I Can’t Bear to Watch, I Must Watch: McLuhan, Postman, DeLillo, and Trump

Americans’ voyeuristic attraction for scarlet-stained murder spectacles spills over into our need for similarly doomed entertainment in our highest national political office.

It isn’t as if we hadn’t been warned. In 1957’s drama A Face In the Crowd, writer Budd Schulberg and Director Elia Kazan gave us the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a goofball flyover country hayseed with a mile-wide smile who seems content only to pick and grin through a cornpone country song. He becomes a media superstar and an eventual political kingpin. Will his transparency be revealed, or will the American public simply go along for the ride until it’s too late?

A Face in the Crowd carefully transforms itself from a harmless character comedy to something brutal in the end, a black-and-white drama where what’s done in the shadows will always be revealed in the cold grey area between the purple-black pitch darkness and the blaring shine of enlightenment. The admonitions about watching disasters in real time just to be there in case they blow up had always been with us.

In a May 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, newly appointed Federal Communications chairman Newton Minow declared that television had become a “vast wasteland”. “Keep your eyes glued to that set… You will see a procession of game shows… blood and thunder… And endless commercials – many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom…”

“Vast wasteland” was a warning about mass media and its attraction to trainwreck demagogues that was remembered but not heeded, but less remembered is Minow’s clear understanding of the voice of mass media and its obligation to act in the public service: “Your industry… has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership… It should be making ready for the kind of leadership that newspapers and magazines assumed years ago, to make our people aware of the world.”

By 1964, with Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Canadian English professor/philosopher Marshall McCluhan argued that there is “hot” media, which demanded little work from its consumers because they received it passively and without objection. Examples include radio and film, media that engages attention through various senses but does not require a response. “Cool” media, including television, phone conversations, and comic books, involving more senses and a possible relationship with the provided media.

McCluhan’s idea, that “the medium is the message”, that the ideas received should be understood only within the context of the vessel that brings them to life, reached its apex in Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall. Alvy (Allen) is standing in line to see a movie, and a fellow patron is rambling on about McCluhan’s philosophies. Frustrated and in the midst of a fantasy, Alvy pulls “McCluhan” from off-screen to face the fellow patron and say, “You know nothing of my work.”

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

– Howard Beale (Peter Finch), from the 1976 film, Network

The premise of Sidney Lumet’s masterful media satire Network is fairly direct. How could crafty television network executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) most effectively exploit the explosive madness of her raging TV news anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch)? The question is never whether or not she would, but to what lengths could she exploit his madness – his threats of on-air suicide – so that people keep watching?

Lumet stays out of the way of his stars as they claim their territory. Diana is the puppet master, but Howard is both supplicant to her whims and master of his own narrative. More so than most raging maniacs who have grabbed the public imagination and unraveled their tales of doom, Howard Beale is the perfect mouthpiece for writer Paddy Chayefsky’s legendary jaded portrait of the sorry state of passive news as entertainment:

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad… We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone…

Well, I’m not going to leave you alone.

I want you to get mad!

All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.

You’ve gotta say, “I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!”

So, I want you to get up now… go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell,

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”

“Here we are now / entertain us

– Nirvana “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business might seem quaint and irrelevant now, 32 years and a lifetime later. Postman acknowledges early on his debt to McCluhan, but the book – a quick and at times fun read – is more commentary about our transformation from a literary culture to a visual one. He goes back to Alexis DeToqueville, who noted in Democracy in America (1835/1840): “An American cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he were addressing a meeting…”

If we as a people have indeed transformed from the pamphleteers of the 18th century to the master orators of the 19th century Lincoln/Douglas debates, to the early 20th century age of exposition, Postman seems to be arguing that this need to reveal has been at the loss of context and meaning. To expose is to reveal, indicate, demonstrate, prove with solid and incontrovertible evidence. When that was replaced by the age of show business, mid-20th century Orwellian doublespeak, the demand for substantial content disappeared.

In the chapter “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem”, Postman makes a clear equation between the sacred temples of worship that were Americans’ birthright as a nation from its beginning to the glass-eyed church of television that replaced it by the middle of the 20th century. The conflict between the darkness of reality and the soft ethereal light of the ideal makes it difficult to clearly understand through the context of television: “The screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events …that it is difficult for it to be recreated as a frame for sacred events…the main message of the screen itself is a continual promise of entertainment.”

