Violence, democracy and the mass media

It can hardly be denied that violence has a peculiarly vicarious allure in the modern mass media environment, regardless of whether we are talking ratings, book sales, ticket sales, clicks, or good old-fashioned circulation. Think James Patterson, the “world’s best-selling author”. Consider the amazing proliferation of “acronymy” crime dramas (CSI, NYPD, SVU, …) showing in primetime across the globe, the drooly critical praise for programs like The Sopranos and The Wire, and of course the Underbelly phenomenon in Australia. We might not “like” violence; indeed many or most of us despise it, but it sure does tend to get our attention. As notionally interesting as the latest deliberations of parliamentary sub-committee D31 are, we can’t expect our [yawn] elected representatives to seriously compete for our time and interest with this week’s fictional serial killer, can we?

The supremacy of violence (perhaps rivalled only by sex) as an attention magnet in today’s information-saturated world poses some serious questions of old-fashioned peaceful protest in the democratic tradition. Arundhati Roy, speaking to Stephen Moss in The Guardian about her ties to Maoist guerrillas in India, sums things up quite succinctly:

Does she condemn that violence? “I don’t condemn it anymore,” she says, “If you’re an adivasi [tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience?”

Violence attracts audiences. When up to 500,000 people marched peacefully through the streets of London in opposition to the Conservative Government’s cuts agenda in March this year, most people outside the UK only heard about it because of the violent actions of a tiny minority of self-styled anarchists and thugs. And whilst peaceful protest has underpinned most of the populist movements of the so-called Arab Spring, violence has clearly had a role to play, from Mohamed Bouazizi’s defining act of self-immolation in Tunisia, through to the mortar attack on President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s compound which looks likely to prove decisive in Yemen. The magnetism of violence has arguably even created a perverse imperative for protest movements to “bait” governments into responding disproportionately, in order to attract the attention of the “great and the good” and the global mass media. Only escalating violence forced the global community’s clumsy fist to swing in Libya, and sadly it appears that only comparatively violent escalations in places such as Bahrain and Syria are likely to provoke serious, co-ordinated global responses there.

It is a paradox that in the largely peaceful, meticulously ordered societies most of us live in today, individual acts of violence are proving to be as effective a tool for attracting attention as they have ever been. Perhaps in retrospect, following 9/11 and the culmination of a decade-long international obsession with Osama bin Laden, this really shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Jason Morrison on freedom of religion

Jason Morrison is a presenter for Sydney radio station 2GB, and he has a regular slot on the Sunrise program with Neil Mitchell. On Wednesday morning, he expressed his view on Pauline Hanson’s intention to not sell her house to a Muslim buyer. Note that this transcript was taken from a dodgy online clip, so may not be completely verbatim:

JASON MORRISON: I do care about who moves in, I care like anyone in a neighbourhood who ends up in the place that I’m at. And look I imagine if we substitute the word that she’s chosen there – “Muslim” for “developer”, people would say “oh, good for her, she’s stopping”…

Look she can make her own judgements – I don’t necessarily agree with that, but hey uh, this woman has principles.

NEIL MITCHELL: [starts interjecting]

JASON MORRISON: They might be obnoxious principles, they might be things that Neil you find despicable or whatever else, but at least she’s putting her- not just her heart where it is but she’s actually saying here, look “money where the mouth is” – she’s actually saying I wouldn’t sell. If the offer is there, I wouldn’t sell. I mean I think its silly, but that’s- she’s got the money and everything to do it.

NEIL MITCHELL: But if you’re refusing to sell to a developer, it’s because of what they’re going to do on that block – to build something. How can you disqualify someone on the basis of their religion? It’s immoral. You can’t do it – its just wrong.

JASON MORRISON: But, but, see- Neil, you miss it. It’s her house. I- I find what she is suggesting to be wrong – I wouldn’t have that kind of level of principle, but it’s her house. She can make that choice. I mean-

NEIL MITCHELL: It will be interesting to see whether she can. Theoretically, you might be right, but is she in fact liable for some sort of action under anti-discrimination legislation – I don’t know if anybody would want her house, but-

JASON MORRISON: She could reject the offer.

What a load of uninformed flim-flam dressed up as reasoned argument.

For the record, Mitchell’s rejoinder towards the end appears on the money. Acting Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Neroli Holmes has confirmed her view that any discrimination against buyers on religious grounds would put Hanson at risk of breaching the state’s anti-discrimination legislation.

In other words, it is highly likely that Morrison’s purported position, as expressed above, is not only discriminatory, but at odds with Queensland law.

So does Jason Morrison believe in freedom of religion, or not?

The MasterChef phenomenon

So I don’t do reality television. Really, I don’t. Over the last decade, I have observed Gretel Killeen’s slow evolution from entertaining Good News Week semi-regular to nauseating Big Brother house mistress – but only second-hand. I have marvelled at “Evil Russell”‘s big stupid face on recent ads for Survivor , but have never actually watched an episode of any of that franchise’s ridiculous incarnations. I honestly look forward to the day when Australian Idol, Australia’s Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance Australia and all the rest of them are consigned to the dustbin of Australian television history.

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All of the rest of them, that is, except probably MasterChef. This show happened to come along last year just when my interest in food and the craft of cooking was mid-blossom, and I was rather desperately and pathetically hooked. Yesterday the second season kicked off, and I have a feeling I am going to be tuning in for the long haul. What is it about the show that has finally dragged me into the strange, disturbing world of reality television after all this time? How has MasterChef managed to slay my dignity?

