By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
This is a Zeitgeist Watch piece, or what Yves calls a “mother-in-law story” (“My mother-in-law says…”). In other words, an anecdote. But maybe a little bit more than that? Anyhow, I’m in the local coffee shop …
… and the proprietor (who runs the local wire service as a sideline) gets to talking with me about politics beyond the borders of the great state of Maine — already a micro-disturbance in the force — mentioning David Miranda getting picked up at Heathrow (context: The New York Times Sunday Magazine piece on Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald), The Handmaid’s Tale (I hadn’t known that the cassette tapes telling Offred’s story were found in Bangor), and concluding with the datapoint that one of her student customers had put a YouTube of “The Most Honest Three Minutes In Television History” on her Facebook page.
“What was honest about it?”
“It said America was no longer the greatest country in the world. Jeff Bridges was in it.”
“I think I remember that. I’ll have to go look.” So when I got home I Googled around, and found this YouTube (“The Most Honest Three Minutes In Television History”), which has racked up an impressive 6,833,804 hits (76,647 thumbs up, 1,876 down). Here’s a slightly longer (4:48) version, with only 944,833 hits, that gives more of the set-up:
Now, I did indeed dimly remember this clip making the rounds last year; it turns out to be from HBO’s The Newsroom, starring Jeff Daniels, the “We Just Decided To” episode. (I don’t have a TV* so I didn’t know any of this before I checked.) Anyhow, here’s the transcript, and here’s the set up.** The scene is one of those “town halls,” with a moderator and some talking heads (Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a network anchor), held in an auditorium at Northwestern University. During the question period, a student steps up to the mic:
[Jenny] Hi, my name is Jenny, I’m a sophomore and this for all three of you. Can you say in one sentence or less – what – (laughing in background) you know what I mean: “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”
Hard to go wrong with a setup like that, eh? And here, I think, is part of McAvoy’s answer that really resonates with a lot of us:
[McAvoy] [T]here’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy. Twenty-seventh in math. Twenty-second in science. Forty-ninth in life expectancy. A hundred and seventy-eighth in infant mortality. Third in median household income. Number four in labor force and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.***
Well, hell yeah. (All delivered with the prehensile sincerity of the network anchor McAvoy is.)
Now, there are plenty of reasons to go, “Oh, noes!”, chief among them McAvoy’s pivot to a wildly uneven, and mostly sloppy and sentimental version of American exceptionalism:
… We stood up for what was right. [Sometimes, I grant.] We fought for moral reasons. [Greatest Generation nonsense ignores Vietnam and the Phillipines, among others.] We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reasons. [The Civil Rights Act, certainly in part. The Alien and Sedition Acts, certainly not.] We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. [Briefly with LBJ who also brought us Medicare and Vietnam.] We sacrificed. [More Greatest Generation.] We cared about our neighbors. We put our money where our mouths were. ["Were" is interesting....] And we never beat our chest. ["USA! USA!"]
We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe [planetary system], cured diseases [except for AIDS], and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy [and a rawther large empire with lots of lovely petroleum]. (pause) We reached for the stars. Acted like men. [Or like Walter Cronkite.]
We aspired to intelligence. We didn’t belittle it — it didn’t make us feel inferior.
We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election [yes, we did], and we didn’t, oh, . Ha. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men. [(!!) Like Walter Cronkite.] Men who were revered. [Like Walter Cronkite.] First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. [AA] America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.
In all of that backward-looking yet doubtless well-meaning (i.e., not bullshit, unless I’ve been sucked by a sociopath, though possibly wrong or ill-thought-out) mish mash, the sentence that leaps out at me is “We didn’t scare so easy.” The Global War on Terror is not the Battle of the Somme, where there were 20,000 British dead on the first day, and the Marathon Bombings are not The Blitz, or Dresden, or Hiroshima. Assume Jenny was born in 1993; she would have been living, since the age of 8, under a 9/11 Shock Doctrine-driven, hermetically sealed compliance regimen previously unknown in this country. No wonder she thinks American is (still) the greatest country in the world! I used to ride my bike to school. Alone. And I used to go play at my friends’ without checking in. As did we all. So that’s my nostalgia.
Another piece of nostalgia: I remember explaining to a Chinese friend of mine back in the mid-90s the beauty and the advantages of the Constitutional system of checks and balances in limiting executive power, quoting Madison: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” What a laugh, huh? Constitutional government was disintegrating even back then. And I didn’t even have the excuse of being young.
My point, however, and I do have one, is that I don’t think “Jenny,” unless she had a radical change of heart, would have done what my friend’s student customer did: Remember the clip a year later and share it. One wonders how many of the 6,000,000+ viewers did the same. Because if this clip has, as I think it has, gone viral, that would look to me very much like the slow crumbling of support for an isolated regime. And to me, the two takeaways are:
1. “America is no longer the greatest country in the world,” and
2. “We didn’t scare so easy.”
No wonder Occupy, eh? So, oddly, hope.
NOTE * TV is a public health hazard.
NOTE ** The show’s “Creator,” Aaron Sorkin, analyzes the consruction of this segment here.
NOTE *** Neal Stephenson expresses similar views in Snow Crash (1992):
When it gets down to it — talking trade balances here — once we’ve brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they’re making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here — once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel — once the Invisible Hand has taken away all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity — y’know what? There’s only four things we do better than anyone else:
high-speed pizza delivery
Since I seem to be collecting mini-narratives of decline, here is (network anchor) Howard Beale tampering with the primal forces of nature:
I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”
The contrast between this great rant and McAvoy’s rant that interests me is that McAvoy’s takes place in an explicitly political, public setting; he is, in fact, inspired by a member of the audience who holds up a notebook with her answer to Jenny’s question written on it: “IT’S NOT.” Beale’s rant, by constrast, is IIRC the result of a breakdown. The same audience member follows by holding up: “BUT IT COULD BE.” McAvoy, however, does not address this. TINA…
UPDATE Alert reader JW writes in:
One thing though – I don’t watch the show, but I did recognize the actress holding up the pad as Emily Mortimer, who plays a colleague of Daniel’s in the show (at least it seems that way from the commercials). So rather than being inspired by some random member of the audience, it could instead have been the case that the character was being fed an attention-getting response and ran with it.
Not sure, just saying that there could be a slimy undercoat to the smarm.
Oh, man. All to make “good television”? Ouch.