The Gospel According to Vince Lombardi

Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing — Vince Lombardi

Just in case anyone gets the wrong idea, I hate football metaphors, and I’m none too fond of football coaches either. It may be because I went to high school in the late Fifties, when every coach seemed to be a survivor of Iwo Jima, with a white sidewall haircut, a whistle around his neck, and an exaggerated idea of the value of military discipline in ordinary life. Also a sadist. Also an ignoramus. Kind of like Vince Lombardi.

Playing left tackle for one of these guys, as I did, was enough to turn me into a life-long Jacobin. I suspect that there were a lot more of us Jacobins than conventional wisdom admits, but at this point in my life it’s hardly worth arguing, except to say that I’m now an Arsenal fan, and have no idea whether the Green Bay Packers or the Dallas Cowboys still exist, let alone which of them is actually America’s Team.

Even so, I’d have to be a fool not to acknowledge that in America, football metaphors — and coaches — are always relevant. Lombardi may have been a man of few words, but in the quote above, there’s little doubt that he wasn’t talking just about football. He was also talking about life, and if he was confused about which was which, his confusion has come to be a very American confusion. As subjects of our post-war empire, we’re inclined to believe — you might say that we’re afraid not to believe — that once the inessential adornments of compassion and altruism have been stripped away, reality is essentially brutal.

We should reconsider. As a philosophy of football, particularly for a coach in the professional leagues, who’s constantly in danger of losing his livelihood if he loses too many games, Lombardi’s laconic Summa Theologica undoubtedly has some merit. As a philosophy of life, or of politics, it’s about as useful as a sledgehammer in a watchmaker’s toolkit.

This, unfortunately, hasn’t prevented it from being adopted by the leadership of both major American political parties, with consequences which it now seems that even they can’t escape. What will happen to them — and to us — once our electoral process has been reduced to a perennial War of Assassins, and what’s left of our democracy has been replaced by an empty recitation of principles which no longer govern anyone’s behavior? This is a question worth asking. In fact, in the context of our present politics, it may be the only question worth asking.

Is anyone asking it? Certainly not the Republicans. They already have their answers — all of them — and no matter how deep and abiding their unhappiness, they’re unlikely to look for new ones. The Democrats are a different story, although at the moment it appears that their traditional story, in which they appear as the defenders of the downtrodden, will soon be coming to an unhappy end.

———————–

Rahm Emanuel doesn’t look like a football coach, and he certainly doesn’t act much like one, except for the apparent delight he takes in bullying people, but like Karl Rove before him, he appears to be as uncritical in his worship of victory as Vince Lombardi ever was. In his days as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he fashioned himself into the first and foremost champion of the idea that power, not policy, was the real concern of a political party, and that getting Democrats elected was the only legitimate goal of the Democratic Party.

Most Democrats agreed that he had a point. In the Spring of 2006, it was already painfully obvious from the outcome of the previous three elections that the Democratic Party had become tragically adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and that something drastic had to be done about it. Opinions varied about what that something should be.

As Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, with his fifty-state strategy, took the position that a systematic effort should be made to strengthen the party even in states where at the time it wasn’t competitive. The rump of the Clinton mafia — Emanuel, Terry McAuliffe, and James Carville — argued that Dean’s strategy was a waste of resources, that money spent in organizing and opening offices in red states would be better spent in targeting swing states, where independent voters held the key to electoral success.

After the successes of the 2006 election, the supporters of Dean’s fifty-state strategy congratulated themselves that they’d made their point, but by 2008, it was clear that the old ways were back in force. Barack Obama made effective use of of the fifty-state strategy, but only at the expense to the party of converting its attempts at building a viable infrastructure in red states into a de facto cult of the personality. Under the influence of Rahm Emanuel and others, he also abandoned the strategy in states such as Alaska, North Dakota and Arizona as November drew closer, and as polling results indicated that he couldn’t overcome his natural disadvantage in those states. After the election, Howard Dean was shown the door, and the cult of Obama — Organizing for America — replaced the fifty-state strategy. It may seem a churlish question, especially when posed by a more or less loyal Democrat, but it has to be asked: How does this process serve democracy?

