Last night, I was channel hopping, my version of “arm chair anthropology. This was a 19th century term of derision for anthropologists who studied culture from the comfort of the study, leaving fieldwork (and ethnographic fact finding) to more intrepid colleagues.
But the 21st century anthropologist can learn a lot from his TV, especially now that it has 300 channels and a bathoscopic ability to drop us into otherwise inaccessible cultures and subcultures (all Bass fishing, all the time!). Channel hopping is a little like Olympic island hopping. In our La-Z-boys, we are as gods.
Bathoscopic television is particularly useful when it comes to fuller disclosure about public figures. Last night I had a chance to watch Elliot Spitzer on McEnroe and Maureen Dowd on Jon Stewart. (For those who have been off-planet for the last 10 years, Spitzer is the Attorney General of the State of New York and Dowd is a columnist for the New York Times.)
McEnroe cant conduct an interview to save his life. (Why is it that talk show hosts so rarely can?) But with Spitzer, he didnt have to. For Spitzer turns out not to be the avenging angel of the financial pages, the man before whom grown corporations and Martha Stewart herself now tremble. No, hes a big, happy, Labrador of a man, so pleased with himself that he offers himself as a gift to one and all. This self congratulation manifests not as vanity, but generosity. “Arent you lucky Im me? Let us now rejoice. In the place of gravitas, there was mostly bonhomie.
It is hard not to like a man who thinks so well of himself. But it is hard to think of him as the scourge of wrong doing. Superheroes are supposed to be troubled, conflicted, a little dark. Most of them spend part of their lives living under the cover of an assumed identity. Self congratulation would give the game away. (“I am Clark Kent!) But I think there is also a “it takes one to know one notion at work here. Unless the superhero contains trace elements of moral confusion, he/she cannot hope to vanquish the likes of Lex Luthor or the Penguin.
You could imagine CEOs around the country staring at the screen in disbelief. “This is the man who threatens us with penalty and jail time? This is the man who haunts me in my dreams? Hes a Labrador puppy! Get the lawyers on the phone. We can take this guy. The McEnroe interview had a Wizard of Oz element to it, revealing a man less threatening than we thought. And this 5 minutes of fame, an anticipation of Spitzers run on the state house, will have set the AG team back by a decade or two. Full disclosure on TV will discourage full disclosure on Wall Street.
Maureen Dowd on Stewart was another story altogether. She was as uncomfortable before the camera as Spitzer was self congratulatory but she still managed to give off a vanity of her own. I have read her columns with pleasure, admiring her rhetorical skills. But now she came across is as too small in moral stature to render the political and moral judgments that are her specialty. Gravitas? Not a trace. Instead, she engaged in the cheapest trick of celebrity culture: building her own celebrity by speaking ill of others. With Stewart goading her (he does this well, at least) she even managed to say indiscrete things about her colleagues, making Thomas Friedman sound, as Stewart gleefully put it, “like a temp.
“Ok, I thought from the majesty of my La-Z-boy, ‘this person is not fit for office. I guess I expect people who render judgment to show a little dispassion, maturity, depth. But Dowd seemed merely mean, not in the contemporary sense of the term, but in the Victorian one: too small, too little.
This changes the ‘takes one to know one calculation. The Dowd of Jon Stewart appeared to contain not too little moral “complexity,” but too much. She turns out to have the very qualities she mocks in others. A superhero, no more.
TV can be as exacting as a good ethnographic interview. Interviewees may run but they cannot hide. Whatever impressions they mean to create, eventually the camera will find them out. The camera may put on 10 pounds, but it is also, apparently, pretty good a stripping away 20 IQ points, to say nothing of the carefully cultivated illusions of the public person.