I just finished re-reading The Brothers K by David James Duncan, a remarkable tour-de-force about family, fundamentalism, baseball and coming of age in the 60’s. At the same time I was wholly swept up in the story, the book is filled with my penciled underlines, nuggets and sometimes whole gold mines of truth and insight. Here’s one:
“In the decade after World War II a number of very powerful American politicians discovered farce. These politicians had such Machiavellian philosophies and rudimentary senses of humor that they didn’t recognize it as a cathartic or comic genre. But they did recognize its power over people. They therefore began applying none of farce’s funniness but all of its unscrupulousness to such tasks as smearing opponents to win elections, groveling shamelessly after the lowest common prejudices of the people, blacklisting dissent, whitewashing corruption and prostituting themselves to wealthy private backers who used them to de-democratize entire constituencies. And though quite a few citizens soon recognized that incredible abuses of power were taking place, there seemed to be no rational, nonfarcical way to combat them. The crowd-pleasing pilfered genre had mated with democracy and produced a seemingly invincible bastard: government by force of farce. (p. 351–boldface mine)”
Kaching! Sound familiar? Neal Postman wrote about this in 1985 in an important book titled: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Television. The level of our national discourse, brought down several notches by Rush Limbaugh, Bill O-Reilly and the like, has never been lower. Whoever yells the loudest and spews the most outrageous venom with no responsibility for backing it up with anything so troublesome as fact nor inconvenient as caring or empathetic understanding gets the headline. And rises in the polls. Apparently “groveling shamelessly after the lowest common prejudices of the people” works wondrously—ie, the Trump campaign.
After the movie Selma, I did a little research on George Wallace, a hate-mongering presidential candidate around the time that I was eligible to vote and was fascinated to read of his later-life change of heart. And particularly took notice when he said that as a young politician talking about good schools and good roads, he was largely ignored when he spoke. But the moment he started tapping into people’s racial hatred and prejudices, the people lit up like the finale of 4th of July.
The saddest thing about the Trump fiasco—besides the shameless prostitution of media looking for the next sensation to keep the public stupefied and thoughtless—is the reality check on just how many people are eager and willing to go down the road of their worst selves. None of the psychopathic demagogues—from Ghengis Khan to Hitler—could do what they do without counting on their mindless foot-soldiers cheering them on and giving them the power to do their dirty work. It's sobering how many of my fellow Americans are willing to shout "Yee-haw!" as their own fears and sorrows are projected unto a host of "others" who are the "real problem." If only we got rid of anyone who is not exactly like us (and just who is the "us?"), what a great country America would be again! As Trump so eloquently put it (completely blind to the idiocy of the statement), "My grandparents didn't come here from Germany to see this place run by a bunch of immigrants!"
After my astonishment that Trump kept dipping lower and not hitting bottom, there’s a few signs that he may have indeed gone too far. It’s not just building the wall to keep out the Mexican “murderers and rapists,” banning Muslims, publicly making fun of the disabled. He’s also pissing off Fox news and laying into his fellow Republican candidates (most equally outrageous) and even they seem ready to say “Enough.” Hatred and ignorance and bullying go way farther for my taste than they ever should, but ultimately they will turn inward and destroy themselves. I only hope they do so before the actual election.
Meanwhile, the show keeps going on in the media circus and just like prime TV and Hollywood blockbusters need louder volume, more explosions, more sex to keep attracting the reptilean brains of its viewers habituated to the current level, so does politics follow. It’s fun to have the circus come to town, but there’s only so much time we can spend in its three rings with the clowns running around and falling down and the lions roaring and the daredevils walking the wire before we need to go home, cook a meal, do the laundry and have a civilized conversation about the things that matter.
I know its naïve, but the only way to shut down the media circus—or at least lower the volume— is to stop paying it so much mind and attend more to things like educating young children, playing music together, discussing complex issues with an informed, intelligent and nuanced conversation. To finally awaken to the truth that if we start to live our authentic lives, we are more interesting than the celebrities, simple talk more satisfying than bombastic special effects, time spent walking in the woods more soul-satisfying than hours in front of screens. Trees, friends and our own imaginative minds will serve us far beyond reacting to whatever the daily media offers.
My suggestion? Turn off the screens for a bit and go read The Brothers K.