Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"Bravo" for the Omniculture

One of the biggest trends of the past couple of decades has been the increasing commercialization of what used to be thought of as a counterculture.

The 1950s and '60s movement to question all existing values quickly entered the mainstream, and in the 1980s it basically became the mainstream, insofar as there is such a thing in our fractured Omniculture. The values pursued are originality, passion, assertiveness, authenticity, and the like.

In the Omniculture, a place without a central set of widely shared values, enormous corporate conglomerates pursue particular audience slices by means of "edgy," aggressively weird programming.

Pay-cable series such as Six Feet Under and Weeds, for example, are programs that really make very little sense as entertainment or popular art, although there are interesting thoughts to be found in them, but they are able to find an audience because a certain thrill is given to viewers as participating in something truly "challenging" that sets them apart from their boring neighbors who watch football and shop at Wal-Mart.

Frame image from TV series Six Feet Under

This is vividly true of the cable network Bravo, which started out as basically an opera and ballet channel and in the past few years has evolved into an outlet for would-be urban sophisticates—under the ownership of corporate giant NBC, and with large investments of money from the latter.

Project Runway promo shot

A new article in Broadcasting and Cable summarizes it well:
For a network that began life more than 25 years ago as a pay channel devoted to performing-arts programming, Bravo has come a long way. Once the bastion of opera, ballet and repertory theater, it's now the network of Runway host and supermodel Heidi Klum, bad-boy R&B singer Bobby Brown and the Fab Five.

Since being acquired by NBC in 2002, Bravo has morphed into a decidedly more middle-brow programmer, with celebrity-studded unscripted series like Runway, Top Chef and Being Bobby Brown aimed squarely at viewers in the advertiser-prized 18-49 demographic. But while other networks have attracted new—and younger—viewers with similar programming changes, [Bravo president Lauren] Zalaznick and her team are zeroing in on a select group of smart, affluent viewers, with an aggressive marketing strategy positioning the once buttoned-down network as fabulously hip and positively off the charts with buzz.

And there are signs that it's working. Project Runway, which celebrates the creative process—and cut-throat competition—behind clothing design, is the most watched series in Bravo's history, with an episode last month drawing a record 4.1 million viewers. The network's third-quarter primetime audience was its highest ever, with an average 627,000 viewers.
Of course, what is "fabulously hip and positively off the charts with buzz" today is ordinary and dull tomorrow. That is why the boundary of strangeness and perversity must always move outward, as today's "sophisticates" attempt to prove themselves more adventurous and authentic than their predecessors.

And that is why the Omniculture, in concert with new technology, continually fractures the society into radically smaller pieces. It remains a mystery as to what the ultimate outcome of such a process must be—but it doesn't seem likely to be overly salubrious.

From Karnick on Culture.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Those Evil Yet Lovable Innocent Terrorists

There's been some new legislation about the jihadistish prisoners currently held by the US. My best understanding is that a) it was mandated by a recent Supreme Court decision which said, we have no clue about all this---so go write a law, y'all;

b) Without it, CIA agents could be prosecuted by a future administration for what is deemed OK by the previous one; and

c) It's important that congress (and the president) declare the Official American interpretation of Geneva and other international codes so that CIA agents cannot be prosecuted by foreign or international courts.

So that's the legal thing.

What is not commonly known is that through the good graces of such peacemakers as Jimmy Carter, Noam Chomsky, Jesse Jackson and Cindy Sheehan, secret laptop videoconferences with al-Qaeda were held---although Mother Sheehan's wi-fi failed to function in her ditch outside Crawford, TX---and a private deal was reached that's fair and just to all parties, things being what they are. The Reform Club has the scoop.

From now on:

---Al-Qaeda will make every reasonable attempt to sharpen their knives, daggers and swords before they cut our heads off. Using dull blades for decapitations is so 2004.

---Aforementioned heads must be dropped within a mile or two (or three, in a pinch) of wherever they dump our bodies, to help with the sorting out.

---Aforementioned bodies must be dumped at the side of the road and not where they can be run over, although those cute little islands with the palm trees on divided highways are OK, since few people drive there.

---Our bodies and/or heads may not be set on fire unless we check the "cremation" box in the Preferred Method of Disposal section of Human Rights Watch's Hostage-Abductee Questionnaire (Form 267B).

---All forced conversions to Islam come with a 30-day money-back guarantee, although failed converts, as apostates, must still be hunted down and executed although it's not exactly in the Qur'an, but only in a Hadith. But just in case.

In return, the US agrees:

---No waterboarding after 10 PM.

---No secret prisons in Romania. Romania sucks. Really.

---No more of that damn Christina Aguilera music. That fits any human being's definition of torture.

And at Guantánamo Bay:

---All soccer balls must be inflated to FIFA specifications of 60-110 kilopascals. (1 pascal [Pa] ≡ 145.04×10−6 psi) Abu Hamed (not his real name) lost a goal last week when his perfect shot scooted over the crosspost due to an overly hard ball. It was clearly America's fault.

---As we're getting past our jihadi primes around here, the Noble and Holy Qur'an must be made available in large-print editions.

