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Lost & Found: Steve Almond on Michael J. Arlen

We’re back today from the Tin House Writer’s Workshop and feeling a bit like kids fresh off the bus from summer camp: smarter, braver, and already wistful for the quesadillas in the Reed cafeteria the time we spent immersed in this thing we most love with some of our favorite people who love it, too.  Thanks to all of you that made this last week a trip to writing Shangri-La. We’re counting the days until we can do it again next year. But for now, here’s a dose of faculty member and sometimes- poker hustler Steve Almond to help you through workshop withdrawal.

Like virtually every worthwhile book I’ve ever read, I did not come to Living Room War (1969) on my own.  It was assigned to me in college, for a course on literature of the Vietnam War, about which I remember almost nothing, aside from the appearance, in the final class, of three murderously angry Vietnam vets in weather-beaten fatigues.

 

I was largely unmoved by the actual literature component of the class.  I didn’t get Going After Cacciato, and Why Are We in Vietnam? induced in me the vertigo familiar to all college sophomores who—while virtuosos in bong technology—have yet to acquire an actual critical faculty.  Then came Arlen’s slender volume, which, as I think things through, might have been the first time I recognized the depth of my intellectual deficiencies.

It was a book of brief essays about television, specifically the coverage of Vietnam during the late sixties.  I looked upon it with the sturdy skepticism you might expect from someone whose contemplation of the news media and its salient role in the body politic had heretofore focused, more or less exhaustively, on the size of Diane Sawyer’s knockers.  Then I ran smack into this:

And I switch back to CBS and there…is Morley Safer, CBS’s man in Vietnam, standing in front of a thicket of trees, soldiers moving all around him, the camera taking his picture jiggling slightly, Safer not standing tall and staring purposefully into the camera, the way he’s supposed to, but instead with his hand on his hip, out of breath, telling us about an action that some American troops have just been engaged in, a smallish encounter, two or three men killed, nothing extraordinary, but Morley Safer is out of breath, he is not reading from a little notebook, he has not written anything down, he is speaking with pauses, changes of direction in mid-sentence, occasional gaps between words, he is rubbing his face and moving his microphone about as if he’d just as soon not have to hold it, and pausing again, and going on, doing just fine.  He does more than he thinks he’s doing because in addition to providing a good piece of news reporting he is providing the first sound of an individual human voice that many of us have heard on television for days and days.

Why did this passage—which was, after all, about an obscure, fifteen-year-old news clip—strike me as so revelatory?  Because Arlen was paying such close attention to Safer, and in so doing capturing one of those rare moments when the carefully applied varnish of television, that profitable insistence on rendering everything as a safe and vaguely masturbatory form of entertainment, is suddenly and thrillingly peeled back to reveal actual human beings, some of them in proximity to actual death.

In fact, Arlen was doing something even more fundamental: he was treating television as if it mattered.  I had spent the plurality of my youth stoned on the stuff, and this possibility had never occurred to me.  On the contrary, TV was the one place where the perils of the world could be tamed, where bullets never hit the good guys (or hurt them much, anyway), where a broken heart could be knocked back into shaped by a crisp punch line.

And here was Arlen asserting that in certain duties—the covering of wars, for instance—this childish approach wouldn’t do, and was, in fact, tremendously dangerous, not just to our “democracy, “ as the pundits would have it, but to our conscience.

It bears mentioning that I came to the book in the thick of the Reagan era, and while Kennedy is often tagged as our first “TV president,” it was Reagan who understood the pulverizing power of the visual media, the way in which, for example, the invasion of a virtually defenseless island nation such as Grenada could be recast as a brisk military adventure, a miniseries produced explicitly to put to rest the lingering imperial humiliations of Vietnam.

I thought about the heroic images of the Grenada invasion as I read Arlen’s fierce little piece, “The Bombs Below Go Pop-Pop-Pop,” in which he excoriates CBS for airing an hour-long special on the bombing of North Vietnam without once asking, let alone showing its fragile viewers, who might have been killed by all those nifty American bombs.

It’s hard to imagine now, but back then the voices of conventional wisdom were insisting that TV coverage made war more real.  Arlen would have none of it.  By the grace of the networks, he noted, civilians, were left to view Vietnam

as a child kneeling in the corridor, his eye to the keyhole, looks at two grownups arguing in a locked room—the aperture of the keyhole small; the figures shadowy, mostly out of sight; the voices indistinct, isolated threats without meaning; isolate glimpses, part of an elbow, a man’s jacket (who is the man?), part of a face, a woman’s face.  Ah, she is crying.  One sees the tears.  (The voices continue indistinctly.)  One counts the tears.  Two tears.  Three tears.  Two bombing raids.  Four seek-and-destroy missions…I wonder (sometimes) what it is that the people who run television think about the war, because they have given us this keyhole view; we have given them the airwaves, and now, at this critical time, they have given back to us this key hole view.

Arlen’s point wasn’t that the United States shouldn’t wage war, but that a free press was obliged to investigate the moral complexities of such an undertaking.  His reluctant conclusion was that TV executives not only failed in this regard, but became, for the most part, organs of propaganda.

To read Arlen today is an almost painful experience—and not simply because the network pooh-bahs are playing the same game, but also because they do so joyfully and without the least sense of dishonoring their profession.  The very expectation that television news might be a force for good in the world has all but ceased to exist.

It has become, instead, a venue dedicated exclusively to the excitation of childish impulses.  Keep the viewer stimulated: aggrieved, fearful, and above all ignorant of his true predicament.

Though I didn’t quite see it this way at the time, reading Living-room War was also the beginning of a personal transformation.  I’d figured out that television wasn’t doing me any favors, was probably dulling certain crucial receptors.  But it took Arlen—his eloquence, his wit, his knack for spotting the pathos hidden in a disgraceful medium—to set me squarely on the path of writing.

I still read this astonishing book every few years, and I still root for old Morley Safer, for the part of him that lives within all of us, that stares into the heart of human aggression, admits to the terror of that sight, and brings the news back home.

Steve Almond is the author of the short story collection God Bless America.

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