Forget flying cars. The science fiction movie/TV cliché I seem to be missing is the pirate TV station. Authoritarian states are apparently fairly unoriginal, pulling largely from 1984. The authoritarian future has one channel, no TiVo, and seems to prefer too-close head shots of the leader-for-life. The anarchist/revolutionary’s job is to smash or take over the airwaves.
V is for Vendetta has gotten some mixed reviews. I quite liked it, but it fell into the same trap. “The people,” sucked relatively mindlessly into the television, are unable to rise against their oppressors, until V seizes control of the TV station and shakes them from their complacency. Sure, he blows stuff up as well (generally a more exciting way to get people interested), but the point is that they are mobilized (physically) by two or three televised events. The Wachowskis take the centralized radio broadcaster (the “Voice of Fate”) from the graphic novel and bring it up to date as what many have seen as a parody of Fox News and O’Reilly.
And there is something to that, of course. There is a reason we targetted television towers in our initial bombing runs in Iraq, and the state-run media was the hallmark of authoritarian states. Ithiel de Sola Pool, among others, argues compellingly that democracy thrives on communication technologies that are many-to-many rather than centrally broadcast. And so maybe we can measure the health of our democracy by the lack of a single state-run monopoly on news.
After all, I can turn on my TV and get literally hundreds of channels, a dozen of them dedicated to news. I can draw from hundreds of newspapers, most of them providing their news for free over the internet. And best of all, even if all these commercial sources were in cahoots, we have the pirate media–we are the pirate media. Never have so many people published their political thoughts to a public audience. It turned out the revolution wasn’t televised, it was blogged! We killed Trent Lott, and uncovered faulty reporting! We check those who check the news! It’s in your face, unfiltered, truth!
And in the end, it seems it’s just a lot of talk.
There is the moment in V when you take the position looking back at the televised audiences, and you see them collectively fail to be convinced that they are getting the real story. And that is the denouement. It is at that point that you know, when it comes to the end of the film, that the people will rise up against their oppressors. And yet, here we are with an administration that has lied to the people, has violated the law of the land, has attempted to manipulate them, and has failed utterly to protect them, and the best we can muster is a somewhat lower approval rating?!
Another piece that filters through from 1984 is a national surveillance system, driven by networked electronic technology. Vans (probably meant to remind us of BBC reception monitors) drive through neighborhoods sampling snippets of discussion. Here again, the US administration has deployed technologies to help listen to the chatter of “suspected terrorists”–you know: me, you, and the folks we know. If anything, blogs open up that conversation, providing a way of tracking public debate and molding propaganda to shape opinions about policy. In other words, we provide the bugs and willingly open up our brains to the thought police.
I have little doubt that future historians will be unkind to Bush II, and our children’s children will wonder how it was that Americans could be so naive and inactive in countering the actions of our representatives and leaders. Frankly, I don’t have an answer for them, unless it is this. The administration has done something that the rest of us have not: taken decisive action. In the first year of the war, there were protests and people acted to try to make clear that they did not support what was going on. Perhaps in the face of electoral defeat, many seem to have given up on the battle.
Many, I fear, have taken my strategy. I failed to vote for Gore assuming that if Bush won, he would be so positively inept that it would–in the long run–keep future Republicans out of office. He failed more spectacularly than I could have dreamed. Had I thought his work would have led to so many deaths, I never could have been so sanguine. And not only did this not hurt the far right, it seemed to bolster their position.
Perhaps buildings do not need to be blown up, but something has to happen beyond talk. It is not enough for those who oppose the current leadership to wait for another election. We don’t someone who will follow the attitudes of the public. We don’t need a government of campaign managers. And as much as I hate to admit it, we don’t need the flowering of a thousand voices. We need leaders, and action.