I’m only half-ashamed to admit it: I am one of those who consider Jon Stewart and The Daily Show one of the best sources of news on American television. Not the best source of news period, please note, but definitely one of the few bastions of fact-hood when it comes to that clearly tricky thing to handle: combining television and current affairs.

Jon Stewart’s only slightly tongue-in-cheek reputation as “international man of news” arguably acknowledges the public service he provides, stepping into the breach left by the self-immolation of the principal television news shows, torched by their own outrage, sacrificed on the altar of audience figures.

Well, purple prose apart (I’ve clearly been listening to too many pundits) this is one way to view the latest step in a process that began in 1954 and is neatly summarized by the subtitle of No Sense of Decency, Robert Shogan’s latest book. That No Sense of Decencysubtitle is: The Army-McCarthy Hearings: A Demagogue Falls and Television Takes Charge of American Politics.

The book makes for rapid and dramatic reading and is recommended as a vivid painting of the backdrop against which McCarthy burrowed deeply into the roots of power using an entrenched fear of communism and bullying tactics, and how he could then have fallen so rapidly having instilled so much (albeit irrational) fear before. When reading about the man, what first strikes one is an easy comparison between his paranoiac brand of bully populism and the apoplectic hosts of badly fact-checked, partisan TV news shows that all too often can be found on the networks today.

However, there are more profound comparisons between, and lessons to be drawn from, these similar figures—or rather, television’s role in relation to them. In both eras we see a constructive as well as a destructive power in the way television can draw a line to connect people’s front rooms with the outside world, and its equal power to connect them with a fantasy world, without necessarily making clear the difference to the less perceptive members of its audience.

As Robert Shogan subtly points out, McCarthy understood television much in the way a modern media mogul does: “‘People aren’t going to remember the things we say on the issues here…They are only going to remember the impressions,’” he confided to Roy Cohn, his counsel in the hearings documented dramatically in the book, and on the networks of the time. (Chapter 12) However, the modern development of this lesson is that politics is now promoted as popular TV entertainment, which viewers are not conditioned to take seriously, rather than as a set of real issues. As with McCarthy’s ultimate fall, television itself, a.k.a. viewing figures, has been the only winner. And rage. Rage sells. By comparison, reality doesn’t “bite” at all, at least not without a lot of behind-the-scenes help, as a quick look at any example of “Reality TV” demonstrates oh so addictively.

In a related twist of the screw, the White House has now officially labeled Fox News as a wing of the Republican party rather than a true news outlet. The only real murmurs of disagreement from non-conservatives have been those who would actually call Fox News more of an entertainment channel, and to (try to) be fair, few suggest that ideology (other than of the green stuff) was behind Murdoch’s motives in permitting the right wing spin of the channel to become so frenzied.

Against this backdrop, Robert Shogan’s book provides thoughtful context, to remind us that television’s power, wielded in the raw with almost no “spin” by today’s standards, snapped the four-year reign of Joseph McCarthy like a twig, early proving television to be more than just a politician’s tool, though never something as autonomous as a politician (OK, bad example) in itself. Perhaps you could call television a form of political animal.

Or course, back then, we held our political animals to different standards. During the televised broadcast of the thirty-six days of public hearings in 1954, what came across to the television-owning public, and to those who absorbed the vast amount of reporting the hearings spawned was, “McCarthy’s disregard of the rules and codes to which most Americans felt obliged at least to pay lip service…he demonstrated his contempt for widely accepted values that help make society civilized.” This culminated in the most damning of all indictments from the Times: “The Senator from Wisconsin is a bad-mannered man.” (Journalist James Reston, quoted in Chapter 12)

So some things stay the same, some things change. Imagine if bad manners were a fatal flaw in popular broadcasting of today. On the other hand, maybe that’s actually why I watch Jon Stewart, rather than the multitude of other options open to me (including such simultaneous reality wonders as The Nanny, SuperNanny, Real Housewives of Atlanta, Rehab: Party at the Hard Rock Hotel, Renovation Realities…) I feel he’d hold the door open for his guests, and for me.