The simple answer is that it doesn’t. Political parties may be first and foremost instruments of power, but in a democracy, they are also — or ought to be — the organized focal point of communications between the people and its elected representatives, the conduit through which needs influence policy.

When the leaders of a victorious party, as Rahm Emanuel did in 2008, smugly tell their internal critics that you can’t make policy if you can’t get candidates elected to office, what they leave unsaid is that a political party represents nothing if it doesn’t represent a consensus on fundamental political principles, serves no purpose if it doesn’t develop policy ideas which express that consensus, and cannot legitimately govern if it gets its candidates elected on the basis of propaganda rather than an honest and detailed statement of where it stands on the issues of the day.

If a party leaves voters and its own rank and file ignorant of its actual policy preferences, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether its propaganda is true or false. The fruit of its victory will inevitably be — must inevitably be — a government which sees itself and its large donors as its only legitimate constituency, and forces the rest us to endure the spectacle of elected representatives who spend more time picking drapes for their offices than they do studying legislation, and are more adept at drilling holes in the bottom of the ship of state than they are at manning an oar.

I have just two questions for fellow Democrats who are puzzled and dismayed that they voted for a presidential candidate who, after more than nine months in office, hasn’t kept, and doesn’t look likely to keep, any of his major campaign promises. What is our victory worth now? Is it could be worse an answer we’re willing to accept for as far as we can see into the future?

According to the available sources, the Obama campaign spent between 700 and 800 million dollars getting him elected. If we want to gauge the future of our democracy, we should ask ourselves where any of us is going to come up with that kind of money. There may come a time when a presidential candidate can be persuaded that populism trumps a billion dollars, but that time hasn’t arrived yet, and certainly won’t arrive so long as our party leadership believes that winning is the only thing, and we are content to let them believe it.

54 Comments

  1. Karen M says:

    [sigh…] Too true, William.

    Frankly, as a woman, I have always found the exclusionary nature of football metaphors (based on gender) to be somewhat odious. After all, the world does include women and children, not to mention a few unathletic men here and there. And then there’s the actual content of football itself, which has very little to recommend it. Unless one is an orthopedic surgeon.

    I’ve been to a few high school games lately, but only because my grandson is in the marching band. Otherwise, I would forgo them.

    As for party politics, I think I’ve pretty much given up on the Democratic party. I certainly cannot beome a Republican. What else is there? I don’t really have much hope for third parties, unless and until we alter our voting system to include automatic run-offs, and I don’t think that’s likely, either, since it would serve neither party’s vested interests.

    How do you plan to spend the next election cycle or two? I have no clue… at the moment.

    I’m pretty disappointed in both the party and its leadership… and the president and his unkept promises, too

    • William Timberman says:

      Well, it’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I haven’t as yet made any hard decisions about what I’m going to do myself, but I’m still a precinct committeeperson and state rep for the Democrats here in AZ, where there are some signs that the state party is beginning to accommodate itself to a newly engaged rank and file. In fact, the State Committee has adopted a number of progressive platform statements which the leadership might have attempted to block just a year or two ago.

      They still can’t see beyond the money, though, and the fact that the Republicans still outnumber us by a wide margin in many districts. In the urban areas, of course, the demographic trends favor us, so long as we stick to our supposed position as the party of ordinary folk. Overall, I’m hopeful, and imagine that when next spring rolls around, I’ll go back to pounding the pavement and working the phones, especially since, in my district, we have a vulnerable freshman representative to defend. Were I younger, I might try working on a little political theater down in Phoenix — demonstrations against Sheriff Arpaio, for example, or mass lobbying of our Neanderthal state legislature.

      From a broader perspective, though, you can’t depend on the Democrats to support anything like the political advocacy, or organizing, which I believe to be necessary. In fact, historically you never could. What made the Democrats a progressive force in the past was not the smoke-filled rooms, or the patronage, but the industrial unions, the farmer-labor parties in the Midwest, and, later, the civil rights movement.

