Thursday, September 13, 2018

Plaid Shirt Guy

Occasionally—not often— I am simply speechless. The news report about The Plaid Shirt Guy at Trump’s Rally, who had the audacity to respond to what Trump was saying by quietly saying to his friends, “What?” and “That’s not true.”— and then was asked to leave the rally for that transgression, simply left me speechless. Is this still “the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

When I visited that stunning museum in Berlin, the Topography of Terror, there was a photo of a huge crowd of people with raised arms doing the “Heil Hitler!” routine. But one man’s arm was not raised. Had he been caught, he probably would have been imprisoned, shot or sent to a concentration camp.

So Trump is not Hitler. He just had the guy escorted from the rally. But the difference is in degree, not kind. How to understand this?

May I suggest a book written by an author who deserves to be deified as a minor Prophet? The author is Neal Postman and the book is titled: AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Intriguing?

Published in 1985, he begins:

“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwelllian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another…equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Orwells warns us that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

Bam! Nailed it! Interviewed on CNN, the Plaid Shirt Guy reported that before the rally, everyone was instructed to cheer and applaud. Same kind of instructions that you get if you go to a TV Game Show or such. By actually thinking about what Trump was saying and quietly (and appropriately) responding, the Plaid Shirt Guy committed the ultimate transgression and went off-script. And thus was asked to leave the party. With Hitler, you had to agree and Heil or else be shot or imprisoned. With Trump, you had to do the same or you’re off the show and banned from the studio audience. Different degrees, but same principle—independent thought is blasphemy to the demagogues who demand obedience, complicity and agreement. Might I suggest that all these people caught up in this mass hysteria and chanting “Make America Great Again!” have missed the fundamental principle of what has ever made America great? The right to free speech, the need for informed public discourse, the power to vote to express your point of view hopeful crafted from considering multiple points of view.

Postman’s book warns of the dangers of televisionising political discourse and I believe he’s rolling restlessly in his grave at the moment. In describing how this works, he makes it clear that thinking and television (now mass media in its many forms) are diametrically opposed. Listen:

“When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impermissible to say, ‘Let me think about that,’ or ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘What do you mean when you say…?’ or ‘From what sources does your information come?’ This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage. Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago.…It is, in a phrase, not a performing art. It is a medium that requites politicians to fashion performances rather than ideas (boldface mine). It aims for applause, not reflection.”

A Trump rally is a performance and all the unpaid actors are not there to listen, but to applaud regardless of what was being said. In another news segment, Trump supporters were hootin’ and hollerin’ about Trump’s Space Force soundbyte and when asked by the journalist what Space Force is, they unabashedly admitted that they had no idea, but they know “we need it and he’s going to give it to us!” Plaid Shirt Guy committed the unpardonable sin of questioning and in a particularly chilling moment, he was not only escorted out along with his two friends who hadn’t said anything, but two more “extras” were brought in to take his place and deliver their performance.

Let’s all wear plaid shirts when we go to the polls in November. And before you do, read your Neal Postman.

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