We have about eight weeks or so until the Great National Election. Many of the traditional arguments about political choice have been unshelved, dutifully trotted out for their paces, and ready to be returned to the stable and shelf before Thanksgiving.
As of perhaps a month ago, the Show Was Over. There was no way that anyone could vote for Donald Trump. The cards said so. But now, we are back to a puzzled parity in the beauty contest.
In the 60’s, Neil Postman and Marshall MacLuhan and others grasped the idea of the medium – that is, nothing substantial can be conveyed without understanding the vagaries of the method of conveyance. This is a big concept, and nothing all that new. From the Phaedrus dialogue on writing to the Internet, what we can express easily and what is difficult, if not impossible to express can be affected by the medium in which we offer the topic.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis stated a very similar proposition about the power of language to shape thought. The MacLuhanites pondered this determinism in media, the mechanics of information transmission, the Gutenberg press and the radio and such. To crib from Wikipedia, Wilhelm von Humboldt declared in 1820 that “The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world.”
We have now been acculturated over several generations to the medium of television, and specifically to the medium of discrete intervals of time. Time assignments of 1800-second blocks, a half-hour, are strictly enforced, unless television is broadcasting something from a more lenient medium, such as motion pictures. The theme is divided by two or three interruptions of perhaps 120-180 seconds of advertisement, which must themselves open and close with finality. Silence of more than five seconds or so, unless something is transpiring on-screen, is painful to the viewed; music is often used as an assuagement to this discomfort.
The Law of the Sitcom insists upon the status quo ante. Events cannot develop; only the characters can slowly change, albeit glacially. There is a built-in event horizon to sitcoms, a Nyquist frequency, the real distance between the mirrors; all else is simply a reflection of what exists within. Further speculation into the various time-dependent transforms of the sitcom are welcome from the mathematically inclined but bored.
Some programs are allowed the evolution of facts over time; this must be slow. Others may be completely encapsulated in a discrete number of episodes. These are the made-for-TV dramas, which are pre-determined to run for a certain fixed amount of time, and then end. They may be watched again, or in sequel. They do not exist in the world in which an unknown number of episodes, or pulses perhaps, of 1800 second blocks are crafted as though to go on indefinitely, or until the series becomes unprofitable.
To fill up the vagaries of such time, the show must be essentially unchanging over that 1800-second cycle; all must be put back into its proper order, so that the shows can be re-broadcast in any order whatsoever, and still be pleasurable. Those shows with children, of course, will show the growth of the children towards adulthood. Experienced viewers will adapt, understanding that this show is of Little Ricky, and the latter is of Baby Ricky. All that can be returned to baseline, shall.
For entertainment of this sort, one must focus on characters, and generally ignore the subtler manifestations of plot. In the rapidly-changing storyline of soap operas, tricks and cues and coding are used to alert the viewer as to the inner nature of the character by external manifestations and brief exchange – the heartless, aggressive woman, the sly and unreliable man, the good-as-gold tough girl. These costumes must be donned and shed rapidly, memorably during the 1800 second block, so as to achieve character development – the only thing that changes – during the show.
This propensity to stereotype has, if anything, perhaps softened and become more complex over the age of television. I am currently reading about the Vietnam War, and how entirely willing the Counterculture/Hippies were to personally attack, injure and denigrate the enlisted men returning from Vietnam; and how entirely content the people of Ohio were when hippies were shot dead at one of their local colleges, Kent State. Neither group seemed to have any mercy in considering the wounded enemy. They were just blatantly manifesting one of our worst habits, the tribal capacity for indifference to suffering of others not part of the tribe.
The Vietcong slaughtered children; the NVA slaughtered children; the US Army and Marines and Montagnards slaughtered children. Everyone slaughtered children, and a lot of children were slaughtered during that war. There was exhaustive argument about which slaughter was commendable, and which was reprehensible.
But the stereotyping can never disappear. Without it, television would become incomprehensibly complex. It would also fail to accurately mirror human nature.
And we come to the Election of 2016, Donald Trump vs. Hilary Clinton.
There seem to be few credible points of difference; nobody expects a politician to do what they say, whether the building of the Mexican Wall or such. Americans have little tolerance for political courage; John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage would seem a bit quaint and troublesome in today’s world. Yes, we expect politicians to do the right thing; but the right thing is what the majority opinion of the moment is, as we are so vain to believe otherwise. Saddam Hussein knocked down the World Trade Towers. He must be punished. The palpable untruth of that assumption was evident far before the war in Afghanistan broadened into Iraq.
Had we considered the lessons learned in Vietnam some thirty years before, we might have avoided the trillion-dollar-plus mess that we ground through in Iraq. But that would involve the understanding of plot; we can do without that. The Greek thesis on tragedy – that outcomes can be worse than desired by virtue of actions that are not necessarily malicious, but unconsidered – is just no fun, a bummer.
We prefer to hinge every contest on character, to the point where National Sporting Events are not judged on the vagaries of play, the opportunities of circumstance, the balance of forces that are great and nearly matched. We say that the team that “wanted to win it all” is the victor, notwithstanding the possibility that the other team also wished to win it. Cam Newton was a bum in the last Super Bowl – that’s all you have to remember. Not the complexities of matched speed in the nickle defense – that’s hard stuff, and not one in a hundred fans gets the intricate chess game that is professional football. That bum just didn’t want to win.
Of course, had one matching gone differently, one step in a speed contest between the speediest, Cam Newton would be a superhero.
We indulge in the worship of Personality Disorders and similar things. Those who are extroverts, confident, hypomanic and mildly narcissistic are the winners in every contest. The introspective and somber, the self-doubting and dull, are passed by like the brunette with glasses in the talent show.
And we worship the eternal transformation. The reality is, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are merely actors on a stage – we have demanded this much of them. I suspect that Mrs. Clinton is powerfully introverted and shy, even still after years of training. This is neither a sympathetic or unsympathetic observation, for it does not suggest what she will do in office. But we have many, many episodes left in the season, and if Donald Trump dives into the water to save a drowning puppy, there’s five points right there in the voter lottery. Millions of people will vote for him because of such a thing.
Our problem with Trump and Clinton is hardly Trump and Clinton.
[To be continued]