Life: The Movie … Starring Everyone: The Sequel
VTR Date: January 12, 1999
Neal Gabler discusses a unified theory of American culture.
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GUEST: Neal Gabler
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And this is the second of two programs with cultural historian Neal Gabler focusing on his intriguing new Alfred A. Knopf volume, Life The Movie — How Entertainment Conquered Reality — Starring Everyone.
Now, let me just pick up some threads from our last entertainment together. Neal, I’m so glad you were willing to stay because we really just got started last time, and I was pushing you and pushing you …
HEFFNER: … on this question of being pejorative …
HEFFNER: … about what you describe as the “Republic of Entertainment”. There’s a place here in talking about television … you’re talking about … writing about Dan Rather’s speech before a broadcasting guild in which he sounded very much the way Edward R. Murrow had before that same group many, many, many years ago. Attacking television news as an entertainment. You write, “most observers would have found Rather’s description all too accurate, but once again television was only a symptom and not the cause. The cause was the public’s hunger for entertainment, fiction or reality based, it made no difference”. And, ah, I noted a few pages before your phrase … and I wrote next to it “why not” …
HEFFNER: … because your phrase was “yet one can’t fault the networks”.
GABLER: Well, I tell you why I don’t think one can fault the networks. There is, there is … ever since McLuhan and probably before McLuhan there is this idea that technology creates consciousness. And that television came in and television, and this is the argument that the brilliant cultural critic Neil Postman makes, that television changed our whole means of discourse, changed our epistemology and drove this, this world into entertainment, into the arms of entertainment. Because the, the most natural form of discourse for television was entertainment. And everything on the television screen has to be entertaining or it’s not on the television screen … including this program.
HEFFNER: Neil made the exception, in …
GABLER: Oh, oh … okay.
HEFFNER: … in his book, of this program.
GABLER: Well, if people don’t find entertainment value here, of some sort, whether it’s intellectual entertainment value or not, I mean they will switch the channel. I, I take … I quarrel with that on this ground. I think that technology is the product, not the cause. To me the entertainment mentality is the cause. And, and I think that consciousness creates technology. It’s a very interesting thing when one looks at the various media … including the print media, which, which Neil Postman holds in, as being kind of the center of rationalism. Almost invariably even print, but certainly radio, television, movies … almost invariably every medium gets driven into entertainment. Where entertainment becomes its predominant function.
HEFFNER: By force of arms?
GABLER: By us. Well, by the force of our arms. Because what kind of books do we desire? We desire John Grisham and Danielle Steel or on the non-fiction side, Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. We, we desire books that are going to entertain us. Not necessarily books … and I’m not, obviously I’m generalizing here. I mean there are a great many people who you know want very serious literature, very serious non-fiction, but, but nevertheless, I mean looking at this empirically and, you know, allowing for this generalization, we want entertainment. Even from print. But when one looks at, at the movies or other visual medium, there was nothing that said that … that pre-ordained that the movies had to become an entertainment medium. In fact, when Edison, you know, first claimed to invented them, he thought that they would primarily be used for educational purposes. But somehow, inexorably, movies became first and foremost an entertainment medium. Radio the same thing. And certainly television the same thing. All of which leads me to believe that this, this lust for entertainment drives all of these media into the arms of entertainment and that’s why I say that one can’t really fault, you know, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings or the network executives for trying to satisfy the American lust. Because, because to kind of hold, you know, the wall against it, to say, “no, we’re not going to give in”, would be contrary to every instinct in television …
HEFFNER: Now wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute … every instinct in television because …
GABLER … in broadcast television, certainly.
HEFFNER: … in commercial …
GABLER: … in commercial, broadcast television … yes.
HEFFNER: So let’s, let’s ….
HEFFNER: … get that straight. That’s where …
GABLER: Absolutely, absolutely. Absolutely.
HEFFNER: But you know your argument sounds to me as though you were going to say, “in the school yard” when the drug pushers come, they are responding to the desire of the young kids to buy drugs, so let us not like the damn pushers.
GABLER: Well, that’s assuming that, you know, children have some kind of inherent desire for drugs. And it’s not a product of peer pressure and whatever. But I really don’t believe that watching Jon Benet Ramsey instead of Kosovo … I mean if one were to do a focus group on this … is because there’s peer pressure. You’re not, you know, pressured into watching Jon Benet Ramsey … you’d rather watch it. You know, it’s more accessible, it’s more entertaining than watching what’s going on in Kosovo.
