America This is Quite Serious: What Just Happened Was the Easy Part

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I began this series with the declaration “Politics sucks.” Boy was I right.

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet lately, you’ve already heard what others have to say about racism, sexism, coastal elite bubbles, millennials, the FBI, voter turnout, minority voter turnout, the real media, the fake news, the electoral college, etc. — basically any and every reason Hillary Clinton did not close the deal on November 8th. In the spirit of this series’ mission to recommend the best coverage, I found the most insightful and comprehensive reaction piece to be this one from Dave Roberts at Vox. For myself, I have largely stayed quiet because, as election day showed, it’s a bad idea to make decisions when you’re scared and angry.

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But a series about the 2016 election should include some response to the results. And in the time since those results came in, we’ve seen a lot of evidence for a very unpleasant truth: Losing was the easy part. What’s next is a lot harder. That’s because what’s next is about holding on to what matters.

I know — it’s hard to think that anything matters right now. After voters who most need the benefits of Obamacare turned out in droves for people who have promised to take those benefits away. After the people who are most immediately threatened by climate change helped elect a man who called it a hoax invented by China. After tens of millions of women voted for the “grab ’em by the pussy” candidate. After eight of every 10 (alleged) Christians favored a candidate whose favorite lesson from the Bible is “an eye for an eye,” which was literally contradicted by Jesus Christ himself. After anyone with two eyes and a heart stepped up to elect a guy who kicked a baby out of one of his rallies.

It’s hard to feel like anything matters, and is probably going to get harder. Because Donald Trump is the culmination of a very bad thing that has been happening for some time. Awful as he is, he is merely a symptom of a larger sickness. Which brings me to my final recommendation of the series.

Twenty-six years ago, David Foster Wallace published “E Unibus Pluram,” an essay about television and U.S. fiction. To cram the relevant part of his 60-page argument into a few sentences, Wallace wrote that irony and absurdity, tools once meant to undermine the establishment, had been co-opted by the establishment. As he tells it, fiction by authors like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis had “exploded hypocrisy,” revealing darkly that our institutions were not what they claimed to be. After a time, television shows like Married, With Children began revealing, humorously, that institutions were not what they claimed to be.

This was in the midst of a revolution of the medium. Quaint as it sounds now, hours of programming on multiple channels was a big deal in the 1980s. Wallace theorizes that to keep viewers engaged as a passive mass of watchers for all of those hours, they had to be convinced that they are not part of a passive mass of watchers. That, in fact, they stand apart from the average sucker who wastes all of his or her time sitting in front of the boob tube. So TV starts to become more sarcastic and ironic. I feel the need to say that this was not the work of a vast Illuminati conspiracy. Old school, non-ironic TV failed because, as Wallace puts it, it was “a hypocritical apologist for values whose reality had become attenuated in a period of corporate ascendancy, bureaucratic entrenchment, foreign adventurism, racial conflict, secret bombing, assassination, wiretaps, etc.” In other words, when Father Knows Best doesn’t match reality, you get shows where father doesn’t know anything, which is basically every family sitcom produced for the last few decades.*

The end result was a feeling that, by watching lots of TV, viewers were made savvy, and could avoid being duped by the hypocritical and inauthentic forces swirling around them. “This,” Wallace says, “reflected a wider shift in U.S. perceptions of how art was supposed to work, a transition from art’s being a creative instantiation of real values to art’s being a creative rejection of bogus values.” And yet, as Americans became more and more jaded about how everything was dumb and nothing worked, nothing changed. The new ironic programming was all snark and no bite. And what we got from that was a lot of lonely, isolated people who are cynical about everything. The stage was set…

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Inevitably, the default attitude of cynicism expanded beyond fiction and art to infect nonfictional and non-art news broadcasts. Then those broadcasts became 24-hour news stations. It was a revolution in the media, one that required new angles to keep viewers tuned in. Sound familiar? Now we have entire channels, ostensibly reporting on information that is vital for the functioning of our society, that are designed to feed our cynicism about institutions and a make us weary of people who just can’t get anything right.

Fox News is the most obvious and aggressive example. They dedicate roughly 24 hours of programming a day to whipping weary cynicism into outright contempt for elites and insiders and pinheads. MSNBC is better than Fox, but not by a lot. They’re more committed to empirical facts, but they can’t help but reinforce the corrosive perception that MSNBC viewers know the right thing and everyone else is an asshole. CNN’s brand of insidery, self-reassuring nudges is more subtle and potentially the worst of the bunch: constant armchair quarterbacking of gaffes and leaks and twitter flame wars and other such bullshit. Policies — if they get covered at all — are typically reported by assembling 47 people around a table to debate how those policies might poll with suburban moms. The stated aim might be the kind of balanced analysis you don’t get at Fox or MSNBC. The actual result is that we all get to play along and make predictions and take sides, which is not emotionally distinct from watching screaming heads on ESPN argue over what needs to happen to ensure the one thing that matters: that your chosen team wins. This is not a healthy model for deciding who runs a big, complex, and dangerous country.

Again none of this is happening in a vacuum. It’s easy to stoke cynicism and outrage when one president is getting BJs in the Oval Office and parsing the meaning of the word “is,” then another president is illegally wiretapping citizens and lying to get us into war. Out beyond Washington, average families can actually feel the “system” not working for them, as wages fail to match the growing costs of basics like school, gas and health insurance. They see the richest of the rich getting richer. And then some of those rich guys, the bankers, sink the global economy. And if that didn’t suck enough, they do it in a way that drains the value out of homes, the one piece of growing wealth most families had. Then the bankers get a bailout. And everyone else gets a new lease on the cynicism that has been our default setting for years.

No wonder we turned to cat videos. The addition of social media to the evolution in “news” has not helped, to say the least. I don’t have the ethnographic skills or the stomach to dig into this too much, but it’s not hard to see in social media the full flowering of powerless irony that ultimately feeds our smug self-satisfaction and cynicism. For example, this sampling of posts from the Democratic Party’s Twitter feed in the weeks after election day:

I enjoy these. They make me feel good about myself and the people I agree with. I even put my own smartass GIF at the top of this piece. But they are wholly inadequate responses to the situation at hand. They’re a supposedly fun thing we should never do again.

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So what is the answer? David Foster Wallace said in an interview that fiction was about “what it is to be a fucking human being.” In his essay on television and U.S. fiction, he calls for a new set of voices to overcome the cultural forces that were making people lonelier and more suspect of other people. Our politics should be about what it is to be a fucking citizen. And now we need new voices to overcome cultural forces that elevate political outcomes over human outcomes, and can parry our worst impulses and despair with something more than GIFs and memes.

The next [political] “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels … who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.

America, this is quite serious, and “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” is worth a read.

Read more from our election year series “America This is Quite Serious.”

*”Father Knows Best” might actually be an ironic title. I am not old enough to have watched the show, and never cared much for Nick at Nite reruns because, well, they were so earnest and cheesy.

-Michael Moats

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