Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Braindead Megaphone. Or not.

The Braindead Megaphone is George Saunders' metaphor for mainstream corporate news and related media. Saunders' problem in crafting the metaphor is that he aims at, and hits, the wrong target. The braindead voice that irritates him is not an organic creature, but a connivance. Saunders acknowledges as much in the title essay, at least implicitly, and thereby undercuts the metaphor.

Saunders acknowledges that the media's braindead incantations are agenda driven: "[. . . ] it's clear that a significant and ascendant component of that voice has become bottom-dwelling, shrill, incurious, ranting, and agenda-driven." So, he's got himself into a contradiction, though you have to untangle the essay to get a good look at it.

He continues, "It strives to antagonize us, make us feel anxious, ineffective, and alone; convince us that the world is full of enemies and of people stupider and less agreeable than ourselves; is dedicated to the idea that, outside the sphere of our immediate experience, the world works in a different, more hostile, less knowable manner. This braindead tendency is viral . . . ."

Why would he characterize the deliberate undermining of an accurate picture of the world as reflecting braindeadness? The propaganda ministers who employ the megaphone are hardly braindead. How about crazy like a fox?

Saunders aims too low. He mistakes the messenger for the composer, the program for the programmer, the on-air personality reading a teleprompter for the executive directors of the telecommunications conglomerate who employ the teleprompter reader. The collage on the cover of the first paperback edition makes clear his target: the on-air script readers.

But these poor toilers are just reciters, pieces of the corporate complex's manufactured public face. Why does Saunders fail to target the people who write the scripts that the on-air personalities are forced to read? Or their bosses? Or theirs?  He calls the on-air personalities "informants," as if they possess information and share it in a spirit of civic mindedness, in a marketplace of ideas, hobbled only by their stupidity. Oh, and the profit motive. But they don't possess anything like information. They possess a knack for projecting an amiable facade. Witting or unwitting, they serve nonbraindead masters.


At one point Saunders editorializes about media coverage during the buildup to the Afghan invasion: "Megaphone guy, it seemed had gone a little braindead. Or part of him had. What had gone dead was the curious part that should have been helping us decide about the morality and intelligence of invasion [. . . .] Does stupid, near-omnipresent media make us more tolerant toward stupidity in general? It would be surprising if it didn't. Is human nature such that, under certain conditions, stupidity can come to dominate, infecting the brighter quadrants, dragging everybody down with it?" Later he gives us this: "There is, in other words, a cost to dopey communication, even if that dopey communication is innocently intended." 

Problem here is that nothing went dead, nothing got stupid, nothing got dopey, as far as the media content to which he refers. Everything went off pretty much according to script, that is, in a way that served the moneyed/corporate/oligarchic interests that run the mass media (and Wall Street, Big Oil and most of the government). The ostensibly braindead/stupid/dopey-but-innocent media deliberately dumbed down the American people in support of the megaphone guy's boss's boss's boss's agenda. If Saunders doesn't get that, then he shouldn't be tackling these topics. (In the acknowledgements at the back of the book, Saunders bows to his wealthy patrons: "Also, I would like to thank the MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Lannan Foundation: it would be impossible to overstate how much your generous support has meant to me and my family." I don't doubt that he receives generous financial support from moneyed/corporate/oligarchic interests. It shows in the book.)

He goes on, "the media is [sic] complex and stratified"  No, it isn't. It is simple and monolithic. Five or six corporations control about 90 percent of everything that Americans see, hear, and read through media. The megaphone's corporate infrastructure is monolithic. The situation brings to mind the word, charlatan.

Now, Saunders evidently doesn't want to be accused of accusing anyone of genuinely dastardly motives, so he covers himself with an obligatory C-word disclaimer: "There's no conspiracy at work, I don't think, no ill will, no leering Men Behind the Curtain: just a bunch of people from good universities, living out the dream. . . ."

No conspiracy at work. Really? But wait, what about that "agenda-driven" part? Do the people with the agenda to shape the perceptions and opinions of the American people declare their intentions publicly? No? Golly, smells like a conspiracy to me. But Saunders evidently needs to polish his lefty street cred. No tinfoil hat for him. Come on, "leering Men Behind the Curtain"? Could he have served up a cliche more trite and stale than that? Once the word "conspiracy" is uttered, all standards of intellectual discernment drop off the map. It's like bug spray.

As for Saunders undermining his own argument  (braindead/stupid/dopey vs. agenda-driven), he does something similar in the essay, The New Mecca, a travelogue of a romp through Dubai. In it, he credits global mobility (and amusement-park spectacle) with breaking down traditional barriers among demographic slices: "All differences will be bred out. There will be no pure Arab, no pure Jew, no pure American American. The old dividers—nations, race, religion—will be overpowered by crossbreeding and by our mass media, our world Culture o' Enjoyment."

But Saunders spots a demographic schism in Dubai, a society that, he tells us, consists of "a small, insanely wealthy group of capital-holding Haves supported by a huge group of overworked and underpaid Have-Nots, with, in Dubai's case, the gap between Haves and Have-Nots so wide as to indicate different species." So, evidently, the global melting pot lacks the power to homogenize across economic strata.

When he suggests that "we will all be brothers," his "we" must be restricted to the less than insanely wealthy. As far as the insanely wealthy are concerned, the rest of us can crossbreed ourselves to mutt-dom. They are not likely to crossbreed with us. Socioeconomic class is an old divider that won't be "bred out." And so up in smoke goes Saunders' homogeneous global society. Well, it was a pretty picture.