Friday, January 23, 2009

Re: Inauguration Night


Dear Ted Turner and Robert Pittman,

I am writing the two of you not because I think you will necessarily agree with the following opinions, nor to blame you for Frankenstein developments that have been out of your hands, but because I feel that you, as early speculators in the new horizons of the Media Age, might have the historical insight to find these thoughts interesting.

I am a 31-year-old American who now lives in Cambodia. In third grade I sat on the cafeteria floor and watched on the school’s only TV the Challenger exploding. Standing in my grandparents’ living room three years later, I watched a joint USA-USSR glasnost youth event in which Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora played an acoustic Wanted Dead or Alive before the camera cut to a Soviet rocker in glossy red stretch pants strutting across the stage. In high school, I was not interested in the primitive multimedia component of a Billy Idol album a friend showed off on the office computer after Chorus, and the next year I used paper stolen from school and a xerox at my job to print-up handmade ‘zines. In college I went online and discovered quick-and-easy porn and by the time I graduated, Napster was at its last gasp. As a young man, I watched on TV as the Twin Towers collapsed two miles from my apartment. As I grown man I subscribed to the Sunday Times out of tactile nostalgia, and now in Cambodia I read most every day. When I was born there were three TV networks and PBS. Three decades later, I can watch hundreds of channels on a pocket-sized telephone. The whole world – the world beyond the world – is now coded for anyone.

That’s quite an evolution in one young life, as profound as the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution, and not nearly finished yet. The changes have helped countless lives in countless ways, expanded our definitions of ourselves, made some visionaries like yourselves very wealthy, changed the very tides of our brainwaves. I cannot help but notice, however, that as our definitions of who we are as Humankind expand, the communion between the world and our individual selves narrows in some important ways. Allow me an example:

I moved to Asia when the 24-7 scrutiny and passions surrounding the 2008 election became too much. I couldn’t get out of bed without hearing, reading, seeing some pointless bit of candidate minutia analyzed like it carried the weight of D-Day. With the rumblings of our shaky economic foundation in my ears and resentment of our District of Columbia caste in my gut, I left for Siem Reap, where I watched Obama’s victory speech and felt the heartbreak you only feel when, after years of emotional triage, the ground beneath you is suddenly alive again and you are finally safe enough to truly experience just how painful it is to watch your home cut away at all that is good within itself.

Thus it was with great excitement – with anticipation of even greater Heartsong – that I looked forward to Inauguration Day. On the 19th, I settled into an internet cafe and, lured by the headline Inaugural Celebrations Could Last 10 Days, read that five of my favorite people in the world played the Lincoln Memorial during the previous day’s kickoff event. There are few artists as dear to me as the four members of U2 and Bruce Springsteen. They are strong forces for good in the world and I am loyal to them in a way only surpassed by my loyalty to family and tribe. And yet...

The youtube thumbnail I double-clicked to open Bruce’s performance was titled We Are One. U2’s thumbnail included the same because the event was an Event, a planned performance that needed a brand name. When the opaque screen retracted along the base of the Memorial to reveal a red-robed church choir and Bruce in his motorcycle boots and acoustic, my heart leapt. In the other Firefox tab I had open, the canyon-echo shuffle from Edge primed me to be swept up into the grandness of this historical moment. And all of that was a problem.

It was a problem because, “Free at last, they took your life, they could not take your pride; in the name of love,” sounds to me like a decree. “Sky of longing and emptiness – dream of life – sky of fullness, sky of blessed light” is comfort and relief and defiance. I am possessive of these things; on record they have elevated me through innumerable trials and I treasure them. But beneath Lincoln – a place of which I am also possessive, a place where man’s brotherhood to fellow man is stated eloquently and in stone – Bono and Bruce left me deflated. It wasn’t just that The Rising needs its bass and drums as much as its choir. It wasn’t just that Bono’s strutting Missionary of Love-routine was unusually clumsy (“This is for you.....Joe Biden!”) and particularly overblown (“Forty-six years ago Martin Luther King had a dream. And in two days...that dream comes true!”) The problem was that everything – from the day’s Official Title to Obama’s awkward attempts to nod along with Bruce to the way the crowd, already happy, turned completely ecstatic when they noticed the camera swooping down on them by crane – all of it was expressly clear: I was being told to be stirred in my soul. The laws of the Media Age made sure I understood: This is a tremendous day. Look, we are at the Lincoln Memorial. Look, the colors of America are gathered around the reflecting pool. Look, we are all one! We Are All One!!

King’s dream has come true? Not reeeally. But the packaging needs that. It needs to ensure a certain level of meaning or else it’s not worth packaging, can’t stand up to the all the other packages. So our reactions to the world, the communions between ourselves and these very real things that would stir our souls, are not allowed to develop on their own. We don’t have the opportunity to be moved as our individual, idiosyncratic selves because a professionally-designed Proof of Profound Purpose roots preemptively in our eyes, then our brains, then our hearts.