      These interest groups are now gone. Post-war economic developments, including globalization and the military-industrial complex and its captive media have left them high and dry. Even the universities, which helped us mobilize the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement, have long been under siege. Gerrymandering has made it very difficult for an ad-hoc populist campaign to unseat even a lowly member of the House.

      For the moment, I think that the best use of our energies might just lie in attempts to make our analysis of the political and economic situation part of the national conversation. Given the amount of money being spent in drowning us out, this might very well be a long slog, but you never know till you try.

      Look at it this way: a single Chomsky can be ignored. Ten thousand of them, and you begin to have an actual debate.

    • dirigo says:

      The Democrats let the Republicans crash and burn every so often and then appeal to voters, rather limply but with soaring rhetoric, on the assumption they have nowhere else to go.

      Big promises; incremental results, if that. They’re letting the public option die somewhere between North Dakota and Iowa.

      When they’re in power, they’re dilatory in their exercise of it.

      • William Timberman says:

        Oh, ’tis true, ’tis true. They need us more than we need them — they just haven’t figured that out yet. Then again, neither have we. If and when we do, I think that it’ll change the game. (And no, I don’t think that football will be in the running.)

        • dirigo says:

          I heard this Dem response: “make us do it” and apparently its provenance rests somewhere with Roosevelt. Well, that’s the way I heard it last year. In fact, I may have seen that, uh, mantra, cited by Karen. I could be wrong though.

          The thing is, it’s so passive, not “pro-active” the way big shots, double-breasted lawyers and business consultant/coaches do things.

          It’s limp, like when the guy whines about “Who stole my cheese”?

          Who wants to rely on football metaphors?

          But that’s the rhetorical currency of the realm, and all the lazy thinkers at the table, on panels, and on the talk shows, go on that way.

          And it doesn’t mean anything any more!

          Karen’s going to think I’m a troglodyte, but that stuff used to mean something to me when I was young (when I was prone to such conditioning), until I started to get hit in town pick-up football games by the zealots who thought we were playing for the NFL title at the Polo Grounds before a national, black and white television audience. I backed away from football after being bloodied a few times for no good reason and realized the coach wasn’t sensitive to my plight, and in fact yelled at me to go back out there and be bloodied some more!

          However, I did enjoy the Lombardi’s great run with the Packers, except Vince also ran his home like his team, and the great book on the coach by David Marannis shows Vince’s wife was kinda left hanging during the glory years, an incidental figure in his life, though a saint to be sure.

          I loathe the sports metaphors as well, but, what metaphors or imagery do you replace them with?

          I’ve thought about this, as Hag has.

          What metaphors would work in the winner take all, zero sum game that is our politics?

          • Karen M says:

            I really don’t think you are a troglodyte, Dirigo. Far from it, in fact. I doubt you had much to do with creating those metaphors, and no doubt they were useful at one time.

            I really don’t know what metaphors would work now, but football just doesn’t cut it, unless you are a manly man. Which I most certainly am not. ;~)

            Maybe something literary… I know that that sort of thing has been out of fashion for at least the past decade, but we do have a narrow window of opportunity to make it cool again, like it was in the days when people went to public lectures and such. Or maybe something historical…

            Surely, the power of all of our combined brain cells should be able to come up with something, even if not immediately.

            I may have cited that thing about “making them do it,” but only because I’ve read it elsewhere online and it seems to be part of the discussion. I’m not sure it could work in the same way today, given the administration’s lack of recognition of the importance of either its base or its constituents. As William noted above, we have to change that first.

            • dirigo says:

              I think they were useful at one time, which I would say means the era between the big wars, and for a time after that.

              But as one who stood in the Vietnam crucible, I do think it all curdled rather horribly then, and since that period there has been a disconnect, which becomes more apparent during every election cycle.

              People keep trying to push the rewind button, back to the glory days.

              I don’t think “the digitals” buy into this crap at all.

              The ranters on the right rely on these metaphors, along with home, hearth, and religion; but they really do seem incoherent, bereft of ideas. The more bereft, the angrier they get.

