Watching the Republican Debate tonight on CNBC, I was struck most of all by the production values, and what they say about how our media distorts our lived experience, even in this supposedly "unfiltered" setting of a live debate.
Just as in every TV debate I can remember, the candidates were placed against a red, white and blue, luminous backdrop. Patriotic design elements (stars, stripes, etc.) appeared to dance around their heads.
The faces of these older white men looked well-tanned (read: made-up), and their eyes flashed pleasingly in the lights. The graphics that introduced them to the viewers were swift and expressive. The snatches of music that led into advertisements -- and grabbed us again after breaks -- were, frankly, invigorating.
The candidates' answers, of course, were uniformly banal, just as the Democrats' answers are in their debates.
What is going on?
Well, here's what I think. What we are seeing is something profound: a picture, if you will, of our society's blinkered values, presented in flashing lights and smiling faces.
We have grown accustomed to a picture of the world, as presented on TV, that is protected from suffering. This picture does not show garbage loosely strewn across the floor. It does not show skin cells that are infected and pink, or lacerations on cheeks, or stubbed toes with cracked nails. It rarely shows tears, or if it does they are stylized (Paris Hilton shielding her tender face from paparazzi). They are not the snotty tears, the snorting gasps and choked-off shouts that we experience in our private lives.
Where on that stage could possibly fit anything recognizable from daily life? Where would we indicate -- in that spare, "patriotic" design -- the odd mix of cultures which we now see in most American cities, large and small?
We're so used to it that it is easy not to see anything is amiss. But while Romney and Thompson share a laugh over whether the debate seems like an episode of "Law & Order" (ha ha!), the country's homes are filled with people who actually don't have health care, who actually smoke marijuana, who (some of them) actually talk in languages other than English, who actually can't pay for a new transmission for the car and so will have to take the bus to work for the foreseeable future.
I don't mean to sound righteous at all. I live in that privileged world which the media does represent on our TV screens -- the "high-protein land" (as the band Pavement once memorably put it). I drink cafe lattes, never question paying utility bills, call friends long distance, worry only occasionally and indulgently about financial ruin.
But without sounding righteous, I can say that I do recognize my world as uncommon, an anomaly. A fraction of us (including most of the people in the national media) live like proverbial royalty, while the rest of the country has a far more immediate sensory experience of poverty, filfth, unwanted noise.
To look at the Republicans debate is to know where they stand. And the same goes for the Democrats (perhaps Gravel excepted, since every time he speaks he angrily attacks the frame). The politicians, as presented by our media, are just as "clean" as Senator Biden controversially described Obama. They stand in opposition to darkness, smelliness, toughness, dryness -- in short, the world as lived by most of the people in it.
How do we teach ourselves and our children to break through this shimmering barrier of media and see behind it? It seems to me that we must actively seek media alternatives. I welcome suggestions.