Postman sees television as a curriculum, something to be used as a teaching tool but it’s still burdened by sacred commandments: “Thou shalt have no prerequisites” (everything is understandable as an independent agent), “Thou shalt induce no perplexity” (there’s no need to interpret), and “Thou shalt avoid exposition…” (start with a bang and never let go.)

Underworld and in Front of Our Eyes

“I hope you’re keeping some kind of record.”

– Leonard Cohen “Famous Blue Raincoat” (1971)

Too often, what we see is only interpreted within the context of what we want to see, how we want to believe, and where our hopes will take us. We are people who watch, and we have always enjoyed the explosive inevitability of a train wreck happening in real time. Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld is a staggering collection of set pieces about the last half of the 20th century that seems to set out the premise of its title. The opening 60 pages, (from the 1st edition hardcover) later published separately as the novella Pafko at the Wall, are a tight and suspenseful celebration of the 3 October 1951 baseball “shot heard ‘round the world.” Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and J. Edgar Hoover are among those gathered at the Polo Grounds ballpark in New York City to witness the Giants win the Pennant over the Dodgers. There’s an extended scene at Truman Capote’s 1966 “Black and White Ball”, where the beautiful and the damned wear masks and convene to celebrate themselves as the nation’s royal tastemakers and trendsetters.

If there are driving characters and hearts to DeLillo’s Underworld, which at 20-years-old is more prescient than ever in this era of alternative facts, they are waste management expert Nick Shay and conceptual artist Klara Sax. DeLillo introduces them in 1992 and eventually moves them back to 1952, when Nick was a teenager and she was the wife of a high school teacher and together they had an affair in that year when baseball dreams come true. “The past spoke to me,” DeLillo noted in an interview during the initial press release for the novel. “I found I could remember things I hadn’t thought of in 45 years.”

It’s this drive to testify, to keep an accurate record of observed facts, that is at the heart of Underworld and probably the essence of DeLillo’s oeuvre. By 1997, and through the novels that follow, characters and characterization are not the most important element of DeLillo’s mission. That Giants v Dodgers game was important for DeLillo to capture at the time because it proved to be “…a sort of transitional moment between the second world war and the beginning of the nuclear age.” Basically, context is everything. Nothing is understandable if pulled out of its proper narrative order. Therefore, everything has to be examined.

Keep watching… something will happen

The five pages that open part 2 of Underworld, “Elegy for Left Hand Alone: Mid 1980’s-early 1990’s”, are deceptive in their simplicity. There’s no specific timeline in this scene that ostensibly illustrates a highway murder captured by a young woman, a passenger in another car shooting some random footage. Is it from the 1960s? Could this serial killer (“This is either the tenth or 11th homicide committed by the Texas Highway killer”) be a literary amalgamation of those who had come before and a preview of those to follow? It doesn’t matter. The point here, as illustrated throughout Underworld, is the importance of images, the power of understanding that nothing is understandable unless everything is examined. The point here is the power of a tragedy, live and in person:

“It is unrelenting footage… It has an aimless determination… It is innocent, it is aimless, it is determined, it is real… There is something about the nature of the tape… It is what lies at the scraped bottom of all the layers you have added… It shows something awful and unaccompanied.”

That last line, about the awful and unaccompanied, seems to be a driving force behind Delillo’s mission here. Nothing is safe. Sometimes the apparent simplicity and mundane bland nature of even the most terrifying footage should be what frightens us most, but it doesn’t. DeLillo continues: “This is a crime designed for random taping and immediate playing… It dangles a need to do it again.”

Why do we watch what we watch? In DeLillo’s sharp, clinical prose, there seems to be no difference between the inevitability of a random murder and the strange attraction that the American viewing public would soon develop for live public spectacles of disgrace. It had been in the stratosphere since Ruby killed Oswald on live TV in November 1963, but it would not see complete actualization until after that OJ chase in 1994, when demand for real crashes and bright red blood meant everything was available for entertainment packaging.

