Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Oh, the Autumn ..."

I was going to bitch about having to get up early for a job interview tomorrow, but got distracted by one Facebook video of a Ukrainian woman talking about how her government is doing everything it can to repress the people and another video of a guy standing on a bus and getting beaten senseless by the driver because he asked for directions. That combination made my woes seem infinitesimal by comparison.

Being the way things are on the Internet, it’s gotten to the point where it’s hard to know if both or either of them are real. They both seem legitimate, but if hoaxes didn’t seem legit, they wouldn’t be hoaxes, would they? Though given the number of times article have been pulled from The Daily Current or The Onion or Andy Borowitz or someplace else, and passed off as real, who the hell knows anymore?

It’s just damn depressing. I’m currently doing my “Farnsworth Invention” research, and reading a very good book about the war between Philo Farnsworth, who invented television, and David Sarnoff, the man who ran RCA and NBC and stole television, almost literally. The short version of events is that Sarnoff, who never met an aspect of his life he didn’t want to lie about (or at the very least, embellish), did everything he could to ensure that every aspect of radio – from tubes to programming – was owned by RCA. If someone patented an improvement, he’d either find a way to buy it from them or tie the inventor up in court for so long that that individual would either have to sell out or give up. RCA had far deeper pockets than any of these scientists, who would generally be forced to sell out for peanuts.

In Farnsworth’s case, Sarnoff not only had his own scientists find out what Farnsworth was doing – in some cases because Philo naively showed them around his lab (202 Green Street; at Sansome, by the way) – he’d have them “invent” the same technology and tie up Farnsworth with protracted lawsuits and trials. And if that didn’t work, he’d just steal the inventions outright and ignore court rulings. The result of the biggest trial declared (and these are almost the exact words) Farnsworth to be “the sole and only inventor of television.” That ruling didn’t bother Sarnoff at all; he continued to use the technology before finally licensing Farnsworth’s patents for a million dollars.

My point, though, comes from a quote in the book, Evan I. Schwartz’s “The Last Lone Inventor:”

…(Farnsworth) began laying out his vision for what television could become. Above all else, he told (his wife), television would become the world’s greatest teaching tool. Illiteracy would be wiped out. The immediacy of television was the key. As news happened, viewers would watch it unfold live; no longer would we have to rely on people interpreting and distorting the news for us. We would be watching sporting events and symphony orchestras. Instead of going to the movies, the movies would come to us. Television would also bring about world peace. If we were able to see people in other countries and learn about our differences, why would there be any misunderstandings? War would be a thing of the past.

Farnsworth was a great inventor, but he wasn’t much of a sociologist. But at least he got the movies and sports right.

How is it that, we’re in the 21st century and everything seems to be regressing? Someone on Facebook linked to an article today that claimed the reason Americans were so stupid was because there are so many toxic chemicals in our food. I won’t dispute the science of that -- especially given that photo comparison of foods that are sold at Walmart but wouldn’t make the cut at Whole Foods because of all the additives (and let me state my anathema of Whole Foods in general …) – but I think the reason is much more obvious, if more conspiratorial. It’s a two-pronged reason. Starting in the 60s (and I have a whole other theory about this that I won’t bore you with right now), Madison Avenue realized the teen and young adult markets were where they wanted to sell goods and services and did everything they could to push the “new” at the expense of anything more than about 15 minutes old – especially history and pop culture. Combine that with the right wing’s war on public education – in order to keep the masses uninformed, docile, and passive – well, it’s only natural we don’t know anything. Or only what we want to know. Or told we want to know.

I did a post about outrage last week, and, yes, there’s plenty about which to be outraged. Hell, the inciting incidents above sparked this post. But a day doesn’t go by without a story of a civil war someplace or homophobia and gay-bashing in Russia or Africa or even over here. Georgia just issued license plates with the Confederate flag – the very symbol of racism and white privilege – on them. Lawmakers in Arkansas and Georgia have doing what they can to keep people from getting affordable health care (or, in the latter case, any health care at all). And Ukrainians requesting simple democracy are being fired on and beaten by their own army and police (good thing things like that never happen here …). And bus drivers beat the crap out of innocent passengers.

What the hell is going on out there? It gets me so depressed that when I hear about Elizabeth Kolbert’s book about how we’re basically wiping out life on Earth, it almost comes as a relief. I pity the generations that follow us. We’ve screwed them over but good – assuming they’re even around to deal with our mess.

And then, on top of all of this, I have the Olympics on – the games I predicted would be a delightful festival or screw-uppery but have gone well so far (the shots of Putin watching the Russian hockey team lose make so much else worthwhile). I know some of my friends are boycotting the telecasts, but I’ve been watching as much as I can – especially the curling. (I loves me some curling.) And as I was writing this, the ladies’ figure skating came on, and it really stopped me in my tracks. For a few minutes, I saw the potential of what we can be and it simultaneously made me happy to see what these women can do and sad to put it in the context of everything else that’s happening.

So, everything considered, I guess I don’t really need to bitch about getting up early or being nervous about the job interview.

(The title of today's post is taken from David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre." It was written when Mamet hadn't pissed his talent away and deals with two actors – one on the way up, the other on the way out – in a repertory company. One of the scenes is a faux Chekhov play. The older actor is sitting in a wheelchair, and sighs “Oh, the autumn” to convey his existential ennui. The phrase has become code around our house for an expression of infinite melancholia that needs to be mocked.)

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