— Bud Norman
— Bud Norman
— Bud Norman
Ordinarily we would not bother with a rebuttal to the television program called “The Newsroom,” if only because we never watch it and were only vaguely aware of its existence, but after hearing a brief clip from the first episode played on a local radio show we felt compelled to offer a response. Not because the anti-American views expressed in the clip are so extraordinarily offensive, but rather because they are so infuriatingly commonplace.
The clip portrays the show’s hero, a cable news reader played by Jeff Daniels of “Dumb and Dumber” fame, appearing on a panel at some sort of symposium where a young woman asks him why America is the greatest country in the world. After rudely dismissing the young woman as a “sorority girl,” the news reader goes on an obscenity-laden rant about how America isn’t “so star-spangled awesome.” He scoffs at the notion that America is great because it has freedom, saying that Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and most other countries have freedom, then reels off a series of seemingly damning statistics about literacy, educational rankings, child mortality rates and such, then cites the number of prisoners and people who believe in angels as well as the size of the defense budget to suggest that America isn’t even a very good country. With his audience humbled into the awed silence that always follows a televised liberal rant, he goes on to recall a bygone era of American greatness when “we waged wars on poverty and not on poor people,” “we built great big things,” “we explored the universe,” “we aspired to intelligence, didn’t belittle it,” and “we didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election.” That past greatness, he explains, occurred “because we were informed by great men, great men who were revered.”
Given the swelling soundtrack, the complete lack of irony in the smugness of Daniels’ delivery, and the fact that the show is produced by former “West Wing” creator and archetypal Hollywood lefty Aaron Sorkin, we assume that the rant is intended to express the show’s point of view. Although the scene is permeated with the usual air of self-congratulation for being so bold in speaking such shocking truth to power, the rant also expresses a point of view that is not just commonplace and respectable but also quite fashionable among the cultural elites.
One hardly knows where to begin pointing out all the nonsense. The notion that freedom is the prevailing condition of mankind is self-evidently absurd, and even the rare exceptions to the rule named in the show’s rant are free to a lesser extent than Americans have been accustomed to expect. Each of the countries mentioned restrict free speech in the name of human rights, have done away with the right to bear arms altogether and the right to self-defense to an alarming extent, and they’ve long restricted economic freedom in ways that account for their relatively poor economies.
Most of the statistics that are rapidly reeled off are either false, misleading, or meaningless. Does the show really expect Americans to believe that there are 177 countries that provide better maternity care? That the country that has been at the forefront of most of the scientific and technological breakthroughs of the past decades is 27th in math? That third in median household income is a disgrace? The claim regarding the number of prisoners is perhaps true, although one wonders if the self-righteous news reader would prefer to have more criminals on the streets, but the claim about people believing in angels seems suspicious and not at all worrisome.
The angst-ridden nostalgia portion of the speech is also bunk. Anyone still longing for the days of the War on the Poverty simply cannot recall its disastrous consequences, and misunderstands why the country doesn’t seem to be doing “great big things” anymore. Somehow people such as the writers of “The Newsroom” can look back at a time when America was more religious, more capitalistic, and less governed, note the subsequent decline and conclude that the problem is those crazy Jesus nuts with their money-grubbing economics and that the solution is more government.
— Bud Norman
While flipping through the broadcast channels on our aging analog television this past Monday, searching in vain for the college football championship game, we happened upon a program called “Fear Factor” just as it presented the strange spectacle of an attractive young woman drinking a soup of animal blood and live maggots. We kept flipping and put it out of mind as quickly as possibly, but were reminded of that distasteful scene while reading up on the latest goings-on at the United States Supreme Court.
Not because the right honorable court is always reminiscent of a reality show gross-out contest, of course, but because the justices heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case concerning the government’s right to regulate the content of programming on the public airwaves. The regulations in question don’t address the kind of vulgarity offered by the likes of “Fear Factor,” only the use of profanity and the depiction of nudity, but at least in some small way the court was weighing in on the declining standards of television.
The wheels of justice apparently turn quite slowly, far more so than our fast-changing popular culture, because the programs involved in the case were “NYPD Blue,” a show we haven’t heard mentioned in many years and assume is long since off the air, and a music awards show featuring the profanity-laced remarks of Cher, a performer we associate with a long-ago era of entertainment. Judging by the questions posed by the justices, the court itself isn’t very up-to-date on matters of popular culture.
The liberal justices seemed unable to understand that not all profanity and nudity are the same. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg decried “the appearance of arbitrariness” when the FCC allowed the discomfiting nudity that underscored the horror of a concentration camp scene in “Schindler’s List” but objected to a titillating flash of a callipygian starlet’s bare buttocks on “NYPD Blue.” A museum that proudly displayed “Venus de Milo” while declining to hang the latest Hustler centerfold could be accused of the same arbitrariness, and probably will be at some point in the post-modern age of cultural relativism, but we’re inclined to call that discernment. Similarly, one can argue that the profanity peppering “Saving Private Ryan” is justified as necessary for verisimilitude, because the soldiers on Omaha Beach probably weren’t saying “Gosh darn it” as the bullets flew, the cinema of the World War II-era notwithstanding, while Cher’s pathetic attempt to seem hip with a few cuss words on an awards show billed as family entertainment is hard to justify on any grounds.
Ginsburg also fretted that the FCC’s strait-laced sensibilities might also deny the over-the-air television audience a chance to see “Hair,” the Broadway musical that was at the cutting edge of popular culture way back in the hippie days. Younger readers are advised to ask their pony-tailed grandfathers for a dissenting opinion about the show, but we expect that if they did encounter it on a broadcast station they would likely find the cutting edge has dulled considerably since then, which probably has more to do with its absence from prime time than any government regulation.
Ginsburg’s apparent fondness for the old peace-and-love, song-and-dance pastiche is typical of a liberal aesthetic sensibility which we blame for a popular culture that is permissive in some ways yet downright puritanical in others. Those of a certain age might fondly recall the old “Dean Martin Show,” which each week showed Dino with a cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other, leering at the cleavage of the buxom Gold Diggers on his arms, but we doubt Ginsburg laments that such sybaritic fare has all but vanished from the airwaves, replaced by sit-coms full of twenty-somethings who hang out at non-smoking coffee shops between sexual conquests.
The conservative justices were also predictably un-hip to the latest happenings on the pop culture scene, as this is an endearing trait common to conservatives of all occupations, but we were surprised that they showed so little faith in free markets. The old three-network hegemony of television has been so thoroughly destroyed that we wound up watching the college football championship on a cable network’s internet site, with plenty of fare that would have made the Marquis de Sade blush just a few mouse clicks away, and most homes now have a wider variety of entertainment options than any Pharoah or Sultan of the past. Yet Chief Justice John Roberts expressed a desire for a “safe haven” network that provided only programming that parents could count on to be free of profanity, nudity, and other offensive material, and seemed concerned that no one would cater to this market without the government’s insistence, a worry that strikes us as baseless.
Roberts also seemed unaware that there is no longer any “safe haven” from profanity even for those who do away with television altogether, as one is now routinely assaulted by harsh language from t-shirts, bumper stickers, and the overly loud patron at the next table in even the swankest restaurants. A few cuss words uttered by a has-been celebrity and a fleeting shot of a shapely bottom are a very small part of what’s wrong with television, and television is an increasingly small part of what’s wrong with the broader popular culture.
— Bud Norman