Saturday, October 23, 2004

Pap Fiction

It will come as no surprise to those who have read this blog from time to time that I am a full-fledged, full-blown, full-grown, dyed in the wool, devoted, and even besotted admirer of Jon Stewart.
(He of the heavenly blue penetrating eyes, mischievous smirk, terrible Johnny Carson impression and – I remain convinced – undeserving wife. He also fronts a little faux news program called ‘The Daily Show’ whose quartet of weekly offerings form the most penetrating and honest examination of the news available on television.)
So when it came to my attention that some character with the unlikely sounding name of Papp (Leslie) was taking gratuitous shots on the editorial page of The Toronto Star at the object of my affection, I raced straight over to the computer – with neither need nor interest in putting on so much as a dressing gown – flipped the switch, found the page and began this entry which begs to disagree entirely with the position of the person named Papp.
(And I offer this advice in what will only be able to provide a hindsight overview for the man himself: if your name is Papp, you must do everything within your power not to present crap.*)
Though unquestionably in no great need of my support or defense (however, when he comes to sweep me off my feet and take me away from all this, it will be nice to be able to point to my constant constancy…) the case presented by Papp regarding Jon’s now infamous appearance on CNN’s Crossfire is so specious as to provide a rather fun opportunity to take it apart piece by, offering it up to Stewart like a daisy game of “He loves me, He loves me not”.
He Loves me…
Papp begins what quickly falls into the category of ill-considered diatribe with an introductory paragraph suggesting that rather than “lecturing on the ills of modern politics and journalism” Jon stick to “what he knows, such as rolling his eyes, mugging in front of a camera and grinning while cracking sarcastic”. It would be too easy simply to suggest Papp leave the media criticism to the media critics, (and think twice before telling a joke at the next dinner party he attends) how about instead opining on the nature of insight and from whence it might spring; quite apart from the mouths of babes, it might just come from an educated (William and Mary College) news junkie with savvy, political connections and an obvious deep and abiding interest in the future of the United States. While covering the political scene for MTV (Stewart’s first foray into political news coverage) might not rate for some as journalistic experience, the truth of the matter is that according to a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey, viewers who watch ‘The Daily Show’ were more likely to answer questions about politics correctly that those who don’t. The ‘monkey’ as Crossfire’s resident right wing wingnut Tucker Carlson calls the Comedy Central host, must be doing something right. Crack wise he may – crack stupid or ill-informed, he does not.
He loves me not…
Papp continues by getting right into the meat of the Crossfire matter by noting surprise at the Stewart who appeared on the show. “…a serious looking moralizer who chided the media and pleaded for elevated public discourse.” How dare he, Papp seemed to be saying, take advantage of the hosts of the CNN ‘debate’ show; they had been expecting a funnyman on to talk about his New York Times #1 best-selling book (‘America – the Book’) and instead were confronted with a critical viewer who questioned both the dubious premise of the show and the way in which it is routinely presented.
I’m not now sure if Papp has ever watched Crossfire – or The Daily Show for that matter. For anyone who has seen Crossfire, Stewart’s comments were on the money not simply because he was playing the hosts at their own game (take no prisoners confrontation) and winning (both Tucker Carlson ‘for the Right!’ and Paul Begala ‘for the Left!’ were shocked practically witless from the opening salvo to the stumbling, fumbling angry extro) but telling a truth that heretofore hasn’t been heard on the cable news network that routinely treats White House press releases like the results of exhaustive investigative journalism. If the shrieking, screaming, epithet throwing, spin-doctoring, and out and out bullshit that dresses itself up and hits the tiles as debate discourse is the place America is supposed to get its news, well, no wonder most Americans still think Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11 and that the war in Iraq was justified.
He loves me…
I have to admit, there is one aspect of Stewart’s persona and presentation that rings increasingly untrue – the part where he continues to seemingly denigrate his program as “… a little fake news program that follows a show about puppets making crank phone calls”. The fact is that people answer questions about politics correctly after watching The Daily Show because apart from the obviously silly reporter segments – though with more than a touch of truth, whilst never stinting on the ridiculous – the lead in to the show and interview in the second half is consistently fact-based and insightful, offering viewers not just the admitted left-wing leaning opinions of its host, but respectful detailed and researched interviews with those of the polar-opposite stripe. Conservatives may go on the show for a certain amount of hip factor – playing unashamedly to the folks back home – but they come off having had their subject matter treated with if not dignity, then certainly respect. If they still seem to suck – that is decidedly not Stewart’s fault.
