Upon Viewing Television's Landscape with the Lowered Bar

Woody Brown

I, like 70 million other people, watched the presidential debate last week.  I, like probably a significant portion of those 70 million viewers, was stunned by Mitt Romney’s near-total disavowal of most things he has said or done over the course of this campaign.  It seemed he was employing George Costanza’s method: “If every instinct you have [has alienated most of the country,] then the opposite must be right!”

But what stuck with me was the utter dominance of social media in the postgame commentary.  Every televised news source was reporting tweets and Facebook comments as if they were 1. news and 2. worth reading.  Several stations even ran tickers of tweets at the bottom of the screen while the debate was still in progress.  But think about it.  This isn’t the most insane idea.  Ideally, a device like a tweet ticker would provide live commentary on the debate from people “just like you and me.”  News agencies understand that the average citizen does not like to be spoken down to, and something like a ticker would remind viewers that CNN really does value your opinion, no matter how completely uninformed and stupid it may be.  That, plus the possibility of celebrity, i.e. “CNN ran my tweet on air!  Now I’m getting book deals left and right because the rest of the world thinks I am as funny as I think I am!” a la Joe the Plumber— all of this informs the decisions by formerly respectable, multi-million dollar news agencies to run live, on air, 140-character long telegrams of inanity and nonsense.  Whence Youtoo TV, a network that has built its entire broadcast structure around the idea of a “fame spot,” an embarrassing and awkward thirty second clip of some hapless jerk someplace answering a question like, “Do you believe in ghosts?”  Whence, “Obama and Romney should settle this through a Pokemon battle.”

Mittens, I choose you.

Mittens, I choose you.

Because if you can be sure of one thing, it is that everything you see on television is there because someone wealthier than you thinks a profitable segment of the American public will want to watch it.  Which, fine— to get pissed off at network executives for trying to make money is to disavow the true nature of capitalism.  That’s why we're all supposed to think Bernie Madoff is the modern antichrist: he pursued with reckless abandon a ruthless faith in capitalism and he was extraordinarily successful, he was one of the best capitalists, so we of course disavow our complicity with capitalism by cheering for his downfall and talking for a couple of news cycles about how the banks are out of control.  Some movies get made about the whole thing (e.g. Margin Call) and make everyone involved with them richer and nothing of substance changes.  We lance the blister on our national foot without ever thinking to buy new shoes.  The Greek word for Bernie Madoff is pharmakós.

But the real achievement of capitalism here is the dumbing down on a national scale of our discourse.  Not just our political discourse, mind you.  Everything.  It is simple to see: consumers do not like to be made to feel stupid, so successful capitalists make them feel smart.  How do you make stupid people feel smart?  Certainly not by acting as if you have something to teach them.  No, you must act as if everything they say is worth hearing, as if they are just as qualified to discuss a given subject as someone who has, say, gotten a fucking degree in it.  The advent of the internet has essentially facilitated this single-handedly.  Now the words of hundreds of millions of different people can be aggregated and accessed in far less time than it takes to get a library card.

This is of course not limited to political discourse.  WebMD, for instance, allows a consumer to diagnose himself without having to consult some silly old quack doctor.  If the consumer can’t decide which form of fatal melanoma his pimple is, he can always visit the forums, the dominant characteristic of which is hysterical hypochondria.  Why, after all, should Joe Everyman not be able to reason his way to a successful treatment?  He is a human just like any doctor, there’s nothing different about him, and anyway it’s his body!

Maybe, while he’s recuperating from his brief foray into the medical world, he will like to watch a movie.  First, though, he knows he must consult the wisdom of a bunch of people who don’t have a clue what the fuck they’re talking about—people just like him.  Rotten Tomatoes, for instance, or IMDB.  Both are websites that display prominently the average opinion of the average person, a measurement taken from literally hundreds of thousands of different people, none of whom the consumer can be sure is someone whose opinion might have anything resembling critical value.

Somewhere along the line, it became verboten to say that some people are worth listening to more than others.  Elitism became the pejorative buzzword and anyone in his right mind would avoid it at all costs.  Recall that in the 2008 presidential election Obama's education was in fact used as a criticism by the Republicans, which criticism we see after even a moment's consideration is completely insane.  Obama, the Republicans would have us believe, is not the kind of man we would want to have a beer with; no, he is out of touch with the middle class and is also a Muslim.  But of course you should not pay attention to the fact that Mitt Romney got both an MBA and a JD at Harvard, or to the fact that he is worth $250 million, or to the fact that his religion prohibits him from drinking beer.  The wisdom of the majority became more trustworthy than the words of someone with actual knowledge on a subject.  Wikipedia is the logical conclusion of this zeitgeist-- an encyclopedia that eschews the dated method of selecting the best information from educated sources in favor of true liberalism: allowing anyone to write anything and immediately have it appear in a context that suggests it is truthful.  As if we can eliminate subjectivity if we simply aggregate the ideas of everyone alive (with minimal regulation, like any free market) and call it factual.  Trust in the 99%, as if the 99% is really everyone who matters, all the real people, and not just the bourgeoisie wearing gold-plated belt buckles with Che Guevara's face on them.

Because in America, if we are sure of one thing, it is that there ain’t nobody who can tell us we ain’t smart.  Look at us!  We’re fucking geniuses.  We rule the world.  If we don’t already know it, it probably isn’t true.  And so why do we say we oppose any form of government while completely ignoring the fact that the government is the necessary foundation for literally everything we have ever lived?  Because fuck you, that’s why.  Fuck school, too.  And PBS.  And you know what, get off my lawn.

Woody Brown is a writer who lives in Buffalo, NY.  He is the literary reviewer for Artvoice, Western New York's largest weekly newspaper.  He can be reached at WoodrowDBrown@gmail.com