We confess that there is a certain perverse pleasure to be had in reading The New Yorker (Yes, The New Yorker) as it goes through a kind of end phase cultural delirium tremens. It’s fun in the same way that there’s pleasure to be had in watching a truly bad performance go completely off the rails. It’s sadistic and you shouldn’t kick a man when he’s down but considering just what a collaborationist rag the old whore has become, we’re not feeling very forgiving.
In the current online edition we are treated to the undercooked to-the-point-of- containing-cultural salmonella styling of a New Yorker writer who tells us that after Norm MacDonald and David Sedaris’ sister, Martin Short is probably the best tv talk show guest in the land (Conan O’Brien who is mentioned in the article believes it was the late and dearly missed Robin Williams but why quibble…when you can gorge).
We’re told about Short’s devout prep work prior to his appearances and the work that goes into setting things up so they appear natural. And, Short does have his charms, is sometimes funny, and is often amusing (as are the hosts ranging from the leader of the smurfs, Fallon, to the ghost of curmudgeon’s past, Letterman).
But what irritates here is the upside down universe of it all. What’s being described is a slick, well-oiled Televisual Potemkin Village that reflects what a successful Orwellian dictatorship would look like if the thugs hadn’t had recourse to setting up lagers and gulags but instead had outsourced them. And having done so then declared slave labor to be an incentive for growing democracy in otherwise totalitarian regimes (i.e., Foxconn and China where to celebrate the brilliance of America’s corporate outreach for freedom, the current leadership is planning to give itself power for life) and gosh if only one could, by way of reference, point to the cultural political and economic jitters and shakes fin de siècle nervous breakdown of a vast imperial corporatist monstrosity where some malignant atavistic troll had seized power and was, like Godzilla in Tokyo, waging political gotterdammerung then…
Of course it’s not as if it comes as a surprise to anyone with an IQ over 40 that talk shows like politics are all staged and airbrushed to convey the idea that they are spontaneous. But what grates about this is that in any other country, with the same level of fakery operating at the behest of massive unethical corporate pirates (engaged in a genocidal destruction of the environment and a massive unprecedented implementation of government and corporate surveillance) the Liberals of The New Yorker would be dropping pithy shade and literary bon mots while telling us to read the postmodern epic of some poor wretch we’ve never heard of who ran afoul of the powers that be and who, before finding refuge in Paris or Berlin, spent a few years in a cage.
Which is not to say we have something against epic postmodern literary wretches being rescued and finding refuge but we do have something against the Vichy Liberals of The New Yorker.
What they’re selling is a pseudo-intellectual amuse bouche except the chocolate has a razor blade inside it and the chef had dirty fingers.
We enjoy a mindless bit of talk show blather as much as the next person but not because we don’t know smoking is bad for us or that we shouldn’t eat lots of greens and get some exercise. In other words The New Yorker is having its cake and eating it too. In other words they’re telling us that, talk shows are slick, silly banal trifles but they are also less (morally) filling have fewer (cultural) calories and taste great! And it’s even okay to look behind the curtain and (wink wink) see how the sausage is made – ’cause it’s fun!
Yes, we understand talk shows are silly and banal and staged. What we are bothered by is the total lack of self-awareness on the part of sclerotic media which is too busy blowing itself to see that it sounds like the culture section of Pravda – if the Soviet Union had not imploded and had instead become a successful capitalist dictatorship.
It’s not journalism, its propaganda pretending to be a lighthearted yet sophisticated piece of cultural analysis. It is, in truth, a soporific injected into the bloodstream like SOMA in Brave New World.
In contrast of course one could dredge up old video/tape of the wheels coming off in genuine spontaneous combustion on the old Dick Cavett show where the likes of Vidal and Mailer et al acted as if they knew the stakes were high and being a public figure (or, gasp! even a public intellectual) mattered – which is not to turn either of those two professional fops into saints but it is to say that the near total absence of anything approaching that level of public discourse and mayhem is not an accident.
The past fifty years have seen a concerted reactionary assault on the Bill of Rights and its corollaries – those things we take for granted as having been normalized. Free speech, that in being free, is wild, unpredictable and often combustible and the right to be combative and disagreeable is essential and at odds with slick prefabricated talk shows that are total fabrications imitating honesty and spontaneity. And that in being Potemkin Villages that are both a product to be sold/consumed and are selling other products their goal is to turn you into a passive consumer devoid of volition and disinclined to cause any trouble.
As a contrary case in point to these forgeries we draw your attention to an hour and half long argument from 1979 in which Michael Palin and John Cleese defended themselves, Python’s honor, free speech, the right to dissent, the right to be an atheist, and the right to be silly in the face of establishment hypocrisy and the imposition of tyrannical conformity as well as defending their then new film, The Life of Brian. If you haven’t seen it check out the link below and marvel at their composure, their wit and their intelligence and then ask yourself just what would happen if someone attempted that on American television and then ask yourself why it doesn’t happen.*
*And we do not accept the “idea” that Bill Maher’s various iterations represent some sort of sophisticated discussion but are instead a third rate imitation of what in the current climate is desperately required: an honest, unfettered, extended, discussion of exactly what a mess we’re in.
For a look at our previous thoughts on the Vichy Liberals of The New Yorker, see the following: