Eighty pages into his coroner’s report on public broadcasting, James Ledbetter complains about the system’s “Byzantine complexity and inefficiency.” This is unfair to Constantinople. Public television is much more Egyptian. Like Ptolemaic astronomy, it’s tricked up with epicycles to explain eccentric motions. Like Tutankhamen’s diadem, it’s half-vulture and half-cobra. Like the Temple of Luxor, it’s a hodgepodge of art and politics, a dream world of obelisks, scarabs, and bulls, and a monumental mystification. Therein we find, as John Anthony West has explained in Serpent in the Sky, his meditation on the Sacred Science of the Pharaohs, “priest-bound necrophiles …worshipping a grotesque pantheon of animal-headed gods.”
None of this much resembles what the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television had hoped for in its 1967 report, Public Television: A Program for Action—a system inclusive of “all that is of human interest and importance which is not at the moment appropriate or available for support by advertising” and “a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard,” paid for by an excise tax on television sets. What Carnegie proposed, Congress would dispose in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, a product of both Great Society feistiness and what the historian of public television Ralph Engelman calls a “utopian tradition,” as old as Walt Whitman’s fervor for the telegraph, in which “a vital public sphere of communication can foster free and diverse speech, a sense of community, and purposeful action.” But because of Vietnam, the Great Society was already running on fumes. What Congress omitted from this disabling act was any means of funding such a sphere other than a begging bowl. And so, from the start, the experiment was corrupted by politics and money: the forked tongue and double penis of the Egyptian serpent.
Ledbetter, media critic for The Village Voice, looks back with a savage eye on the last thirty years of public broadcasting and sees a betrayal of its utopian promise, an unseemly mimicry of commercial networks, and a culture of increasing accommodation to partisan politics, sectarian pressure groups, and that “military-industrial-entertainment complex” so beloved of The X-Files’ Agent Mulder. In her book, B.J. Bullert, who had to take a day job as an assistant professor of communication at American University to support her habit of documentary filmmaking, examines the case histories of a half-dozen controversial programs from 1985 to 1993, interviews the appropriate apparatchiks, and presents a sort of ethnography of the labyrinth. As in the old English proverb, “They agree like bells; they want nothing but hanging.”
Inside today’s temple, priest-bound necrophiles include nine presidentially appointed board members of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, “a dumping ground,” says Ledbetter, “for the worst sort of political hacks”; forty on-staff “gatekeepers” who decide on national programming for the Public Broadcasting Service; such alternative suppliers and distributors as the American Program Service, the Eastern and Central Educational Networks, a Pacific Mountain Network, and a Southern Educational Communications Association; 354 cantankerous affiliate fiefdoms that partake of these services for a fee and occasionally produce programs of their own; the aggrieved community of independent producers who can’t get their work on the air; foundation folks who fund tapeheads; relevant panelists at the two Endowments; the 2 percent of the population that can be counted on to watch the stuff; and five million dues-paying public-TV “members,” Pledge Break groupies, tote-bag schleppers, Barney-doll fetishists, Muppet symps, and anybody who was ever kinky about adhesive-padded geckos.
The animal-headed gods, of course, include:
(1) The White House, any White House. All are equipped with telecommunications policy wonks whose sole purpose is to make their president, whoever he is, and his behavior, whatever it is, look good. Clay Whitehead, who performed this service for Nixon, went so far as to seek to ban from PBS any public affairs programs whatever: no documentaries, no interviews, no panel discussions. (He was assisted by a young Brian Lamb, before he became the Clairvoyant Master of C-SPAN.) The very first Reagan budget tried to cut appropriations for public broadcasting by half. Failing that, they brought in a declared enemy of the whole system, Pat Buchanan, to help vet appointees to the CPB board, and never mind that Pat got famous in the first place on The McLaughlin Group—that without public television, this pip might never have been heard to squeak.
(2) Congresspeople, whose reelection campaigns depend on big money, whose constituents are likely to consist of churchgoing middle-class nuclear families, and who are thus disinclined to spend tax dollars on bad-news programs about corporate accountability, domestic violence, declining cities, race war, indeterminate sexuality, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Until the 1994 elections, you’d have thought everyone in Washington agreed that Hollywood and network television were to blame for pandemic Sex-and-Violence. But after the triumph of a guns-and-god Republican Congress, the emphasis shifted to a culture war in which Keystone Newts sought to cleanse the country of every pointy-headed intellectual with a tutu in his closet, every parasitic painter who ever suckered a dime out of the Endowment, every Third World wetback here to steal a job, and every illegitimate child dieting unto attention deficit on food stamps, not to mention their welfare mothers and crackhead fathers and shyster lawyers and other codependents who should instead be growing rice and eating fish paste in the boondocks. And so the focus of media-bashing shifted to “left-dominated, elitist, minority-radical” public television, widely perceived as promoting an ulterior agen-da of multiculti/femi-nazi/gay-pride/socialized-medicine/performance art.
(3) Big Business. While federal funding shrank from 86 percent of public broadcasting’s total revenue in 1980 to 16 percent in 1995, or $312 million, corporate funding increased by more than 50 percent, according to Baker and Dessart in Down the Tube, to 27 percent of national program costs. (By comparison, Ledbetter notes that in 1995, six years after winning the cold war, Congress authorized $500 million for Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcasts to non-Americans. He also notes that Japan, Canada, and Great Britain spend $32, $31, and $38 per citizen per year on public TV, while we spend $1.09.)
The corporations are so generous not because they desire to foster diverse speech, much less purposeful action, but because their advertising and PR agencies have persuaded them that tax-deductible “enhanced underwriting credits” are of use in what Ledbetter calls “reputation laundering,” sociologist M. David Ermann calls “milieu control,” and Peter Spina, Mobil Oil’s general manager of corporate relations, calls “the halo effect.” Herb Schmertz, the Mobil VP without whom Masterpiece Theatre would still be called Masterpiece Theatre, once explained that “cultural excellence generally suggests corporate excellence,” by which he probably meant he would sell more gas to the upscale audience that adores aristocrats because their houses are big and their servants are picturesque and when they aren’t eating immense amounts of overcooked food, they stand around on their broad rolled lawns like croquet hoops, waiting for history to pop through holes in their heads.
Public TV has always been in bed with the petroleum industry. Most of its startup money came from the Ford Foundation’s Fund for Adult Education, whose first chief, in 1951, was Alexander Fraser, president of Shell Oil. For just as long, Ledbetter informs us, public TV has also been in the closet with the Department of Defense and its subcontractors. The first board of National Educational Television, predecessor to CPB, included the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and officers of IBM and General Electric; the first president of CPB was Frank Pace, Jr., former chief executive of General Dynamics, Secretary of the Army during the Korean War, and a member of the boards of Continental Oil and Time, Inc. Moreover, too poor to pay for long-distance phone lines to distribute programs to all of its affiliates simultaneously, PBS hoped to solve its “bicycling” problem with the new satellite technology, access to which in turn depended on what the military told Congress about its “national security” needs and how sensitive Congress was to the feelings and the earnings of “domestic carrier services” like Western Union and AT&T, not to mention Sperry Rand, Martin Marietta, and Grumman Aircraft. And just as the usual players jockeyed for a piece of the eye in the sky, a Ford-funded Public Broadcast Laboratory series in the fall of 1967 had the lèse-majesté to insinuate that the Pentagon’s version of what went down in the Gulf of Tonkin had been fictitious.
Nor is it as if Humble Oil, US Steel, Hills Brothers, Westinghouse, and Xerox hadn’t been thanked for their donations in the Sixties. But the expressions of gratitude were then discreetly fleeting. Not even for McDonald’s, which supported the children’s program Zoom!, did we ever see a corporate logo—nothing like in 1984, when Frito-Lay and Pizza Hut jumped out of a grocery sack to remind us that MacNeil/Lehrer would not have been possible without Pepsico. Much less today, when NewsHour depends on $6.8 million a year from Archer Daniels Midland, the agribiz octopus whose fixing of prices and pols got so much media attention in 1995—everywhere except on NewsHour.
I’m with Ledbetter (and Greenpeace) in suspecting that DuPont sponsors Discover Underwater, Waste Management International sponsors Only One Earth, and Gulf Oil spends more money advertising than producing National Geographic, to help us forget just who polluted the environment in the first place. I’m not surprised that Kellogg and Nestlé paid for the Eat Smart program on the American diet; that Childhood was underwritten by Oreos and Fig Newtons; that investment houses like Franklin/ Templeton bankroll a Nightly Business Report, Prudential Bache a Wall Street Week, Met Life an Adam Smith’s Money World, American Express an American Experience, and Sears The Puzzle Palace kiddie show.
What else should we expect in a brand-named, theme-parked country where the whole visual culture, the data drizzle and magnetic flash, is one big sell of booze, insouciance, safari styles, and combustible emotions? Where the big-screen rerelease of George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy is brought to us by Doritos and the associated sale of stuffed Yodas, Muppet minotaurs, trading cards, video games, and a six-foot-tall fiberglass Storm Trooper for only $5,000? Where the newest James Bond is less a movie than a music-video marketing campaign for luxury cars, imported beers, mobile phones, and gold credit cards? Where Coke and Pepsi duke it out in grammar schools, and Burger King shows up on the sides of the yellow buses that cart our kids to those schools, in whose classrooms they’ll be handed curriculum kits sprinkled with the names of sneaker companies and breakfast cereals? Where there is a logo, patent, or copyright on everything, from our pro athletes to our childhood fairy tales, and Oprah is sued for $12 million by a Texas beef lobby for “disparaging” blood on a bun during a talk show segment on spongiform encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?
So the logo is our logos. So what? Ramses II, that pylon-happy Syrian-basher, so loved his own reign that he just couldn’t stop putting up images of himself to which every sacred bark, papyrus-cluster column, and blue lotus with a yellow heart paid obeisance.
Ledbetter and Bullert agree that the “so what” resides less in what gets on public TV than in what doesn’t. Unisys, a computer manufacturer, is allowed to bankroll a 1992 PBS series like The Machine That Changed the World. General Electric does the same for PBS convention coverage. But an Oscar-winning 1991 documentary like Deadly Deception, critical of GE and the nuclear power industry, can’t get on the air because it was funded by a group boycotting GE products. And Defending Our Lives, which also won an Oscar in 1993, can’t get on the air because it was produced in collaboration with a victims’ rights advocacy group. And the splendid summer series of independent films, P.O.V. (for Point of View), isn’t permitted to air a documentary about gays and lesbians in the workplace because labor unions helped fund it.
That petroleum companies should be such fans of John Galsworthy and George Eliot we find charming, unless we also know that a board member of the Metropolitan Opera-supportive Texaco tried to buy off PBS in 1980 if it agreed to drop Death of a Princess—a BBC account of the execution of a royal adulteress so offensive to Saudi Arabia that it threatened an oil embargo. And we remember that Gulf+Western canceled support of WNET in New York after the telecast of Hungry for Profit, a 1985 documentary on the rape of the rain forest. And we have noticed public TV’s shamelessly shallow coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its shameful neglect of the role of Shell Oil in the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the ravening of Nigeria.
We may not mind that Ken Burns is a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, lock, stock, and banjo—baseball and Civil War can be counted on not to step on any corporate toes—except that Rights & Wrongs, Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s program on human rights abuses, can’t get PBS funding because, according to program vice-president Jennifer Lawson, “human rights is not a sufficient organizing principle” for a TV series.
Ledbetter asks: “When General Motors and Mobil insist that fictional television should be about nineteenth-century England, and nonfiction television should be about business news, the U.S. civil war and villain-free celebrations of the animal kingdom, who is PBS to object?” By way of a Delphic answer, Bullert quotes a former PBS gatekeeper on what determines which shows get on the national schedule: “who’s powerful, who’s weak, and who cares.”
Bullert’s account of her passage through the labyrinth reads like all great mystic journeys toward Enlightenment, from Saint John of the Cross to a Sufi lapwing. There are voices and visions, ravens and hounds, dark nights and rivers of light. But since I’m pushing Egyptian dread, think of the independent film as a ka or a ba in the Book of the Dead—arriving by boat to plead its case at the Seven Gates of the House of Osiris; looked down upon by Watchers and Heralds; trussed up by the jackal-headed psychopomp Anubis; badmouthed by the ibis-headed prosecutor Thoth; scaling its heart against a feather from the headdress of Maat, the Goddess of Truth; found wanting and then gobbled up by a beastly Ammit.
Even gatekeeper nomenclature needs a Rosetta Stone. As if hieroglyphed, “fairness” and “balance” translate into what William Hoynes in Public Television for Sale calls “goal ambiguity” and “a logic of safety,” and Bullert calls “anticipatory avoidance” and “a culture of timidity.” Thus Dark Circle, a documentary on the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility in Colorado and the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California, received high praise at the New York Film Festival in 1982, the Grand Prize for Documentary at Sundance in 1983, a proposal by KQED in San Francisco to present it nationally in 1984, a PBS rejection of that proposal two years later, and screenings on Ted Turner’s superstation and premium cable Bravo before finally achieving P.O.V. in 1989, after which it won an Emmy award. While there was every reason for a pro-nuke Reagan and Rockwell International (plutonium triggers), Bendix (bomb packaging), DuPont (radioactive hydrogen), GE (neutron generators), Union Carbide (enriched uranium), and Monsanto (explosive detonators) to object to such a program, there is no evidence any of them did. Instead, the system itself and its managers were suspicious of a Dark Circle support group that included Physicians for Social Responsibility and Mothers for Peace.
Likewise, a 1989 documentary, Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians, was at first scheduled and then held up for seven months, until it could be packaged between two short videos presenting an Israeli perspective on the Intifada, followed by a panel discussion with a Likud tilt, after which the Israeli consul general helped four New York businessmen raise $382,000 to produce and air A Search for Solid Ground: The Intifada Through Israeli Eyes, with absolutely no attempt at a “balancing” Palestinian point of view. None of this was George Bush’s fault or corporate America’s. Neither was the sudden dumping from PBS’s 1991 schedule of Stop the Church, a filmed account of the ACT-UP action against St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Originally meant for P.O.V., Stop the Church was dropped—in favor of Binge, a confessional video about a woman’s weight problems—after all the bad publicity and affiliate defections attending another installment of P.O.V. that same summer, Tongues Untied (about which more in a minute).
Of the disputed programs that Bullert discusses in detail, only Roger & Me had to fend off a major corporation. While P.O.V. turned down a rough edit in 1988, Michael Moore’s whimsy did show up there four years later, after a wild run in movie theaters, and three million people saw it. In the meantime, so unkind was Moore’s rendition of what General Motors did to Flint, Michigan, that GM yanked its commercials from any program inviting him to chat. Bullert thinks that Roger & Me would have won an Oscar if critics like Pauline Kael hadn’t been so fetishistic about inaccuracies. Bullert has a poststructuralist sort of feeling that such nitpicks are in thralldom to the dominant discursive myth of “objective” journalism.
Bullert seems even to resent Frontline, the bold PBS investigative series—whose own film about GM, The Heartbeat of America, she says, was not attacked the way Michael Moore’s movie was because of its traditional “news documentary style,” old-fashioned on-camera reporter, pro forma interviews of “experts and key figures,” and the related paraphernalia of “fairness.” Independent filmmakers, full of passionate conviction, are presumed to lapwing on a higher plane. This is silly, as if scruples about accurate description were somehow superstitious, or maybe even hegemonic. When NBC’s Dateline rigged crash tests on GM pickup trucks to support a conviction that sidemounted gas tanks are dangerous, it was bad for journalism and good for GM. When I review a book, no matter what I think about it, I must have read it first and then quote from it accurately. (I am also an editor at The Nation, a magazine that is subjective—as well as subjunctive—about almost everything. Yet we prize our rigorous fact-checkers, who save us from being stupid in public.)
Disputed facts had nothing to do with the 1991 Tongues Untied controversy. Marlon Riggs, a Berkeley journalism professor, never imagined himself on public TV. He had something to say to the African-American community, and was in a hurry to say it on film before he died. Tongues Untied is the story of a gay black man with AIDS, trying to explain, in a collage of skits, poems, dance, autobiography, newsreel footage, rap, camp, and music video, how it felt to be gay, black, and doubly disdained in straight white America. Some of this was funny: a doo-wop barbershop quartet singing “Baby Come Out Tonight.” Some of it was angry: at straight black activists with no time for gay men; at a white gay subculture with no time for black men; at homophobic entertainers like Eddie Murphy. Some of it was dreadful: especially those poems. And some of it broke the heart. But ten or so minutes were shocking: even on cable TV we seldom see full frontal male nudity, or black men kissing each other.
Never mind that it was scheduled well in advance, and safely tucked away, like all P.O.V. programs, at 10 o’clock on a slow summer night, so as not to disturb pledging. Never mind that affiliates got an advance peek in March and April “preview feeds.” Even so, more than a hundred public-TV stations refused to show it, including seventeen in the top fifty markets, and others delayed the broadcast—to 1 AM in Miami and to 3 AM in Seattle.
Newspaper articles about Tongues Untied alerted the Reverend Donald Wildmon, the gnome of Tupelo, whose American Family Association immediately issued a press release attacking a program they hadn’t seen, and attacking as well the National Endowment for the Arts, for helping to fund P.O.V. This in turn alerted Congress, where both the NEA and the CPB faced reauthorization hearings. Oddly, neither Bullert nor Ledbetter mentions that Pat Buchanan made a noisy issue of Tongues Untied in his mossback campaign for the presidency in 1992. Every time he looked under the bed, Pat imagined he saw Marlon Riggs, and was filled with fear and trembling.
As German liberals in the nineteenth century hoped that the first big-city newspapers would be “grand institutions of mass enlightenment,” but got Berliner Morgenpost instead, so liberal-minded twentieth-century Americans like Ledbetter, Bullert, and the Carnegie Commission long for government-subsidized noncommercial TV to amount to something equally exalted, but they get Ben Wattenberg, every week, scuba diving in his ThinkTank. It’s sad enough to remind you of a priestly inscription on a tomb at Hermopolis, lamenting the death of a child:
Though I had many friends, none was in a position to protect me. Everyone in town, men and women alike, is in mourning after what happened to me because everyone was attached to me. All my friends moaned, my father and my mother raised questions about death, my brothers prostrated themselves when I was taken away toward this province of misfortune, where one must present one’s reckoning before the Master of gods.
But public television is not in such a sorry state. Or: it has always been almost as sorry as it is now, and yet more, and other, than merely a muddle, a wound, and a whistling in the ether. Those of us old enough to have watched it back when it was still “educational” remember low-watt UHF hours on adult literacy, family hygiene, farming, and forestry. So we are not exactly shocked by reruns of Lawrence Welk, the listener-supported flavor of the Nineties. Those of us who reviewed its first few baby steps in “public”—Banks and the Poor, for example, which drove Nixon crazy—couldn’t then have imagined anything as ambitious as a single installment of Frontline or P.O.V., much less a season of them, and then a whole decade; or the Bill Moyers miniseries on the scandal of our intelligence agencies, High Crimes and Misdemeanors; or those home movies on a second American revolution, Eyes on the Prize; nor could we even have dreamt of Ofra Bikel’s scorched-earth documentaries on the hysteria of satanic ritual abuse.
Of course, public-television programs should include such a film as Tongues Untied. After so many hours of the gentle Tasaday and the awful Ik, why not gay black Americans—fellow citizens who speak a different anguish? And of course, these programs should be supported by a trust whose coffers are full from an excise tax on TV sets, or a tariff on the commercial networks, or a percentage of the $30 billion-plus spent each year on TV advertising, or a share of profits from the forthcoming sale of the digital broadcast spectrum, or even a checkoff on our income tax forms.
But we are radically naive to think that a government-by-Roadrunner, in fearful flight from its responsibilities to the young, the old, the odd, the powerless, and the afflicted, for which prisons are a growth industry and schools are not, is about to institutionalize dissent, to pay, as it were, for an auto-critique. In a culture that measures everyone by his or her ability to produce wealth and condemns anyone who fails to prosper, the government now is just another market. And the market, as usual, sells us short.
On this depressing score, I learned as much from what’s missing in Ledbetter and Bullert as I did from their painstaking exhumations. What’s missing, for want of a better shorthand, is Helen Mirren. If almost half of PBS programming is public affairs, at least half is not. Between bouts of remedial seriousness, we have also enjoyed all six hours of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and thirteen weeks of Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, Miss Marple and Julia Child, Eugene O’Neill and Sesame Street, the spoonbilled bee-eater and the midwife toad. Science makes wonderful TV. And children need more TV that respects them, not less—as so perversely recommended by a Ledbetter who’d prefer to see documentaries on the dire straits of inner-city classrooms. But both Ledbetter and Bullert are so monocular, so burningly focused on a politics exclusive of culture, they forget we seek options that please as well as edify; that Mystery! with Diana Rigg is a welcome alternative on Thursday nights to the penis jokes and prophylactic sneer of Seinfeld; that even a Masterpiece Theatre coasting on potboilers is sometimes preferable to an X-Files rerun about vampire liposuction. While I miss The Great American Dream Machine just as much as Ledbetter does, I mourn even more the passing of American Playhouse, the risk-taking umbrella series that invested in original films and plays and adaptations of novels and short stories, from Ethan Frome with Liam Neeson to A Raisin in the Sun with Danny Glover; from Sensibility and Sense, Richard Nelson’s playful reconsideration of the adjournment of minds among Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and Diana Trilling, to Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash’s painterly contemplation of turn-of-the-century Gullah culture, to Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s hilarious and heartbreaking account of life in drag in lower Manhattan.
American Playhouse, mentioned only once each in Ledbetter and in Bullert, is gone because the principal sponsor of the series, the National Endowment for the Arts, fared worse than public television in the culture wars. It was easy enough, as Ledbetter observes, for the gatekeepers—as timorous, evasive, disingenuous, self-righteous, self-pitying, or burned-out as they may appear in Bullert’s pages—to buy off their right-wing critics in the early Nineties. All they had to do was give Peggy Noonan her own series, Values; and Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke their own series, Reverse Angle; and Tony Snow space for a New Militant Center plus two hours to reform welfare by abolishing it; and Bill Bennett the PBS cartoon that his Book of Virtues so richly deserved.
But the NEA, lacking any blood ties to the local business/political power structures that coalesce around PBS affiliates, was helpless before its many enemies. And its disemboweling is neglected in both these books. The PBS series American Masters seems more and more these days to settle for the sort of celebrity just as likely to show up on a low-budget A&E Biography, while Great Performances panders for ratings with superstar overproductions like The Three Tenors. This is as much because the “peer panelists” who recommend grants at the traumatized NEA are looking over their shoulders at Congress as because PBS executive producers are licking the corporate boot on their throats.
I have served on two of these NEA panels, Literature and Media Arts, reporting to the National Council. We met mostly in Washington or New York, but I remember Berkeley, where paranoia against Easterners like me ran amok even though I’d gone to college there. And Savannah, where we admired the house in which Conrad Aiken’s father murdered Conrad Aiken’s mother. And San Antonio, where Rosalind Russell rode a gaudy barge downriver, and six mariachi bands trailed us in a hacienda full of shower stalls big enough to stable the horses of the apocalypse. I also recall long, smoky hours in hot little rooms, devising programs that would put poets into schools, novelists on radio, paperbacks into bookmobiles, dance on television. We were trying to keep difficult people from starving, because we believed that these difficult people, at their difficult task, might ultimately transfigure us. Think of it as a seeding for a Gross National Product of mystery and magic. Once we gave a grant to a poet who used it to write, instead, a best-selling novel. The poet’s name was Erica Jong; the novel was Fear of Flying. Congress was furious, our budget was in trouble, and yet somehow the Republic survived this zipless foofaraw, as it would subsequently survive Marlon Riggs and Tongues Untied. Whereas the NEA doesn’t look as though it will make it to the millennium.
I would have imagined that any civilization worth the savor of its salt invests as much in surprising art as in libraries and museums, in land-grant colleges and national parks and public spaces to celebrate ourselves as citizens. That peer panelists—like the volunteers who person the phones during public-TV Pledge Breaks and the signers who simultaneously interpret Peter, Paul, and Mary for the deaf—are supposed to be on the angelic side of the Johnny Appleseeds who deliver us from platitude, punditry, baby talk, psychobabble, laughtrack, skin-pop, and thumb-eye; from cop shows against the Bill of Rights and abductions by sperm-sucking polliwogs. That we ought to be grateful for those ghosts in our machines who speak for our irregular sizes and shapes, our differing contours and textures and grain. That, as a nation, we are a lot more complicated than what we see on the hole in our wall.
But I would have been wrong. This is what Thebes looks like—self-serving monuments standing stunned under the sun god Ra, with most of the color in the tomb caves underground, waiting for Greeks to teach us that the human body has a bellybutton.
May 28, 1998