              It’s all collapsed into a squishy sort of American fascism; yet they accuse progressives of fascism, probably because progressives don’t buy those memes at all and are trying, as you are, to come up with new, workable, rhetorical paradigms.

              • Karen M says:

                I think you’re right about the timeline, but there were still people who cared about conversation and such even during that time. TV killed that, though. And then the 60s and the discontent among blacks, women and the young caused those metaphors to completely fall in upon themselves.

                Those glory days, as you call them, really were only for white men. At least, that is how it appears to me. Earlier on, there may have been a few of those years for women in the 20s, but the next looming war (perhaps) interfered.

                • dirigo says:

                  Yes. Listen to Springsteen’s “Glory Days”. Very sad. Very bittersweet.

                  God, how many smelly bars have I been in and heard that song!

                  At the same time, there was some glory, in the late forties and fifties.

                  There were men I knew who lived in that time and knew what they did.

                  It’s true.

                • dirigo says:

                  Karen, I think you’re dead on about a broad atrophying of the skill of conversation.

                  How can people possibly find common ground if the conversational grease is not there?

                  How can a debating point be proven (and accepted) if there is nothing more than a “crossfire” going on?

                • dirigo says:

                  “Glory Days”

                • dirigo says:

                  Kick it up a notch …

                • Karen M says:

                  There’s a scene in “Persuasion,” Dirigo, where Anne Eliot is discussing with her cousin (another Eliot) what good company consists of. She thinks it is a group of people with interesting ideas, lots of information and good conversation. Or something like that… I’m paraphrasing. Her cousin corrects her, saying that is not good company, but the best company, and that good company requires only manners, education and birth, and it’s not terribly fussy about education.

                  That pretty much sums it up for us today, too, I think.

                  Birth and manners. It’s as if the legacy media read some of Austen’s work and decided to take the aspects of Regency life that she was parodying and use them as a how-to manual. Good grief!

                  It’s pretty clear that in addition to a severe lack of a sense of proportion, the villagers also lack a sense of humor.

                • dirigo says:

                  That is very interesting.

                  Good company versus the best company.

                  Gotta cogitate a bit about that.

                  A lack of a sense of humor in the village? Oh yes indeed!

          • William Timberman says:

            You might look at Shakespeare. He understood violence delivered by club or rapier, yet he had the Buddha’s own dispassion when it came to the ills flesh is heir to, and he was both smarter than ole VInce, and vastly more experienced. Had quite a way with words, too.

            If you want something more drearily modern, try Orwell. The boot stamping on a human face forever had a nice ring to it, no?

            • dirigo says:

              Oh I look at the Bard all the time and dearly wish we could get that level of rhetoric back into the public square in this country.

              The great scene in Richard III in which Richard stands before a crowd and feigns disinterest in the crown would do wonders for those who want to know how demagogues (and political monsters) work.

              What a task it is we’re talking about.

              • Karen M says:

                The Bard was actually in the back of my mind. We have no greater genius to draw upon.

                Caliban and Prospero from the Tempest might be an interesting starting place, but are there any real heros?

                • William Timberman says:

                  Odd that Richard III should be the first mentioned.

                  Have you folks seen Ian McKellen’s RIchard? The best on film, in my not so humble opinion, although I loved Olivier’s. The speech I’ll have her, but I shall not keep her long still gives me goosebumps.

                • Karen M says:

                  There are three versions of Richard III on NetFlix, none of them on InstantView. Darn it. So, I’ll have to get the DVD.

                  WT, the one with Ian McKellen is set in a 1930s fascist England. How appropriate!

                  Thanks for suggesting it, Dirigo.

                • dirigo says:

                  Other writers to wrestle with, to improve the level of discussion: including Shakespeare and Austen, there’s Edith Wharton, Mark Twain,
                  George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf,
                  and Hemingway.

                  I’ve thought about putting Shaw and Twain in a blender to see what would happen.

                • dirigo says:

                  Drama is easy; comedy is hard.

