This interview appeared originally in Eclectica magazine.
Fairfax Public Access: a non-profit organization that provides residents of Fairfax County and the Washington Metropolitan area the training and the tools to create non-commercial television and radio programming that expresses their viewpoints and perspectives to the community at large. FPA currently airs over 2,000 hours of original programming annually, including programs in over 14 different languages that speak directly to the rich diversity of the populace of Fairfax County.
Those who have watched Fairfax Public Access / Cox Channel 10’s Point Taken and The Story Board over the years are no doubt familiar with frequent guest Norman Ball and his penchant for all things great and small. Most notably his 2004 expose on the excesses of the home building industry offered a prescient exploration of what would soon become received wisdom: the U.S. home building industry had gotten seriously out-of-whack by any familiar metric. His article, “Too Big To Nail: Why Size May Matter in the Home Building Industry,” caused a stir in a number of quarters, prompting me to have Norm on Point Taken for a more in-depth discussion. That show can be viewed on Google video.
On The Story Board in 2008, we took a look at the DTV transition from a localism perspective, available in three parts on Youtube. In his consulting work with FreeDTVPlus, Norm went on to develop this theme more extensively as reflected in his article “Fanning the Embers of Localism: The Late Great Broadcast Affiliate System.” In one of the more notable passages, he laments the stubborn, longstanding trend of eroding television quality:
…it’s hard to imagine how any delivery scheme—be it digital, analog or shadows cast on cave-walls—can fundamentally alter the qualitative nadir that comprises media content in America today. Buried in the hullabaloo over the great television digital cutover, is the more vexing, existential question: from what and to what are we cutting over? Not much, it seems.
Further along, he ponders the lost promise of whole generations given over to laugh tracks and vapid, bickering spouses. How low can a lowest common denominator go? Well, mathematics, not to mention Buzz Lightyear, suggests “to infinity and beyond”:
One wonders how the tenor of debate in America might have comported itself had folks been raised on compelling science and history fare as opposed to Gilligan’s Island and Real Housewives of Orange County. Tabulating the fearsome hours logged in front of the boob tube over the last half-century, one cannot help but conclude that the failure to conscript television as a medium of edification for the world’s most influential society represents a lost opportunity of historic proportions. Oh, well, water under the bridge, and where’s Iraq on a map again?
I might go one step further here to point out that some television revisionist-critics now refer to Gilligan’s island as an apex of comedic genius. In an age of plastic, tin makes a bid for solid gold.
Thus it was with great interest that I caught up with Norm recently when he dropped by the studio to discuss (off-camera) his latest two essay collections How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable (Del Sol Press, 2010), a recent five-star Reviewer’s Choice from Midwest Book Review which called it “an intriguing work with plenty to entertain” and The Frantic Force (Petroglyph Books, 2011). Walt Cummins, Editor Emeritus of the Literary Review and co-author of Programming our Lives: Televsion and the American Identity, who is himself a chronicler of the cultural effects of television, praises the first collection as, “very funny, always incisive… both entertaining and alarming as it penetrates the follies of our time.”
I couldn’t agree more. Norm wields humor like a merry old ice-pick. But beneath the chuckles there lurks at all times a current of disquiet and alarm. Here then follows much of our exchange, which will no doubt provide rich fodder for upcoming shows.
LG Since our medium of shared involvement in recent years has been television, I’d like to belabor McLuhan one more time and make the medium the message. Can we start with television?
NB Of course. I powdered my nose in anticipation.
LG In your first book there’s an essay, “In a Global Village, No One Can Hear You Scream” (previously in the now-defunct Clamor), where you lay out a pretty convincing case for the necessity of local media outlets, even as you note their broad demise.
NB Yes. I sort of riff on the late Tip O-Neill’s famous refrain by changing it up a bit: “All news is local,” and it really is. People want weather, traffic, school closings, local referenda, and municipal construction projects, etc. The essential contours of their lives are unaffected by the latest blow-up in the Middle East, unless of course they are residents of Beirut.
LG And yet, we seem to be getting more Middle East news and less school closings.
NB Exactly. How many anchormen (or women) does it take to screw in a light-bulb in Tehran when you’re watching TV in Spokane? Far too many, I would say.
LG Why is that?
NB There are many reasons. But a major one is economies of scale. Rupert Murdoch would rather craft one message, then pipe a similar bit-stream to Spokane, Brisbane, and Helsinki. So he gravitates towards monolithic or so-called “global” news—really a euphemism for news you can’t use. Rapport is tough at the best of times between people in Spokane and Helsinki, for reasons of distance, culture, and language. Distance also has them contending with entirely different traffic jams and snow storms. Actionable news has an irreducible geographic nexus. However, covering the local beat is labor-intensive and expensive. Media conglomerates are looking for economized delivery. Local news is anathema to their cost structure.
LG Some impute even darker motives beyond simple economics for the extinguishment of local media sources.
NB I concede it doesn’t take a huge dose of paranoia to imagine a project driven by economics and social control that seeks to render us inaudible to our neighbors. Control is a continuum, not an absolute. Though it’s probably a by-product—and not an explicit aim—of media concentration, this alienation-inaudibility effect has been a recent preoccupation of mine. I touch upon it, in the context of music in articles, in Bright Lights Film Journaland Glide. But these could just be my darker moments getting the better of me. At least, I hope it’s a passing sense of foreboding.
LG This too shall pass? For the moment it sounds more than a little conspiratorial.
NB Please, keep your voice down. Did the Bilderberg Group have a falling-out? Because I’m not sensing a stern politburo in the balcony. Maybe their trust fund progeny are too zonked out to run the world. Someone needs to hurry up and bridle the masses—before we burn a permanent hole in the planet.
