While watching the news report on our president, the image of Raphael’s, “Sistine Madonna” came to mind. Now bear with me for a moment, as this painting is probably best known for the cherubs at the bottom of the image. The thing that made me think of them was not their cheeky demeanor but the fact that the cherubs are downright chubby. Like many representations of cherubs in paintings of the time, they are notoriously well fed. Later I discovered that the reason for that was that in a time when most people were starving the idea that there might be more than enough food in heaven did add a certain level of interest that a blushing Madonna’s or pious saints wouldn’t have- the elusive robustness was to be valued, prized even idolized. In this time when we think of social media as a new form of religion, why are we surprised to see the parade of characters cast before us every waking moment? From the earliest days in television, we were presented with ideal visions of family and life that were far from anything most people had known or were even possible. Today we watch the Kardashian’s in the hopes that we could also be famous and valued for absolutely no reason. We watched “Friends” living in an absolutely amazing New York apartment with they paid for with jobs and paychecks that they never seemed to work for projection a similar fate might be possible for us too. Perhaps we should not be surprised that we have projected our most precious desires into a world that seems real and yet attainable only through a miracle or some miraculous transformation. It seems we look to these media icons to allow us to dream a world that we cannot or don’t live in. A world where we will be fed to the point of plumpness, rewarded with adulation and attention for no reason, or be able to act and say whatever we want, no matter how hateful, contradictory or detached from reason. Perhaps it conceals a certain desire in all of us to act as if our actions had no consequences, other than those that would be resolved by the final credits. I mean, wouldn’t we all like the opportunity to act like children – even if only chubby children with wings?
While looking for information on several companies I did what most people do, I read the reviews and was surprised to see that the trend for most companies was predominantly negative. Then I was reminded of a phrase of Jaron Lanier, in an interview on NPR, that “Outrage provokes engagement”. We are much more willing to complain loudly than to sing someone’s praises. Think of the last time you had a conversation with someone about how badly you were treated versus the last time you spoke about a kind or loving interaction. Whereas network news once had the rallying cry,” If it bleeds, it leads” that seems to have been replaced by the need to outrage viewers in order to stir them up, get them to tweet, comment and generally justify their existence. It seems that the purpose of media has become provocation and not communication. Twitter and the use of it by our “president” is a perfect example. While a substantive discussion of any issue would be difficult in 120 characters, it seems as though Mr. Trump seems more intent on kicking over the beehive and generating buzz (pardon the pun) rather than inviting a discussion on what needs to be done and how to get there. This is no surprise for a reality star turned politician who has learned that manipulation of the media is easier than manipulation of policy. The beast needs our attention and will do anything to get us to look at it. Perhaps our best response is to turn away from the media’s childlike tantrum and hope that it will someday realize the promises that it whispered in our ears when we allowed it in our lives.
In rehearsals for “La Traviata,” I remember thinking as a character walked in and began to sing an impassioned plea on behalf of his son, “Is he telling the truth?” How often do we assume that people are speaking the truth just because they say it is? This has never been more apparent than recent situations around our incumbent president and the manner in which the constant repetition of a statement seems to give it an air of truth no matter how insane it may seem. The frightening thing is that we seem to be able to find some corroborating evidence for whatever we believe on the internet. In a time when 44% of adults get their news from Facebook, these media effects go back to the age dreadfuls and even to the advent of print media itself. So while we should be rightfully concerned about this trend for our current politics, we should also know that it is not the first time this has happened. One could argue that this transubstantiation of truth and what is real is a large part of called the Reformation. In this age of disruptive innovation, we must be vigilant with what we hear and accept as truth, as Ronald Reagan famously quoted a Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify”. Seeking truth does not allow an immersion onto a reality of one’s own making but confronting the reality we share, a difficult task it seems in our ever personalized reality.
With a nod to David Mitchell, whos, the quote provided the title for this blog.