                  And now for something completely different:

                  “My pre-Darwinian uncle knew as well as Darwin that the racehorse and the drayhorse are not separate creatures from the Garden of Eden, but adaptations by deliberate human selection of the medieval warhorse to modern racing and industrial haulage. He knew that there are nearly two hundred different sorts of dogs, all capable of breeding with one another and of producing cross-varieties unknown to Adam. He knew that the same thing is true of pigeons. He knew that gardeners had spent their lives trying to breed black tulips and green carnations and unheard-of orchids, and had actually produced flowers just as strange to Eve. His quarrel with the Evolutionists was not a quarrel with the evidence for Evolution: he had accepted enough of it to prove Evolution ten times over before he ever heard of it. What he repudiated was cousinship with the ape, and the implied suspicion of a rudimentary tail, because it was offensive to his sense of his own dignity, and because he thought that apes were ridiculous, and tails diabolical when associated with the erect posture. Also he believed that Evolution was a heresy which involved the destruction of Christianity, of which, as a member of the Irish Church (the pseudo-Protestant one), he conceived himself a pillar. But this was only his ignorance; for man may deny his descent from an ape and be eligible as a church warden without being any the less a convinced Evolutionist.”

                  … from

                  – “HEREDITY: AN OLD STORY”

                  – George Bernard Shaw, 1921

                  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk9cXJ1MljI

                • Karen M says:

                  An excellent list. I might add Willa Cather, as well, although her work doesn’t always seem as finished to me as Wharton’s does. (Death Comes for the Archbishop is my favorite of hers.)

                  But Shaw and Twain in a blender?! Yikes!

              • William Timberman says:

                Well, maybe not Shakespeare, but President Obama at times reaches the level of Lincoln. Regardless of whatever other bones I’d pick with him, I’d be a fool and a knave if I refused to grant him that.

                • Karen M says:

                  You give him more credit than I do, I guess. Rhetoric goes only so far. Still, it is a relief to feel so much less embarrassment about his presence on the world stage.

                  I do wish there were some way of using something from Jane Austen. I know it’s silly, but I do rank her not too far from Shakespeare. She did not live nearly as long, but wrote a few classics before she died… and so economically. I’ve been thinking about Mansfield Park lately, and how there is a bit of Shakespeare within it, including the play within and a speech by Cardinal Woolsey, but more importantly, how its elements seem destined for comedy, but end up becoming something closer to tragedy. It’s as if she took S’s idea of comedy and turned it on its ear. Or inside out.

                  If you think about the early days of TV and what it has become, as a metaphor for American Life, it is in a similar state. Devolved from high-concept comedy into something dark and devious and manipulative. Like Reality TV.

              • dirigo says:

                Some of the actor friends I hang with don’t like the McKellen film.

                But I do.

                His very wry, witty take is as I would imagine Richard, which, with the discomfort of his hump, shows the deformed political personality, expressed as envy of other people. He has a lust for power. He insists that he be recognized.

                • Karen M says:

                  Well, that’s two positive reviews of the same. Now, I’ll have to see it. I’ll report back, or maybe I’ll post something about it.

                • William Timberman says:

                  Well, there’s parts of it which border on the cheesy — none of them having anything to do with McKellen’s performance, mind you — and they probably hate the idea that Robert Downey is in it at all. (Not that I think he did such a bad job, considering.)

                  I get the same reaction when I say that Al Pacino was one of the best Shylocks that I’ve seen. De gustibus non est disputandem, I guess. The good news is that nobody dares think that any of the unfortunate stuff is the playwright’s fault.

                • dirigo says:

                  A taste of the McKellen Richard III …

                • Karen M says:

                  Thanks! I checked out that clip and it does seem worthwhile. I’ll let you know after I’ve seen it.

                • dirigo says:

                  From the McKellen “Richard”, he pretends not to want the ultimate power.

              • dirigo says:

                And Virginia Woolf …

  2. Karen M says:

    The party of a thousand Chomskys… I like it. It almost sounds like a group that belongs on Facebook, but that wouldn’t be appropriate for Chomsky. Might be worth broadcasting on Twitter, though. I do enjoy skimming and posting there on occasion. I’m following lots of foodies, writers and political types. Mostly progressives.