LG But isn’t that our job as humans? To cheer for humans?
NB Chauvinistic humanity gets its game from the stewardship role laid out in The Book of Genesis. Maybe if Gaia could interject, she’d argue the human species is not being controlled fast enough. Too many stewards ruin the stew. Nature is a mosaic, not a pyramid. No adults, no trees. Coincidence?
LG So the Amazon Rain Forest needs the Rothschilds to hurry up and clamp down? We’ve spoken before of the alleged New World Order plan to put the planet on a humanity-diet, get us down to one billion people.
NB In 2008 Zbigniew Brzezinski made a chilling statement. I paraphrase: “It is easier today to kill a million people than to control a million people, whereas in the recent past the opposite was true.” Control is a bitch, especially with the burgeoning alternative Internet media…
LG …whereas genocide is a relative breeze. Sounds like the NWO is on-board with the cost-effectiveness of lethality.
NB The control-kill tipping point is a crucial marker. People sense their precariousness. Alex Jones and his ilk mine this anxiety. Is it me or is Alex Jones Fred Flintstone-made-flesh? I have this hunch the real motive force behind NWO-anxiety is not the NWO per se, but little-man disease; i.e., a weird admixture of envy, resentment and anxiety. That is, look down, not up for the real wellspring of darkness. The genocidal nightmares are like a dramatic canopy laid atop ordinary despairs. Yes, things feel due for a cull or a cessation. But the scythe is just as likely to be wielded by Mother Nature as by the Rockefellers. Everyone’s jockeying to be on the right side of the final weigh-in. Even the Mayan calendar is flashing a brick wall.
LG I would agree there’s a climate of general unsettledness: rich terrain for a demagogue or two, I might add. In one Frantic Force essay, “Willful Divides,” you say about Glenn Beck: “He is a vague and convenient vehicle. What budding demagogue isn’t?”
NB Ah yes, Glenn Beck—another guy channeling Fred Flintstone, himself a Hanna-Barbera stand-in for Ralph Kramden. Beck is Gleason without the raccoon hat. All these guys sit at the head of feedback loops that excel at bemoaning the next-door neighbor. Funny how many of them are chunky. They spill over their allotted frames. They are corpulent merchants of division. Civitas is a bygone ideal. Now we openly wish a soylent green fate for the other guy: “Next time I see you, it’ll be with ketchup on your fat, proletarian ass.” But hey, we’re talking about a six billion person haircut under these alleged NWO scenarios. I’m a realistic neighbor. If it does come to pass, all I can say is it’s been nice knowing you.
LG Why? Going somewhere?
NB I took my Illuminati cape to an unauthorized dry-cleaners and they lost it. That’s a big no-no. So I’m wafer-bound, though I promise to be a tough chew. But if we can step out of save-our-own-ass mode for a moment—the preferred mode of humans the world-over—one billion sounds like a nice, sustainable number, even if you or I must be thrown into the subtraction.
LG Speak for yourself.
NB What, are we out to beat the Norwegian Rat in the breeding game? I hate to go Randian, but one guy invented the polio vaccine and one guy invented the transistor radio. After that, it’s a helluva lot of hairless monkeys. I haven’t invented shit except buckets of words. My best essays are no match for the electric toothbrush. It takes a village to create gridlock and resource depletion. I guess I’m endlessly amazed at how enthralled the average guy is with himself. I swear Alex Jones sees Charlton Heston in the mirror. His voice is two sizes too big for his body. When he goes mirror-shopping, I’m tempted to tag along and say, “I’ll have what he’s having.” What an ego!
LG We do tend to be our own biggest fans. If not us, then who?
NB Actually, Mother’s Day is a bid to cement our one unshakable ally. Most of us are assholes, and deep-down, we must sense, our mothers know it, too. If you lose Mom, what hope do you have of insinuating yourself into Pol Pot’s inner circle? I’m not a full-bore conspiracy guy. The conspiracy theorists tend to ascribe infinite powers of manipulation to those in power. By projecting their own exaggerated sense of powerlessness, they muddy a clear-eyed with personal baggage. There’s more than a dash of Rosemary’s Baby in many of these narratives. Everybody in the building isn’t plotting to get you at every moment. Sometimes the coven enjoys an absent round of golf. So get over yourself. I think I successfully beat that theme to death in an essay in Potomac a couple of years back. Yes, there is a high degree of control and without wealth redistributive polices, it will move in lockstep with creeping plutocracy. But it’s more amorphous and systemic than tightly orchestrated. As Noam Chomsky observed about the 911 “inside job” theories, the government is so huge, porous, and riven with competing interests that the discipline required to perpetrate 911, and then keep it secret, is simply beyond the specs of Uncle Sam. I reserve the right to be hugely mistaken. Just because they’re paranoid doesn’t mean Henry Kissinger isn’t out to get them.
LG I agree there is a cake-and-eat-it-too mentality. They’re either incompetent bureaucrats or cunning masterminds.
NB Uncle Sam is a huge Rorschach for whatever ails you at the time. Show me the fiscal conservative who declines FEMA assistance when his home gets washed away. That guy would get my vote for President. I think they used to use was “principled.” Come on, the CIA distrusts the FBI. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff detests the Secretary of Defense, and so on and so forth. In my opinion, the drivers that animate anti-democratic forces are more economically deterministic than overtly sinister. So it’s a vague and inexorable progression towards fascism as opposed to a crisp New World Order blueprint. Of all people, Scott Walker, music iconoclast, commented in a recent documentary that “fascism is in the air.” I couldn’t agree more. Recently I’ve used Picasso’s Guernica in Eclectica and in The Houston Literary Review as the canvas for my own totalitarian apprehensions.
