03 July 2011

Reflections Via the Fun-House Mirror

Rather than a platter of link sausages the day before we celebrate our first declaration of "Mission Accomplished," I thought I'd bore you with some theoretical musings that have been getting more focused over the last decade... and more useful as predictors of the future. Just bear with me, authors; this might scare you, but it might be educational and helpful, too.

So, then: How are contemporary American politics and contemporary American commercial entertainment (and, in particular, publishing) merely slightly distorted reflections of each other... and the closer one looks, the less the reflections are distortions?

Perhaps the most obvious relationship between the two seemingly disparate fields is their use — indeed, overuse and reliance upon, to the exclusion of all else — of theatrical overacting as the sole means of appealing to their respective audiences. This isn't always literally acting, either; just look at the blurbs accompanying the Next! Bestselling! Thriller! from any New York commercial publisher, or the Next! Summer! Blockbuster! from any H'wood studio, or the Next! Last! Hope! of the Endangered! American! Middle! Class! emerging from some semi-obscure portion of Real! America! More to the point, look at all of the extended campaign speeches masquerading as political memoirs that have hit bestseller lists over the years, particularly since Ford's memoir1 made them (somewhat) sexy. I can hardly wait for Monica Goodling's2...

That, however, is only a surface reflection; it concerns methods far more than substance. Instead, there's a far more fundamental, and structural, similarity that explains why both are broken, perhaps beyond mere repair: The audience of intermediaries no longer has sufficient congruence with the audience of the public at large, because the very purposes of those audiences has become not just disparate, but inconsistent. American idealism proposes that government is a mechanism for enabling both individuals and the collective "We, the People" to pursue a better good, for disparate, crankily individualistic, and truly strange definitions of both "better" and "good." Perhaps the best example of this is the twisting of the Intellectual Property Clause:

The Congress shall have Power... [t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;3

which tells us that copyright, and patents, and distribution of individual copies of writings (and other works of art) and inventions, have a purpose of "promot[ing] the progress of science and useful arts" through a mechanism of a limited economic monopoly — a grant of power over the particular writing/invention by the state for the benefit of all, whatever that benefit might turn out to be.

That is all well and good. It is imperfect; but then, it is human, and therefore will be imperfect no matter what. It is certainly an improvement upon every system for encouraging innovation on a broad level that had been tried before.4 I should not need to remind a nation of cranky individualists of the dangers of patronage as the filter for all progress and public discourse (although it appears that such a reminder is, indeed, necessary5). The problem is that the respective intermediaries have forgotten that "ends shape means," and "means shape ends," but that the ends are not the same thing as the means. Instead, they've accepted the Gravitational Accretion Maxim of Life:

The object of power is power.6

Understanding that the sole purpose of the intermediaries — whether we're talking about partisan apparatchiks or sales-and-marketing dorks who have been promoted to management positions within an entertainment-industry business really doesn't matter — is to consolidate their personal positions by increasing what got them those personal positions explains an awful lot about the entertainment industry... and American politics. The key distinction, though, isn't that the intermediaries are in fact different from their respective audiences; it's that they perceive themselves as different from their respective audiences, and rely upon "divide and conquer" tactics in consolidating that position. That distinction is both a necessary and a sufficient explanation for

and more other problems common to both the entertainment industry and politics than I can count. Certainly, there will be some overlap between any two major segments of a society; this, however, is more than a bit ridiculous.

There is a certain self-reference, a certain reflexiveness, in this that is all too appropriate to the American celebration of a "declaration of independence" instead of either the victory in the following war or the inception of America as a united entity. So, for that matter, is the concept that American distrust of monopolies and monopsonies should be discounted for monopolies and monopsonies that have, even once in the distant past, been part of "innovation"... whether we're talking about financial or political markets. And that's just the way it is.

I'm not proposing a violent revolution of any kind; can you just imagine trying to get gathering of authors, or of artists, or of musicians, to agree on anything? I am, instead, suggesting that individual authors — and individuals concerned with politics — embrace Margaret Mead's aphorism that one should not doubt that a few strong and enlightened individuals can make a difference... because that's the only thing that ever has. That is also the principle underlying the Intellectual Property Clause: That given appropriate incentive, creative individuals will, through their efforts, create and thereby promote progress. The irony of emphasizing "enlightened" and a document written during the Enlightenment, compared to what actually happens on the Fourth of July here in East Central Redneckistan (which is definitely part of what Palin and Bachmann would call "Real America" — we know damned well what plays in Peoria, which is only a two-hour drive away), is just too much before caffeine. Or, as Ben Franklin himself might have preferred, real ale/beer brewed under Reinheitsgebot (1516) (the German beer purity law).

  1. See Harper & Row, Pubs., Inc. v. Nation Enters., 471 U.S. 539 (1985).
  2. See In re Monica Marie Goodling, No. 07–042–070763 (Va. Bar 4th Dist., 05 May 2011) (concerning unlawful partisan influence on DoJ hiring and promotion). One might wonder how she got away with merely a reprimand for a blatant violation of her oath of office... but that would require the bar to actually have balls in the first place, and to really be self-regulating.
  3. U.S. Const. Art. I, § 8, cl. 8.
  4. See, e.g., Elizabeth Armstrong, Before Copyright: The French Book-Privilege System 1498–1526 (1990); Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe, Copyright in the Renaissance: Prints and the Privilegio in Sixteenth-Century Venice and Rome (2004).
  5. Cf., e.g.,, Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003).
  6. Emmanuel Goldstein, Principles of Collective Oligarchy (date unknown), quoted in George Orwell, 1984: A Novel (1949).