Relevant to Our Present Condition

Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist, a terrific book. It’s about about McCarthyism and its grip on America in the 1950s, and this monologue on page 284 from Murray Ringold, an English teacher in Newark and the brother of the protagonist Ira Ringold feels like it could be spoken today:

Once the human tragedy has been completed, it gets turned over to the journalists to banalize into entertainment… In Gossip We Trust. Gossip as gospel, the national faith. McCarthyism as the beginning not just of serious politics but of serious everything as entertainment to amuse the mass audience. McCarthyism as the first postwar flowering of the American unthinking that is now everywhere.

McCarthy was never in the Communist business; if nobody else knew that, he did. The show-trial aspect of McCarthy’s patriotic crusade was merely it’s theatrical form. Having cameras view it just gave it the false authenticity of real life. McCarthy understood better than any American politician before him that people whose job was to legislate could do far better for themselves by performing; McCarthy understood the entertainment value of disgrace and how to feed the pleasures of paranoia. He took us back to our origins, back to the seventeenth century and the stocks. That’s how the country began: moral disgrace as public entertainment. McCarthy was an impressario, and the wilder the views, the more outrageous the charges, the greater the disorientation and the better all-around fun. (that emphasis is mine)

As we read the last line, names come to mind: Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Lou Dobbs, and their overlord and master impressario Roger Ailes of course.

But the overall sentiment — the turning of “everything” into entertainment — applies more broadly, to liberal as well conservative. To the Huffington Post.  Even to the uber-serious NY Times, with columnists like Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich who trivialize important issues and cover policy and politics as if it were Hollywood or Broadway (Frank Rich was, of course, a Broadway critic before he turned his foul pen to politics). To Matt Taibbi, even, in the Rolling Stone.

Barack Obama, in his inaugural address, said: “(T)he time has come to set aside childish things.” One year and more into his presidency, he’s lived up to that directive more than anyone else in public life. But most of the rest of us haven’t. We remain, as Roth describes us, immersed in the “flowering of American unthinking that is now everywhere.”


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