LG So fascism is on the march, or maybe a corporatist version of same?
NB It’s the only way to gather it all back up. When things become too disparate, a sort of societal incoherence is the result. Paranoia plays the gaps. And don’t kid yourself, people want things gathered back up. That’s the other fist in the eye of libertarian powdered-wigism. Control requires consent. People want direction. Handed liberty and freedom, the majority of Americans trade down to the dull, easy slog of American Idol.
LG In your essay in The Potomac, you suggest personal liberty may have crested:
The point here is that the trend away from democracy and towards republicanism is an inexorable flight back to centralized power. Increasingly during this period, the two parties resemble bureaucratic artifacts of a prior era when ideas enjoyed at least a modicum of sway over undifferentiated power. This republican retro-trend signals that a high-water mark in the enfranchisement of the individual has been reached.
NB America’s always been a Republic, not a Democracy. It ain’t Red and Blue. It’s Top and Bottom. All this orchestrated harping on security is sort of a republican (lower-case) tactic. The implied message? “You need us back.” Meanwhile democrats (lower-case) are suffering a crisis in confidence, thinking, “You know, the swarthy guy next door doesn’t even speak English. Maybe he’s part of a terror cell.” People are on-board for a tightening center. Like Franklin said, the dark-twin of liberty is reduced security. Most people today lack the appetite for liberty. With the prospect of suitcase nukes and small-pox variants, who can blame them? It’s hard to filter the authentic concerns from the fear-mongering.
LG Were we ever educated into an appreciation for liberty? It seems ignorance is handing liberty back by the fistful.
NB Exactly. We’re moving towards fascism-by-consent. It’ll be interesting to see how much we like it when we get there. As long as the movies run on-time, many folks won’t notice.
LG How are we defining fascism?
NB From Arendt to Eco, you get the same thing: fascism is not so much a coherent ideology as the opportuning of a vacuum. So Walker is right to sense it’s in the air as opposed to on the ground. Furthermore it’s hard to separate corporatism from fascism. The latter always serves at the industrialists’ pleasure. Certainly the rich are getting richer, and wealth is concentrating. Returning to the overt conspiracy vibe, I’m inclined to say we’re more in the grips of a trickle-up dynamic propelled by nonsystematic graft and targeted tax loopholes. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is flipping the bird at most of us in a broad macroeconomic sense. For example, illegal aliens pay more U.S. taxes than GE does. Less time spent on the look-out for INS agents and the Mexicans could really get their tax evasion game on. To really hit your crooked stride in America requires the cumulative finesse of multiple generations. Just look at the Mayflower Madame. That’s not to say vague, unfocused, anti-democratic trends can’t be equally detrimental to the majority of people, or that the powerful don’t push a broad anti-social agenda. Maybe we need to hang up the cinematic drama-queening and pay more attention to practical effects.
LG You reject the James Bond notion of a misanthropic genius on some artificial island plotting our demise?
NB If you listen to the conspiracy theorists, all the gold’s been removed from Fort Knox anyway. So Goldfinger was barking up the wrong bough. But we’re back to the control continuum. Arch-villainy is an overwrought Hollywood trope. You can only fit so many bad guys on the movie poster. One bad actor, a singularity like bin Laden for example, is even better. Now that they’ve killed him and confiscated his cache of porn, we’ll have to see what happens next. I’ll stand corrected if there’s a black oblong table around which the ten most powerful people convene to arrange the minutiae of our lives. For one thing, our minutiae are too damned boring. Part of the appeal of becoming a Master of the Universe, I’d imagine, is that it frees you from having to ponder Joe Average’s underwear. It’s either jockeys or boxers, then who cares? For another thing, the number two guy would spend at least half his time trying to usurp the number one guy. That’s human nature. Ten megalomaniacs make for a quorum wracked with pathological jealousies and epic back-biting.
LG At least an odd number of billionaires could break ties. So there is a condescension built into the system that abhors all things local?
NB Absolutely. The cosmopolite instinctually sneers at the provincial. Bankers are internationalists. Local reportage not only thumbs its nose at the global audience, it serves the powers-that-be no great advantage. That’s a near-fatal one-two punch in my opinion. Then there are the personnel headaches. Why hire 200 beat reporters when you can pay Katie Couric $15 million, invite her to Manhattan soirees, and be done with it? The interests of the system clearly favor addressing the sweaty masses from a mountaintop. It plays to the elites’ God-complex and their pocketbooks. Unless the fluoride in the water has seriously blunted my sense of peril, I believe we’re blithely disregarded more than we are nefariously corralled.
LG I watched a song and video that you did with Canadian Lonnie Glass called “Fresh Hard Times.” How do you jibe that imagery with present-day affairs?
NB I love Metropolis. But I’m sorry to say it’s way too optimistic. In the salad days of Langian dystopia there was the idea that the little man would still be needed, albeit in subterranean servitude and grueling physical labor. Unfortunately Lang missed the productivity gains of the computer age by a mile, not to mention robotics. How many man-servants does a gated community need? Please don’t say this out loud at the local Stop ‘n Shop, but the little man is obsolete.
LG I promise to get my gas ‘n go. You’ve said before the service sector economy was largely a distortion of credit.
NB Yes. For a time there was a need for acres of counter help. Wall Street needed the little guy’s social security number so it could rationalize Potemkin Village mortgage paper to the Chinese. But curtailed credit steals a huge reason for the little guy to hang around in large numbers. Actually on some level, the American working class has deduced its obsolescence. The poor are obliging with a mountain of self-destructive behaviors. But yeah, I’m sad to say there isn’t even Fritz’ big scary-faced furnace to feed anymore. We have a shortage of work and a boundless supply of labor. The further complication for American labor is that part of this boundless supply is ready and willing to work for a fraction of what we would consider a decent wage. Further complicating this dire set of complications is that Wall Street traded American jobs for financial services over the last two decades. So there ia very little towards which America labor can apply itself.