---Too much garlic in the hummus, and the halvah is kinda spongy. The lamb kabob is pretty good though, but who does somebody have to IED around here to get some camel?

---All feces, sperm or urine thrown by detainees at their guards will be returned to its rightful owner(s), in hermetically sealed plastic bags to avoid contamination of the contents.

---Since the early mid-afternoon call to prayer comes right in the middle of Oprah, TiVo shall be declared an essential human right.

---Jesus Christ, man, don't you dare return us to our Muslim home countries!!!! What, are you savages??????!!!!!

A War Of Ideas

Perhaps nothing has shaken my natural optimism quite as roughly as this: war, which nation-states had once managed to "tame" into scheduled battles at appointed places, between uniformed armies that exhibited deep respect for the lives and property of noncombatants, has returned to its oldest and most savage roots. The most recognizable force behind this regression dares to call itself a religion, but in the absence of Islam, no doubt the "aspirations" of secular terrorist groups would have served equally well.

War, broadly speaking, is the collectivization of our tendency to seek our ends through violence. It should surprise no one that persons of low mentality and no morality should find violence an appealing means. Nor should it surprise us that persons of intelligence and good will should abhor it, even when they concede the necessity. Yet bafflingly, the savages, who by logic ought to fall on one another as readily as on us, have shown the greater facility for organizing themselves for war, while we of the nominally civilized world, for whom organization is a fundamental, deeply driven skill, wring our hands and endlessly seek a gentler way.

Terrorist scum, incapable of living peaceably in the world as they find it, have turned the world's great cities into hostages. They even slaughter those in whose names they claim to fight, without pause or pity. Villainous governments cheerfully exploit such groups, and our fear of them, to stave off the administration of punishment for their crimes.

Our magnificent military forces are, if not paralyzed, at the least greatly frustrated by the ease which which the terrorists strike their chosen targets. They yearn to be unleashed and to spring upon the foe, but until the instant he strikes, he's nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, the country they've set free and hope to guard as it establishes an acceptable system of government writhes and bleeds under the blows of the terrorists. Its people ask ever more angrily why we can't shield them any better than we've done.

I am a military thinker and a lover of justice. I burn with the desire to close upon these miscreants -- at the very least, to play a part as a planner and weaponeer in effecting their demise. But the precepts with which I've addressed armed conflict in the past are unsuitable to the wars of the present, and I can find none with which to replace them.

  • We cannot rely on our traditional ways of pursuing villains, for the villains have mastered the art of hiding among persons from whom we cannot distinguish them, and who fear them more than they fear us.
  • We cannot adopt their tactics for our own. They don't care whom they hurt. We do.
  • We cannot simply rampage through the lands that gave birth to the terrorists, slaying indiscriminately. It would be tantamount to national suicide.
  • ...but we cannot accept the status quo.

This is a war of ideas: strategic and tactical ideas. Today, the terrorists have the cutting-edge ideas, the initiative, and a range of targets against which to use them. Until we succeed in wresting those advantages away from them, the outlook will be bleak.

What, then, must we do?

Liberty and Culture

I've just returned from a conference on great Americans' contributions to the nation's ongoing discussion of liberty and order. What struck me most strongly was the fact that our opinions on liberty depend so greatly on our cultural treatment of the issue, and that the latter depends so thoroughly on leadership.

To read the speeches and other writings of great leaders such as Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and the two presidents Roosevelt (as much as I disagree with the positions of these last two individuals), one is positively revolted by the puerility and ignorance of our modern politicians. Since Ronald Reagan there has not been a leader in either American political party whose thinking and writings could approach placing them in a class with these persons, or even as close as several notches below.

Certainly one could suggest a variety of reasons for this, but the greatest of these, I believe, is a simple deficiency of interest in and understanding of basic principles. Our modern politicians seem far too caught up in politics, as opposed to being interested in and willing to investigate in depth the principles behind human action and political activity.

This has always been true to some degree, but today's leaders seem constitutionally incapable of distinguishing the foundational from the ephemeral.

President Clinton's long lists of policy prescriptions divorced from any principle other than the notion that the federal government exists to take every possible action that can be imagined to contribute somehow to making everything better for everybody, is a perfect example of this sense of governance divorced from principle. So is George W. Bush's stark inability to explain precisely what principles motivate his bewilderingly contradictory policies (such as cutting taxes while rapidly raising federal spending or calling for school choice while nationalizing K-12 education).

Our current-day politicians are thorough products of the Omniculture, a place without a shared set of central values. Hence, their immersion in minutiae and limited ability to adress issues of fundamental principle should not exactly surprise us.

However, even if it is too much to expect, and unwise to want, our poltiical leaders to be entirely free of the cultural assumptions of our time or to live in an ethereal world of abstract contemplation of Platonic ideals, it is not only possible but in fact necessary for our societal health that they engage the greatest thinking of the past and apply to the problems of our time the principles found therein.

That they fail to do this is entirely their fault and is not excusable by reference to broader social and cultural trends. It is simply wrong.

From Karnick on Culture.