I am not really talking about tv here. I am talking about dissidence, repression, censorship, the brutality and stupidity of much of our culture, the threat of the Common Man, the dangers of being passive in a time when the individual is merely cannon-fodder, the lying and cheating and killing our “patriots” do in the sweet name of the American Way.
You can see how little this as aged. Or maybe I should say, how far back we have slid. And while the books are uneven, they are also prescient and invaluable to a degree that I can't shrug off.
Some of Ellison's analyses are superficial, if also humorously drawn. I remain disappointed by his two-part column about the anti-intellectualism of public life in America, because he isn't able to pull much out of such a meaty subject other than "smarter is better", since that and $3.50 will get you covfefe coffee. Some of his cheap shots at easy targets are just that, cheap shots. Sometimes he's profane for the sake of being profane — something that doesn't so much offend me as make me say, Harlan, c'mon, you can do better.
But more often than not, he hits on things that are perpetually relevant, doubly so in the here and now. His piece about "defanged dissent", or dissent that lays no balls on the line and risks nothing, is spot-on. His analysis of the death of Meredith Hunter still resonates: "It’s one thing to hear some dude singing about loving one another, and really loving a strange black man enough to risk your ass by grabbing the pool cue being used to stave in his head."
Much of what Ellison documents involves how TV lies with a free hand, in ways that are all but impossible to know about unless you have seen the lies fabricated:
I know a girl who was at the Century City [protest]. She wasn’t in the area where I was tumbling, but she was there. She’s a third-grade teacher in a local grammar school. She went to the demonstration with a doctor of her acquaintance, and two attorneys. They were all dressed in acceptable Establishment garb: little white gloves and a pretty dress for her, suits and ties for the gentlemen. They dressed that way on purpose. They knew that a large segment of the demonstrating crowd would be in battle garb— sandals, hard hats, clothes that could stand sidewalk-scraping— and they wanted to show that all segments of the population were against WW2 ½. She told me, with a touching show of naïveté, that it seemed as though the television cameras, when panning across the throng, always avoided her little clot of squarely dressed dissenters, in favor of loving closeups on the scruffiest, most hirsute protesters. I smiled. Of course, baby.
The news media invariably slant it. Whether it’s anything as flagrant as the prepared protest placards one of the local outlets took to a Valley men’s college for a debate, or as subtle as the proper defamatory word in a seven-minute radio newscast, the reportage is always corrupted so the dissenters look like fuzzy-minded commiesymp idiots (at best).
There seems to be no question of ethic or morality in the minds of those who write the news, those who program the news, or those who deliver the news. Several friends of mine who work for CBS News here in Los Angeles have confided off-the-cuff that it appalls them, the manner in which the outrage of the minorities is presented. In private they’ll say it, but they haven’t the balls to actually do anything about it.
He also nails how celebrity endorsements of a cause end up being too often about the celebrity, and not the cause — and how they are often not politically astute either:
The question is certainly being asked, somewhere out there: what would I have… showfolk abstaining from political action and commitment? The answer is, obviously, no. Whether actor or plumber, if a man feels he must speak/ act, then he should. What I’m going toward is an examination of the kind and degree of power and value put into the mouths of people no more experienced (and frequently less) than the politicians who are allegedly running things. Because a man commits to coaxial cable an exemplary Hamlet does not mean he knows which of those gimlet-eyed politicos is worth voting for. Bertrand Russell is a groovy man, with his head and his heart in the right place, but let’s face it, the old man is a political illiterate. ...
Certainly, our being there [at a protest march for the grape pickers] drew a trifle more attention for the march than would have obtained had it only been hordes of sweating, non-English-speaking peons hiking for ten days in killing heat. Yeah, sure, we did our bit, we contributed to the commonweal… But who the hell were we? What made us more noble than them? Why should we have been spotlighted? Why?
Because America needs its idols. It needs its gloss and its glamour. Because it denies the sweat and stink of what is really happening, and if it can have just a touch of pink garbage cans in West Side Story, just a whisper of Alan Arkin as the deprived Puerto Rican in the film Popi, if it can have some suitable tv-oriented lie that says, “None of this is really happening, it’s only an extension of Peyton Place,” then America can continue to rock back and forward complacently as entropy settles it further and further into the slag-heaps of all dead cultures.
And then there are the things that should have become dated, but haven't:
When marijuana is legalized— as it most certainly will be when Liggett & Myers, et al, find they can’t advertise traditional cancer-sticks on tv; a certainty I gauge as inescapable when considered in the light of the information that L&M has copyrighted the words “Acapulco Gold”— when the powerful tobacco lobby in Washington gets behind grass in a sort of “joint effort” yuk yuk— who will repay all those kids for their ruined lives? Who will take their fingerprints out of the FBI files? Who will erase from their minds the memories of the smell of piss and disinfectant from how many lockups and drunk tanks? Who will put them back in college and make up the years they lost on the way to their B.A. or M.A.? Who will lobotomize the crime data they picked up in the slammer? Who will apologize for witch-hunting them, and treating them like criminals for a “crime” no worse than that perpetrated by every member of our parent’s generation who sipped a teacup of Cosa Nostra bourbon in a speakeasy, 37 years ago? Who will pay reparations when pot is legal? Who? No one, that’s who the bloody hell who!
