Ever wonder about the mental experience of someone living in the year 1200 and how it differs from your own? This is where George Saunders begins his piece, “The Braindead Megaphone,” written in 2003. He then explores the “change in what human beings are asking their minds to do on a daily basis,” which leads necessarily into an examination of the media and our relationship with it.
Imagine you’re at a party and a guy walks in with a megaphone; it’s easy to see how this would slowly but dramatically alter the nature of the party, the conversations and the people in it. Megaphone Guy’s “main characteristic is his dominance. He crowds the other voices out. His rhetoric becomes the central rhetoric because of its unavoidability.” What happens to the guests? They “stop believing in their value as guests, and come to see their main role as reactors-to-the-Guy.” Today’s leading Megaphone Guy? Trump, who has “in effect, put an intelligence-ceiling on the party.”
The inauguration of Modern Megaphone Guy begins, for Saunders, with the O.J. Simpson trial, which, given its 2016 rebirth in our national psyche, seems cruelly apt now. He highlights how our coverage of it, nestled in the profit motive of capitalism, altered not only how we think, but what we could even think about. Just as Megaphone Guy transforms our discourse, so too the media. It amplifies our narrative bias and reduces everything to easily digestible binaries that we eat up and shit out as Truth and Reality. In reflecting on the path from O.J. to 9/11, Saunders asks:
Does stupid, near-omnipresent media make us more tolerant toward stupidity in general? It would be surprising if it didn’t. Is human nature such that, under certain conditions, stupidity can come to dominate, infecting the brighter quadrants, dragging everybody down with it?
Is it possible that we create echo chambers of “intelligence” running in parallel to this stupidity, that we adopt the same form and function of this new stupid power and then act all high and mighty about how right we have it, especially compared to all those idiots out there? Do we forget that we’re in here with everyone else? That we’re all fundamentally stupid because of the stupid images of worlds we’re hearing and internalizing as the way things are?
Saunders goes on to question the “information” that we get from our media, which has “made us dumber and more accepting of slop.” Think of what comes up in conversation and how trivial (stupid) it invariably is. For me, it’s usually the latest piece of entertainment I’ve consumed. “What do you mean you haven’t seen [insert latest Netflix show]?” And we mistake that for reasonable, intelligent conversation, forgetting that “there is…a cost to dopey communication, even if that dopey communication is innocently intended. And the cost of dopey communication is directly proportional to the omnipresence of the message.” With VR and AR set to invade, and media being the message, it can’t get more omnipresent. We’re in the age of Idiocracy, closely following our cherished leader: Media.
Mass media’s job is to provide this simulacra of the world, upon which we build our ideas. There’s another name for this simulacra-building: storytelling. Megaphone Guy is a storyteller, but his stories are not so good. Or rather, his stories are limited…
If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, inconvertible. Our venture in Iraq was a literary failure, by which I mean a failure of imagination…
A culture capable of imagining complexly is a humble culture.
Hatred is a failure of imagination, a failure of empathy, likely betrayed by some story that you’ve been taught is the world. When the story is blasted on repeat, how could you not let your imagination fade, let that lesson become your perspective? How could you not become braindead?
Media functions for us as “a time killer…a sedative or stimulant at the end of a long day.” The source of our long day is the same thing as our relief from it: capitalism and consumerism. The drive to make money, the feeling that we’ve earned our rest. We’re working for a weekend that doesn’t exist, stuck running on our hedonic treadmills.
Salvation can only come from us. We are our media. As Saunders argues, and as I repeated to my Media Studies classes, there’s “no leering Men Behind the Curtain: just a bunch of people from good universities, living out the dream, cringing a little at the dog-crap story even as they ensure that it goes out on time, with excellent production values.” We are the masks we wear, and we’re all playing the Fool.
The media “community constitutes a kind of de facto ruling class, because what it says we can’t avoid hearing, and what we hear changes the way we think.” My brain changes when I come to visit my parents because a television is always on. So there’s always some straight-up nonsense – utterly alluring – playing in the background. I frequently bring it to the foreground because…well…there it is. How can I avoid it? Except I can avoid it; it’s just easier for me to choose to swim in it.
Like any ruling class, this one looks down on those it rules. The new twist is that this ruling class rules via our eyes and the ears. It fills the air, and thus our heads, with its priorities and thoughts, and its new stunted diction.
This isn’t a new twist so much as the twist – which, actually, it’s a norm, a rule – is way more efficient. The person we imagined living in the year 1200 had his eyes and ears and brain working with information that dictated his way through the world; the information simply arrived via different media. (I don’t know, public decrees?) We’ve always been altered by the world that other people present to us as The World. Our current forms of representation may be more sophisticated…in their stupidity. At the end of the day (thanks for the phrase, Megaphone Guy), we’ve always been suckers.
Saunders – like any critic – wants to make our case seem special though:
But I think we’re in an hour of special danger, if only because our technology has become so loud, slick, and seductive, its power of self-critique so insufficient and glacial. The era of the jackboot is over: the forces that come for our decency, humor, and freedom will be extolling, in beautiful smooth voices, the virtue of decency, humor, and freedom.
Neil Postman says as much in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death:
…what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.
It’s not the explicit totalitarianism of 1984 that we should fear, but the subtle colonization of all our minds that’s currently unfolding. What can we do?
This battle, like any great moral battle, will be won, if won, not with some easy corrective tidal wave of Total Righteousness, but with small drops of specificity and aplomb and correct logic, delivered titrationally, by many of us all at once.
We’re fighting more than Trump, and we’re doing it for longer than a few tweets or Facebook posts. Do we have that kind of endurance? The commitment essential to any meaningful change? Or are we stuck with the braindead Megaphone because we already are the braindead Megaphone?
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?