Part of the reason is that independent newspapers, for which Twain once wrote, have been subsumed by six media conglomerates controlling 90% of everything we see, hear and read. And so, Lapham observes,
We have today a second Gilded Age more magnificent than the first, but our contemporary brigade of satirists doesn’t play with fire. The marketing directors who produce the commodity of humor for prime-time television aim to amuse the sheep, not shoot the elephants in the room. They prepare the sarcasm-lite in the form of freeze-dried sound bites meant to be dropped into boiling water at Gridiron dinners, Academy Award ceremonies, and Saturday Night Live. “There is a hell of a distance,” said Dorothy Parker, “between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it.” George Bernard Shaw seconded the motion: “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world.”And the other elephants in the room are, of course, the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, and all the other incestuous initialized members of the surveillance state family. There are no Twains, because writers report feeling a chill pervasive enough to impede the free flow of their thoughts. It's hard enough to be truthful, let alone bitingly humorous, with the constant specter of Big Brother peering over your shoulder.
The American Surveillance State is driving writers to self-censor.
Even though Barack Obama, and the crypto-fascist spymasters that he only pretends are his minions, have on the surface spared the First Amendment from their wholesale shredding of the Bill of Rights, the suppression of free speech is well underway through the process of intimidation. So while the president grinned his wolfish grin, cracked his lame jokes, and strove mightily at his press con yesterday to assure us that American surveillance is benign, warm and cozy, we are neither reassured nor amused. And that especially goes for writers.
The PEN American Center for human rights and literary expression put it this way:
We know—historically, from writers and intellectuals in the Soviet Bloc, and contemporaneously from writers, thinkers, and artists in China, Iran, and elsewhere—that aggressive surveillance regimes limit discourse and distort the flow of information and ideas. But what about the new democratic surveillance states?
The question of the harms caused by widespread surveillance in democracies, like the surveillance being conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency, is underexplored. In October 2013, PEN partnered with independent researchers at the FDR Group to conduct a survey of over 520 American writers to better understand the specific ways in which awareness of far-reaching surveillance programs influences writers’ thinking, research, and writing.While only 44% (and that figure is slowly creeping up with every new Edward Snowden "leak") of the general public disapproves of the NSA sweeping up phone records and emails, fully two-thirds of the writers surveyed think the government is overreaching. More than one in four of them is now avoiding social media for fear of being tracked by the government. One in four is avoiding discussing certain topics in their emails and phone conversations. Most automatically assume that Big Brother is watching everything they say or write. Among the topics they're avoiding, both in their writing and their Internet searches, are mass incarceration, Middle Eastern affairs, drug policies, the Occupy movement, and pornography. The PEN report adds,
Part of what makes self-censorship so troubling is the impossibility of knowing precisely what is lost to society because of it. We will never know what books or articles may have been written that would have shaped the world’s thinking on a particular topic if they are not written because potential authors are afraid that their work would invite retribution. We do know that our studies of the private papers of generations of past luminaries have yielded valuable information that aids not only our understanding of their work and lives, but also our own thinking on contemporary problems. As one writer noted, “As a professor of literature, I lament that contemporary writers’ papers (hard copy and electronic) will potentially be less useful to future scholars because of self-censorship in the face of these governmental surveillance programs.” If today’s writers, many of whom do much of their work on computers and online, hesitate to put their thoughts in writing because of the fear of surveillance, we will lose these valuable wells of information, and future generations of scholars will find the sources available to them much impoverished due to concerns about surveillance.One of the best American writers working today is not cowed. Dave Eggers, whose most recent novel ("The Circle") chronicles the death of privacy via the Silicon Valley data-vacuuming industry, writes that Democrats, "caught in a web of cognitive dissonance" are all too willing to give Barack Obama a free pass. For, despite his dwindling popularity, the personality cult persists -- as evidenced this week by a cringe-worthy op-ed in the New York Times celebrating Obama's "cool" demeanor, singing abilities and talent at strutting his bod.
A writer's job, Eggers counters, is to look for trouble. That goes hand in hand with my own personal favorite journalistic motto: afflict the comfortable. But President Obama, judging from his latest act of performance art depravity before the White House press corps yesterday, is not discomfited nearly enough yet. He ingratiates himself with the access-seeking media, who prefaced almost every softball question with "Merry Christmas, Mr. President!" and laughed appreciatively when he said his New Years resolution was to be nicer to them. He'll be taking recommendations to stop the NSA dragnet on vacation with him for some leisurely beach reading. So relax.
And thus does the latest Times editorial proclaim itself merely "disappointed" in the president. If anybody knows how to self-censor, it's the Gray Lady.
We need outrage. We need resistance. And yes, we need to laugh at them. Because when you take away their toys, their security details, their trappings of wealth, they are merely thin-skinned human beings in need of a good swift kick in the ass. Followed by a rapid repeal of the Patriot Act and a derailment of their money train.
On that note, have a happy Solstice, everybody! (It's always darkest right before the Enlightenment.)