Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected


Our daily lives come more and more to resemble high JPM television. There is an increasingly rapid turnover in our relationships and pursuits. If marriages on soap operas now last an average of only eighteen months, those on this side of the screen appear to be catching up quickly. Many of us are into photography one month and yoga the next. Our boredom thresholds are such that we can’t stick with anybody or anything for very long. “Doesn’t anyone stay in one place any more?” sings Carole King. “Like I was into ecology,” says a hitchhiker in Blue Highways: A journey Into America — ”but it got boring.” Can anyone imagine Einstein saying that about physics? It’s unclear whether the rapid turnover in our relationships and pursuits is good for us; but there’s no doubt that it’s good for the economy. We want to look nice and smell nice for our new lovers. Each new hobby has its own accoutrements that one shouldn’t be without.

I wonder about the implications for democracy of the increasingly high JPM world we live in. One of the tests of democracy, after all, is the capacity of ordinary people to endure boredom — the boredom of reading tedious reports and attending seemingly endless meetings. There’s no doubt that the more complex society becomes the more a capacity to endure that kind of boredom is required. In fact, we have less. The only thing we seem to have the patience to change is our own lifestyles, and that we seem to do endlessly.

Boredom has affected politics in other ways. Charles Citrine is onto something, I suspect, when he argues in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift that boredom, not justice, may be what some modern political revolutions are about. Boredom, says Norman Podhoretz, echoing Citrine, “is the most underrated force in human affairs.” And it’s interesting to observe the ways in which radical politics have changed in the last quarter century. It used to be that if you were a radical, you devoted your whole life to your radical cause. One thinks of Gandhi or Martin Luther King or J.S. Woodsworth. But some American radicals who’ve grown up in the age of television are different. They often do a stint in support of one radical cause and then move onto something radically different. In the 1960s Jerry Rubin led an American revolutionary movement, the Yippies; in the 1980s he’s a Wall Street broker and an apologist for Yuppies.

Mainstream politics have been affected too. Public opinion fluctuates so wildly that it’s become increasingly difficult for pollsters to make predictions with any accuracy. “The swings and yaws,” writes Dalton Camp, “are now so commonplace that any politician imprudent enough to crow about a favourable poll today is almost certain to be eating crow tomorrow.” One day we’re told that the federal Liberals under John Turner have an insurmountable lead over the Conservatives. The next day those predictions are proved wrong; Brian Mulroney has been elected Prime Minister.

And we know about looks. The trouble with Joe Clark, poor bugger, is that he looks Canadian. To be effective on television, you must not only look a certain way, you have to talk a certain way. The press made fun of Jesse Jackson’s penchant for using catch phrases and slogans in his campaign for the American presidency. But as Jackson explained, “Sometimes when we speak grammatically that’s not enough... we have to speak epigrammatically... because when you grow up in the mass media era, when you have these fifteen-and thirty-second bites, you must be able to use the language so you can get out a significant message in a very short space of time.” And it worked. Jackson got and continues to get a lot of attention.

Oideo games and rock videos are the ultimate in high JPM television. There are now video games to suit every taste, almost all of them of a kill or be killed nature. If you’re “into” science, there’s a video game called “Evolution” that requires you to pass through six stages of development from amoeba to human while avoiding electronic extinction. When you reach the human stage, stage six, you’re “rewarded” by being destroyed in a nuclear war; you return to being an amoeba, and start all over again. Each time through the game, the destructive forces are faster and more unpredictable. The game has ninety-nine levels of difficulty. Even the game’s creators have only ‘evolved’ to level forty.

If you’re into Jesus, there’s a video car race for you. The game asks the question, “Do you know that Jesus is the way?” You have to keep a speeding car on the twisting roadway of life. To go off the road is to fall into sin. But maybe you would like to fall into sin? There’s a video game called “Hold Up.” If you kill the bank tellers before they trip their alarm, you win. Another game called “Lover Boy” awards points for the “successful rape” of four naked women chased through a maze. In “Dragon’s Lair” the player becomes a barbarian who controls the violent animated action on the screen.

Video games are a cause of concern everywhere. In the Philippines, that friend of democracy, Ferdinand Marcos, outlawed video games in response to a public outcry. Filipinos believed the machines were “devilish” contraptions wreaking havoc on the morals of the young. And in the U.S. $5 billion was spent on video games in 1982, twice as much as was spent going to the movies.

No wonder the movies are becoming more and more fast-paced. “It’s bam bam pow,” writes Pauline Kael of George Lucas, the director of the Star Wars trilogy. But her words could equally apply to any one of a number of other directors. “He’s like a slugger in the ring who has no variety and never lets up,” she continues. “His movies are made on the assumption that the audience must be distracted every minute.” “Visual rock ‘n’ roll” is the term George Miller, director of the cult film Road Warrior, uses to describe this approach to filmmaking. Young people have become so conditioned to fast-paced material, says Miller, that they can look at “video cassettes with the fast-forward button on. They’re watching movies at maybe two or three times normal speed and still picking up enough information to follow the story.”

Watching Big Brother, continued > 

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