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Calamity and Comedy

-People are crazy and times are strange. [Bob Dylan]

On January 13, 2010 the nation of Haiti was visited with calamity.  In response to this epic and awful emergency, the conscience of humankind has been moved to extraordinary sympathy, sorrow, and action.  Countless individuals and numerous nations have replied to the disaster with heartfelt grief and empathy, and with donation of money, goods, and services.

Certain journalists, particularly some television journalists, scarcely could conceal their sense of program and personal marketing opportunity. A desolation so colossal, so photogenic, could not fail to generate during this period of protracted economic crisis an occasion for demonstration, ratings, and advertising. Networks dispatched celebrity correspondents and their support systems. Promotional apparatuses subtly trumpeted the event and its coverage as a validation of television journalism as an apparatus: a social necessity, a system by which humanity can make witness to history in process. Implicitly, however, these relentless television network self-promotions also entail and mean that making witness to mayhem and misery is a species, furtive but not faint, of entertainment.

[I want to make specific exception to this generalization for Mr. Anderson Cooper and his remarkable CNN team.  In their response to this as to so many other contemporary tragedies, Mr. Cooper and his colleagues have provided exemplary reportage, consummate commitment, and striking compassion.  As well as longevity.  Mr. Cooper, his colleagues, and his network have devoted enormous investments of time and funding to bring the story of the calamity to the world;  and the story of the world’s reaction to the calamity.  I believe Mr. Cooper should be nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.]

This journalistic consciousness of suffering as entertainment, a consciousness subliminal rather than overt, has been horridly confirmed by the American media’s daily sequence of story-making.  For the other great journalistic subject of this week in the United States, across all media platforms, has been the comedy programs of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, the travails of their network and its affiliates, and the fairness or injustice with which their corporate employer has treated these obscenely privileged and not particularly talented entertainers.  Urgent attention in the United States can be compelled almost equally by catastrophe and comedians, for both operate upon the modern American consciousness as elements of entertainment.

Even the New York Times has succumbed to and fueled this disorder in meaning and priority.  In its January 14, 2010 edition, a senior reporter included in his article about the comedians’ dispute with the National Broadcasting System several absurdly sonorous comments from industry analysts.  One example:  “People have rallied around Mr. O’Brien not because they adore his ‘Tonight Show’ but ‘because he’s suddenly become an unlikely (Harvard-educated, multimillionaire) Everyman: the freckled face of American job insecurity, a well-meaning hard worker who’s spent years paying his dues but has now been declared redundant by the halfwit overlords driving his company into the ground.’”

The article later reports that The Consumerist, a commercial blog published in association with Consumer Reports, made public “e-mail addresses for NBC executives and proposed an ‘executive e-mail carpet bomb.  Get them to pull the dagger out of Conan’s back before it’s too late for all of us,’ the blog wrote.”

These overreactions are silly.  But they also are signifiers.  They suggest how confused many modern persons are about what is significant and what is not, and what is tragic and what is not.  This is not a question about orders of magnitude.  A calamity that wreaks death on many tens of thousands of human beings and carnage upon a nation is significant and tragic, and requires profound and sustained response.  The realignment of an unsuccessful television schedule is not even noteworthy.  The cathartic posturing of two comedians should not attract extensive feature coverage by the American media, nor an outpouring of abreaction and personal identification by, apparently, millions of American citizens.

What does this ludic lack of relation with proper proportion mean?  From what does it derive?  What does it portend for the American society, and for the many international civilization and communities the American culture influences?

We see here one of the many illustrative instances in American life of the invidious impact of opulence.  Emptiness and boredom are hallmarks of our polity.  We have been given so much, but many among us feel balked, frustrated, foiled.  We feel empty.  We earn, spend, acquire, use, explore, exploit, yet we feel ever more undefined, unfulfilled, barren.  We mask our hunger for identity and meaning by seeking entertainment, which we mistake for actual experience and authentic personation.  A disastrous event in Haiti and lasting distress for an immensely suffering people can seem to the badly bored citizens of western empire merely a story, replete with stock images and sound bites, to accompany a breakfast as a read or an evening as a broadcast.  The contrivances of comedians, their rise, their fall, their entitlements, their gibes, seem to us another saga, food or fodder to fall into but not fill the maw of our unconscious randomness, chaos, and degradation.

This is a condition not merely American, and not modernist alone.  In the literature of every society in every era, we read that one of the universal attributes of affluence is anomie.  Entropy attaches itself to entitlement.  A weary emptiness often surrounds and circumstances wealth.  Many persons who are vastly privileged frequently feel undernourished; and many who are desperately impoverished commonly create multiple pathways for fulfillment, love of living, and seemingly inexplicable gratitude.

Abundance seems often to generate a deep sense of vacancy or void.  Those who possess a disproportionate share of their community’s resources and goods seem to have a tapeworm embedded in their psyche and spirit.  Hunger for more gnaws at their soul.  No matter how much sanction and status they accrue, they ache to be yet further elevated in social consequence, to amass additional power, to be additionally known, felt, acknowledged, and, above all else, engaged, aroused, amused, entertained.  We do now read of such circumstances among the radically disestablished.  Just as we do not hear of many eating disorders among the people of Bangladesh or Darfur.

This may be a kind of insanity: the inanity of affluence, the ennui of entitlement.  It does not belong to the United States solely.  It is to be found everywhere that large and unjust divisions develop among human beings and across human societies.


We will further explore these complex and disturbing issues in subsequent posts.