LG Ouch and ouch.
NB Yes, very ominous indeed. For awhile the Ponzi banking system allowed homes, cars, and vacation packages to pass between and among journeymen and service-sector workers. This subterfuge—call it faux-prosperity—rationalized the real business of Wall Street: collecting fees on packaged debt instruments. All that was needed was a dupe. The Chinese served very nicely. However the Chinese wall of credit isn’t coming back for a whole host of reasons. I explain the overproduction dynamic in detail in an essay in Unlikely Stories. But please, no Marxist epithets. I’m no more a Marxist than Marx was. There are a number of economics-related essays in both books.
LG Refastening our eyes to the screen, you suggest Digital Television (DTV) will be the death-knell of the local affiliate system.
NB My father (the late Emmy-award winner Dr. John Ball) saw this train wreck unfolding years before and was a huge advocate for having the affiliates seize their destinies. But he couldn’t spark the right imaginations. The fact is, no one would build the broadcast hub-spoke architecture today. It’s a vestige. That said, the last man standing in the town square offers a unique perspective, obsolescence notwithstanding.
LG How do you mean?
NB Local radio has succumbed to syndication. Newsprint is evaporating. Look at the number of homes receiving traditional broadcast television “over-the-air” or “via broadcast.” It’s been in broad decline for decades. Before you can assemble a strategic thought, you’re plunged immediately into a semantic morass as nearly 90% of traditional broadcasting’s programming is now obtained via non-broadcasting means, e.g., cable and satellite. Why do these ascendant TV delivery platforms require a patchwork quilt of broadcast affiliates? They don’t, unless the affiliates recast themselves into something more than a broadcast repeater tower. Sounds like a contradiction, but broadcasters aren’t really in the broadcasting business anymore. They’re in the voice, eyes, and ears business and don’t know it. We have Levitt’s marketing myopia all over again. Wittgenstein would be delighted. Language fiddles while strategic coherence burns.
LG What are the implications of this trend for the local broadcast affiliates?
NB I see two discrete paths: radically revamped media hubs or humongous paper weights. From a public interest standpoint the former is preferred. Affiliates have an existential imperative to convince themselves they still have a reason to hang around. Let’s hope they settle on a coherent mission. TV affiliates represent perhaps the last great hope for a meaningful community media presence. Howard Stern doesn’t know where you live; neither does Bill O’Reilly, and frankly my dear, I don’t think they give a damn. Local affiliates could spearhead a renaissance in local media. But it would mean weaning themselves away from the crack cocaine of network programming. Then there’s local public access television. I don’t have to alert you to the barbarians at the gates of these very walls.
LG No indeed. We often say local access has few friends. Cable companies chafe at subsidizing the service while organized political and corporate interests view a free soapbox as nothing more than a dangerous loose cannon. Citizens without vested interests are bound to say anything.
NB Exactly. Can we also say local access has done itself no great favors, what with Wayne’s World being the rule and not the exception? There is the visceral sense of someone desperately wanting to be on TV who gets a program-slot only to say, “Now what?” At some point Charlie Rose stopped gushing “Look Mom, I’m on TV,” and settled into the job of providing quality interviews. I exclude present company from this broad indictment of public access.
LG I’m glad your eye for quality saw fit to throw us a lifeline.
NB The point is, when they come to shut down local access—as they’ve done in so many places around the country—the hue and cry just won’t be there to save Uncle Huey’s Sports Talk. Much lip service is paid to heralding the voice of the people. But the trend away from localism is irrefutable. If you’ll allow a brief jones for Alex Jones, the status quo is best served when the grassroots can be seen and not heard. Also, if they can drum Beirut into us from on-high, we will be less able to articulate, and propagate, our unhappiness with the state of things in Topeka. Maybe it is a well-orchestrated shell-game or a Negroponte switch. The Internet Kill Switch will be the final door swinging shut, really a coup d’état on a communicative commons. We’ll be using bin Laden’s couriers and pigeons to augment traffic helicopters.
LG The favored technique involves shifting local access to the state level thereby taking the “local” out of “access.” Once a community’s studio facilities are migrated to the state capitol, the mothballs win. And yes, that Internet. They hate it, don’t they?
NB Absolutely. It’s the cloud that got away. You can say what you want about Wikileaks, but it is proving the subversive power of distributed processing. I’m not enough of a technologist to know whether the ubiquity and flexibility of the Internet will be enough to check the forces of centralized control. Maybe it will. But yes, it must be hated. Put yourself in the shoes of the powerful who spent fifty years consolidating media influence only to have a bunch of guys in their basements blogging an alternate view of history and current events. What, no market cap, and you want an audible viewpoint? Who the hell do you think you are?
LG Err… citizens? But yes, all that meticulous shaping of opinion flushed down the drain, and for what? Unfiltered communication?
NB It’s enough to make a mogul cry.
LG Speaking of the powerful, methinks the title of your first book—How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable?—is an ironic inversion of all that we were taught to hold dear in civics class.
NB Methinks you’re right. Don’t believe all that democracy malarkey. Our job is to acquit their power with as little hassle to them as possible. For that, they’re willing to play at some bad kabuki theatre. You see, the Red-Blue demarcation is an NFL team-frame that helps perpetuate the illusion of authentic victory and defeat. So while the teams exit opposite sides of the stadium, both tunnels lead to one locker room with a well-appointed wet bar at the rear. Post-game, with the red and blue jerseys deposited in the hamper, they have a good laugh at We the Peanut Gallery’s expense, all the while divvying up the sales receipts for those “we’re number one” Styrofoam index fingers that are the plebian rage. They sell those in two defining shades: hamster-blue and bovine-red.
