The Scariest Plenary Ever

What follow are my notes from this afternoon’s plenary address by Mark Crispin Miller. Miller’s title, as listed in the program, was “Mediating Tomorrow’s History: Live Coverage and Documentary in the Digital Era,” but in fact his talk had nothing whatever to do with that title, so I’m assuming there was a change of plans somewhere along the line, though no replacement title was announced.

I want to front-load Miller’s conclusion, though, making sure it’s above the fold. As he said, before concluding on what he called “an apocalyptic note,” his conclusion makes it sound as though he’s more than a little paranoid (actually, what he said was that it sounds as though he wears a tinfoil hat while coming up with this stuff), but a little googling, and… well, it’s unfortunately not crazy, just scary.

The main story of Bush’s presidency, he argued, is not a stupid president, or the manipulations of the oil industry; the main story is that the Bush/Cheney movement is a radical theocratic movement (with the caveat that W. is perhaps not a sincere Christian, but he still talks with God and believes he was chosen). In fact, Bush’s strongest supporters are the Christian Reconstructionists, a radical wing of the religious right, who want to see the U.S. transformed into a theocratic state based on the book of Leviticus. Miller cited, as evidence of the Christian Reconstructionist incursions into the Bush agenda, the Council on National Priorities (which Miller called the steering committee of Christian Reconstructionists; I’ve attempted to find this group, and think that Miller must have meant the Council for National Policy), the Traditional Values Coalition (and particularly its director, Rev. Louis P. “Homosexuality Is a Social Disorder” Sheldon), the International Mission Board, which has been conducting conversions in Iraq in conjunction with its ostensible charitable aid, and a welter of Bush administration policy ranging from its harping on abstinence, the Defense of Marriage Act, and so forth.

But the most frightening bit of recent policy that Miller pointed to was the Help America Vote Act, which mandates touchscreen voting. Much has been written in the blogosphere about the scandal surrounding Diebold’s knowledge of the unreliability of such systems. What hasn’t gotten much press is that the main venture capitalist backing both Diebold and ES&S, the two primary manufacturers of computerized voting machines, is Howard Ahmanson, a Christian Reconstructionist who has said openly that he has the goal of imposing Biblical law on the US.

The end message: Vote while you can, my friends. Vote while you can.

Further notes from Miller’s talk:

  • begins with extended quote from James Agee’s review of Russian propaganda film, “The Rainbow” (1944)
  • Orwell (1984) — Smith’s diary once he starts, on a night at the flicks, watching war films
  • talk focused on cinema as it now functions, as an inchoate medium of war propaganda and as an instrument of rage
  • will argue that there has been enormous cultural change in last 20-30 years; will find the import of that change in the spectacle of presidential politics
  • discussions noting changes run a risk — can be charged with nostalgia; often charge takes form of accusation that you believe there was a golden age — wants to discuss changes (and their political implications) without resorting to nostalgia
  • dispersal of cinema throughout the culture in recent years — democratizing, but other effects/consequences, too; corporate involvement has changed cinema from cathedral-like experience to a wholly portable one; has an effect on the kind of aggression that film incites
  • in silent era, hint of menace around film experience was related to fear of the unruly crowd (The Day of the Locust); that fear gives way, starting in the late 1970s, as film becomes a domesticated experience, to a fear of individual fans (stalker fans: Stardust Memories, Nashville, etc.)
  • shift has something to do with the nature of televisual spectatorship, in which one feels one has some kind of claim on the individual who come into one’s home every night
  • connected shift in advertising in same period — ads cease to be interruptive; becomes a celebration of domination — shift from ads as escapist fantasy with product as means to ads with product as end; there is no utopia to go to, but only the product; viewer invited to become like the product (or the image of the product)
  • self-referentiality of contemporary advertising; advertising now offers power — you, like the product, are a winner (like the winning ad)
  • advertising has flattened out and become dominance-obsessed rather than focusing on a pastoral paradise — a deep disillusionment — selling a vision of life that accords perfectly with the consumer culture itself: there is nothing more than you and the thing
  • convergence of advertising and cinema — product placement
  • experience (of film) solicits from us a sense of embeddedness — like that of reporters accompanying soldiers — not a quasi-religious experience anymore; now seems to offer us much the same feeling of empowerment as advertising
  • From Here to Eternity — Burt Lancaster hits plane, gun barrel coming out of groin; meant to look heroic and triumphant — but enormous difference between this and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Pearl Harbor — Rambo scream
  • not new — just intensification of certain aspect of aesthetic experience
  • increasing concentration on most direct, visceral appeal to audience; tends to amount to the most hostile appeal possible; fantasy of vicarious violence
  • cycling around such that what was once subversive is now celebratory (Dr. Strangelove –> Independence Day; Chinatown –> Who Killed Roger Rabbit)
  • rise of the self-applausive ending (films which end with diegetic applause)
  • all background to the big movie: the Bush presidency
  • communion between macho film fare and presidential politics since 70s (Clint Eastwoodisms)
  • moment from state of the union: “let’s put it this way: they’re no longer a problem”
  • part of Bush’s mass appeal lies in the vicarious pleasure of aggression and domination
  • posture of indomitable strength and endless defiance
  • on his speaking problems: Bush is able to be coherent when he’s discussing punishment, but unable to be coherent on democracy or compassion
  • “I’ll end on an apocalyptic note…”

And you know how it goes from there.

Just one further note, though, from the Q&A: In response to a question about why the US press is so weak in its reporting on Bush, as compared with the press abroad, Miller pointed out a series of problems with the contemporary press. The one that has gotten the most attention is media consolidation — with so few corporations in control of all media representations, few opinions can get out — but he stressed as most important a class shift in reporters themselves: many are millionaires, hobnobbing with those they’re supposed to be reporting on. The most alarming example? Dan Rather co-owns a ranch in Taos with Donald Rumsfeld. (Really. Scroll down to the bottom for verification.)

2 thoughts on “The Scariest Plenary Ever

  1. Really interesting. Thanks for the deft summary; the focus on the appeal of dominance is frightening and sadly in tune with how I feel when I watch Bush or turn on the TV. And the concluding chilling fact about the Rumsfeld/Rather ownership connection would be rather breathtaking — if one hadn’t already become pretty cynical about the lack of “disinterest” in the media .

    I’m still not utterly convinced, though, about the main danger to our democratic institutions being the crytpo-theocratists (or even the not-so-crypto ones) — I still think the incredibly powerful and swift corporatization of both public life and culture is the more immediate threat to our being anything like a democratic republic — maybe I’m wrong; that fact about the financial backing of the electronic voting companies is interesting (though it might not mean what it seems to mean).

    I am admonished, though, to stand a bit more firmly on guard about these things…

  2. I’ll second KF’s comments that Miller’s talk was pretty powerful. I’d also add a note of caution (one that she and I discussed at the conference). Miller’s discussion of the “dominance appeal” seemed to neglect the idea that there are other potential uses or interpretations of the Bush ads.

    Like BT, I’m not *sure* the Christian Reconstructionists are quite as powerful as Miller’s talk suggests (although I am suitably freaked), but after experiencing touchscreen voting for the first time, I find HAVA a little scary. Carrying my little vote card away from the machine, I was far too aware of the lack of physical evidence of my vote. Bring back the butterfly ballot.

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