The pre-gaming on the day of the Inauguration was, of course, defined by the same laws of the All Media-All the Time! world. I arrived at an American-owned bar in downtown Siem Reap at ten o’clock (the oath was taken at midnight Tuesday, our time) and the news ticker at the bottom of the screen was clicking furiously:

NOW: VIPs arrive
NEXT: Representative Feinstein’s opening remarks
LATER: Joe Biden takes VP Oath of Office

A talking head is using as many words as possible to tell us that this is the first time Chief Justice John Roberts will give the oath of office. Anderson Cooper nods sagely and then the ticker tells us that only seven oaths of office have been taken on this, the west side of the White House. Anderson Cooper disappears and on the TV screen Dustin Hoffman mutely mouths to someone off camera, then a brief few questions with Steven Spielberg, then half a glimpse of the back of Jimmy Carter’s head. The Bush Srs walk down the red carpet and George looks near-dead in a neck brace, then the Carters, both looking younger, healthier, happier. The ticker at the bottom reads: There are 58 different federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies involved in this inauguration, then a female voice from somewhere says that Obama will lay his hand on the bible last used by Lincoln, then Hillary Clinton shows up and a male voice from somewhere makes sure we all remember her own candidacy, then Ted Kennedy teeters by in a hat almost worthy of Andre Benjamin...

Wait, wait, what?...DC’s not even a state...And who cares which lawn we’re looking at?...And when did entertainers replace artists replace men and women of philosophy and thought and learning? Why the hell am I looking at John Cusack?

I bet you were in there yourself, Ted. You might not be as camera-ready as John Cusack but I’m sure your checks were at least as generous.

So the Siem Reap bar is selling shots of blue curacao, red grenadine, and whipped cream at two bucks a pop and the place is packed to the gills and the ticker now reads:

NOW: President Bush takes his seat
NEXT: Joe Biden takes VP Oath of Office
LATER: Barack Obama takes Presidential Oath of Office

...and we watch a variety of unknowns in suits and dresses pass through unknown doorways accompanied by unheard narration from unseen CNN anchors and now, now Dubyah emerges to jeers from the bar and the ticker tells me:

A ‘Hail to the Chief’ being played for
C President Bush for the last time

...and WHO CARES?! TELL ME THE COLOR OF HIS SHOES, WHY DON’T YOU, THAT I SHOULD BRUSH THREE TIMES A DAY, WHATEVER YOU GOTTA TO FILL THE TIME, MAN?! Can’t I just watch, can’t I just feel, can’t I just process on my own, with my own juices flowing and the room for my own synapses to fire, free of chatter chatter, every little sneeze an earthquake? White space, time to think, a bit of silence, these are good things, yes? These help keep us ourselves. And so I think how I hate this Jabbering Age but how I can’t let it stain this moment for me, it is the world we live in after all, only life after all, and then...a woman’s voice, a talking head.

“More people,” she says, “will watch this event than any other event in all of history.”

I believe it.

And that’s a profoundly good thing, another result of our media empires. The world can see proof of our return to some of the best parts of ourselves and that, as a friend of mine’s English father once said, “Sometimes it takes them a long while, but the Americans usually get it right.” And then, although part of me had been sad to miss being in the bosom of all of this hullabaloo back home, I realize that I am on the other side of the planet watching and hearing the same thing as my fellow Americans stateside, save those lucky few crammed onto the Mall.

So I wonder: do I lament the homogenization of experience and feeling driven by the Media Age, or am I grateful for the age’s power and hope most of it rests in the hands of the just? Not that what I think makes a lick of difference. I just know youtube can’t change the way I feel about The Unforgettable Fire and Darkness on the Edge of Town and that I read in the paper today of the opening of the Obama Barbershop in Sudan. I know that crammed into that bar, when the Man declared “Science will retake its rightful place” a woman let forth a cry as if some hungry dream had been boiling inside her for years, needing to be freed. I know that the eyes of the men were naked like some part of childhood still lived inside them and still believed in the Great Thing inside ourselves that we all think has been shut away in our journeys of years.


j Locher said...

I hope you'll forgive the off-topic comment. I just read your piece in Paste magazine, and it was both entertaining and resonant. I look forward to catching up on this blog and your future letters/posts.

You guys are doing something amazing.

Darien said...

I did the same as your fan Miss j Locher.

I arrived home last night after a month of insomnia at our nation's capitol. I was one of the fortunate lawn- sitters. But I really think that your being in Cambodia offered a privileged seat to this historic event, one that most people don't even consider. I don't think ever before in history has the world turned to and trusted something so simple and all at once profound. Maybe man's landing on the moon? And to be there with people who have no idea and at the same time a much clearer vision and perspective than any American could ever have? Classy.

Apologies that it was interrupted by the distractions of the media. I am a broadcast journalist turned off somewhat by experiences with our nation's top networks, which has led me back to school. I am glad that the public wants time to think and develop their own ideas. It really has become a force feeding fest. I guess I add to it as well, but reading your letter stirred emotions. Maybe the sympathy I feel for poor underpaid producers who write and air what top executives think the public wants. Or maybe just a reminder of how much I loved sitting on an airplane without having access to a blackberry or the internet and could do what I really love, write a letter. To a friend who lives up the street, a sister in Italy, an acquaintance that impressed me and I wanted to say thanks.

Keep up the letters. It is really something lovely.

Andrew and Emily said...

The ideas and emotions so stirringly articulated in the above comment are testament to your ability to write your ass off, Jay. By the way, we just got your Christmas package and enjoyed every bit of it, even the distinctly un-American tissue paper that padded the box's contents. I didn't know Americans had their own brand of gift-wrapping material. Another lesson learned from a brother's travels...