LG We are suckers for stadiums aren’t we? In a recent review, The Potomac’s Charles Rammelkamp suggested you are a social libertarian. Is that true?
NB I suppose. In my case, social libertarianism is just a fancy-pants way of saying, “Hey dude, could you keep the noise down?” I mean, I’ll mosey over to the neighbors’ house, but only if their stereo is blasting real loud. The last thing I want to fall across is some heretofore unrecorded sexual position. What the hell would I say? “To each his own weirdness”—that’s my credo. But it’s really a stepchild of inertia. I used to have some great conversations with the late founder of Liberty Magazine, Bill Bradford, on the philosophical underpinnings of libertarianism, but that all gets real esoteric, real fast. Frankly, I’m too lazy to run a totalitarian regime, the ever-watchful stares, the plotting lieutenants, etc. Nor am I a Randian zealot. Ayn Rand gets tiresome and derivative, sort of a Nietzsche-lite. Superman requires mountains of stamina.
LG Moving along the technology evolutionary path, The Frantic Force has a hilarious essay on the Twitter culture. You say among other things:
Today, each of us is a freshly minted actor working against daily Facebook and Twitter deadlines. Frankly with our new “cybernetically post-postmodern” duties (David Foster Wallace’s term), who’s got time for voyeurism? I am here and I had Rice Krispies for breakfast. Our social networks are alive with the beating of breakfasts into thoroughfares until the thinnest gruel stares back up from the limpid mush. Nothing escapes the matrix, poor bloody matrix.
NB Yes, pity Big Brother. We must be driving him insane with billions of inane messages that frankly don’t rise to the level of compelling surveillance. I’m touching here upon “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U. S. Fiction,” the landmark essay by the late, great David Foster Wallace, where he laments the voyeuristic inertia of the boob tube (“a pose of passive reception”). Of course that was 1993, when there remained this chaste notion that the broadcast architecture was embargoing whole reservoirs of human creativity in rec rooms across America. Trapped by topology! I did consulting work in that same era with Verizon and EDS and the like where we would wax breathless over the coming 500-channel universe. But even that didn’t broach the looming proletarian soapbox, Twitter chat and Facebook squabble. Increased bandwidth would soon unleash a renaissance of interactive back-and-forth. We would be able to hear what households were really thinking! But wait, feed Uncle Miltie and Mr. T through a pipe for 50 years and, even with an upgrade to 14-carat gold coax, Puccini and Shakespeare ain’t gonna come bounding out the uplink. The pipe is agnostic. It has no alchemical powers. With Minow’s “vast wasteland” long-since devolved into a septic field, nadirism has been the dominant, unchecked trend as the lowest common denominator continues its subterreanean swan dive unabated.
LG And yet, the quality collapse has not been met by a similar collapse in television viewership, even though the latter has admittedly been on a broad decline since the mid-eighties.
NB Doggone it, that’s true. Let’s not forget that this is far from a virtuous circle. Television the babysitter imbues its young charges with television values and expectations. Then there are the TV-qua-noisy-appliance people who turn on the set for company as they dust the house. Are they viewers or just lonely widows? We’d have to ask Nielsen. I should qualify things by saying that my waves of nausea are borne of value judgments that are far from universally held. You see, [NB leans in closer] I occasionally read poetry.
LG Aha! So you are an elitist! Poetry saps vitality. The Surgeon General recommends no more than two stanzas a day.
NB That would explain my shortness of breath. There is an interesting ongoing debate on The Benton Foundation’s website where it’s been suggested “bad TV” may in fact be elitist code for “popular TV.” Well, damnit, I sip tea with my pinkie straight up in the air, and I’m not going to take it anymore! With all the agony of effete, I persist in the notion that TV’s popularity swoon is owed, in no small part, to receding quality. Moreover Facebook and Twitter have not radically transformed the tenor of the discourse. Instead our erstwhile boob-tubers are now mini-auteurs armed with fingerpaint. Thus we’re finding technology isn’t so much emancipating trapped pockets of grassroots ingenuity as is it polluting the ether with methane gas—a billion daily communiques on breakfast habits. New studies are warning celebrities not to over-tweet as they risk eroding their mystique, God help us. Call me a Luddite, but I was fine when I didn’t know my Facebook friend from Bangalore had switched over to Frosted Mini-Wheats. I didn’t even know Kelloggs had penetrated the Indian subcontinent. Have they?
LG I dunno. But I’ll certainly Google it after this. I’m willing to bet you didn’t have a friend in Bangalore before Facebook aggressively forged the relationship in that inimitable Facebook fashion.
NB Facebook is like that fiercely friendly lady at the condo associaion potluck dinner. Before you can accomplish a pro forma head-in, head-out appearance, she’s introduced you to all the people you’ve managed not to make eye-contact with in the elevator for years.
LG In one Frantic Force essay (originally published in Umbrella), you bemoan the demise of what you call “consequential reading,” of which we will assume tweets are not a subset:
A few obstinate islands of literati notwithstanding, America on the whole has grown too accustomed to a low-slung easy freedom to weather the slog of consequential reading. Perhaps dire circumstance—or the threat of it—assists concentration. If Gravity’s Rainbowwere suddenly removed from our library shelves, none but a few literary types would notice. Shutter Blockbuster Video, however, and SUV’s would be overturned and set aflame in the nation’s strip malls.
