The Book Club

The Breath of God Loses to ER


I thank you for the change in tone; and having praised your new sobriety (and, if I may so, clarity), please let me add, paradoxically, that I see myself as pretty goddamn “light” already–if, by “light,” you mean “showing a sense of humor.” On the other hand, if “light” means “superficial” or (as in Eisner’s final paragraph) “Panglossian,” I guess I’ll choose the darkness, as any thoughtful person would.

There’s an ideological chasm yawning here between us, Tim, and yet we may agree more than you’re ready to admit. You’re able to keep seeming to debate me only by persisting in your favorite two rhetorical maneuvers: asserting a distinction where there really isn’t one, and (despite your new non-flippancy) suggesting that I’m purely “negative”–downbeat only for the sake of being “critical”–an undiscriminating basher.

As to the first: What, please, can be the actual difference between “the universe of Disney coverage” (ABC, ESPN, the Disney Channel, Disney Radio, etc.) and the coverage given Disney by the press divisions of its giant cohorts (NBC, Fox, MSNBC, CNBC, E!, CBS, Discovery, CNN, etc.)? Quite naturally–that is, without conspiracy, and often without consciousness–they’ll tend to look out for each other’s interests (and woe to any employee who can’t, or won’t, internalize the rules). Convolved by their shared mission, actual partnerships, advertising moneys and/or interlocking boards, they are unlikely to give one another any serious or lasting trouble.

This is how the big guys always work–have always worked–within whatever industry they’ve dominated; and your instinctive smile at the suggestion that such concentrated power may not be democratic is a bit perverse. As an educated journalist, you’ve surely read enough about this nation’s history to know how “combines” tend to operate. I don’t think either, say, Lincoln Steffens OR Teddy Roosevelt would have been amused by serious warnings against cartelization, whatever industry it may afflict; and it is certainly not frivolous to argue that the media industry may be the one whose domination by a few may have the most disastrous consequences. If “our way of life” is one–or should be one–of true political and intellectual diversity, of genuine discursive clash, then any sort of overweening influence, statist OR commercial, must “pose a threat” to it. (And while I’m grateful that you’re “glad” I’m “out there,” you’d better have a stronger counter-argument than my existence.)

On to your second move: the strong insinuation of my total crabby negativity. Please understand that my remarks on Walt the man, and on Mr. Michael Eisner, aren’t, as you suggest they are, ad hominem –nor are my remarks on Regnery. I’m not a smear artist, and therefore couldn’t care less if, say, Walt said “fuck” in private, or if Disney World has accidentally hired some pedophiles as “cast members.” What concerns me, rather, is the way that Disney–Walt, then Mike–has so expertly mystified the world; and it makes little difference that the effort was and is sincere. Disney and the others seek to fill our heads with happy fantasies about “our way of life”–which category must include that very business of dream-merchandising.

It’s therefore relevant, even salutary, to point out that Walt himself was soft on fascism, like many other business titans of his day (including, funnily enough, certain of his fellow movie-moguls, whether Jew or Gentile). It’s also salutary to point out that Eisner puts a happy face on everything, and that he’s soft on China, and that he cut a sleazy deal with the tobacco companies, etc.–misdeeds that he committed not because he’s just an icky person, but because his business interests called for him to do such things. This is a position vastly different from the view of Regnery & Co., who think they have no problem with the system. Like all “social conservatives,” they’re angrily confused about the massive downside of the profit motive, preferring to believe that what offends them is the work of certain persons, or the doing of a certain generation, and not the inevitable fruit of routine Business, which they so woozily adore.

See, I do agree with you on one important point: that most, if not all, of the various ills at issue here are consequences of a structural arrangement: “It’s the economy, Dopey!” If I were Eisner, I too would refrain from going into ugly detail, would likewise go the extra mile for China and for Philip Morris, and so on.  If I had been Walt Disney, I too would surely have red-baited my cartoonists, played footsie with J. Edgar Hoover, and otherwise been diligent to serve my institution. But since I’m neither of those guys, but “out there” trying to call critical attention to the various results of their achievement, I’m bound to (try to) publicize the facts, so as to spark some national discussion of potential remedies.

Basically, you do concede that Eisner has done what I say he’s done. It’s just your way of putting it that’s different. Let’s end, then, on an appropriate note of dubious agreement. Yes, Eisner’s world is insular, and yes, he is a man of very limited imagination. I’d say the most unsettling moment in the book comes in that fearful opening chapter, where Eisner tells of all his major troubles in July of 1994. Just about to undergo his bypass operation, he seems to catch a sudden foreglimpse of his own annihilation: “Suddenly, I felt unsettled, close to panic. Moments later, I experienced intense pain not just in my arms but also in the neck and chest. My anxiety was making the pain worse.”

So what then pops into his mind, at this fraught existential moment? Does he wonder at the vanity of human things? Vow to change his life? Feel the breath of God, or see the emptiness of the abyss? Or does he flash on Ivan Ilyich, or on mad Ahab, or on noble Lear, or on any of the other stories that he read in college?

None of the above: “All I could think of was ER, the pilot I’d just watched. Suddenly, I was living it.”

You can call that “insularity,” and you’d be right; but so terming it does not suffice to make the situation any less depressing–that such a consciousness should now exert its peerless influence on global culture. Let me repeat: As with his book, so with the corporation; and, as with that corporation, so could it be throughout the world, if Disney and its partners have their way. No single entity–dictator, state, church, business trust–should ever grow to be that powerful.