La-Z-boy ethnography


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 can’t conduct an interview to save his life. (Why is it that talk show hosts so rarely can?) But with Spitzer, he didn’t 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, he’s 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. “Aren’t you lucky I’m 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? He’s 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 Spitzer’s 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.

8 thoughts on “La-Z-boy ethnography

  1. Steve Portigal

    Yesterday I watched the previous day’s episode of Daily Show (here in the US they rerun them at 7:00 pm) where Clinton was sitting with Jon Stewart. Although we’ve seen Clinton on TV a million times, I amazed at his charisma, at how much I missed him after feeling such frustration and hatred for the US leadership, and yeah, how terrible Stewart was at interviewing him. A few hours later I watched a few minutes of Dowd, and I found the whole interaction unsatisfying and frustrating – she is not TV-ready, she is not good at answering questions (I still don’t understand what was going on when GHWB was fishing – where the heck was she? on the boat?) and I turned it off.

    It was kinda cool to see the enormous contrast in personalities on the same couch with only 4 hours in my life separating ’em.

  2. Grant

    Steve, thanks, isn’t it weird that in a world of celebrity, dominated by the media, some people are still such bad television…or at least so unintentionally revealing. Chomsky, Ewing, and Postman, time to rethink the argument? Thanks, Grant

  3. marvy

    The elderly schoolgirl, Maureen Dowd, has been revealing her inner cinder through her column all along. Yes, she can turn a phrase. No, it isn’t worth taking seriously.

    There isn’t a female Mark Steyn, unfortunately, but a pH neutralized Molly Ivins might work, although it would take an awful lot of hydroxide.

  4. Grant

    Marvy, talk about turning a phrase! I am calling the NYT now on your behalf. Beauty. Grant

  5. Grant

    Joshua, so noted, thanks, my fact finder was out getting drinks with umbrellas in them. Thanks, Grant

  6. Ennis


    Books / Covers


    Seriously, this is a peeve of mine. While people may reveal alot through their public behavior, the face they display shifts highly based on the context (OK, so I’m badly paraphrasing Irving Goffman at you, but you get my point)

    The version I play has to do with the “toughness” of people. I’ve found that macho guys are usually of medium toughness, i.e. not wimps, but not that tough. The toughest guys I’ve met, or seen, have usually been innocuous. And trust me, I’ve had the honor of meeting some very hard core guys. None of them were “alpha males”. They didn’t over display, heck, they didn’t display at all. Then again, we weren’t in a situation were they needed to.

    Examples from lawyers: Kunstler and Dershowitz (both of whom I’ve met) — pussycats, but not in the courtroom.

    Email me, I can give you some more if you’re interested.

  7. Grant

    Ennis, Yes, I think really tough guys don’t “front” because they don’t have do, which suggests that those who do, do so because they are terrified and are looking for the preemptive strike. Every time I hear a Harley, I think to myself, “it’s okay, you are sexually inadequate but there is therapy and if that doesn’t work try Viagra. For god sake, don’t advertise it!” Could this be a Harley campaign idea: “Harley, proclaiming your inadequacy, so you don’t have to.” Thanks, Grant

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