And as for the Democrats – those expecting an easy ride will have to pull up their socks, roll up their sleeves and work on some decent answers; Stewart generally reserves the softballs for personages such as the delightfully giggly Daily Show fan Bishop Desmond Tutu, as well as fellow comedians and various and sundry actors. For Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards – who actually declared his intention to run for President on his first appearance on The Daily Show – to subsequent pols and spin-meisters, the humour may come thick and fast, but so too do the zingers.
Truth be told, Stewart is probably on his last season of aw-shucksing. Not that we’re in any danger of losing our laugh out loud reaction to Daily Show headlines, but the “I’m just a comedian on a funny little show” posturing will have to give way to a more realistic approach, lest Jon be confused with other on camera personalities who breathe and mislead with seeming equal frequency.
He loves me not…
Papp. Again.
In further berating the object of my fevered daydreams for having the temerity to appear in public without his big floppy shoes and shiny red nose, Papp seizes on what he considers to be Stewart’s fundamental misunderstanding of what Crossfire is all about: “Stewart must be the only person who turns to Crossfire hoping for an outbreak of civility.” Uhhh…not so much… as Jon himself would no doubt reply. Clearly what he has been fruitlessly hoping for was an outbreak of something resembling honesty.
When children leap into slanging matches, pinching and pummeling and out-shouting each other in order to demand dibs on the bigger piece of pie, a reasonable outcome would be a bit of disappointment on either side as each requires approximately the accurate half they deserve. On Crossfire, to simply hope that each side’s dislocation from accuracy results in equal misunderstanding for the viewer on both sides is a little sad – and not a little dangerous in a country split right down the middle, with opponents ready and willing to swallow any story that suits their side. (Swift Boat Veterans for Truth anybody? Anybody? Bueller?)
And as for Stewart calling Carlson a 'dick' (not just once - but twice!) the strongest criticism I can think of is that for Stewart it was so uncharacteristically unimaginative; some things are just so obviously plainly, painfully true it seems redundant to say them even once.
He loves me…
But perhaps Papp backs off his position just a touch when he admits “It’s pointless to look here – or anywhere else in the media – for grand truths, or for society to be saved through earnest and elevated debate.” I’m with him on the ‘here’ – his own editorial – but ‘anywhere else’? (And I'm dying to know what take Toronto Star media scribe and fellow Daily Show enthusiast Antonia Zerbisias has on all this...) Are his standards and hopes and faith so low as to preclude at least the desire to sort through the cacophony for a couple of still small voices of reason? I’m not saying Stewart’s is an untrammeled shining piece of perfect journalism, but like the pornography Papp himself compares CNN to, I know a certain naked honesty when I hear it.
He loves me not…
Papp’s last shot (Krapp’s Last Tape?) is to tie this bundle of affronted puffery together with a pat on the head for Stewart with a nod to his role as Fool in the King Lear tradition, and to warn him away from any serious discourse (or call for same) reminding him that “… by preaching a moral lesson he shrinks rather than grows.” I’m not entirely sure how he comes to that conclusion – perhaps he’s seen the notoriously tiny Stewart sans his elevator clown shoes – but I think he makes a grave mistake in warning a blower away from a whistle: no one else has seen fit to stand up and point out the atrocities committed on a daily basis by America’s first source for news; this King Lear was naked, and for the Fool the time for fooling had passed.
If Jon Stewart used all his hard won legitimate news currency on one dead shot across the bows of the SS Crossfire, I thank him for it. Someone had to say it; and Papp is too busy – his eye far off the prize, wasting valuable time trying to flatten the Fool - to do it.
He's gotta love me...
