Terri Schiavo’s death in Florida a few weeks ago was a relief to every sane person who has followed the media nonsense it provoked, but it leaves behind a truly wretched array of unresolved and likely unresolvable binary issues. Among the most wretched of these has been the behavior of the corporate media, which once again traded journalism for vaudeville, and information for emotive hysteria. Much of this was the result of the media’s determined pursuit of the CNN news-gathering syndrome: the cost-effective procedure of cynically funneling coverage to one location and then inviting in all the interested factions to compete for newsworthiness by virtue of their shouting volume and costume antics.
If I thought anyone in a corporate media board room really believed the regularly-spouted McLuhanesque claptrap about television being an emotion-seeking medium, I’d be exhorting them to wake up and examine what they’re poisoning the airwaves with. But the CNN syndrome dovetails so perfectly with the corporations’ fiscal missions—something that McLuhan was too genteel to see coming—that appeals to common sense are naïve. Blanket saturation is cheaper than broad coverage, which implicitly demands that news networks actually try to figure out what’s relevant, and not what’s possible to manipulate into a CNN-style agglomeration.
Not sure what I’m getting at? Let me elaborate.
Among the most culturally damaging phenomena of recent mass media evolution is the spin-doctoring of events to evoke sentimental public responses or to further the program aims of the manipulating parties. The surest occasions for this sort of Jello-journalism are events that naturally conflate with the Teddy Bear syndrome—in which the media responds to accidental or natural disasters by encouraging outpourings of sentimental shrine-building and Teddy Bear towers at the expense of journalistic analysis.
Somewhere between the circus that followed Diana Spencer’s fatal car accident a few years ago, and the disinterring of Marshall McLuhan as the mass media’s deepest thinker, it became received wisdom that the mission of mass media is to invoke collective emotional responses and to restructure public life as a series of sentimental ceremonial activities—while ensuring that the corporate profits are maximized.
I’m not exactly sure why this syndrome suddenly became dominant the way it has. My suspicion is that the corporate boardroom geniuses realized that it is easier and cheaper to create dumb-shows of sentimental response around events than to assemble and analyze the complex facts that might lead to public understanding of them. If this is a conscious strategy, it at least demonstrates that the media corporations have penetrated the 20th century as far as Maxim Gorky’s admonition to the Bolsheviks in 1918 that it is easier to remove people’s minds than to change them, but that removing minds comes with a moral and political cost.
Bolshevism, you’ll recall, was characterized by two things that initially appear to be contractory: ideological bloody-mindedness and a willingness to sacrifice any principle to short term strategic goals. A third element of Bolshevism—rarely remarked upon—was its absolute prejudice for vaudeville over circus. That’s why Moscow had its show trials, and why they went on, intermittently, for decades.
There’s plenty of characterizing evidence that today’s media corporations are practicing a new strain of capitalist Bolshevism, and the evidence isn’t at all anecdotal. The new Bolshevism shares the high-minded moral façade and the susceptibility to sacrificing principles for strategic goals with Soviet Bolshevism, even though it’s hard to argue seriously that it has long term goals beyond continued shareholder profits and, oh yeah, World Domination. Its strategic goals seem to consist of keeping people stupid and semi-informed while moving camera equipment and crews as seldom as possible. That’s why the preference for vaudeville is so telling.
In the Schiavo show, none of the newsworthiness-competitors coherently voiced their concerns, except maybe Shiavo’s husband, Michael, and even then he was barely able to articulate that he believed that “life” requires consciousness of itself to be meaningful before he was buried under the onslaught of self-aggrandizing born-again nonsense about the sanctity of life, and the purely defensive attempts to kneecap from the slightly-saner defenders of Roe-versus-Wade, the legal decision on which American women’s control over their own bodies is more or less based, and which nearly all the born-again assaults are ultimately aimed at overturning. None of the groups performing in the Schiavo dumbshow, in other words, gave a damn about poor Terri Schiavo, except maybe her parents. And neither did the Bolsheviks in the board room.
Despite a better-than-layman’s knowledge of neurology and the instrumentation of human consciousness, the Schiavo dumbshow was so effective that I caught myself wondering about the claims being made that Schiavo really was there, somewhere inside the collapsed hulk of her body. So I dug a little deeper, and discovered that the claims were based on incidents of responsiveness culled from hundreds of hours of video surveillance. I wanted, with the Christians, for there to be someone inside that skull because it would have made all the expenditure of energy and focus worthwhile. But eventually, more rational questions began to break into my consciousness: what occasioned the video-making? Was this battle brewing long before it broke, or were Schiavo’s parents merely video enthusiasts? Then I saw something—a minor background detail—that took the air out it. In a background shot of the “pro-life” demonstrators, I caught sight of an abandoned bucket of KFC, and realized that if someone had aimed a camera at the chickens that landed up in that bucket before they were slaughtered, they’d have exhibited more intelligent response than Terri Schiavo did across 300 hours of video, both in quality and volume.