    One has to wonder, if we could find a way to use Twitter, too, as an organizing tool, as happened in Iran a few months ago.

    May I quote your last two sentences there?

  3. cocktailhag says:

    Great essay, WT…. I’ve been thinking about this subject for a long time; in retrospect, 2008 seems like a lesson in futility. “It could have been worse,” indeed. The slide from democracy into oligarchy is a well-worn one, but it’s certainly accelerating with disturbing rapidity. What good is “winning” when no one can tell one team from the other?
    (Karen…. I share your loathing of football, and its metaphors….)

  4. Retired Miilitary Patritot says:

    On the most basic level, the problem is two-fold: far too many Americans no longer believe in sacrificing for the good of the greater community; our society still believes there are only two outcomes to a conflict, ala sports, win or lose. So if you are only thinking about your team and don’t believe that both sides can lose regardless of the score or that a way can be found for both to win so that the score doesn’t matter, there is no compromise or sacrifice being made to achieve a win-win. That results in both parties giving in to the real power, money and corporate communism. The losers are the people who are supposed to have the power and have given it up to corporate communism.

    The Internet is allowing more and more thinking people to see the dirty tactics and recognizing that the game rules have to be changed. That means we have to neutralize corporate communism by limiting their ability to make the rules.

    That is an enormous task. We can’t get started taking it on until enough Americans understand the objectives. The internet allows us to do that which is why the most important job right now may be to keep corporate communism from seizing control of our free and open means of mass communication. It’s leaders are clearly in the process of trying to do that.

    Another threat is stifling dissent and protest. Here’s some good articles on that:

    The Reader: The War on Dissent
    http://coldtype.net/Assets.09/pdfs/1009.Reader40.pdf

    • William Timberman says:

      Trust you, RMP, to remind us of our moral compass, and to kindly show us where it points. Thank you — again — for your patience, and for your perseverance.

    • Karen M says:

      At some point, RMP, we may want to make sure we have snail mail addresses for all those we are in contact with online… just in case the corporatists succeed in monopolizing this means of communication, too.

      And, isn’t the winning and losing most often about who accumulates the most money? I confess that money has never been my primary motivator, although that may be shifting a bit these days, but only out of necessity, as everything has become so much more expensive that I really need to earn more now, if I want to keep making the ends meet.

  5. Karen M says:

    Dirigo, re: our exchange about “conversation” and “the best company,” this piece by the founder of CNN is very revealing.

    • dirigo says:

      Yes, over the years when I was in broadcasting, I felt this tension all the time, that between the good (for mass consumption) and the best (not necessarily elite, but certainly more challenging than Starsky and Hutch, or whatever).

      I just got out of it and have grown much more as a professional, and as a person. That box was too small.

      So here, for as long as the web is free, there’s the chance to find people to, “without fear or favor,” have the best conversations, and maybe “make a difference.”

      Here’s to Sen. Snowe, a lady from Maine!

    • dirigo says:

      Karen, burrowing a bit more, with the Schonfeld piece as a guide, I would urge anyone, whether they be a “media critic” or your average couch potato, to go with the urge to see American television, in its entirety, in absurdist terms, which is: “the philosophical and literary doctrine that human beings live in essential isolation in a meaningless and irrational world.”

      Looking at American television in theatrical terms, accepting its “unreal” dimension, does that not describe the phenomenon of people sitting together in a room watching it – in the case of “The News”, a completely artificial, manufactured world of faux drama (and often not very good drama) – with each individual experiencing what it delivers in isolation?

      How is it possible, after imbibing this medium, to have a good conversation, to say nothing of the best conversation one could hope for?

      I think a great, recent example of this near-daily absurdity was when Congressman Grayson appeared on CNN to be tut-tutted about his attack on the Republican position on health by the likes of Wolf Blitzer and Gloria Borger, a critique presented on his own time and in the well of the House.

      In the context of the very different attack on the president by Congressman Wilson, Grayson was dressed down about his comic “die quickly” bit about the Republican position on health reform, AND, urged to reconsider this awful breach of decorum by the CNN managers of manners.