(* Pap – worthless or oversimplified ideas.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Case Against the Organ Grinder's Monkey

These days, you can’t just watch the debates – you have to put them in context with each of the last ones, add daily news spin, subtract rhetoric and multiply by the number of times your favourite candidate wears a red tie. Half the time, you could lose the thread of the conversation by simply watching the non-speaking candidate on his half of the splitscreen trying not to make the sorts of faces his handlers have done all but call the plastic surgeons in to correct.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking forward to each of the debates much the same way I used to look forward to new episodes of The Partridge Family way back when – right down to putting in a quick call to my girlfriend to see if she also saw Keith’s pimples or the little fleck of spittle adorning the right corner of Bush’s pursed little sneer. (She did.)
Last night’s was probably the most substantive and the most boring. At this point, I know so much on each of their positions (domestic and foreign) from the debates themselves, daily scrutinizing of the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Toronto Star and Page Six of The New York Post (for the all-important behind the scenes snippy gossip about the presidential daughters) and of course the only credible news source on Anerican television these days (TM) - The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (sponsored now by the venerable State Farm Insurance - no kidding...) that what I really want is for one of them to have an on-air meltdown, or simply shudder to an exhausted, stumbling halt like a wind-up toy coming unwound.
I’m even beginning to know the lies. With a little help from the pundits and fact checkers during the debriefing segment following the debates, I’ve come to recognize the Kerry fact-fudging when it comes to what percentage of taxpayers pay what percentage of taxes, to Bush’s outright obfuscation on Kerry’s senate record. Either way, it’s a pointless exercise, as accurate facts end up being shrouded in the same fog of uncertainty that cloaks the crap; in this as in a number of sadly predictable ways, the campaigns are running neck and neck.
On points, I – like most of quick polls moments after the final time we were to see the Kerry’s and the Bush’s greet and air kiss each other like long lost relatives at a family rebellion – felt Kerry won the third and final set-to. He would have done better, particularly after a few fine spiritual moments (things that make you go “sniff”) over the separation of church and state, had Bush’s pass/fail performance expectations not been based almost entirely on whether the President would be able to control himself enough not to stamp his little foot when vexed.
But there were a few deviations from the script, and sadly, I have to give most of them to Bush. Though I wouldn’t put him in the same category as a Bob Hope or a Jerry Seinfeld, he was able to get off a few good ones, though only - it should be noted - when they were about himself. Sarcasm, as I’m sure everyone’s mother has oft reminded them, is the lowest form of humour; in a debate with an audience forbidden to laugh, it falls flatter than a two dollar perm.
But I couldn’t help myself from chuckling as toward the end of the evening he began to punctuate his answers repeatedly with little staccato desk thumpings; he’d clearly been told that to slam the desk with cockroach-killing intensity wasn’t likely to play well, so his weak mechanical little slaps looked like nothing so much as a wind-up toy monkey beating a tin drum. No one with features that elicit the description of ‘simian’ should ever risk either a tiny red fez or anything that could be compared to timpanic accompaniment. Trust me on this.
In juxtaposition, there is nothing – I repeat nothing – funny about Kerry. Still wooden –though miles ahead of his Night of the Living Dead routine from just a few short weeks ago – his speech and delivery is now much more human and personal, whilst still maintaining a degree of articulateness that falls just short of superhuman. But there’s always the dead giveaway of the body in motion: an elbows fair stitched to the body wood-chopping action, interspersed with palms up backing and forthing and measuring and indicating and finger counting that will not have to be altered or exaggerated one single whit once they are transferred straight to whatever comedian will be parodying him this weekend on Saturday Night Live. The man’s a stiff. Deal with it.
So here we are at the end. The polls suggest pretty much a dead heat. The three major states up for grabs (Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio) all have a number of variables that are making the outcome far from a gimme for either candidate. The undecided’s are either some of the dopiest voters ever to be polled (could the two Presidential hopefuls be more opposite?) or opportunists looking for airtime. So there’s only really the company each keeps as a wild card factor – and there I am more certain than ever: the stiff brings optimism, dedication, intelligence, enthusiasm and a can-do attitude which until recently seemed to have all but gone out of style.
But the monkey brings the organ-grinder. And if the polls are tied about everything else, on this they are daily more convincing than ever: quite enough bodies and limbs and minds and organs have been ground up since the 43rd president and his Vice President took office. Whatever you think about education, jobs, the economy and a woman’s right to choose, most people now agree that the killing has simply got to stop.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Daily Affirmations: or, what I learned about saying things often enough from the unscrupulous leaders of the free world - and you can too!

