Every so often what passes for normal, everyday and commonplace proves to be so grotesque that we’re forced to step back and consider the world we live in.
Thank you, Martha Stewart, for providing a rare moment of reflection.
The massive coverage of the doily queen’s release from prison was, of course, unexceptional and inevitable. Who didn’t expect the media to lay it on fast and thick when she emerged from her Camp Cupcake prison cell?
Daniel Boorstin described this phenomenon in 1961 when he coined the term pseudo-event—an occurrence of absolutely no importance that is treated like a pressing affair of state. Much of what passes for news today is an unending string of such pumped-up nonevents: Michael Jackson’s trial! Brad and Jen’s split! The Oscars! The Grammys! March Madness!
Here’s the beauty of the media machine: The perversity and insanity of our celebrity-saturated culture are so well understood that it is tiresome to mention it. Its excess serves to insulate it from meaningful criticism. How clever.
Nevertheless, the Martha Stewart coverage was so over the top—the loop-de-loop television coverage (roll tape, again), the cover of Newsweek and even the front page of the New York Times, for goodness’ sake—that even the most jaded observers were shaken from their knowing stupor. Inquiring minds wonder: Does anybody really care about Stewart (except, of course, for Martha herself)?
Short answer: no. However, it is worth our consideration because it reflects a radical change in human consciousness—one that has been driven in no small part by the movies, which have transformed the way we interact with and understand the world.
This began to dawn on me in 1993 when I saw Steven Spielberg’s mega-blockbuster, “Jurassic Park.” The filmmakers spent ungodly sums of money producing a riveting flick with a plot that made little sense. I left the theater mystified by its obvious deficiencies. Spielberg is a smart man, and if I saw the problems in the story, he must have as well.
Only later did I realize that he didn’t care a whit about the plot. His goal was to keep my heart racing and my eyes glued to the screen. He was appealing to my body, not my mind, purveying emotions, not insights. He wanted to provide a thrilling spectacle, a sensuous experience, that would last for the film’s 127-minute run. And he left his audience wanting more—of the same.
In the years since, I have watched hundreds of films with such limited aspirations. I have also seen this “Jurassic Park” mentality infect other aspects of our culture. Which brings us back to Martha Stewart. In the current environment, where our ears demand the loudest voice, our eyes the greatest spectacle and our hearts a story packed with disposable emotions, pseudo-events allow the media to blare their trumpets nearly every day in a desperate quest for attention.
Pseudo-events are like television sitcoms—only a steady diet makes them palatable. Ignore the boob tube for a few weeks and then switch it back on and your only thought is: What was I thinking? Similarly, the media must produce a long procession of pseudo-events to condition us to them. Otherwise, we’d laugh them off saying: What are they thinking?
The “Jurassic Park” mentality is also reconfiguring our politics, with frightening results. No doubt, many Americans have deep and bitter differences of opinion about the nation’s direction. Such debate and dissent are necessary and healthy. Unfortunately, we are hashing them out through language that appeals not to the head but the groin.
Figures such as Michael Moore and Ann Coulter, Frank Rich and Rush Limbaugh do not traffic in clarification but castigation. They are performers who do not debate ideas but attack their enemies in spectacularly venomous language that casts every news blip as a constitutional crisis: Bush is shredding the Bill of Rights! The Democrats are treasonous louts! Similarly, Internet bloggers make their bones through the high-pitched politics of personal destruction.
All provide their audiences with the same quivering, mindless emotion that motion pictures have made them love. Yet by working so hard to make the news so EXCITING and IMPORTANT, they trivialize it, packaging it as yet another spectacle to be turned on, and turned off.
This is nasty stuff. But we limit our understanding of it—and grant it undeserved legitimacy—by attributing it simply to fractious times. To some extent it does represent healthy passion. But in the largest sense, it reflects a modern mind-set that demands stimulation, not illumination.
As emotion-rich, content-free material increasingly passes as news and discourse, we must admit the troubling fact that the USA is fast becoming Jurassic Park.
This column first ran in the Raleigh News & Observer on March 3, 2005. It is included in my new book, “Off the Books On Literature and Culture.”