RC

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Programmed to Kill

October 26, 2009

Programmed to Kill by Ion Mihai Pacepa

Programmed to Kill by Ion Mihai Pacepa

Almost two years ago Ion Pacepa’s PROGRAMMED TO KILL made an inauspicious debut in the heavily published field of books on the Kennedy assassination. Some acute reviews appeared, but on the whole this compelling argument by the highest-ranking intelligence official ever to defect from the Soviet bloc went relatively unnoticed. Pacepa’s thesis, supported by evidence, is that Lee Harvey Oswald was trained by the Soviet KGB as an assassin, was called off at almost the last moment by Khrushchev, but went ahead on his own.

Now the book has received its first academic review, on the respected H-Net website, and it’s a corker. Titled “A New Paradigmatic Work on the JFK Assassination” and written by Stan Weeber of McNeese State, it is so laudatory, so provocatively positive, that we cannot help but quote large portions of the review:

“Given the thousands of books, research reports, and articles that have been written about the tragic events of November 22, 1963, today’s reader has every right to ask this question: Do we really need another book about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy?…For a book to stand out in this sea of scholarship, the author must bring specialized skills or backgrounds to the table, which enables the writer to provide strikingly new insights into the Kennedy case, or to reinterpret old evidence in provocative fresh ways. Ion Mihai Pacepa’s book delivers these essentials in a way that exceeds expectation. Programmed to Kill, simply put, is a new paradigmatic work on the assassination of President Kennedy. It has the potential to become a revolution in terms of how we perceive the assassination, the questions we ask, and the kinds of solutions we seek as academic work on one of history’s darkest days moves forward. “The search for a new paradigm in any field begins with anomalies that prior research could not satisfactorily explain. There are scores of such anomalies that are newly explained in this book….

“When successful, a new paradigm essentially connects the dots of the evidence in an extraordinary way to paint a new picture. Pacepa exceeds all prior expectations in this regard. His appendix entitled ‘Connecting the Dots’ provides a timeline of Oswald’s life along with Pacepa’s parenthetical commentary showing how his book has illuminated the facts of the Kennedy case. This allows the reader to compare what the author has contributed alongside what is already known; in the process, readers can compare Pacepa’s thesis with their own pet theory.

Programmed to Kill is a superb new paradigmatic work on the death of President Kennedy. Over time, Pacepa’s portrait of what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963, may evolve into a revolutionary new lens for perceiving the event and its aftermath. From the most casual reader to the serious student preparing his or her own magnum opus, this book is a ‘must read’ for everyone interested in the assassination of President Kennedy.”

We welcome your comments.

When Fantasy Comes Alive

October 23, 2009

nookI have been told my entire life that a fantasy is called a fantasy for a reason.  You want to dream of the unreachable, the fantastical while knowing subconsciously that it’s there to motivate you—not to exist in reality.  When a fantasy does cross the line and enter reality, it usually comes at an abnormally high price.  The particular fantasy in question is the concept of the eBook reader.  As a child I spent most of my hours in a library beginning to cultivate a life-long passion for books of all kinds.  My largest frustration, outside of having to leave the library, was my inability to carry more than five novels at a time (because I had the arms of an eight-year-old).  I dreamt of ways to have all my hundreds of books at my disposal, but as a child in 1990 I never imagined digitized versions.

When Sony came out with their eReader a few years ago, I found myself quickly dismissing it—both the concept and the unwieldy chunk of technology.  My strong nostalgic pull toward actual books with mussed paper, cracked bindings, and the smell of a bookstore or library overwhelmed my childhood desire for ease of use and portability.  I was, and still am, fine carrying around an iPod with my collection of music; the disembodiment from album to mp3 I do not feel as a loss. But with books, digital editions seem to exorcise the soul right out of the book’s pages. There is a collected history, a context with each physical book—not just to the actual content of the book but to the specific edition—how it came into your possession, or the errant coffee stains left from pulling all-nighters to finish just one more chapter of the delicious text. And I am not alone in this emotional feeling.  Now, interning at a publishing house, my connection to the tactile printed book has strengthened, making my decisions more difficult.

