Authors: Rex Murphy
Ah, Mordecai, thou should’st be living at this hour!
All On Board for the Follies Express. The lunacies multiply.
Just after takeoff from La Guardia airport a passenger jet flies into a flock of birds. Both the jet’s engines—and it has only two—shut down, immediately. The pilot, a man with the wonderful name of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, has but seconds to react.
There are 137 passengers on board. He chooses to attempt to land his powerless aircraft on the Hudson River. Such attempts to glide-land modern jets on flowing water have a limited and discouraging history. Chesley Sullenberger, however, is not daunted. Chesley Sullenberger, cool as whole crateloads of the frostiest cucumbers, brings his plane down, skims it miraculously over the crowded Hudson River until, intact, it halts.
The passengers—women and children first, note you—emerge, and stand, crouch and cling on or to the jet’s wings. All are rescued. Chesley B. Sullenberger—O, hero of another age and time!—is the last to emerge. We learn later that Sullenberger went up and down the aisles of his rapidly sinking craft—twice—checking
that there was absolutely no one still on board before he ever so calmly—shall we say—deplaned.
Everyone is safe. Hardly anyone is even seriously injured. One hundred and thirty-seven people, whom chance and the cruel gods of ornithology had thrown in the way of almost certain death, are alive. Throw a ticker-tape parade for Sully!
Barely two weeks pass by, however, before a miserable handful of those passengers, or rather a handful of truly miserable passengers, announce that they’re
. Some want more than the $5,000 all have received for their luggage, which crash inspectors must keep for the duration of their necessary investigation. One magnificently doltish ingrate whom a
account tells us “suffered some bumps and bruises” is suing because, he says, he “wishes to be made whole for the incident.”
He wishes to be made whole for the incident. Someone should tell him he is
a complete idiot. No bits of his perfect idiocy fell off during the incident. He has them all. One hundred per cent of a dolt and an ingrate walked on that jet: one hundred per cent, unfortunately, was saved.
The markets of the whole world are crashing, Al Gore’s hysterical legions are raving about the impending global warming apocalypse, the Middle East is in one of its periodic showdowns, Iran is close to getting the nuclear bomb, the world is spinning off its axis—and a handful of people who have been saved from almost statistically certain death sue the airline that had the wit to have the world’s most competent pilot on duty at the time when competence was all. And, of that handful, one in particular utters as justification for his miserable ingratitude in pitch-perfect
therapy-speak the ultimate Oprah-bleat:
I want to be made whole
. Well, cry me a Hudson River, and throw in a jet.
I cannot speak for other people, but stories such as this one flood me with something like a manic urge to ram my head into the nearest concrete wall—repeatedly, until consciousness retreats and the pain from the spectacle of such typical idiocy recedes into the welcoming darkness.
It is the typicality of these stories, the number and frequency of them, that ignites the pain. There are far, far too many of them. We have long passed the balance point where satire or mockery can keep pace with their targets. That great Gandalf of twentieth-century journalism, Malcolm Muggeridge, long ago noted that the age we live in has voided the power of satire to castigate it. Our reality is far more absurd than any satirist’s imaginings. What Swift could invent Flavor Flav or Nancy Grace? Where is the Molière who could draw from his mind’s own store the daily councils of
Larry King probing Sean Penn on the geopolitics of Iraq? One void probing another. Shaw would retire gibbering into the darkness at the challenge of conjuring such a scene.
The follies and hypocrisies of the world multiply and breed, at a pace and with an extravagance far beyond satire’s ability to keep up with them. Every day’s newspaper carries stories that defy the sternest credibility, and wrench common sense from its tether. Reading them invokes the cry: can such things be? They are items in some huge Diary of a World Gone Mad. Before this great flood of inanity, self-contradiction and megalomaniacal self-righteousness, satire lies disarmed and exhausted, bleeding and in wounded retreat from a million headlines or television lead items.
Fifteen thousand frantic environmentalists jet in to Gabon or Rio to lay a group curse on the world’s carbon-consuming ways. They who anathematize the Alberta oil sands fly locust-like in great swarms to yet one more gargantuan “world-gathering” of planet-savers to natter on in first-class five-star hotel-spas about the world’s “oil addiction,” heedless that their venue, their flights, their meals, and the near equal swarm of the international press which is there to beam their empty jeremiads to the televisions and presses of a yawning world—that all of it is enabled, is made possible by, that “toxic” petroleum and the wealth that it generates, and that they so sanctimoniously deplore.
Heather McCartney wafts her shrewish way to the ice-packs off Labrador, with her bank-account (husband) Paul in sheepish tow, to rub noses with a baby seal and rattle on about cruelty and barbarism, days before she launches her dementedly bitter divorce action and displays herself to the world as one of the most callous and self-centred human beings ever to set a pack of lawyers loose to maul another human being. McCartney was her baby seal.
Lip-synching pop-singers, bling-smothered rappers, fourth-rate standup comics, and geriatric passé rockers dedicate a day, or an hour of a day—time is money—to Make Poverty History. These ludicrous, shallow, vain, shameless preeners wear rubber-bands on their wrists to show their “solidarity” with the world’s poor. They arrive on private jets, attended by mile-long “entourages” of sycophants and fixers, scratch each other’s eyes out to determine who gets top billing—most of them “earn” more in a hour, or wear around their neck some gaudy trinket that is worth far more, than any poor family anywhere in all the
world will make in several lifetimes—and they expect to be, and are, applauded for their “commitment,” for “caring,” for—may they choke on the phrase—“making a difference.”
Were Swift alive what would he say or write, what new Modest Proposal could hope to take the measure, stay the excesses, plumb the hypocrisies of these monumental farces? He could write nothing. Say nothing. There is no new Modest Proposal, however savage its premise or imaginative its scorn, that could challenge the extravagant waywardness of our present moment. Poor Swift would retire silent from the scene, overwhelmed by reality.
