Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sarah Palin and the Language of TV.

Even well into the digital age, TV still dictates the popular cultural in our country. For all the CBS's growth on the internet, its website only attracts a million visitors a day. Enough to put it in the top 50 sites out there, but far fewer than the 23 million viewers CSI attracts each week.

This is a relatively mundane point, because for most of our lives TV dictated each of our roles in society through generalities and drab dictations of the national zeitgeist. Each and every sitcom is engineered and group-tested into oblivion so it will grab hold of the largest audience. These facts are hardly hidden, because this is how TV shines. TV's orders from the mount are to present us with the most overarching view of America possible in 21 minutes or less. Which is quite amazing, see, because in effect TV shows us not only how America sees itself, but also what we are as a nation.

To those who prefer to find this in books, TV's endless rehashing of common plots, characters, and themes seems to only lead to a dulling of the senses and a life of McDonald's Pies and Big Gulps. Books rely on far more investment in original, cohesive thought to be successful, but by definition originality and cohesion cannot be found in the blue haze's formulaic seas.

Television's appeal lies in its lack of rhetoric, in its insistence on feelings and its control of them. I'll say that again: TV disdains rhetoric, it speaks in pure emotion. Why else would Fonzi be a common household name today if not for his patterned nostalgia? Or, why on is the Family Guy consistently in the top five, if not for its rapidfire demands for laughter? Each and every sitcom, drama, or comedy on TV succeeds to some extent by capitalizing on our feelings, and the more successful each becomes in the weekly ratings, the harder it is to quantify or atomize into distinct parts. Which in turn leads to a national feeling of déjà vu, for we've all felt these feelings before, so TV becomes roundly criticized as nonsensical, repetitive dreck.

These criticisms turn out empty though, precisely because they are searching for gerunds in an idiom that TV cannot speak. We may not know TV's precise point at any given time, but hot damn, we sure as hell can feel it.

Which brings us to Gov. Palin, specifically to her shining moment in the debates, and her feckless and inconsiderate use of the English language:

Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced your whole comment with the Bush administration.

Unless Gov. Palin meant to attack Biden with the securities trading term "preference," a sting to obtuse for basically anyone to pick up on, these sentences might as well be gibberish. But, see, what they convey or feel, is a hope for the future, "forgive those who trespass." And she continues:

Now doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future. You mentioned education and I'm glad that you did. I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and god bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right?

Palin's jump to that last sentence exposes a way of thinking that rarely pauses for clarity (wait did she just threaten Biden's wife?), but instead barrels through points for effect (she's a fan of teachers!). TV's basic formula plays well under these conditions; if a scene doesn't work it is cut with little to no concern for narrative cohesion. What matters in both instances is the impact of what's felt (God exists, He's on our side, He wants us to win), what's said is hardly the point. Tally ho:

I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving. Teachers needed to be paid more. I come from a house full of school teachers. My grandma was, my dad who is in the audience today, he's a schoolteacher, had been for many years. My brother, who I think is the best schoolteacher in the year, and here's a shout-out to all those third graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School, you get extra credit for watching the debate.

And so, her painful paragraph ends with the most heartfelt bunch of feeling a politician can hope for, a family with kids, under God. Palin goes ones step further and emotes into existence a room full of concentrating young Americans, real Americans. Ones she can feel for, the nation follows along, and that's terrifying.

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