A funny thing happened to my mind on the way back from three weeks in Portugal. I snapped on Channel 3 for Nightcast after taking the limo from Newark Airport. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. The Video Post Card journalism that had emerged during the six month waiting period had escalated into a war as a Nintendo game everyone could play and nobody could lose.
I had watched through the night the outbreak of the real war in my hotel room on Madeira. There were basically four television channels and BBC radio—Portugal’s television service, an MTV kind of satellite service from Britain in which randy music videos alternated with Gulf Updates, a largely French service, and a delayed broadcast service called One World Television which had a UN/Third World focus.
Believe me, none of these broadcast services were either video post cards or Nintendo games. They backgrounded the conflict, they discussed the complex issues with a thoroughness that makes our sound bite journalism look pathetic as the playpen attention span journalism it is—one particularly illuminating piece was Mitterand’s being interviewed two on one by two exceedingly intelligent (and unblowdried) journalists.
One other thing impressed me amidst all this palaver about TV being right there giving you the war as it happened. Even the CNN footage was repetitive to the point of the screaming jeemies. But every hour on the hour the BBC World Service gave fresh intelligence and new commentary. It is an outright lie that TV covers news better. It gives you epiphenomena that pretends to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It surfs on the surfaces. It is actually anti-informative. It substitutes the glitzy appearances of reality for the complex details behind the random surfaces. TV war journalism as it is practiced in America’s first Nintendo war is actually a new form of disinformation. Self-disinformation at that.
I’m not even talking about the absurd Kafkaesque censorship practices as reported in the International Herald Tribune (broadcasting goes out unimpeded; print journalism is laid on a procrustean bed of censorship whose dimensions change by the hour and by the incident). NEVER AGAIN is the hot shot motto of the captains and majors running the censorship apparatus, vowing that this war will never be lost through a hostile press as they now astoundingly begin to argue out loud that the Vietnam War was. Some Pentagoners never learn.
This war, of course, is only highlighting the infantilization of the media in America that has been going on since the 1920’s when the intellectual equivalent of the Bull Market getting set to bust was the hyping of sports and entertainment figures to maintain market share against the more demotic media emerging during that era: tabloid dailies, radio, photo journalism. It was then that we created the new religion of Consumer Paganism whose saints were canonized even before they retired from their fields of battle: Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Bill Tilden, Ben Hogan, you know the litany as well as I do because the newer media implacably imprinted them on the common consciousness.
It was then we turned over the American mind to the hypesters like Walter Winchell and Louella Parsons. The trouble was that this seductively simple looking surrender mortgaged the American imagination, making bridge payments to sanity and maturity higher and higher, until the general American public, in the exhausted euphoria that followed World War II, succumbed en masse to the mass distractions of Walt Disney.
If you don’t believe me, compare any issue of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News with their Anglo peers, the Economist, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and Asiaweek. The former have gone four color and four seconds in toto. The latter give a story the length its complexity demands. (The only American exception is the new Moonies newsweekly, “Insight”, an odd paradox in mainline journalism: perhaps conservatives are the only people left who don’t have St. Vitus Dance attention spans.)
A Welcomat writer has aptly deplored how Superbowl Sunday the general public has become. You live football twenty four hours a day, you begin to see life as a playoff game. Smart bombs may be the flower of the newest American arsenal; I’d gladly trade them for a few more smart Americans, countrymen who don’t immediately form a phalanx of uncritical support of a foreign policy conceived on the speedboats of Kennebunkport. As a writer for Tokyo’s Yomiuri Shimbun recently sneered: the United States is now going around the world dunning the wealthy states for their own foreign policy failures.
It’s not just the general public which has narrow attention spans: our war material suppliers made a smart equipment warrior out of Saddam Hussein in a facile effort to play him off against Iran, then our enemy of the week. Our ambassador told him no problem when he was revving up against Kuwait last summer. Kick Ass diplomacy is deplorably impoverished residue of a man who spent eighteen months as our Ambassador to Beijing and learned only one word of Mandarin—Niihau (hello). Playpen presidents are the ultimate loose cannon.
Popular culture does have consequences, despite all the polysyllabic blather of the Deconstructionists. You infantilize a people’s mind (our infantilization began with the Wildly ahistorical West shows of Buffalo Bill—as Kevin Costner’s “A Dance of Horses” makes belatedly clear), and you get infantile behavior. Americans who get off on video post cards to “their boys” and regard the disaster in the Persian Gulf as a Nintendo game played today and forgotten tomorrow are the illiterate grads of our Pop Cult industries.
There is a widespread impression that our common schools are a failure. Wrong. Our real schools—the advertising driven consumer culture—work perfectly—in creating generation after generation of decent cretins. A country gets the wars it deserves.