You see, I was tempted by Amazon’s Kindle.  I was coaxed ever so slowly to the dark side of digital reading.  Reading on the beach without lugging five or so paperbacks, while still being able to see the electronic screen thanks to eInk, sounded too good to be true.  And it was.  The Kindle used to be expensive.  As a destitute graduate student studying popular culture and teaching the current movements in technology, I began to understand the evolution of the eBook.  As I struggled again, lugging larger textbooks and research texts around campus, I wished for the simple luxury of having all my books accessible at anytime, on a device that weighed as much as my iPod.  Studying for comprehensive exams and writing a thesis did not help my previously fanatical support for the physical book. Still, my warring loyalties between the physical and the digital weighed heavily on the side of the physical. Until now.

Earlier this week, Barnes and Noble (one of my favorite bookstores) unveiled their answer to the Amazon Kindle—the nook.  It is in color.  It has a function that allows you to share, for fourteen days, a title with a friend.  You can take it on a test drive in a real store. And, you can add comments, notes, and highlights to the pages.  Barnes and Noble, which used to be one of my reasons for supporting physical books, has pushed me over the edge.  The free Wi-Fi within actual stores that allows you to flip through books on your nook for free is icing on the cake . . .  well, the Kate Spade–designed nook covers would then be the cherry. I don’t find myself merely wishing for one; my instinct to push the “pre-order” button on the B&N website is shockingly strong. My desire for the nook has fast-forwarded me past my internal discourse on book formatting straight to figuring out how to buy one while unemployed. I will be a tester, dear Barnes and Noble; you could not ask for a better candidate. Coming in at the same reduced rate ($259) as the new Kindle 2, the nook is not that expensive but still more than someone without an actual income can afford.

My new infatuation with digital books has not left my physical books in any danger. Like most people who are considering eReaders or who already have one, I will always need to hold actual books. Undoubtedly I will own some titles in both formats so I always have them with me. The publishing industry, while somewhat justifiably terrified over the new, cheaper format, will live on and be better for it. I still love working in publishing and will support it, but getting more people to read is also important. The book is not and never will be dead. Instead of scoffing at technological upgrades, we should learn to embrace them and appreciate what they will bring us.

SL

Immigration reform has begun to creep back into the nation’s headlines. Within the past week, Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez has introduced new legislation addressing immigration reform; thousands attended a rally in D.C. advocating for resolution on the issue; and CNN launched an in-depth series on what it means to be Latino in America. When asked about his bill, Rep. Gutierrez explained, “We need a bill that says if you come here to hurt our communities, we will not support you; but if you are here to work hard and to make a better life for your family, you will have the opportunity to earn your citizenship.” That is, and has always been the foundation for achieving “the American dream.” As the debate surrounding immigration heats up, it is important to keep in mind that we are a nation of immigrants. The current discussion is impossible without a historical understanding of past immigrants’ experiences.

DAILY LIFE IN IMMIGRANT AMERICA 1820-1870 - BergquistDAILY LIFE - AlexanderRegardless of your opinions and beliefs about current immigration reform, now is an appropriate time to reexamine the long history of those who have come from throughout the world to begin a new life in the United States. Daily Life in Immigrant America, 1820-1870 by James M. Bergquist and Daily Life in Immigrant America, 1870-1920 by June Granatir Alexander offer highly readable historical accounts of the first and second great “waves” of immigration to the United States. Both books address themes such as assimilation, enclave communities, settlement patterns, and immigrant contributions to American culture. Fast-forward to the contemporary immigrant in America and it is clear that the experience is similar. Breaking through barriers and overcoming challenges are often integral parts of the immigrant experience. At the same time the multiple waves of immigration in our country’s history have strengthened the nation by promoting diversity and giving a dynamic resonance to the combined experiences of our country as a whole.