Apart from the subject matter, which holds a certain fascination for me at this juncture of my life, I think the key ingredient that makes MasterChef work is the people. The hosts have been carefully screened to maximise everyday charisma and minimise obnoxiousness. Viewers are slowly introduced to the contestants, and quickly notice that some of them are rather similar to themselves. The contestants create things. These people are bringing little parts of their life out into the outside world. The things that MasterChef contestants create can be reproduced in day-to-day life, jammed on, manipulated to suit your own circumstances or mood. A “process” that is normally a somewhat humdrum part of day-to-day life is turned into a showcase, an art form.

Am I alone? Has anybody else been turned into a television dag by this show?

The Wire – an exaltation

I think I am going to have to be hubristically blunt – the message needs to get across. The Wire is very likely the best television drama of all-time. It is definitely the best television drama that the vast majority of Australians have never heard of, or seen. Despite making its way through five critically acclaimed seasons in the United States, the show is screening only on ABC2 currently in Australia, and in fact the first season has only just kicked off screening last month. It is difficult to succinctly summarise the depth and extent of the critical acclaim we are talking about here, but let’s consider just a few typical reactions:

Variety: When television history is written, little else will rival “The Wire,” a series of such extraordinary depth and ambition that it is, perhaps inevitably, savored only by an appreciative few.

San Francisco Chronicle: The breadth and ambition of “The Wire” are unrivaled and that taken cumulatively over the course of a season — any season — it’s an astonishing display of writing, acting and storytelling that must be considered alongside the best literature and filmmaking in the modern era.

Slate: The Wire, which has just begun its fourth season on HBO, is surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America. This claim isn’t based on my having seen all the possible rivals for the title, but on the premise that no other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature.

That’s just a fractional taste of the praise you will find if you go looking. The Guardian has even devoted a blog specifically to the television show, with its authors lumbering through the process of producing an individual post for each and every episode recorded. That blog is going to be published in book form. The show also was rated the best television show of the ‘noughties’ in an (admittedly dubious) online poll conducted by the same newspaper.

Never mind the spin and the pap – how can I possibly justify this somewhat absurd level of praise? How can I compress somewhere in the vicinity of 60 hours of quality drama into a paragraph or two here, in a way that sells the show to you as the diamond it is? I can’t. This show speaks so eloquently for itself. In the absence of any substantive commitment from the “quality” television programmers we have in Australia, you are really just going to have to trot on down to your local purveyor of DVD box sets and get stuck into the first couple of seasons – or, be inconceivably patient with ABC2. Let me just list out just a few points that I think summarise precisely what it is that makes The Wire so great (don’t worry – no spoilers!), ignoring for just a moment the peerless production values and consistently convincing performances:

1) Finally, an intelligent crime drama.

I am not a crime drama fan. I regard practically every crime drama on television today to be appallingly concocted rubbish. Typically speaking, viewers of the average crime drama are lead by the hand on a merry, shiny superhero cop story through implausible plotlines, chasing absurd criminals. The characters, or should I say narrators, are constantly explaining what is going on to the viewer, who is assumed to be approximately as intelligent as a leaden bar.

The Wire stubbornly refuses to do this. Its creator David Simon previously worked as a police reporter in Baltimore, where the show is based. His collaborator Ed Burns was a former homicide detective. The stories are grounded in reality. It does not hand-feed the viewer. You need to watch the show quite closely to understand what is going on, as cogs that started quietly turning at the start of a season eventually hammer the show’s multiple, intersecting plotlines towards their conclusions. The good guys are sometimes bad. The bad guys are sometimes good, or at least, understandable. Sometimes the bad guys win, and the good guys suck at what they do. That’s just the way life actually is.

2) Crime is not the be-all and end-all

The Wire is not simply a ‘cop show’ – as its seasons progress, the show morphs into a socio-political narrative that takes in crime, drugs, race, homelessness, politics, education, and the media. Its central characters – and across the show’s five seasons there must be upwards of 30 of them – are forensically cross-examined as human beings. What is even more impressive is that all these themes are blended together seamlessly to form a cohesive narrative. Most television shows struggle to maintain one credible theme, a theme that is regularly signposted in capital letters during each and every episode. The Wire is more organic. Themes tumble out of the show effortlessly as the story meanders towards conclusions that it is often difficult to see coming.

3) Smashing barriers

A male homosexual assassin lead? Check. A female homosexual cop lead? Check. A cast that is dominated by talented African Americans? Check. Ex-crims who know how “the game” works starring in the show? Check. Eminently fallible heroes? Check. Genuinely likable villains? Check. Male and female full-frontal nudity? Check. Unexpected and confronting setbacks for main characters? Check. The show’s creators have effortlessly smashed most of the modern television barriers that bear any thinking about.

I thought The West Wing was great, but quite frankly, The Wire tramples it completely in terms of realism and the sheer breadth of its vision and the depth of its story. It is virtuoso stuff. Frankly, you need to watch this show.

ELSEWHERE: Here is another local view from The Australian.

Please evict this old tat from our television screens

The once vain dream that maybe, just maybe, the puerile tedium of Big Brother would be removed from our television screens has finally come to pass after eight long years. Of course, it is probably too early in the day to be completely relaxed about the axing, given that there is at least some chance that another free-to-air channel will pick up the concept. Still, one can’t help but think that this result is a big win for television viewers across Australia. The countless hours of air-time that have been filled by the preening and pointless mediocrity of this program can hopefully now be filled by some other slightly less rubbish programs. The once novel concept the show revolved around, shamelessly reloaded as it has been over the past eight years with only trivial changes, can now be laid to rest, as it surely should have been several years ago.

The axing does seem to suggest that by at least one measure at least, the British stomach for rubbish television may be stronger than the Australian stomach. In case you are wondering, Big Brother has just entered a ninth season in Britain. Although admittedly, both countries do retain a strange and inexplicable attachment to Neighbours; that perpetually reanimated corpse of a soapie nag that surely drew its last fresh breath around a decade or more ago.