HEFFNER: You know it’s funny that you put it that way because here we have a situation in which we have fed, built appetites to a degree that I think you would concede …
HEFFNER: … and yet you want to say it is now the presence of those appetites that should command what the broadcaster and the film-maker and the journalist, the print journalist, provides, and …
GABLER: Well, you use the word “should”. You use the word “should” and I don’t say “should” … they do. I mean descriptively speaking they do. I mean they do drive these things. And could, could they be arrested, I guess, you know, if one took the Nancy Reagan approach to news … I mean if the news directors at ABC, NBC and CBS “Just said ‘No’.” Just said, “look, we’re going to … we judge the news on the basis of what informed citizens ought to know in our estimation for their society”. One could, you know, make the argument that they ought to do that. But, they certainly haven’t done it. And again …
HEFFNER: Why, why are you then letting them off the hook so easily and saying, “Well, the networks are … I mean ‘there’s no one in here but us chickens’. We don’t have any responsibility”. When you know that they do and you’re saying …
GABLER: Well, they’re not a charitable institution and that’s the thing. I mean they, they … I mean the, the… news directors of NBC, CBS and ABC are all responsible first to, you know, their executives who are then responsible to stockholders. And, I think the day will come, and it’s been predicted where there will be no news on any of the network broadcast news channels, that all of that news will then be kind of exiled to cable, as it’s increasingly being done. Now the interesting thing about being exiled to cable is that the news on cable is even more entertainment driven. As we can see from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, then the news on CBS, NBC and ABC.
HEFFNER: Now you raise the matter of stockholders, does that mean that you’re willing to accept … Citizen Gabler is willing accept the notion that the market-place ethos shall prevail, will prevail, must prevail.
GABLER: Well, I don’t…Shall prevail? Yes. Ought to prevail … I don’t make any judgment about that. I mean I think there are many diseconomies in life. Economists talk about “diseconomies” … things that the market doesn’t take care of. You know, garbage collection. You know, police. Defense. Whether one wants to regard information as a “diseconomy” is a very interesting question.
HEFFNER: And your position?
GABLER: My position is that we do get information if we want it. Right now one can say that, you know, I’m certainly not a … you know, some kind of vehement market capitalist. But if you want information, you can still find it.
HEFFNER: How would you know to want it? How would you want to want it …
GABLER: Well, I mean…
HEFFNER: … if your diet …
GABLER: … I think people know that MacNeil/Lehrer … now The Newshour with Jim Lehrer … is out there. And if you want reasoned discussion as opposed to a Liberal and Conservative kind of “yapping” at one another to create conflict because it’s more dramatic … if you want reasoned discussion with, with individuals who are expert in their area you can find it. And I know, I mean I … I, I don’t think I’m supremely intelligent, but I find the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and I watch it, and I enjoy it and it informs me.
HEFFNER: You don’t think then that the impact of what is on most of the time creates a larger and larger audience for what is on most of the time?
GABLER: Well, I mean … we talked about this earlier. I think that the media exploit the desire for entertainment. And they only give us entertainment. I mean they give us very little and what they give us that’s non-entertainment, you know, as I’ve said is marginalized to the Newshour which has a very small audience when one compares it to the audiences of not only cable, but also to ABC, CBS, NBC and now Fox. So, you know, it’s … clearly there is a system here that profits from our desire for entertainment. That feeds that desire. That wants that desire to continue. That, in fact, wants to see all of American society become a huge engine of entertainment. But the point I keep making is that the public doesn’t resist this. And it’s not because they’re coerced into it. I don’t believe … this is … you know Huxley in Brave New World looked at a society where people, you know wanted pleasure and in a sense were coerced into pleasure.
HEFFNER: Yes, and there’s no question in that Brave New World in the midst of the Depression, or at the end of the Depression was considered a Utopia. But you, I’ll bet …
HEFFNER: … consider it a dis-Utopia.
GABLER: Yes I do because it’s coercive. And, and for me, I mean it’s the coercion here that is the negative thing. If people want to seek pleasure, I mean I think they have the right to seek pleasure … so long as they’re not coerced into it. And, and there are salutary effects from people who want pleasure. Again, all of this is a matter of proportion. I am, I am very much a moderate in the sense that, you know, I believe in cultural populism, but also in cultural pluralism. You know I believe that a balanced diet is a good diet. But how we get that, without forcing, without coercing networks into providing a different kind of news is, is something that, you know, I’m not … I’m not expert enough to answer.
