Monday, November 24, 2008

Notes on a Scandal

I think it's time to think about what we are seeing or to turn our eyes away.
(Courtesy of

It wouldn't be earth shattering to suggest that people love scandal, but in the latest New York Review of Books, Mark Danner writes that the scandal filling our airwaves today is not the same scandal we once loved.

Historical scandals, like Vietnam and Watergate provided an neat and tidy arc of revelation, investigation and catharsis for the public. Journalists would break the story before the press, Congress, courts and American people would step in to "construct a story of grim truth that citizens can in common accept." Upon the creation of this truth, a sentence could be handed over, shame and wrongdoing purged; life can return to a state of relative normalcy and grace once more.

While this once reigned true, Danner believes that scandal reigns in today's society for a different reason. We are in an age of perpetual scandal and "Scandal is our growth industry," he declares. Once a means of release, the state of permanent of "frozen" scandal has since presented itself to the media as a point of metastasizable, perpetual public interest. "The gift that never stops giving," "unpurged and unresolved," scandal transforms from a political reality to a commercial fact.

But scandal is nothing more than a myth, he says. Calling on images of power, media and the masses as forces of justice and rectification: as soon as we are alerted, there is no wrongdoing is too difficult to overturn. This is the selling point for the media.

Danner hypothesizes:
The obstacle to this natural self-cleansing of our political life can only be the people's ignorance. For if they know, and the corruption and scandals persist--well, how can the people be good? No, what must be missing then--so the myth implies--is clarity, revelation. What is missing is the gatekeepers of our ignorance whose duty it is to draw the curtain back from scandal and show the people everything, thereby starting the polity on the road to inexorable justice. Information is all. 

A wise mass media has noted that perpetual scandal can give them the soul power of expiation: in order for society to be cleansed, they must let us know where to begin. The natural sense of good that once proved central in scandal has been rendered irrelevant without information--information only the press can provide, that is. And so, once happy mythmakers, journalists have been reduced to scandal-mongering; scandal, after all, denotes success.

Scandal is cheap, easy and enduring. Complicated plots feed the "verbal slash and parry" that dominate televisions while providing room for subplots and spinoff stories. Tapping into an unending scandal releases an endless stream of news, and for those of us stuck in the past, it offers hope of societal cleansing. Unfortunately, that may be nothing more than an illusion.

Perhaps this past week’s resurgence of Eliot Spitzer and Ashley Dupree prove a relevant example. Caught in an unfortunate position last spring, the two have been dragged along by the media. Months and months later, we are still on the edge of our seats, listening to
justifications and watching for missteps. While Spitzer and Dupree could, at this point, remain out of site, the media keeps dragging them into the spot light in hopes of letting their story play out into “something one can stand on either side of,” or better yet, “Something we can live with.”

So in the age of Frozen Scandal, Spitzer and Dupree will never be written off as wrongdoers; and guilt will never be definitely proven and shut but instead continually spun into new lessons to be learned. “Can you not hear the wheels of scandal spinning?,” Danner asks, “It is the music of our age.” We can't avert our eyes, but what we are seeing is no longer clear.  The media, the “gatekeepers of our ignorance,” are no longer drawing the curtains to expose and clear away scandal, but covering up what could be a dystopian stasis with a phantasmal and unending blanket of scandal.  Does the comfort we seek in scandal result only from a pataphorical truth? It's time to ask for more--or maybe to simply turn our eyes and look for ourselves

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