objectivity” at every future turn.
We’re living in a Soviet-style one party state with a mass media totally under the control of that one party’s propaganda specialists. The existence of the lefty blogosphere, monthly lefty magazines, the odd occasional editorial in the daily press, just serves to reinforce the illusion of democratic discourse. Of course we can say what we want, but the overwhelming fact is that dissenting voices are not heard, and if they are, it’s only to reinforce the party line that their world view is true and anything else is slightly insane. How does this keep holding in the face of reality? I wish I knew!