NB There is something poignant about this tiny enclave of Americans who forgo Porky’s 7: Son of Pulled Pork and continue to read literary magazines. For all I—and most others—know, they’ve already burned the books in America’s public libraries. Though it’s one more corporate expropriation of the civic space, there’s no point to public reading now if you can’t wash the sentences down with a hazelnut latte. Hey I’m a writer not a saint! Sorry Mr. Carnegie, but it’s Borders for me now.
LG Even mom’s library is a stale crumpet on the ala carte tray. And yet, choice seems oversold. Studies show that the average viewer is a creature of habit who rarely digresses from his three favorite channels. That’s another way of saying we’re buried beneath 497 channels of superfluity.
NB There’s a paradox. If you succeed in putting everything in the world onto the Internet, then the Internet becomes the world and you’re back to where you started. If a channel becomes the universe it’s not a channel anymore. In Main Street Rag a few years ago, I took a satiric swing at this very phenomenon. Think of the oroburos. At some point, the serpent’s head is completely up its own ass—or is the ass just making a beeline for the head? I dunno. These cosmic questions require a better snake-charmer than me.
LG I’ll leave you to your own pit of vipers. Speaking of satire, you seem quite fond of the form.
NB Oh yes, humor twists the knife like no kind of seriousness can. People love to snigger. My 16-year-old son was reading The Importance of Being Earnest recently for school. Why else, right? Anyway he had the temerity to solicit my views on satire. We spilled right over into his game time. Boy, was he sorry. I won’t belabor that topic twice in one semester.
LG You do touch on some interesting notions though of a channel: what it is, what it might become.
NB We used to talk 15 years ago of huge video servers that would provide top-line movies every 15 minutes, what we called near-video-on-demand or NVOD for the acromaniacs. Now we have Youtube, a trillion-channel universe with video-on-instantaneous-demand. I’m going to coin the acronym right here, VOID. After allowing for present-day copyright disputes, all to be ironed out in the fullness of time, it’s conceivable that all video ever produced by mankind will be available instantaneously to all people. Some corporate-fed trenchline will cease to be the channel. The individual will become his own channel. As for superfluity, it’s the lifeblood of the tiered cable rate system. But yes, exactly. Don’t fluster the monkey. He likes his favorite tree. Besides, monkeys don’t take naps in forests; they nap in one fucking tree. Much of the reverie over choice has its roots in the tree-to-tree salesman trying to flog a whole canopy. That’s how he gets his bananas.
LG I like your acronym. It has an appropriately desolate feel. VOID cannot bode well for the networks and their affiliates.
NB The odds against time-bracketed programs are laughably slim. I remember mobile phone visionary Craig McCaw saying in the eighties: “Phones should not be wired to homes. They should be wired to people.” Well, why should your favorite TV show be wired to 9 pm? Tivo and the like are nibbling at this problem. So far the practical effect of increased channel capacity is that the networks are plowing the lowest common denominator on an expanded number of fronts. The race to the bottom has a few more running lanes while the brass ring is a receding dot on the horizon. The dot is receding due to a bewildering array of choices.
LG Even a programming genius like seventies phenom Fred Silverman would have great difficulty threading the eye of this needle.
NB Exactly. Though he bounced back and forth between all three networks, Silverman was fighting only two viable competitors at any given time, not exactly the stiffest odds. Like someone once said, the chimp gets it right 50 per-cent of the time. Whereas today, the old-school networks, or channels, find themselves under huge pressure to produce ever more lurid content in order to make their menu items more appealing in an ever-expanding ala carte. And I use “appealing” in the most degraded fashion. They are more like pornographers stalking the prurient interest. It’s very unhealthy. How can one time-bracketed program compete against Youtube’s trillion-channel VOID universe, not to mention whole ‘nother competitors for the eyeball such as video games? Sometimes to prevail against infinite choice, you gotta sit celebrities down and make them eat tropical bugs. But here’s where I get cynical…
LG You? Cynical?
NB The Internet kill switch is, in my opinion, a near-certainty. Of course “our security” will be the lipstick applied to the pig. But they’ll want us back in the box, rather than scouring trillions of content options willy-nilly. Distributed processing is the most anti-fascist technological development since the Molotov cocktail. It’s fascinating to watch Wikileaks mirror sites pop up here, there and everywhere like whack-a-mole. Arguably Wikileaksstarted a domino effect in Tunisia. This has to terrify every ruling class on the planet. Information, not bullets, are the new bullets! Technologists may well be our freedom fighters of the future. Think about it: how can it serve the powerful for us to learn that both the Bush bloodline and the British monarchy are descendants of an alien reptilian race?
LG Leaping lizards!
NB I learned that from Youtube, not Matt Lauer, by the way. Okay, there’s some massively flakey stuff out there. But at least we have the freedom to watch it and, if we so choose, to regard our lizardskin boots with a renewed mammalian wariness. Our mutual friend (and Channel 10 colleague) Jim Flynn speaks of the many ways an ISP can route its subscribers around unsanctioned content. We know Google searches can backwater some sites and frontline others. There are a million ways to kill the party. Local access could be a lifeline if Wayne’s World would only give up its coveted slot.
LG You’d think his hands are full with the Shrek and Austin Powers franchises. May we shift gears—or is it change channels—and talk war for a moment?
NB Was it something I said? We’ve been friends for years.
LG In the context of geo-politics only.
NB That’s sort of a Murdoch ploy. But I can channel global bellicosity if you like.
LG In The Frantic Force, you propose a “Stalingrad Test” as sort of a litmus for future American military engagements.
LG Care explaining to our rapt, attentive audience what you mean?
NB Only if they promise to hold their ears and buy the book.
LG Switchboards are now open. Ginsu knives are complimentary.