      He refused to apologize to the Republican leadership and, for the benefit of the CNN “audience,” to Blitzer and Borger.

      How absurd is it?

  6. Karen M says:

    Intellectually, I agree with you, Dirigo, but if I were to do that as often as merited, I’d feel hungry all of the time. My adrenal glands would be exhausted. I spent a lot of my early life isolated in that meaningless and irrational world. To escape, I would read.

    Trying to live that way consistently would be like going on a low-carb and low-fat diet… I might lose weight. Unnecessarily.

    However, for the sake of interesting conversations, I am willing to join in the Absurdity as needed.

    • dirigo says:

      Yes, reading deeply is the best way out of the isolation, except, maybe, not enough people are doing it.

      In any case, television has failed to fulfill the true “public service” potential that was described by people like Murrow and McLuhan.

      It’s become something else.

      As you suggest on hag’s latest: it’s a stream of funhouse talking-head mirrors, a mass of bobbleheads. Talking on and on.

      • William Timberman says:

        I’d disagree with this in one sense. Murrow’s view of television, or more accurately, his hopes for it, were quite different from McLuhan’s. McLuhan’s understanding of television was that it’s absurdist in the best sense. Although it does by nature require us to be as passive as you suggest, it’s also an unexpectedly subversive influence. It communicates information in ways its producers can neither anticipate nor control. (Its property of coolness, the fact that the medium itself is its primary message, etc.)

        Looking back on my own experience of television, I believe that McLuhan was more right than Murrow. The absurdity which you complain about is an important piece of information in itself. If you watch 52 straight weeks of Washington Week in Review, for example, which gathers all the most august names together, and is absolutely dripping with gravitas, the strongest and most lasting impression it leaves on you is that if these are our best and brightest, the ship of state really is a ship of fools, and no one on it has ever bothered to look out a porthole.

        • dirigo says:

          Good point, WT.

          My phrasing about Murrow and McLuhan probably conflates two different strands of media criticism.

          Having been in broadcast news, and actually intrigued for a time by the idea of “evolving” into a commentator gravitisimo myself, I paid a lot of attention to Murrow’s arguments about the public service function (or imperative) of The News.

          He failed to make the case in its purest sense (or was sandbagged by the company), as perhaps the “disgraced” Dan Rather is failing today.

          But maybe it’s just that, as McLuhan suggested, whatever seriousness as may exist on television at any time is undermined eventually by the inherent contradictions within the medium (it’s internal absurdities) based on its business model. As a casting agent might say: THINK “Mad Men” or “30 Rock”.

          Hell, think Dan Rather! I really feel for him on a news level, but he’s become an absurdist clown character – a kind of journalistic Emmett “Weary Willie” Kelley.

          Are reality shows the ultimate junk yard destination for American television programming? Some critics say yes, but they caution that it may take a generation for the trend to run its course (or wear out its welcome) and then head back, maybe, toward better dramatic fare.

          Trouble is, by that time all of today’s actors looking for work in New York will be dead. Tough toenails for them.

          So maybe we should all partake (if you do) as though we’re a bunch of Becketts who can’t wait to jump ship. If you haven’t already, consider disembarking at the nearest port of call.

          • William Timberman says:

            Me and my pet rat jumped ship a long time ago — didn’t even wait to reach the nearest port of call.

            • dirigo says:

              Ahhhh … that’s why you sound so healthy in spirit.

            • Karen M says:

              I find I’m opting out of more and more things, even as I add a few here and there. Time flies by so much faster, and I don’t want to waste any of it butting heads unnecessarily. And, especially when I know there would be nothing to show for it, except a bunch of bruises.

              One of the things I like about Twitter is the ability to edit who I follow and who follows me… also on the fly. Mostly, I follow really smart people and foodies, not that they are mutually exclusive.

              TV went by the wayside once we installed the converter boxes for digital and our reception became even worse. That was about a year and half ago, and it had mostly lost its appeal long before.

              I can hardly believe that “Two and half men” is what now passes for a sitcom.

  7. dirigo says:

    Emmett Kelly (sorry I misspelled your name above, buddy!) …