Media Bolshevism played a major role in the death of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, and the deluge of media self-groping it invoked. Much of the coverage was ridiculously hushed and reverent, but virtually the entire death spiral was cleared of hard information and analysis by inflated sentimentality and vaudeville-style coverage. It was as if the media was trying not to disturb Wojtyla’s dying meditations, or, after his death, keeping the volume down out of respect for the bereaved then massing in St. Peter’s Square. That made it difficult to recognize that this was not a great and tragic catastrophe, but rather the death of a very old, ill man.
In the middle of such emotionalized inflations, there was no serious attempt to evaluate Mr. Wojtyla’s career. No one seemed willing to admit that the achievements of his papacy were mixed, and his triumphs were largely symbolic and gestural rather than substantial. He was, for instance, the first pope to set foot in a Muslim mosque and/or a Jewish synagogue—or at least the first without a sword in his hand and homicidal intentions. But are interfaith relations any better than they were in 1978? Not really. Wojtyla’s shepherding of the flock has seen an outburst of nasty fundamentalisms emerge within virtually all the major religions, and the ground zero of Western religious conflict—Jerusalem—is far closer to meltdown today than it was when he arrived at the Vatican.
Wojtyla’s human rights record—much talked up—was in fact somewhat less than stellar. Sure, he talked the talk, but unless it involved Poland or the struggle against Godless commies, he did very little that anyone could call progressive and quite a lot on behalf of the reactionary if not the downright antediluvian. He suppressed the liberation theology movements in Central and South America, and his deeply reactionary views on birth control have led to innumerable AIDS-related deaths in Africa. His stonewalling on the issue of the celibacy of his priests may eventually lead to the bankrupting of the Church in several countries, and it hasn’t helped to free any of those 13 year old boys they’ve got locked up in the Vatican basement.
Hundreds of laudatory commentators have spoken of Wojtyla as a unifying force within the Catholic Church. But because it is impossible to quantify the gap between “devout” and “nominal” in matters of religious faith, no one can accurately estimate how many adherents his conservatisms have lost in Europe and North America except to admit that it is in the millions. It is much harder to calculate the damage he did within the economically less wealthy parts of the world, or to put accurate numbers to the dead Africans and oppressed Central and South Americans. But it is fair to say that his social policies constitute abandonment.
What’s left to attach a clear positive to beyond the truisms? Of course cows should give milk, mothers should love their babies, and men should stop killing one another. One commentator—likely trying to get through to skeptics like me, even noted that Wojtyla didn’t much like George W. Bush and his wars. That’s hardly a profound positive given that a thumping majority in virtually every country outside the United States agrees. Was Karol Wojtyla a nice man? Probably. A good man? On balance, yes. Was he courageous in the face of his Parkinson’s-based infirmity? Yes, this at least can be said without reservation. But the negatives outnumber the positives.
My doubts about Wojtyla surfaced shortly after he was elected in 1978. I took the trouble to read a translation of one of his plays, and found it utterly unremarkable. Like most anti-Soviet leftists, I was tempted by his intercession in Poland, but only until I asked myself how much of an improvement Roman Catholicism could be on Soviet Communism. It’s now 25 years after Lech Walesa struck the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, and 14 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the most part, democracy and social justice have failed to blossom in the former Soviet empire, and east of the western border countries of the old empire, what was supposed to be democracy has turned out to be Mafia-style capitalism and new oligarchies often as murderous as the Soviet one. Poland itself is now a member of the EU, but it is hardly prospering.
Almost nothing of his non-achievement was vetted in the deluge of testimonials organized by the mass media, despite what may be history’s greatest agglomeration in Rome of broadcast equipment and spiritual celebrities for three weeks. We’ve seen the sometimes unruly mourning of the accumulated crowds, a mind-numbing monotony of hairsplitting analyses of his goodness that never penetrated the pious surfaces he was so expert in manufacturing. What followed Wojtyla’s death was a Vatican Idol treatment of his succession that ignored the inadequacies of his spiritual regime and his practical administration, and told us nothing useful about his possible successors.
The subsequent election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, (formerly of the Munich Hitler Youth and a 20 year operator of the Office of the Inquisition) as Benedict XVI is the logical outcome of Wojtyla’s papacy and of the mass media’s treatment of his career and death. Ratzinger named himself after the First World War era Pope who sat in the Vatican rearranging altar candles while ten million young men died horribly in the trenches. The idiot military commanders on both sides of that war didn’t understand the implications of 20th century mass technology. They sat on their horses trying to create the perfecdt conditions for a glamourous calvary charge that would win the war in comforting 19th century splendour. Benedict XV’s dithering papacy was an accurate metaphor for Roman Catholicism’s century-long failure to come to grips with what the human community faced. Ratzinger’s choice to become Benedict XVI signals that it’ll be business as usual, with the church turning the other way while the political dissidents in South and Central America continue to land up face down in garbage dumps, HIV penetrates deeper into the social fabric of Africa and elsewhere, the 13 year old boys remain locked in the Vatican basement and Roman Catholicism’s iceberg slides soggily toward the 20th century, with only a modest shot at arriving in the 21st with any remaining believers who aren’t crazy or over the age of 70.
2000 words April 25, 2005