HEFFNER: Your … well, come on … you’re not pretending that this is a matter of expertise.
GABLER: Well, it is when you … when one is addressing the issue of how do we balance the diet when all of us would rather have cheeseburgers? Now, how are we going to balance the diet? Do we force, do we force all of us to eat broccoli? I mean that’s a, that’s a…a difficult question. And, you know, clearly, I mean when you watch the news you’re getting cheeseburgers now. I mean that’s all you get is cheeseburgers. And if one wants broccoli, does the government come in and force us to have broccoli? Or does someone within the network news apparatus say, “look, you know, I feel the responsibility to, to put some broccoli on the plate alongside these cheeseburgers”. I mean that clearly is not happening. In fact, if anything we’re getting … they’re stacking more cheeseburgers on the plate. We get Dateline, we get 20/20, we get another edition of 60 Minutes, and all of these things are feeding us entertainment.
HEFFNER: Neal, do …
GABLER: News packaged as entertainment.
HEFFNER: … at what point, when you pile hamburger upon hamburger will you say, “enough already”. It’s difficult to figure out what to do about it, and to maintain our traditional …
HEFFNER: … concerns for free speech. But something has got to be done. You won’t say that, will you?
GABLER: Well, I mean I’m saying it in a manner of speaking. In a manner of speaking what I’m saying is that we live in a society that has marginalized serious things. I am one who believes that entertainment and, and serious issues ought to be co-mingled in our society. We ought to have both. Clearly there will always be, you know, more entertainment than there is seriousness. But we ought to have both, and we ought to have a supply of both. And let’s take journalism because we’ve been talking about television. I mean my concern about journalism is not that we have tabloid television and tabloid newspapers, my concern is that the barriers that once separated, and they were never as high as I think traditionalist journalists like to think, but the barriers that once separated tabloid journalism from respectable journalism, and responsible journalism have eroded. And what we get is … is kind of a single, a mono-journalism that is almost all tabloid journalism. And being, you know, a pluralist and being a moderate, you know, I want my serious journalism. And I don’t want everything to be merged together. But again how one … I mean, that I, that is something I will say and…and make no qualification about it.
HEFFNER: Neal, I, I don’t mean to quarrel about this … well, I do mean to …
GABLER: Well, quarrel with me. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: … quarrel about this. But you know, you and I are always going to be able to find that serious journalism. Let’s say within our lifetimes … yours much longer than mine, but we’re going to be able to. Isn’t your concern more about what Americans generally are being fed. Certainly your concern isn’t quite (?) about yourself.
GABLER: Well, Richard, I can’t, I can’t take that position that, you know, I am somehow more savvy, more alert than, than my fellow citizens. I, I mean I see myself, and when I …whenever I write, and particularly when I write a book like this. I, I use myself as the guinea pig. I’m always examining myself because I’m one of those people who, when Kenneth Starr’s report came out, you know, I was one of those people who ran out and got it and read it from cover to cover. It wasn’t someone else, it was me. I’m one of those people who watches, you know, television, watches ER every week. I’m one of those people who, you know, picks up the latest, you know, rock CD. So I’m, I’m always analyzing myself. And in some ways, you know, I think that the distance between myself and my fellow citizens is not so great. And it’s one of the things I said, you know, earlier, in our earlier broadcast. You know, I don’t see myself as standing on that mountaintop and preaching to the masses below. I see myself with those masses. So, my feeling is if I can find it, they can find it. The issue is whether enough of us will want to find it, so that it will still exist. That, I think, is a serious concern. In a…in a society where the appetite for entertainment is so great, you know, we may marginalize serious news, as we’re talking about here, or serious anything to such an extent that, though it may never vanish fully, it, it may have no weight whatsoever in society.
HEFFNER: But, you use the word “exploitation” a couple of times.
HEFFNER: In a society in which the thrust is to increase the degree, constantly increase the appetite for entertainment what hope is there? You’re saying …
GABLER: Well I’m not sure. It’s, it’s increasing so much, the appetite, as, as devising new ways of fulfilling it. Because we get jaded. We’ve had so many hamburgers …
GABLER: … you know, we say we want something new. Now, unfortunately, we generally don’t turn to broccoli, we turn to some other, you know, fast food. High caloric, you know, fatty food. But what we see, and in fact this is kind of the story of entertainment culture in this country …is we see that there are constantly new entertainments being devised. The, the stakes are constantly being ratcheted. In the 19th century when…when schools criticized entertainment, they often used a drug metaphor. They talked about entertainment as being like an opiate. And, in some ways, I mean that is, it is an apt metaphor. Not in the schoolyard sense that you mentioned earlier, but in the sense that we always want a new drug, we want a new high. We get, we…we…we plateau on entertainment and we want something new.