In the last few paragraphs of these five pages, DeLillo draws a bridge between the voyeuristic attraction of the American public for scarlet-stained murder spectacles and our immediate needs for similarly doomed entertainment in our highest national political office. DeLillo knows there are more ways to die than losing your life, and the rest of us are just catching up to that understanding. We wanted a spectacle, so now we have to deal with it:

“Seeing someone at the moment he dies, dying unexpectedly. This is reason alone to stay fixed at the screen… It demonstrates an elemental truth, that every breath you take has two possible endings… He had it coming in a sense, for letting himself be caught on camera…This is what the context requires…They show it because it exists, because they have to show it, because this is why they’re out there, to provide our entertainment…”

Make Us Laugh

On Thursday, 16 February 2017, nearly 20 years after the publication of DeLillo’s Underworld, US President Donald J. Trump held a press conference that was primarily intended to introduce new Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta as his nominee. As with most every move Trump has made, either by his own agency or promoting the agenda of other forces, the original goals were soon thwarted. The connection between DeLillo’s Underworld, and particularly that five-page passage about the Texas Highway Killer, becomes clearest when we closely read the text of Trump’s statements. Lay out the words on the table and follow DeLillo’s mandate that this is what the context requires. We can only follow the backward logic Trump has created by pulling his words out of context and reaching the only logical conclusion: they can’t exist on their own. Therefore, this world he’s created is an illusion.

We can start with a basic admission. Most of us who examine texts for a living and try to draw connections between two apparently disparate sources – five pages from a great novel and eight pages from a 60-minute Presidential press conferences – sometimes exaggerate the smallest elements to try and prove our points. What’s most remarkable about Trump’s random responses, though, and his clearly limited vocabulary, is that he doesn’t shy away from his ignorance. We are watching a petulant, privileged, vindictive teenager clinging to a soggy raft in the middle of the ocean and we cannot look away.

Exhibit One: An Obsession With Superlatives

In the first few minutes, Trump tells the audience that unification is “very important to me… It’s very very important to me.” There are other words for extremely bad things, words like “terrible”, “absolutely”, and they alternate with “incredible”. Things are never just good; they’re “really” good. Trump also demonstrates a love of “Big League” things. Of 10,000 jobs announced by Wal-Mart, Trump underlines that “There will be many, many more, many more, these are just a few that we’re naming.” It should be noted that Trump’s inability to be eloquent was clearly known from the moment he announced his candidacy, but this naked display of it almost four weeks after his inauguration was jarring.

Exhibit Two: Fake News and Uranium Mansplaining

Trump has always dealt in cardboard extremes. The New York Times is always “failing”, judges who fail to decide in his favor are always “so-called” judges, and embarrassing news leaks are always “fake news”. During this press conference, though, we learned this: “Russia is fake news. Russia-this is fake news put out by the media.” Of Uranium, he explained: “You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons, and other things. Like, lots of things are done with uranium, including some bad things. Nobody talks about that.”

“We’re becoming a drug-infested nation. Drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars.”

Exhibit Four: How to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

“We’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are they [Russia.] I have been briefed… nuclear holocaust would be like no other. They’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are we.”

The sympathetic viewer (and aren’t we all hoping he can bring all these pieces of himself together) probably wanted Trump to stay in this venue. After all, such blustering verbal stumbles have been a gold mine for Alec Baldwin and the writers of Saturday Night Live. The problem, and the major cringe-inducing factor, comes when he faces the “other”, and none other on that day were more “other” than African-American reporter April Ryan. She questioned Trump about his apparent concern for continued inner-city violence and turmoil in cities like Chicago. Would he include the CBC?

“Am I going to include who?” Trump asked.

“Are you going to include the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus?” Ryan responded.

“Well I would,” Trump answered.”…Do you want to set up a meeting?… Are they friends of yours? Set up the meeting.”

This is what the context requires.

Many parents of fighting siblings tell the victim to simply ignore their aggressor and he/she will go away. The victimized are told that crying or objecting or physically resisting simply gives legitimacy to the bullies. Do not let them push your buttons. Some have argued and are still arguing that Donald J. Trump is the logical end result of a passive viewing public that has been most content simply to be entertained, to have our buttons pushed, to stop thinking and let a simpleton lead us into a different phase of entertainment.

Throughout his career, and especially in those five perfect pages of 1997’s Underworld, DeLillo has played with the idea that unspeakable ugliness and unexplainable random violence has always been fodder for the machinery of entertainment. We expect to be entertained, and now that’s entered the political arena. We don’t expect to think about it and we project shocked indignation during those moments when can realize the brakes are not working and others are simply content to keep riding the mystery train until the final crashing end. We will watch and keep being entertained by Trump press conferences, failing to accept that this is what the context requires, and failing to understand until it’s too late, as DeLillo notes in Underworld, that “This is what technology does. It peels back the shadows and redeems the dazed and rambling past. It makes reality come true.”