NB On that note, lemme take a stab. In World War II’s Battle of Stalingrad, Russia was engaged in an epic battle for its very existence. In the midst of all this, can you imagine Stalin saying, “This conflict has been going on since August 1942. It’s costly. We’re not fighting one day beyond January 5, 1943. I’m setting a hard-and-fast deadline.” Perhaps the Nazis would have obliged by taking a breather themselves until January 6 or advantaging the Russian work stoppage by securing the Ural oil fields, a vital Soviet interest. The trouble with deadlines is that the enemy reads newspapers, too. Anyway, I think the current American past-time of war deadline-setting is a bullshittometer, yet one more permutation of red-blue sparring that screams “political war.” Too bad our kids have to hold M16’s and stand in the way of bullets to make the whole gig look warlike. We need to re-baseline war. If someone is firing bullets through your living room window in Poughkeepsie, it’s a war, dude. Until such time as your kids can crawl out from under the sofa, you keep firing back with all you have until the bullets stop coming through your window. Simple stuff.
LG So if some Ivy league guy is explaining on TV why you should be hopping mad at yet another third-world shitbox, maybe you should ask to see his stock portfolio before sending your kid down to the recruiter?
NB There ya go. Too often, geo-political vital interests are a gobblygooped mash-up devised by the Military Industrial Complex to separate us from our kids and our money. I posit in an Identity Theory essay that Eisenhower’s 1961 address on the matter is the most important speech of the last 50 years. Ike knew the beast. Hell, he invented it—from the nuts and bolts to the name itself. I hate to argue for good ole American mypoia, but maybe we need to overreact in the other direction for awhile: “If you need a weatherman, it probably ain’t raining.” This litmus has the added benefit of shuttering think-tanks and silencing patriotic demagogues whose kids are safely ensconsed in Swiss boarding schools. No more Backwardistans until a Backwardistani battalion shoots out the street-lamp at the top of the cul de sac.
LG You have an essay in Epicenter called “Therabouts,” also in The Frantic Force, where you suggest American geographic indistinction is a cause for much of the mayhem around the world:
As the effete class wrung its hands over the larger population’s seeming indifference to the sovereign distinctions between Afghanistan and Iraq, one can imagine many Americans simply concluding that, since both countries were indefatigable worlds away from Ohio, each had earned some vague equal merit to the enmity of the American military machine. This lack of conscious place feeds a dangerously bifurcated planet: them and us; over here, over thereabouts. A nation with precision-guided missiles must oblige itself to cultivate a precision-guided sense of the world. Otherwise we could be bombing our friends and not even know it.
NB There is this Ivy league notion that, because they can find Afghanistan on a map and the average America can’t, they are a better gauge of what is in the average American’s best interests. This is classic intelligentsia hubris. The reason the average American can’t find Afghanistan on a map is because he has more common sense in his pinkie than the average Yale alumnus has in his whole body. I don’t want to be an apologist for any strain of ignorance, even geographic illiteracy, but the average American’s common sense notion to mind his own business would have been a superior bellwether these many years than Wilsonian internationalism. There is very little that has been accomplished geo-politically speaking that can be called an unabashed success over the last 50 years. We haven’t won a war since WWII for example. How smart is that? American interventionism mints as many enemies as it subdues. Thus isolationism deserves a second look. For one thing, it would defang the war machine.
LG Sounds clear enough to me. Grim but clear.
NB There is a very recent bright light.
NB Yes I hate to mar the tone of this discussion with a note of cautious optimism, especially when we were doing so well as bleak prognosticators. But this month (April 2011) a National Strategic Narrative authored by two members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was released. It’s a pretty astonishing document.
LG How so?
NB Well it’s a very brave opening volley, sort of big-brass friendly fire on 50 years of George Kennan’s containment. The military is conceding the unhealthy and unsustainable economic dominance of the military. Once upon a time the U.S. military was charged with defending America’s prosperous way of life. Eisenhower noted warily in 1961 that the WWII war machine was not withering away. Rather it was finding ways to justify its continued existence. Fifty years later, the military component of our GDP furnishes so much of the prosperity it is charged with defending, that increasingly the military finds itself defending the military. In a classic case of economic crowding-out, non-military wellsprings of prosperity atrophy. Economic imperatives coax us into wars because every economy plays to its comparatie advantages. In our case we excell at war. When war becomes a job, peace becomes a bad patch of unemployment. Either we as a society consent to Orwellian perma-war—probably fascism’s preferred route—or we begin the massive task of retooling our economy for non-military objectives.
LG A penny for Ike’s thoughts. He was a badly maligned warrior-king who was made to look like an absentee landlord and an avid golfer.
NB Ike was far from a doddering grandfather. We ignored him at our peril. The document is short and eloquent: It is time to move beyond a strategy of containment to a strategy of sustainment (sustainability); from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion, to a proactive posture of engagement. These are very humanistic and civilizing ideals. I applaud the audacity of this seminal shift in military thinking if in fact it becomes embraced by the military establishment. But in a nation where weapon systems of dubious military value are built because a Congressman’s district needs the work, well, let’s just say this will be an intractable military campaign.
LG Wow, what strange circles we weave. May we call a temporary truce and veer poetic? We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about poetry which clearly is an area that fascinates you.
NB WWI birthed some remarkable poets: Owen, Brooke, Graves, Sassoon. Sorry I was trying to assist your segue.
LG I like how you weave poetry, yours and others, into the context of everyday concerns. The Frantic Force even has a good number of essays on poetry itself. However, I found them more speculative than, say, narrowly academic. In other words, I could understand and appreciate them.
