Today I continue my extended meditation on the Trayvon Martin debacle. Rather than talk about the case itself, I want to say something about my response to the extensive, obsessive discussion of the case by cable television pundits and opinionators. More particularly, I have been trying to understand why I cannot bring myself to listen to that commentary even when it is offered by people with whom I fundamentally agree. Some of those who have appeared [Bob Herbert, for example] are African-American reporters or columnists who have offered searing, heartrending accounts of their own experiences and those of their teenage sons. Those comments express an involvement with American racism far beyond anything I have myself experienced, and I would have thought that however painful I found such accounts, I would feel a need to hear them and to offer my own silent assent. And yet something compels me to turn off the television set or change channels whenever the comments begin. Why, I ask myself, is this so?
My answer, such as it may be, traces its lineage both to Marshall McLuhan and to Søren Kierkegaard. From McLuhan I take the profound insight that the medium is the message, a slogan with very wide application. From Kierkegaard I have learned the distinction between the ethical and the aesthetic -- namely that the essence of the ethical is repetition whereas the essence of the aesthetic is novelty.
First, McLuhan. Long ago, as a young man in New York City, teaching at Columbia, I experienced firsthand the wisdom of McLuhan's slogan. I was one of a small group of lefties invited during the late Sixties to appear on David Suskind's television show to talk about radicalism in the university. The six of us were rambunctious and full of beans and spent our time beating up on Suskind for his lily-livered liberalism. We thought we had demolished him, and were pretty pleased with ourselves, until, as the credits were rolling at the end of our half-hour of speaking truth to power, he turned to us and said enthusiastically, "Great show!" All of a sudden, it washed over me. Suskind was in the business of producing, week after week, a show that would generate enough sparks to keep viewers riveted and sponsors satisfied. We had very kindly provided him with just that. Next week, we would be gone, he would be back, perhaps with a group of right wing scolds, and so long as the excitement did not languish, his ratings would keep the show on the air and his paycheck coming.
Cable and television commentators, whatever their political leanings, are in the business of attracting viewers whose demographics please the ad agencies. The one thing they cannot abide is dead air time. Their stock in trade is novelty. But ethical truth does not change, as Socrates reminds Callicles in the Gorgias, and hence the essence of ethical truth is repetition. When Alex Wagner [whom I love] or Rachel Maddow [whom I also love] or Chris Matthews [whom I tolerate] or Joe Scarborough [whom I despise] assembles a panel to discuss the Trayvon Martin case, the unspoken imperatives are: First, that they keep talking, even if there is no more to be said; Second, that they acknowledge the reasonableness and acceptability of the views expressed by their fellow panelists, even if that is manifestly untrue; and Finally that they refrain from offering judgments so uncompromisingly declarative and final that they shut off rather than open up discussion.
For the most part, I am comfortable with these rules of the trade. I turn on those shows to be amused, to have my own prejudices echoed, to enjoy a bit of schadenfreude at the expense of the Right. I do not turn them on to be informed, nor, Lord help me, to be intellectually challenged. Only rarely does one encounter in these settings someone intelligent and well-informed who has not internalized the rules of the genre. That is what makes Elizabeth Warren so delightful, for example.
But when a genuine moral outrage is perpetrated, such as the murder of Trayvon Martin, the last thing I want is amusement. I feel rage, and I want, but cannot have, revenge. The formal constraints of the medium defeat even those commentators who are experiencing the same rage and seek to give voice to it. They are as easily defeated as I was all those years ago on the David Suskind show. McLuhan was right. The medium really is the message.