But again and again, there is the feeling of reporting from the bottom of the well of history, a feeling many of us know all too well right now. One column is a bit of mock-reportage from ten years into the future (1980) is a dystopian nightmare where he imagines him and his few cohorts literally underground, dropping the Free Press by helicopter and risking getting gunned down, while the current president talks about — what else? — war, war, war.
Not as if he needs to resort to fiction to talk about how bad it gets. For instance, My Lai:
I don’t know how you feel about this whole thing, there’s an entire range of emotions one can experience, I suppose, but I’d suspect they have to weigh heavily on the side of revulsion, shame and horror. Yet my tv set showed me a gentleman in the House of Representatives who got up and deplored the military’s preferring charges, on the grounds that it would make any soldier who committed (what he called) an “error in judgment” liable to prosecution as a “common criminal.” Well, I’ll agree with the rep; that Lieutenant is hardly a “common” criminal. I cannot conceive of the sort of mind that can butcher a hundred and seventy unarmed men, women and children— but it is unquestionably not “common.”
So, you see what I mean about nutsy things coming in on my tube? Here is this shameful disgrace blotched on the escutcheon of the United States, and some ding-dong asshole in the House of Representatives is uptight because it might force other potential slaughterers to pause and consider abiding by the terms of the Geneva Convention.
... If ever there was an apocalyptic incident that speaks to the death of the past in this country, this week we have it. ... These are Johnny and Billy and Gus from Trenton and Denver and Cleveland. They aren’t supposed to be infanticides.
So now we learn the truth we always knew. We are as rotten as them. Violence knows no color barrier. Those who ball their fists keep going until they slaughter children.
And then there is his Mother's Day open letter — column #64, 1970/05/15 — written immediately in the wake of the Kent State massacre. It is addressed to his mother in an attempt to allow her to understand why he writes for such a "freaky" paper:
... if you wonder why I write for the Free Press, Mom, it is because I know that the tv you are watching every night allows these obfuscations [about Kent State et al.] to obtain some weight. It allows the clouding of horribly simple incidents, and it permits you and the other members of the Silent Majority to dodge the responsibilities of joining with youth to end this madness before the country kills itself.
... They’re killing our kids, Mom. They’re slaughtering them at home and abroad. No longer can long hair or liberal lifestyle be offered up as reasons for this kind of charnel-house behavior. No longer can the fat old men in their eyries far away be permitted to send kids to kill kids, with moron alibis as shabby afterthoughts ....
... I have to write to you and tell you that it’s finally happening… that the country is pulling together. Not the way Nixon wanted it. Not the way Spiro keeps demanding it— behind our Leaders. But in the right way, the best way, the way born out of troubles so great and evils so omnipresent that room for political positions no longer exists.
... I tell you we can no longer call each other rotten names, and click our tongues with disapproval. We have to cling together, Mom, or Nixon and his death legions will kill us all, working from the left straight across.
That’s why I write this column, Mom.
So take care of yourself, and a happy Mother’s Day.
Your loving son,
He then takes a big part of the next column to talk about the bloodthirsty reactions of ordinary Americans to the massacre ("If I would have had townspeople with guns out and on their roofs to protect their property, you would have had a lot more than four dead kids"). All that he caps off with: "Television comment? Not hardly. These are days of blood and sorrow. If only there were some light."
I know the feeling.
There are two things I sense from these books as being most directly applicable to our current mess. The first is that in them you can see the seeds for how our current situation was engendered, the way reality itself has eroded:
One time during a college lecture, I idly mentioned that I had actually thought up all the words Leonard Nimoy had spoken as Mr. Spock on the sole Star Trek segment I had written; and a young man leaped up in the audience, in tears, and began screaming that I was a liar. He actually thought the actors were living those roles as they came across the tube.
These things did not start with TV, but TV accelerated them, and Ellison was disturbed by how TV made possible a new kind of erasure of reality. The kind that was not forced upon us, but that we welcomed into our homes and lives willingly, eagerly.
The second is how not to succumb to all of that. Ellison does not have formal programs, just patterns of behavior that apply to the moment. The largest of them is: Don't sleepwalk through the moment. Don't pretend none of this touches you, or that it will magically spare you if you either say yes to it or just don't get in its way. No one is being spared by this, especially not the people who think they're winning when they are only being robbed of a future in a way they choose not to notice.
The last word belongs to Ellison, who ends his afterword for the second book thus:
... [Television culture] programs the death of reading. And reading is the drinking of strange wine. ...
Drinking strange wine pours strength into the imagination.
The dinosaurs had no strange wine.
They had no imagination. They lived 130,000,000 years and vanished. Why? Because they had no imagination. Unlike human beings who have it and use it and build their future rather than merely passing through their lives as if they were spectators. Spectators watching television, one might say.
The saurians had no strange wine, no imagination, and they became extinct. And you don’t look so terrific yourself.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind