When we were invading Iraq, I was watching the McNeil Lehrer Newshour one night and the guest was Zbigniew Brzezinski. At the end of the discussion, he said something totally out of left field that was very interesting. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “There is something perverse about this.” He had this sort of weird, uncomfortable look on his face. If the sound had been turned down I’d have guessed he was suffering from gas. When asked to explain, he said, “I’m not exactly sure why, but there is just something perverse about people sitting at home watching a bombing on TV.”
I thought about that while sitting around in lurid anticipation waiting for the hurricane to make landfall. Will Atlantic City be destoyed? Will Lower Manhattan flood? Boston even? Which network will be the first to seize on the phrase “The Storm of the Century,” leaving the others to fight over “The Perfect Storm” or “Disaster on the Eastern Seaboard” or some other ludicrous appellation that reeks of action movie melodrama. How long until some conservative toad on FOX starts gloating about this being Obama’s Katrina? (Actually, I think some of them already may have.) How long until Pat Roberston said it was God punishing New York because they legalized gay marriage? There was something perverse about it.
But there I sat, glass in hand, watching in a kind of numb stupor as a lethal hurricane rolled over the East Coast. I felt like a debauched Roman. This thing killed people, and it could have killed hundreds more, just wiped them clean off the earth for all eternity, and I swear it takes a determined, conscious effort to differentiate it in my mind from a fictional media event. The coverage just makes it all feel unreal.
Did it seem to you that there was a noticeable sense of disappointment in the media when Irene was downgraded to a category 1 hurricane? They seemed to spend the greater part of the day convincing us that it was still a dangerous storm, mind you. So stay afraid, stay cautious, keep watching, and help us justify the gargantuan, over-the-top hype with which we greeted this event.
The sad, the perverse thing, is this: I bet you a lot of them secretely wanted it to be worse. I’m not saying they are evil people. I’m suggesting that their professional interests conflicted with basic morality in this case. Deep in their media hearts, they wanted a category 3 to slam straight into New York City. Imagine, wall to wall coverage of death and destruction for weeks. It’s the only thing in mainstream media land more fun than making pointless predictions about our pointless elections, or turning sinister whack balls like Rick Perry into legitimate presidential contenders.
They’d get to wallow in death and gore under the cover of journalism. They could gush with praise over the first responders and all the ordinary heroes who pitched in and helped out and did extraordinary things. They could create lots of poignant human interest stories that make us feel all right about being Americans. We’d pat ourselves on the back. Hey, you know, we’re not so bad after all.
Then those heroes would be callously ignored when they needed help paying the doctor bills. That is to say, after the bodies were buried, the water drained, and the rubble swept away, lots and lots of Americans would revert to their instinctive natural ethic, which is perfectly reflected in our current politics: I’ve got mine, fuck you.
They’d canonize Bloomberg, and then give every rat-fuck politician in the country an opportunity to stick his face in front of a camera and bleed concern for the sake of his own petty aggrandisement, even the vicious bastards who want to cut budgets and lay those first responders off, or let them die like dogs without proper health care when they fall ill. You’d need to tape a barf bag to your chest, and then lay a towel down in front of your TV so their tears wouldn’t stain the rug.
Obama will arrive in full “commander-in-chief-on-the-disaster-scene mode,” which means he’ll be wearing khakis and a denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up, the standard uniform politicians wear when surveying wreckage or getting face time with blue-collar workers. The Republican candidates, dressed the same, will do the same, and the media will treat is as if it’s something other than a hackneyed political stunt.
In short, we would (will) be deluged, no pun intended, with same formulaic narratives that the media always rolls out on these occasions. That’s what happens when monopolies run things. Choices are restricted and quality suffers.
I’m not making light of tragedy or saying we shouldn’t praise those who help the victims and clean up the mess. Of course we should. My beef is with the scripted, overblown, almost phony way the media depicts it. It’s a screen play for a TV show. We have a disaster. Now we need victims, now heroes, now villians. Now a photo collage, and now endless retrospectives. Cue fear, cue horror, cue hope, cue anger. Time for a Levitra commercial. …
There’s something perverse about it.
I just can’t feel genuine grief or sadness, or compassion or concern, when some six figure hairdo is telling me exactly when and how I am supposed to, and then suddenly switch it off to watch a commercial for a pill that will make my pecker hard. It’s obscene. There’s something perverse about it.
(I do, however, feel genuine humor when all of those TV clowns pretend to be courageous journalists by standing on the beach in a raincoat, bowling us over with such profundities as “It’s really windy right now” or “It’s really wet!”)