Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Big Chill

Why, asks Lewis Lapham, are there no 21st century Mark Twains around to lambast the malefactors of great wealth and the corrupt politicians enabling them, making us collapse with laughter as we revel in the skewering?

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.)


Unknown said...

kudos Karen
best writing the internet

Kat said...

Is that what Dave Eggers is writing now?

Pearl said...

Dear Everyone:

Thank you Karen for today's column and I will repeat your final statement:

"Have a happy Solstice, everybody! (It's always darkest right before the

James F Traynor said...

Yes, Pearl, Happy Solstice everybody! A celebration my tribe used to engage in ( I'm told, at the crossroads, wherever the hell that was). Until Patrick and others convinced them of the error of their ways. Except for the abolition of human sacrifice, I vehemently disagree with my forebears capitulation to Rome - for that is what it was. I remain an unrepentant pagan.

Thank you Pearl, Will and Fred (in the prior thread) for your attempts at cheering me up. And you, Karen, for enduring my occasionally outrageous posts.

The Black Swan said...

It's not only writers, the whole integration with social media into comments on major websites is going to silence a lot of people. We are going to lose our ability to anonymously communicate online. Then things will get very quiet.

But until then, happy solstice everyone!

Jay - Ottawa said...

Solstice, shmolstice, Jimmy T and the rest of you pagans, much as i love you. For the rest of us it’s the Chanukah season or the Christmas season. You know, a time for giving and good cheer. Here’s a little present for you and yours and, most especially, our Thought Leaders, compliments of David Suzuki who isn't given to self-censoring.

Jay - Ottawa said...

Back to the matter of self-censoring, one high-powered effort in the works to counter junk news and corporate propaganda is the Omidyar/Greenwald/Poitras/Scahill et al. attempt to create a powerhouse journal friendly to investigative journalism. Think of it as a replacement for the handcuffed Wikileaks but with a suit and tie and money in its pocket.

I presume “First Look Media” will have a product on line within the next few months; otherwise, Greenwald will have been effectively iced for the good part of a year. We’ll know by December 2014 whether FLM turns out to be, as advertised, a revolution on the press front.

More detail here about FLM from Jay Rosen’s site, plus comments that suffer the trolls:

Pearl said...

Readers' responses to 'Mr.Obama's Disappointed Response' by the NY
Times Editorial article you mentioned in your column, were the most
outspoken ones I have ever read in that paper.
It included outright denouncements of the President (I notice the title is
Mr.,not President in this article) from people deeply regretting their
support of him. Evidently the handling of the NSA activities and poor explanations thereof have really truly outraged many former supporters and alongside the Obamacare fiasco which gets worse and worse has helped to expose the larger garbage pile of mishandled major issues. And if these readers are only the progressives writing, that in itself is a miracle as well.

It doesn't mean any kind of revolution is around the corner, but just reading so many very intelligent and well written responses with high
recommendations makes one's heart take a few cautious happy skips. People who have been silent and not sure what to say, are saying it now and there was high praise and encouragement to the editors for writing such an article. As you
said it is mild (disappointed?) but some of the terms used by readers about their reactions were very much stronger.

I hope this encourages some of the bolder editors as well as readers, to
discontinue backing off from writing the raw truth about Mr.Obama and not continue using the Republican hordes as the reason for his political failures and inability to connect with lawmakers of all stripes. There were many comments and questions about his constitutional education and choices which have resulted
in unending meltdowns.

Maybe this darkness is the prelude to some enlightenment after all,
hopefully followed by action. I hope Ed Snowden and Chelsea Manning are
aware of the tremendous contributions they have made to civilization by
shining the light on its destructive failures and encouraging other brave
souls to come forward as well.

Zee said...


Thanks for recommending that we have a look at the comments regarding the NYT editorial “Mr. Obama's Disappointing Response.” I read the NYT and Reader Picks just as far as I could stand, and was surprised at the uniformity of anger and contempt expressed for The Disappointing Mr. Obama.

I found only one remark that came even close to excusing the Prez, and that was because, in the eyes of the commenter, Obama had accomplished a few good things during his tenure thus far that offset the NSA scandal. Though most of you Sardonickistas out there—like me—would regard most of those “achievements” as bogus, too:

“His performance in ending the war in Irag, winding down the war in Afghanistan, avoiding US military action in Syria, using diplomacy in Iran, getting a health care bill through congress, reversing the deregulation of the financial services industry, bringing the Country out of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, extending the civil rights of gay Americans and setting a personal standard of conduct in the White House that is characterized by dignity and industry are all notable hallmarks of his Presidency.” --Marv Raps, 12-21-13, 8:59 AM

Two comments stood out for me, at least. The first, standing out for its pithiness, is:

“"...that he sees this issue as basically a question of public relations and public perception."

That is the way he sees every issue. It is more than about time that you noticed tha [
sic].”--Michael F, 12-21-13, 9:05 AM

The other, standing out for the hope it holds forth, is:

“Two of my dearest friends have grandsons at West Point. While we were all sitting around the table after dinner this past Thanksgiving, I asked the elder brother, now a cadet in his next-to-last year, what he thought about Edward Snowden. His answer, pretty much verbatim:

'What Snowden did had to be done. The way he did it was the only way it could be done. He did it despite being fully aware of the all the bad things that would probably happen to him as a result.'

It's my very strong impression that this young man is intellectually and attitudinally hardly an exception at today's Army Academy. I took great heart from this and many other parts of our conversation.”
--Tom Benghauser, 12-21-13, 3:34 AM (My bold emphasis.)

I was also impressed by the number of commenters who saw Obama as merely an extension of Bush, or even worse, and who felt utterly betrayed by him.

Pearl said...

We have another fairly decent editorial in the NYTimes today called 'Bad Times for Big Brother' with excellent comments following once more. I hope these responses encourage more editorials of this nature and touching on other transgressions besides the NSA secretive activities. The editors also mentioned the affect of Snowden's revelations in their article. The media has a right to be scared by the lack of privacy affecting their reporting
and hopefully will begin to really fight back.

Valerie Long Tweedie said...

And Obama supporters are only NOW noticing that Obama has betrayed his base? Where have these people been living? Under a rock? Anyone with half a brain in his head should have had Obama's number within a year-and-a-half of his first term. I am not impressed with anyone who voted for him a second time and is only now realizing that Obama has betrayed the people of this country.

It seems we have the government that all but those who voted for a third party deserve. Neither candidate was EVER going to work in the interests of the 99%.

The sad thing is when 2016 rolls around, all those who voted for Obama a second time will obediently go to the polls and vote for Hillary or another Democrat. "Do it to me once, shame on you. Do it to me twice, shame on me."


Pearl said...

A Small Step Toward More Mercy
Published: December 22, 2013 91 Comments

President Obama’s decision on Thursday to commute the outrageously long drug sentences of eight men and women showed a measure of compassion and common sense. But it also served to highlight the injustice being done to thousands of prisoners under federal sentencing laws.

Another decent editorial with very interesting responses. Hopefully, many black citizens wrote the comments on this issue which unfairly targets black citizens.

Valerie Long Tweedie said...

Hal from Chicago (in the NYT comments section) had a jolly good idea, "Oh, and it being the season of giving, let's ask Mr. Obama to re-gift his Peace Prize to Edward the Oval an American hero."