Transmissions from a Lone Star: The Ghost in the Rage Machine

Shortly before New Year I canceled my cable TV subscription. I resented paying so much for such junk.

Shortly before New Year I canceled my cable TV subscription. I resented paying so much for such junk.

It’s not the first time I’ve done without TV. For years in Moscow I had a TV in my apartment, but I was too lazy to connect it to the outside antenna. Deprived of Russian variety shows and dubbed Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, I had to find other ways to unwind. Usually I’d sit in a cafe, or roam the labyrinthine city streets, studying the exotic urban fauna.

Was it a more productive way to spend time than watching TV? Slightly, I suppose. I only watched TV when I was tired, at which point the brain doesn’t really want to get engulfed in a book, or write a masterpiece. So I had simply replaced one form of frittering time away with another.

In the U.S., however, I felt relief when I abandoned TV. You see, I had developed an unhealthy habit of watching the 24 hour news channels. What I liked most was to watch a bit of right-wing demagoguery on Fox, and then change to the rival news channel MSNBC to get even more berserk left-wing demagoguery. This perpetual rage machine was occasionally amusing but usually churned out nothing but boring, annoying, apocalyptic fluff. Every second I spent watching it, I was aware that I was wasting my allotted fourscore and ten.  But still, it was hard to turn away. Like millions of others, I was hooked on my daily dose of venom and paranoia.

And yet, once the supply was cut off, it only took a few days to get clean.  Soon my head felt clearer and my step was lighter. I didn’t know anything less about what was going on in the world. You pick that up just by breathing these days. But the accompanying angry soundtrack was gone. In fact, my entire house became soothingly quiet. I’d play music, of course, but I like music. What the TV had generated was noise.

An unexpected side effect of canceling cable was that I spent less time on the Internet. Suddenly a lot of rage fuelled blogs and columns made no sense to me. They were parasitic on cable, which you needed to watch to understand who and what was being discussed. It turned out that all those reality stars and political hysterics existed only as a weird, electronic hallucination. I pulled the plug and they ceased to exist.

Last weekend however I discovered that my escape from the Moebius loop of Internet-cable gibberish was not total.

No doubt you heard about Jared Loughner, the gunman who “allegedly” shot a Democratic Arizona Congresswoman and killed numerous others. It was a tragic event, of the sort that will always occur in a country so free that its citizens have easy access to guns. Every now and then a lunatic will go wild. If anything, it’s surprising that it doesn’t happen more often.

Anyway, having spent a good few years hooked up to the rage machine, I suddenly realized that I could hear what the talking heads were saying even though I didn’t have a TV. I was like an amputee, who still feels his ghost limb. The shriekers on the left would be using Loughner’s act for political gain, attempting to tie him to the Tea Party, forcing his victims’ corpses to jerk like puppets on a string for the sake of vilifying Sarah Palin, Republicans, etc.

After a while, curiosity got the better of me. I went online and saw that yes indeed, my ghost limb’s twitching was accurate. These squalid freaks must have been at their computers within seconds of hearing about the shooting, gleefully hurling accusations of complicity at the people they devote so much energy to hating. Stunningly exploitative, I know, but that’s how you get ahead in the American media.

What I didn’t expect was the response of some on the Right, who in reply accused their foes of a “blood libel.” Now, don’t get me wrong: exploiting a tragedy to smear people you disagree with is reprehensible, but “blood libel” specifically refers to the anti-Semitic belief that Jews use the blood of Christian children when baking matzos for Passover. For centuries in Europe and Russia, this poisonous myth was cited as a justification for periodic massacres of Jews. But conservatives in America are not subject to pogroms, no matter how sorry they feel for themselves.

Suddenly I felt exhausted and switched the computer off. But it was too late. Outside my window I could hear screams and howls - not of the actual wounded and grieving (who had been reduced to bit part players in another drama) but of cynical, hysterical media monsters hurling invective at each other.

Somebody – anybody - make it stop!

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What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”

Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006.  He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.


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