HEFFNER: And it’s provided for us.
GABLER: And it’s provided for us.
HEFFNER: … commercially …
GABLER: … commercially. And, and it’s there because the appetite is there and we get jaded with something, or sated with something, and we want something new. Now that’s what they’re exploiting. I mean they’re exploiting that appetite we have, and, and one only has to look at movies over the last 25 years to see that technologically they’ll reach a certain point. You know, they’ll reach a “Star Wars” and there’ll be twenty thousand “Star Wars” imitations. And then they’ll say, “we’ve seen that already, give me something else”. And then Hollywood will provide something else. And we’ll get twenty thousand of those. And then we’ll say, “we’ve seen that already, give me something else. I want a new drug, I want a new high”. And, and the cultural process is to generate these things constantly. In fact the process I describe in the book is one that, you know, the, the culture is generated by the minorities in America, and by youth in America. It then gets co-opted by the middle class, you say, “you know, I want that … I want part of that entertainment, too”. And it gets domesticated. This is why Elvis Presley could be this absolutely scandalous rock singer and wind up playing in Las Vegas. Which is kind of the headquarters of middle-class middle America. Meanwhile, you know, Black America, and Youth America are generating something new that will ultimately be domesticated and it won’t be … I mean 10 years from now the most scandalous rap…rap stars will be appearing in a Vegas lounge. That’s the process of culture.
HEFFNER: Okay. The movie has an end. Right?
GABLER: Well …
HEFFNER: The movie …
GABLER: The movie does have an end. At least …
HEFFNER: Okay. Where do you think it’s going to end?
GABLER: Well, let’s look at … I mean there are two ways of looking at this. At the micro and at the macro level. At the micro level, I mean, our movies all end when we play our death scene. The movie keeps on unraveling, but our scenes end. Because we are all personally implicated in this, in my estimation. We are all, to a greater or lesser degree, appropriating aspects from the conventional media into our own lives to make our own lives more closely approximate the, the general conventional media because it makes us feel better to feel that we are like Tom Cruise or like Julia Roberts. At the macro level … some people say that we will reach critical mass. I mean there is a point, after all, where you OD, where you’ve had too much. We haven’t … I mean I can’t even begin to foresee that. Because we are talking again about an evolutionary process that has gone on in this country, at least for 150 years, or longer. And I don’t think that the end is in sight for us. We are simply … I mean the nineties have, have ratcheted up the whole mechanism of entertainment. So that, as I describe it in the book, now we have real life competing with conventional entertainment. The Monica Lewinsky scandal, OJ Simpson, Jon Benet Ramsey, Joey Buttafucco, Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt … all of these are entertainments that play out on the screens of the conventional media, but they challenge the conventional media. So that, where is it going to end? I don’t think, you know, this is…it’s like the war in Vietnam. We can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel yet. We’re going to keep on going down these tracks.
HEFFNER: Because there wasn’t any light at the end of the tunnel.
GABLER: No, there wasn’t. And there may not be here. I mean it’s, it’s very possible …
HEFFNER: Doesn’t that make you question, a little, what it is you’re saying? You know, Daphne Doelger, Associate Producer of The Open Mind, when we wanted to put a title at the beginning of our second program, this one … said, “The Sequel”.
HEFFNER: And, “The Sequel”, you’re suggesting will have a sequel and part four and part five …
HEFFNER: Doesn’t that …
GABLER: And part one thousand.
HEFFNER: Doesn’t that … and ratcheting goes on.
GABLER: And, and constantly, each sequel will have more. More sex, if we’re talking about … what in the book I refer to as “life-ies”, which are movies written in the medium of life. I mean the next scandal after Lewinsky will be juicier, will have more sex because it’s got to compete.
HEFFNER: And more violence.
GABLER: And more violence. And more power and more lust. And all of those ingredients because, again, if you follow my theory, we’re always ratcheting up the stakes.
HEFFNER: And that delights you because it means empowerment.
GABLER: Well, it doesn’t delight me. I mean it is a form of empowerment.
