Blocking the Box
So I made it back from being in New York (pictured above) on business, but tomorrow it's time to head to Ontario for some Christmas holidays. So this month is going to be pretty much a write-off when it comes to blogging, I might get some in over the holidays, but I'm not making many promises.
Coming back after missing a week, it doesn't seem like too much has happened. If I get a chance I'd like to respond to Ian's comments on proportional representation. Also, I have a post on child care that needs finishing.
But for now, something occurred to me while reading Paul Wells' criticism of the post-leader's debate coverage. Says Wells,
"What nobody in Canada said last night:
"Gee, now that I've watched four men for two hours discussing the future of a country that spans a continent, I sure hope the reporters in Vancouver can interrogate them about the debate format."
Folks, King Kong opened on Wednesday night. Peter Jackson spent $200 million and took two years to produce an unprecedented spectacle of thrills and chills for the whole family. I've got this nutty idea that just about everyone who is obsessed with spectacle was out watching King Kong last night. I suspect very few people said, "Y'know, I'm going to stay home and watch the leaders' debate. I think that's gonna be waaay more of a thrill-ride. I just hope they let Paul Martin interrupt Jack Layton! My night will be ruined if the debate format is boring!"
Now I certainly agree with the sentiment that it would be nice if reporters focussed more on the issues and less on trivialities like the format of the debate, but I think that Wells is missing the bigger picture, which is that inane post-debate questions by journalists are just the icing on an entire cake of superficiality and style over substance.
I could mock (as Wells does in an earlier post) the endless quest for the knockout punch, the concern over who sounds or looks Prime Ministerial, the worries over whose makeup was poorly done or who sounds like a nagging schoolteacher or a used car salesman, or angry or defensive or whatever, but this is one lost cause I don't feel like fighting.
It's been years since Marshall McLuhan explained to us the basic concepts here about how what matters is less what is said but more how the message is delivered, and years also since Neil Postman helped explain what kind of message television sends, regardless of what channel you are on, and I think we've all seen enough television ourselves to know instinctively that it's not just some fluke that people refer to television as the 'boob tube' or the 'idiot box'.
Television provides passive entertainment - that's all it does. It doesn't matter what questions the journalists ask, or whether they ask questions at all. Further, it doesn't matter what the leader's say. I've heard lots of people say that you can read how a debate is going better with the sound off and I think that this is probably true.
To the extent that someone decides who to vote for based on a debate, they are likely falling into what Malcolm Gladwell describes in 'Blink' as the 'Warren Harding' error. Harding was an unremarkable man who, in Gladwell's retelling, became President almost solely based on the fact that he looked like a President - with historians now classifying him as one of the worst presidents ever.
Of course Harding was president before the era of television, but the point is that people's instincts can fail them if they make decisions based on appearance and my point is that in the world of television, appearances are all that matter.
Later on in Blink, Gladwell talks about auditions for symphony positions and how they are now done using 'blind' auditions where the selecting judges can't see the person auditioning. It is only since the advent of this method that women have started to be hired by symphonies. And this historical inequality was not purely down to conscious prejudice, it turns out that the combination of seeing a woman playing, combined with a subconscious judgement about the relative merits of male vs. female players actually made the female players sound worse to the judges, even in a case where the woman auditioning had already played in the symphony as a temporary fill-in in the past.
So my point is that, if we accept that we should have televised leaders debates and that we should allow television advertising for political parties, then we have already accepted that voting decisions should be based on sound-bites and appearances and trivialities (footballs, hairnets, screams, etc.) Worrying at this point about whether the journalists are asking stupid questions is akin to the proverbial worrying about poorly arranged deck chairs on the titanic.
Post Script: One piece of advice I've seen a few times with regards to writing fiction is 'Resist the urge to explain' and I try to follow that rule on the blog as well, but I'm going to break it here, just cause I feel like it.
The title to the post refers literally to the picture at the top of the post where the white van is stuck on the cross-hatched part of the intersection (the box) directly underneath one of New York's ubiquitous 'Don't Block the Box!' signs.
Applying the same words to a different concept, the post title is also referring to the idea that we should block television (the box) from being a factor in politics by keeping politics off TV as much as possible.
And applying the same concept to different words, the post title also refers to how my 'traffic' of work trips and vacations is blocking 'traffic' in the other direction such as writing blog posts.
Anyway, I figured that was all cryptic enough that it might be worth explaining.