The Digital Journalist

by Beverly Spicer

September 2006

There is much hard-to-ignore, inauspicious rhetoric these days—wars and rumors of wars, the Middle East in chaos, countries telling other countries they don't deserve to exist. Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, all in shambles, and it looks like Iran is swiftly moving into the crosshairs. One would think there is already enough death and destruction to go around, but there is an unsettling suggestion that things are just getting started. Those in war and disaster zones are enduring what is for most of us unimaginable disruption, alteration or termination of life as they have known it, not to mention the loss of loved ones. Since only a handful of players are duking it out, sometimes by proxy and always at the expense of a great number of innocent people, the rest of us are in a state of near paralysis to contribute even one positive note in what seems like a symphony of darkness. Many feel trapped in a drama neither of their own making nor reflecting their desires, and the whole tenor and pitch of these confrontations is creating extraordinary cacophony and dissonance. If one is paying attention at all, it is hard to escape the relentless unfolding of multiple major events on a daily basis. As the president admitted, it is "straining the psyche of our country." I suggest it is straining the psyche of all countries, ours included. John Milton said, "They also serve who only stand and wait." To be sure, they also suffer who only sit and watch. We are all in this together. What fresh hell, indeed, awaits the world each step of what seems like a countdown to complete madness. Where is inspiration?

In typical fashion of our culture, I frequently find myself seeking relief from the madness of King George and his porphyric partners by going to the movies. Not coincidentally, the producers and directors of our real-life theater of the lethally absurd are also inclined to encourage us to stay entertained and distracted with a steady dose of film fantasy even more outlandish than some of the make-believe found on the real news (a feat becoming increasingly hard to achieve). The movie "Snakes on a Plane" is a success in that regard, and when I saw it, I screamed and yelled and was exhilarated along with the rest of the cult-status audience.

While watching the movie, it occurred to me that "Snakes on a Plane" is the perfect metaphor for what is happening to our entire society. We are trapped in a global drama like passengers sealed inescapably in a capsule catapulting through time, with violent and dangerous forces threatening us in the same way as hyped-up poisonous snakes on the "muthafuckin' plane." I listened carefully to the scripted words and heard things like "Do what I say and you'll live," which reminded me of The Decider enforcing unquestioning compliance with the usurpation of our constitutional rights. Are the American people too mesmerized by fear mongering or too busy shopping to notice we might need some of those missing rights one of these days? The repetitive lyrics to the film's closing song were strangely familiar: "Oh I'm ready for it. Come on, bring it." Does this sound like "Bring it on"? And where have we heard that before? Instead of a chicken in every pot, we're getting a snake in every psyche. Soon, we will be like the passengers in these two photographs, stripped completely naked as we get on board to face the metaphorical potential of snakes on steroids on every plane. If this "War on Terror" never ends, then snakes in our psyches won't either. No chickens allowed.

It is the rare mainstream newscaster who, rather than serving up an obscene portion of misleading, worthless or frightening news, gives the viewers food for thought. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann valiantly created the "Nexus of Politics and Terror" earlier in the summer in response to a growing suspicion—for some, a foregone conclusion—that the public's fear is being manipulated and magnified not by accident but design. Olbermann updated and replayed his video analysis to include the latest liquids-and-gels threat, and this thought-provoking news item has been e-mailed and viewed on the Web thousands of times since. We present it to you here, and we thank Mr. Olbermann for his valor and statistical insights.

"Utne Reader" this month has a cover story by David Schimke entitled, "Want to Know What's Really Going On? Ask a Comic." Schimke explores the reemergence of confrontational political humor, à la Lenny Bruce. It is ironic that fake news shows seem to do the best job of delivering verboten truths. Serious newspaper commentators, like NYT's Frank Rich, have resorted to dressing the anorexic First Amendment in a clown suit, a bit like John Ashcroft covering the bosom of Justice so as not to offend, except the former is compensating for an induced starvation while the later was hiding a well-proportioned voluptuousness (I would argue that under her cloak of secrecy Justice has now become obese). As evidenced in the lightness of the delivery of Olbermann's Nexus points and his show in general, many of us have noticed that the closer "Countdown" gets to comic news, the more pertinent are the questions. Cornell Capa once said of cartoons, speaking in his delightfully nuanced Hungarian accent, "I can say vith this vat I cannot say in person." Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" asks, "Is comedy the last bastion of social criticism in this country?" I'm thinking, yes, it is, at least in the mainstream. Picking up on the Orwellian nature of today's reality, Stewart did a brilliant bit the last week of August on propaganda, outlining in a not-so-subtle fashion how lies are represented as truth by officials whose real job it is to distort the facts. In the following video clip, Stewart satirizes The Ministry of Truth, where history is rewritten, reality twisted, words are opposite their true meaning, and propaganda is rapidly fired and famously catapulted, all with the intent it to produce one result: a confused, submissive and obedient public.

Back at the movies, I heard Snakes' hero Samuel Jackson say something like, "Now you can stand there and be the panicked, angry mob and blame him, me and the government for getting you into this, but if you want to survive tonight, you need to save your energy and start working together." Now, that line was something metaphorical the audience could take home from the theater even though we know more terrifying sequels are in store. There is something we can do after all, to bring some light to all this darkness. The idea of working together—there, is inspiration.

© Beverly Spicer

Beverly Spicer is a writer, photojournalist, and cartoonist, who faithfully chronicled The International Photo Congresses in Rockport, Maine, from 1987 to 1991. Her book, THE KA'BAH: RHYTHMS OF CULTURE, FAITH AND PHYSIOLOGY, was published in 2003 by University Press of America. She lives in Austin.