HEFFNER: And if it doesn’t delight you. Why?
GABLER: It doesn’t delight me and it doesn’t disgust me. What it does is … I mean I, I come into this and I end the book this way. I conclude the book this way, much to the chagrin of some critics, and obviously to your chagrin as well, Richard. But I say that there are good things and there are bad things. And what we have to do, and the only way this process can be arrested, if one wants to arrest it is this way, in my estimation. It’s not going to be arrested socially. It has to be arrested individually. Each one of us has to say, “what kind of life do I want? What kind of society do I want? What kind of values do I want?”. These are important decisions to make, and we have to make them consciously because we live in a society that is driving us all in one direction. And if we want to pull it back, if we want to put “the end” on the movie and, and reach some kind of authenticity, if we want, in the words of Daniel Boorstein, to “disenchant ourselves”. As he said in his famous book, The Image some 30 years ago, we have to do it one by one. Not in some mass movement, but one by one. Because this is a matter of change of consciousness and we have to change our own consciousnesses.
HEFFNER: When …
GABLER: And that’s the way it happens.
HEFFNER: When you did your book on Winchell and when we did a program on that book … I think I said to you that my father was a “bookie”, a racing man, a betting man. And he knew Winchell. Now to the degree that you created some sympathy, on my part, for Winchell, and at the end of the book I remember saying to you, “I don’t understand what you did, you’re a magician”. You made me, I almost cried as I read the … his end. To the extent that you’re a betting man, what do you bet here about the potential for this one-on-one saying “no more”. And not a social action.
GABLER: I’ll bet against it. I bet against it. I think that there will…there will be individuals who will opt out of it. Although that itself becomes a kind of movie to opt out of the larger movie as we saw with someone like Theodore Koszinsky, the Unabomber …
GABLER: … who opted out of the movie. But my … if I were a betting man, I’d say, “this movie is going to continue and get bigger and bigger and bigger.
HEFFNER: Not better and better and better?
GABLER: No. Not better and better and better. Again, I think qualitatively. I mean one can say that the movie isn’t any good. I mean it may have no socially redeeming value, which is the argument you’ve been making. But it’s going to continue and it’s going to get larger.
HEFFNER: Would you use the word, as you have, metastasize?
GABLER: Yes, it has metastasized into life so that life itself, in my argument, is now a movie. Can we get real life back when it is now inextricably bound up with entertainment? I don’t think we can.
HEFFNER: There’s silence, not because we’ve come to the end of the program just yet. But because that’s an amazing thing to hear. Frightening thing to hear. But more amazing, it seems to me because you’ve also said, ‘I don’t want to pass judgment on that.”
GABLER: No, I don’t want to pass judgment on that. Because one of the things we have not discussed is something that I …
HEFFNER: Well, do so … we have only two minutes left.
GABLER: Well, there is an issue that looms before us. And it’s the issue that I raise at the end of the book. And that is the issue of human-ness versus happiness. And by that I mean that traditionally that one thinks of, of human experience incorporating suffering, anxiety, guilt, despair, loneliness and that these thing leaven our lives. And make us human. On the other side of that argument are those who say, “look, we had to suffer all those things because we didn’t have a means of purging them. But now, we have not arrived at the point where we can purge them, but we are closer to a point than we have ever been before, through medicine, through Prozac, through, you know, more time, through all sorts of things that we can appropriate into our lives, to making our lives happier. So, now what does one choose? Does one opt for human-ness, with all of the things that entails? Or does one opt for happiness, with all of the things that entails? That, I think is the question. That’s really the question that I leave at the end of the book for us to decide. And, and if you ask me, you know, do I come down on one side or the other, you know, I think one can make a convincing argument for each. Certainly one can make a convincing argument for trying to combine the two, which is ultimately what would be the result. But it’s…it is the question of the next century, as far as I’m concerned.
HEFFNER: But you can’t make a case for metastasizing, can you?
GABLER: At the, at the institutional level, where it pervades every institution of our lives. I think one is hard put to make a strong case that every institution in American life ought to be ultimately some form of entertainment. That’s a much more difficult argument to take and it’s not one that I would, that I would make.
HEFFNER: Neal Gabler, Life The Movie … Starring Everyone, How Entertainment Conquered Reality is an extraordinary book because it puts its finger, your finger on an extraordinary problem and I thank you very much for having done these two programs.
GABLER: Well, thank you so much for having me, I really enjoyed it.
HEFFNER: Good. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.