Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Al Jazeera, The King’s Speech, and Seriousness

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Al Jazeera, The King’s Speech, and Seriousness

By Santiago Ramos

“I REMEMBER your grandfather loved to watch Walter Cronkite at the end of every day,” my mother said to me last Christmas. “He [Cronkite] was a much more serious person than the people you see on TV today.”
My mother is American by birth but she spent her childhood in Asuncion, Paraguay. In the 1970s, while my grandfather pursued advanced studies in psychiatry, she spent her late teens in Kansas. Her perspective includes life in two different nations. She does not dislike MSNBC or CNN or Fox News; in fact, she gets most of her news either from MSNBC or Fox. Moreover, her point was made not in a heated argument but merely as a passive observation, part of a general reminiscence about my grandfather. In other words, her comment was not ideological—it had nothing to do with politics, political bias, or even the practice of journalism. It had to do with seriousness.

FOX NEWS HOST Bill O’Reilly’s illiberal outburst last month over the supposed anti-American bias of Al Jazeera is, on more than one level, a good example of a lack of sense for the importance of seriousness. (I cannot imagine him listening to my mother.) For one thing, O’Reilly has inflated the rhetorical value of the televised fit to such a degree that only the physiologically qualified could ever outdo him in the practice; for another, it is getting harder and harder to discern whether he is really outraged, or playing the part of theAlJazeera outraged person simply because his TV persona is expected to do so. There was nothing atypical about O’Reilly’s tantrum over Al Jazeera: he referred to Sam Donaldson as a “pinhead,” he spoke in sentence fragments, he shouted and forced his interlocutors into shouting as well. On this level, O’Reilly’s tirade was another example of a level of vulgarity and lack of seriousness that we have grown accustomed to watching on television.

There is a second level, though, that is worth exploring. I do not speak Arabic and have never watched Al Jazeera’s Arabic edition. However, during the weeks leading up to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, I did make use of Al Jazeera’s English live online stream, available for free and linked by the not-left wing Drudge Report. Politically, the anchors and correspondents were unanimously biased against Mubarak—most concretely, they were aggressive in their questioning of their guests, reiterating again and again the question, “Why doesn’t Mubarak understand that the people want him to stand down now?” The politics I could discern (on part of the anchors, not guests) was biased in favor of a vaguely internationalist liberalism tempered by a respect for the Islamic faith of the peoples in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, et al., as well as by a general antipathy toward the Obama Administration, because of its perceived passivity during the crisis, as well as toward American foreign policy in general, because of its previous support for Mubarak during past decades.

But politics is not the point. The point is that Al Jazeera English has the tone of a TV channel for adults. Points could be made about the superior quality of its coverage, or about the fact that it covers stories from parts of the world neglected by the American 24 hour networks. One could say that its documentaries are superior to the ones on CNN and MSNBC and Fox (though I have seen good documentaries on all of them). But, before politics and before journalism, let us consider the possibility of TV news without gotcha-isms, without sneering, without Charlie Sheen interviews. Perhaps O’Reilly is concerned as much with looking less professional in comparison to Al-Jazeera English as he is with Al-Jazeera Arabic’s purported anti-Americanism. Should the former ever make it to a significant number of American viewers, he might have a problem. (Though, to keep up my non-political perspective, I should make the bipartisan point that Chris Matthews would have something to worry about as well.)

ANOTHER SIGN OF a desire for greater seriousness is found (I have already argued) in the popularity of the film The King’s Speech. Some have argued that the film is somewhat more “conservative” than its Best Picture rival, The Social Network. It was nostalgia, or something close to it, which inspired the Oscar voters to choose the aristocratic past over the computer geek future. But I think there is a deeper appeal to the film than that. Peter Hitchens of the London Daily Mail has a contrary view which serves as a telling contrast. The “fundamental message” of The King’s Speech, he writes, “is (I sum up loosely) ‘cheeky, hard-up, informal and classless Aussie jackaroo saves stuck-up, repressed, royal snob from stammer probably caused by snobbish repression, largely by making him swear and by mocking the grandeur of his position’.” Both sides miss the point.

We could (for the sake of argument) assume that Hitchens is correct and still ask: why did the informal, classless, irreverent Aussie want a king to begin with? Why did he feel compelled to not only help his patient fulfill his calling—but to implicitly recognize that his patient’s calling was, in some ways, larger than his own? From where did he get this sense of nobility, of rising to an occasion of national crisis, of the crucial importance of words? And why do we like it when he does that? I would argue that the answer to this last question has to do with more than nostalgia, conservatism, or any particular strain of politics—it has to do with the distant appeal of a more serious time.

Seriousness. It is related to attentiveness, against “I am ADD”. It includes a determination to excise from one’s consciousness all frivolous or otherwise distracting concerns (e.g., Charlie Sheen). It is related to adulthood, and necessary for doing anything substantial, from raising a child to training for baseball season to making a TV news talk show to starting a revolution.

Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College. He has written for First Things, Image Journal, Commonweal and the Pitch.