Madonna is a Kabbalahist. And I’m Isaac Newton. In Vancouver, the Eumenides of anti-smoking forbid a furtive draw anywhere within seven metres of any doorway, while simultaneously offer an “inclusive” welcome to three new hookah parlours. Inclusive me out, if I may update Samuel Goldwyn. Inclusiveness—how many are the sins done in thy name? An “inclusive” principal in a school in New Brunswick bans the daily singing of
. The anthem is the song of all of us, I thought. What could be—what is—more inclusive of Canadians than the anthem of all Canadians? Not in the diversity-respecting head of one principal of a school in an east coast province. So in the name of inclusiveness, our all-including
was for a while thought too stressful, too divisive, for morning observance.
Eventually we will tolerate and “inclusive” ourselves into oblivion. We will smudge or abrade our every common characteristic, violate all common sense in doing so, till “being Canadian” is a little more than a vague cloud of barely formed attitudes, a mere mist of politically correct half-thoughts empty of any content.
In some gazetteer of the future there will be an asterisk next to the Canada entry directing the reader to a footnote:
“Canada was unique among twentieth-and twenty-first-century nations in developing a code of such advanced civic sensitivity that its own national anthem was understood, certainly by the most enlightened of its population, to be an instrument of national division. Sexism and Godism were the ancient and now-abandoned anthem’s principal defects. That it might, too, be seen as advancing Patriotism was thought too vilely obvious to merit comment
Muggeridge was right. Satire cannot catch up with reality. And bear in mind that Muggeridge, despite a lifetime of witness and experience, made his observation when what we call news was less “full” than it is now, more neat and defined. Muggeridge, and his saintly spirit is surely smiling with gratitude for the consideration, died well before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and multi-channel universe, before “reality television,” and the “entertainment-news” buckets/shows, before the twisted inception of remorseless talk-therapy afternoon shows—the bottomless vulgarity and shamelessness of Dr. Phil and his tacky gibberish may stand for all of these—before too, of course, the rise and spread of the Internet, which overlays all other modes of public communication and which multiplies and intensifies all that is
, stark and witless in the daily diet of bulletins from the world that is modern journalism.
The Internet, let me be clear, doesn’t “create” the craziness of the world’s news. There are in fact on the Internet, if one cares to look for them, some of its most acute diagnosticians. But the Internet came upon the world of news as it was like a vat of
adrenalin and—in tandem with the explosion of cable channels and continuous, 24-hour news—exponentially accelerated our exposure to news, and its abundant, unfailing absurdities.
It is probably clear that I don’t subscribe to that out dated and cozy description of journalism as the “first draft of history.” It’s a far too grand and finished a phrase under which to file the massive jumble and sprawl of modern news making. It carries with it too the implication that someone, somewhere, sometime is going to do a rewrite. I wish that sad he or she good luck. It is of course just not going to happen.
In a tidier time, now so long past, when news outlets were relatively few, reporters reported and commentators wrote dutiful, grey expositions on the public announcements of the government of the day, when events had, or seemed to have, a self-contained quality about them, it may have been possible to entertain the notion that what one read on the front page or heard on the prestige news hours of the great networks was a sketch, however tentative, of what Walter Cronkite called in his nightly sign-off “the way it is.”
News then was just news, so to speak. News stories had a fixed and familiar shape. In fact, as I remember them from my earliest dips into journalism in the Newfoundland of the sixties, they all had a similar sound as well. They were as rigid in form and flow as pop songs, and oftentimes nearly as dreary. They were like little packets or pellets of “news-stuff”: A. Announcer reads lead sentence. B. Voice clip of premier or newsmaker. C. Announcer reads factoid.
“Mr. Smallwood today announced that construction would begin on the new Linerboard mill.” Voicer of Smallwood: “Total
cost of the project will be $30 million, and provide 400 desperately needed jobs in the Stephenville area.” End of item. Or as things heated up in my always volatile province, as heat up they did when John Crosbie staged a revolt against Smallwood, they took on the flavour of an exchange of gunfire—pellets of a different kind, but still pellets, neatly organized and discrete: Announcer: “Premier Smallwood today alleged that several of the Crosbie delegates to the upcoming Liberal leadership convention had their Liberal membership cards ‘paid for’ by the Crosbie leadership team.” Voicer of Smallwood: “John Crosbie is trying to buy the Liberal leadership. Well, I’m here to tell Mr. Crosbie that he won’t succeed. Mr. Crosbie can’t buy the leadership because I won’t let him. And if he can’t buy it, he won’t win it.” Announcer: “Mr. Crosbie is expected to respond to the allegations at a news conference at the Holiday Inn, Portugal Cove Road, tonight.”
This would have been followed by some story, say, about a “raffle that raised over $2,440 for the Janeway Children’s Hospital,” newscast’s movement from politics to philanthropy a kind of silent cue that the “serious” stuff, for now anyway—Crosbie’s return fire was yet to come—was over.
That world of news is as ancient as Marco Polo. News as a discrete category of information comprising calamity, government announcement, and extraordinary event, is dead. News is everything we hear, watch or read. Everything.
All the convenient categories have dissolved and blended into one another. What was entertainment is now news; what was news is entertainment. Bono sits in on the G8 summit. Sarkozy
trails in the wake of his supermodel wife Carla Bruni. Hollywood is Washington: Washington is Hollywood. Is Obama the President of the United States, or the biggest celebrity in all the world? Is he a star or a politician?
Court cases are ersatz scripts for daily talk shows, the blindfolded goddess daily mocked and mutilated by the unspeakable Nancy Grace.