NB Well, thank you for that. I strive to engage a middle-brow reader. Someone not unlike myself who is curious about many things, but not in a rigorous, academicized sense. At the same time, the audience I imagine for this writing is bored shitless with standard TV fare and pedestrian blog-prose. I’m always thrilled when someone says, “You know, I read your essay three times and got more out of it each time.” This means it’s somewhere between facile and inpenetrable, a place where I’m happy hanging out.
LG At times you discuss poetry in a quantum subtext. In “Poetry and the Big Bang” (an essay in The Frantic Force), you suggest:
Robert Frost was even blunter: “poetry is metaphor.” Metaphor surfaces far-flung, non-linear associations between two things. It maps the quantum brane, tearing back our four-dimensional fabric to reveal interrelatedness —pre-existing connections— between two things whose interrelatedness, without the poet, would otherwise escape detection. When a fresh connection is made, both poet and reader achieve a Joycean epiphany.
NB Well there is an essential non-linearity in poetry—echoed in the metaphoric primacy of Frost’s definition—that sort of parallels the non-linearity of quantum. Was it Feynman who said, “If you think you understand quantum, then you don’t understand it?” Poets illumine the connection between, say, a kitchen sink and a horse, that the logical world misses. But these are not fanciful connections. The poet simply uncovers a string that eludes the empirical eye. If poetry can’t course through both our lives and our great debates, then we have killed it. I’ll be thrilled if people with no prior interest in poetry pick up a poetry book as a result of my essays. Speaking of which, may I plug?
LG You may.
NB I have a poetry book coming out from Diminuendo Press later this year, A Signature Advance from Hoof and Paw. It’s mostly sonnets and other formal verse.
LG And yet even poetry does not escape your political broad-brush. In “Being Difficult,” an essay previously appearing in Rattle and republished inThe Frantic Force, I believe you are suggesting, maybe a bit tongue-and-cheekily, that difficult reading—you cite Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” as one example—can fulfill a social function. I think it’s worth an extended passage:
Though I may struggle to comprehend it, I have no difficulty with difficult poetry on artistic grounds. In fact, we need more of it if for no other reason than to put our shrinking attention spans through their paces. For one thing, there’s our civic duty to consider. We are approaching an age when rapt attention to anything for a period exceeding sixty seconds will be a crime of the state, perhaps a proviso of Patriot Act III. George Bush’s prisons will soon be stuffed with people guilty of extended reflection. Bush, storekeeper for the New World Order, repeats the operative term with Pavlovian insistency: we must not cut and run. True, he is arguing for patience, but through the language of impulsivity—cut and run—what a fascinating dichotomy in the dark tradition of Orwellian doublespeak.
So we are being systematically curtailed. In this Age of Truncation, poetry should strive for the lonely promontory; stake out the oblique leisurely stroll, the unhurried voice of truth to power. Let the Gestapo goons beat their heads against the wall struggling to put into words the precise nature of the poet’s offense. His crimes should be impossible to explicate on a writ or a summons. To all real poets out there, I say: Your inscrutability is a birthright. Follow your destiny. Take the long way home.
NB My tongue is never too far from my cheekily. The eccentricity of the poet is a thumb in the eye of fascist conformity. Anyone who’s ever watched Triumph of the Will or those eerie North Korean Mass Games on Youtube knows that dictators never get moister than when seamless regimentation and strict choreography, i.e., mass displays of abject unthinkingness are on parade. Arendt and Heidegger were all over this. Programmatic substitutes for authentic thought are the true harbingers of totalitarianism. Thinking is the sole province of the individual. Mobs can’t think. Despots want to do the thinking for us. Heidegger extolled poets as the best thinkers of the bunch. Prolonged attention spans are subversive because they allocate time to ponder the fraying edges of the bumper sticker. That’s why I detest the efficiency movements in poetry. That’s why I detest movements in poetry. I believe it was Kierkegaard who said authentic movement occurs at the spot, not from the spot. If you’re in a movement, you’ve moved away from solitudinous reflection. Solzhenitsyn was the gold standard. Everybody hated him.
LG Since you brought up kitchen sinks, there’s hardly a subject matter realm that your pen doesn’t delve within one of these books, be it culture, politics, economics, art… even Heidi Montag.
NB My pen doth tend to run—really a nervous tic with ink. Yes, poor Heidi. I take a metaphorical scalpel to her penchant for surgical transformation. Lucifer and Al Pacino weigh in on this bonfire of the vanities, too. No one, no matter how cosmetically engrossed, escapes my ugly eye.
LG Before we let you go, you have a new musical, SIDES: A Civil War Musical (Inspired by the Red Badge of Courage).
NB Yes, well if Andrew Lloyd Webber happens by, I welcome his eviscerations. It’s a musical that sort of explores the tragedy of American factionalism both in terms of that era’s blue-gray divide and as a cautionary tale for our own red-blue division. An older Henry Fleming (the RBOC’s protagonist) puts us through the paces. I was fortunate enough to get Russell Baker to take a look and a listen, and he thinks it’s quite good. The premise is this: if America is truly an idea, an abstraction, and if no one any longer claims “being an American” as their unself-conscious first-order identity, then America, in some real sense, no longer exists. You don’t meet a lot of Americans anymore. Or, when there’s a tragedy on the scale of 911, you’ll meet Americans for a few weeks afterwards. We have devolved into a loose confederation of guilds and ethnic hyphenates, a myriad of jostling fragments with sharp edges called sides. I miss America because I can remember America. Perhaps future generations will not be so similarly haunted.
LG What started as a brief chat has taken on interview dimensions! It’s been a pleasure Norm. Good luck with the books and the play and next time we see you in the studio, hopefully it’ll be in front of the cameras.