Our Communication Culture
An Open Letter to My Youngest Son
As we both bewail the current political situation indicated by the rise of Donald Trump, we seem to have a dispute. You have been vitriolic about satire that is debasing and insulting rather than probing and informative. You are not at all opposed to satire. You are just critical of satire that is overwhelmingly offered to solicit laughs and not employed to enlighten and instruct. You are specifically critical of Saturday Night Live that has the resources, the audience and the talent to aim far higher than it does. Though the program sometimes meets your mark of standards, too often in the pursuit of ratings, it ignores the loftier mission of satire. Initially, I defended Saturday Night Live. We needed comic relief. I felt good calling The Donald, Trump Two Two or Orange Top. But the more I thought about my own writings on humiliation, I too began to question the use of comedy as retort and diminution of the Other.
When I call Donald Trump a serial liar and a malignant narcissist, is this a description, a put down or both? If both, can I communicate the descriptive content without the insult? It is hard, much harder than I thought. For I want readers and listeners to attend to my words. But in desiring attention instead of understanding, was I not playing into the lowest denominator of media that required short attention spans? Was I not using language to produce shocking images rather than reflective thought? Was I not, in a less successful vein, merely imitating the ability to shock, the ability to be a loud bully and make one inflammatory statement after another of the man who now occupies the White House, not as Big Brother repressing my words, but as Big Bully blasting my sound bites to smithereens with his own much louder and piercing noises?
Son number 4, you are correct that insult and mockery do not enhance public discourse, do not add to the civility of civil society, do not encourage the substitution of thought for instant response, do not replace the monologues and bubbles we live in with the dialogical mode we need to inhabit. Ideological narcissism based on perpetuating lies and creating myths that bear no relationship to reality can only be counteracted if we keep our feet on the ground and continue to insist on the relevance of both a correspondence and a coherence criterion for truth. There are NO alternative facts. There is no way that inconsistency and incoherence should be allowed to substitute for trying to comprehend the world.
I believe that civil and human rights are not descriptors, but transcendental conditions for both justice and democracy. But when a man occupies the office as a democratic monarch based on checks and balances, that man has a latitude to make decisions permitted by law, but also boundary conditions for both the process and the content imposed by law in conformity with that system of checks and balances. Trump adviser Stephen Miller is indeed correct when he says that, “The powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial,” but he is dead wrong when he continues, “and will not be questioned.” When that man in the White House trumps democracy, when he views democracy as continually opening doors to new vistas and images produced by his imagination, when he and his acolytes tout blatantly false claims about millions engaged in voter fraud, instead of electoral politics as an entry point to occupy a home that operates based on traditions, on norms, on rules, on regulations and on laws, then what we have is a case of both civil and human rights being reduced to the only right that is right, Trump’s right, his own right, the monarch’s right. We have authoritarianism and demagoguery.
Donald Trump’s constant preoccupation with his image and his repetitive and inappropriate efforts to shape that image is perfectly understandable for a politics of imagery rather than a politics of principle and reflection. Donald not only never has to be consistent, he cannot be consistent, otherwise we would not be waiting with gaping mouths and startled eyes for each new revelation from on high that is crazier than the previous one. We are living in a world in which those who love and respect traditions have been hoodwinked by a soap salesman determined supposedly to “drain the swamp,” by a man for whom the very term “tradition” has no meaning and can have no meaning in a world constructed by tweets and responses to each image he sees on television.
My Judaic tradition has prepared me to sense and fight against any system “where the gates begin to close,” but I get lost when the problem is not closing gates but opening them wide to every clown and harlequin, to every bit of nonsense and amusement one can find to fill one’s hours. I was prepared for the Devil taking power, but not the Joker. Trump does not have to be a dictator who bans books, for our current period has made books the sideshow; amusement has entered centre stage. And how can a book compete with a good joke? Trump inundates us with so much false news, so many variations of his own imagery, we soon have as much difficulty focusing as he does.