SN

My husband and I emerged from the opening night of Where the Wild Things Are scratching our heads as to why we felt quite so depressed. A number of small children were in tears, and even the female restrooms evidenced a distinct lack of sarcasm being applied with the lip gloss by the usual attendant squadrons of thirteen-year-old girls. It took the drive home and some inappropriate late night food choices before my husband and I figured out that the fantasy island we’d spent ninety minutes or so exploring, building forts on, and having dirt fights with Max and assorted monsters, all courtesy of Spike Jonze, some great monster suits and acting…was also one that basically sucked. It sucked not because it wasn’t real, but because it was depicted as if it was, and had all of the real world’s imperfections. Fantasy brought down to the level of reality isn’t really that much fun, and ultimately, in my humble opinion, isn’t overly coherent or edifying a spectacle either. In this frame of mind, Mr Theodore Dalrymple’s essay, “What the New Atheists Don’t See,” did no end of good to restore the balance.

The essay in question is the penultimate essay in the first “Artists and Ideologues” section of Theodore Dalrymple’s latest collection, Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline (2008). In the essay, Mr. Dalrymple stands up for something he considers both an unreasonable problem and yet a profound tendency of humanity: to be driven constantly to search for “the transcendent purpose of human existence.” He makes a pretty good case for a strategic alliance between that in which you believe, and that in which you don’t, but yet somehow still need to have around.

By way of context, Mr Dalrymple is a British writer who in this essay calls himself the “village atheist” by comparison with hard-line “neo-atheists” who have spawned a recent and popular tide of literature, and we’re talking hundreds of thousands of copies sold in the U.S. (For a comprehensive article summarizing the main protagonists, see here.) Mr. Dalrymple criticises these neo-atheists, Prof. Richard Dawkins among them, on various levels, including inefficiency—surely atheists would never even get out of bed if they truly obeyed the commandment, “Question Everything”? As an example of their inconsistency, Mr. Dalrymple points out how hard it is for even the most virulent atheist to kick out the concept of an anthropomorphic divine force, without actually bringing the same ideas back in subtly through their language. In this connection, Dalrymple mentions Beckett’s line, “God doesn’t exist—the bastard!” which makes me think of Tom Stoppard’s endearing character, the philosopher George, who in the play Jumpers (1974), puts it hilariously:

“To begin at the beginning: is God? (Pause) I prefer to put the question in this form because to ask, ‘Does God exist?’ appears to presuppose the existence of a God who may not…. (He ponders a moment) To ask, ‘Is God?’ appears to presuppose a Being who perhaps isn’t…and thus is open to the same objection…but until the difficulty is pointed out it does not have the propensity to confuse language with meaninNot With A Bangg and to conjure up a God who may have any number of predicates including omniscience, perfection and four-wheel-drive but not, as it happens, existence.” (Jumpers, 1974)

Mr. Dalrymple summons perfectly the tenacity of the transcendent in the ways we think about our daily quest for meaning; however he also points out the extremely unattractive nature of a world where the numinous is stripped away, and ideas such as “‘we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it,” hold sway (quoting Sam Harris’s The End of Faith). It is true that by the end of the essay, one emerges feeling slightly sorry for any ordinary atheist who is tarred with the same brush as such extremists as Sam Harris, and one understands Mr. Dalrymple is making a spirited and timely defence of a much more liberal band of non-believers—people who basically typify your average, British man-in-the-street.

Yes, this demographic aspect of Mr. Dalrymple’s social focus may not exactly translate to the United States. What does translate however is the bigger dimension to Mr. Dalrymple’s point: even when atheists don’t believe in someone else’s God, or, to go back to Where the Wild Things Are, when grown-ups can’t quite remember whether there is a point to childhood fantasy, this is no reason to dismantle the apparatus that keeps the peace between the monsters and the humans. That goes for all of us, young or old, British or American.

RC