“I’m good enough, smart enough and people like me…”
It’s a bit thin, but it’s a place to start.
At least Stewart Smiley’s daily affirmation has the benefit of being true. I am good enough, I am smart enough, and I do have signed affidavits from people who were willing to admit that they like me. (At least at the moments when they signed and initialed the documents.In two places.) So saying it over and over is as good a way as any I guess, to mind-meld myself into more or less believing such a statement most of the time. If I say it often enough, or so the theory goes, it will simply become a fact – as true as my height, my eye colour or my social insurance number.
It’s just not terribly ambitious is it?
As I reflect back on the election rhetoric of the past few weeks, I have come to know what wide-eyed passionately pitched affirmations can really do: they can affect memory, minds and polls. They can make working to end a wicked war cowardly, and attempting to reach out to allies unpatriotic. They can make black white... dark light... wrong right...
Powerful stuff affirmations.
So I’m looking for a better affirmation… a bigger affirmation… a mind boggling, teeth rattling, all or nothing, earth shattering, life changing affirmation that I can affix to some internal mental loop and play over and over and over until it becomes a proven fact – as true as my hair colour, my lip colour, or my eyelash length.
“I am the most beeeoootiful woman in the world…”
How’s that? Roughly equivalent to “We were right to go to war with Iraq – Saddam posed a serious threat… I’d make the same decision again in a heartbeat”? I mean there’s a kernel of truth in both those statements – the words are spelled right, I am a woman – Iraq exists on a map, the US went to war with ‘em – some people think I’m cute on a good day in a good light, some certifiable idiots and republicans agree with the Prez and Vice-Prez about Iraq… it’s just those annoying links, isn’t it? The connections made between words and ideas that just don’t pass the ‘Global Test’. (Or even the 'Mom' test: “You are the most beeeoootiful little girl in the world my angel!” “You were right to go and spend billions of dollars and end the lives of idealistic young soldiers and innocent civilians and garner the world’s collective derision and contempt and all to track down one smelly old dictator who lived in a hole in the ground and neither had WMD’s, nor the power to create them, nor any link whatsoever to the terrorists who attacked the US on September 11th, and to effectively let those terrorists disappear into the hills with neither recriminations nor a parting shot my sweetie, darling lovey-dovey pumpkin face!”)
“The universe will provide me with a million dollars…”
Positive – it’s positive all right, you’ve got to give me that. But realistic? Well, it’s at least as realistic as the Bush/Cheney contention that the economy is on the upswing and that worries about affordable health care, edumacation and full employment are soon to become silly old things of the past. On the brink of it really – watch: in the next five minutes, the economy will… okay, wait; after the election! Yes, after the election when the public can put aside all their fears that the gay girlie-men with all the hair (and particularly the one with the lugubrious manner and unearthly white rictus of a grin) won’t be around to frighten Americans, ruin the economy, trample on the flag, have sex with animals and offer comfort and sandwiches to our enemies. You just watch!
"Brad Pitt loves me…"
And how can you argue with that? He might not love me now – heck, he doesn’t even know me! – but he could, if the stars were all in alignment and if I said the affirmation often enough and sort of hypnotized him and maybe kidnapped him and held him in an underground cell (with all the ventilation and water and nude pictures of me he could ever want) and MADE him love me… even if he didn’t exactly feel like it... It could happen.
It’s at least as likely as Dick Cheney’s upbeat vision of Afghanistan and the elections he promises are right on track! Nearly 50% of the voters will be women! Of course the figures aren’t perfect – these are soft numbers… sure to firm up in the weeks and months to come. The fact that nearly 90% of Afghani women polled (the ones whose husbands allowed them to go outside) said they had to ask their husband’s permission to vote… and that their husbands said no. Human Rights Watch reports crabbily dispute the VP’s statement, suggesting women who try to register are routinely beaten, made prisoners in their own homes – more concerned with survival than democracy. Party poopers and bad sports I say. They should lighten up, develop a more positive attitude...
Let’s hope Brad Pitt develops a more positive attitude in the weeks and months to come - he’s going to need it…