There is a principle that if democracy is going to work, we must not only stand for principles, but stand up for them. But when we are bombarded with images that principles belong in the ashbin of history, then irrelevance and indifference increasingly become the order of the day. Donald Trump almost exhausts our ability to deal with most let alone all of it.
I have begun to understand your obsession with the deforming nature of modern technology, with the satirical depth of the series, Black Mirror, instead of just being entranced by its imaginative brilliance. I have begun to catch a glimpse of your criticism of the way satire is often used, particularly by Saturday Night Live, where chasing a joke becomes more important than the mesmerizing effects of good mirroring. I need to re-read Marshall McLuhan and Jacques Ellul as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
The following five essays on “Our Communicative Culture”, “On Satire,” both the Stages and its Function, followed by two essays, one “On Persuasion” and a second on its techniques, were inspired by the debate above and the questions posed.
Our Communicative Culture
Andrew Postman in The Guardian recently wrote an essay entitled, “My dad predicted Trump in 1985 – it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World.” (2 February 2016)
Andrew’s father was Neil Postman, a professor of media ecology and chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University until 2002. He wrote, Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. Like Jacques Ellul, an analyst of technology, he was most critical of the cultural effects of television and the internet in our information age. His 1982 book, The Disappearance of Childhood, argued that television infantilized adults and allowed children to be as expert, if not more expert, about culture than their parents making them both apathetic, on the one hand, and cynical about what an older generation could teach them. As a result, there had begun to emerge a convergence in dress and style, in attitudes and desires, between adults and children as adults began to live in a perpetual adolescent mode. In the 1985 book cited above, Postman criticized a show that was a favourite of most parents I knew, Sesame Street, for not teaching children to love learning, to love reading, to be literate and critical, to love school and, more important, schooling, but, instead, to love whatever you can learn from television, the art of imitation and the reality of the imagination.
As many of us know, George Orwell’s 1984 has once again become a best seller. Postman argued that the real danger was not the spread of the Soviet system of state censorship and control of the media, of Berlin Walls and a requirement to have an exit permit to leave one’s own country, of a system in which the individual was crushed by the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. The real danger is a system of information profusion unfiltered by any quality controls, saturated by a myriad of new media rather than restrictive use of the old media, a society oriented around consumption rather than the state ownership and control of production, a system based on the quest for instant gratification rather than founded on forced sacrifice of the masses to build the future. The real danger, in sum, was not the external threat of the spread of the communist system – which would implode five years after Postman’s book was published – but the internal threat of the system of technology and information-sharing developing in the West.
Soundbites, performance, popularity had become the buzzwords of politics. Not only the public, but most politicians became informed about what was going on by watching television. When Chauncey Gardiner, in that classic 1979 brilliant Peter Sellers’ satire, Being There, with his new-found fame, replies to the request that he write a book with a six-figure advance, he responds, “But I don’t read.” The publisher, believing he is being ironic, offers to support him with ghost writers when he also insists he does not write. When Chauncey explains, “I watch television,” he is lauded for his exemplary frankness.
Why be surprised by the emergence of a president who only gets his information either from television or from inside his own head and uses what emerges from his own imagination to browbeat journalists as a “terrible’ source of information and analysis, as purveyors of false news and lies. I cannot publish my essays in most outlets – they have a limit of 700-800 words. I spend no time on formatting for attractiveness. I rely on imagery rather than images. Most of all, my standards remain – true or false, consistent or inconsistent, coherent or incoherent, easily applied to written work, but much more difficult when applied to a performance.
It is much harder if not impossible to ask whether a sketch mocking Trump and his cohort mirrors and exaggerates what is almost impossible to inflate any further, or whether it is engaged in puncturing balloons. If the latter, is that an inferior form of satire or the only satire possible when the target is itself a harlequin? Or is it simply a different way of providing comic relief so we can return to, in Huxley’s term, a soma-tized state?
With the help of Alex Zisman