When I started college I dreamed of being a disc jockey. I paid for school working nights in a hospital as an orderly and bed maker, and as I emptied bedpans or made beds I listened to Franklin Hobbs on WCCO in Minneapolis, or to Long John Neble on WOR out in far away New York City. Hobbs was famous for his honeyed voice and for playing Acker Bilk at least once or twice every night. Neble by contrast, was kind of a tough guy who abided no sentimentality. I recall one Christmas Eve when he spent the whole night talking about the CIA in Vietnam and never mentioned the holiday. I wanted to be those guys and to have their power to feed the silent vacuum of night with sound.
The Dick Gibson Show, the 1971 novel by the incomparable Stanley Elkin, is the story of an itinerant disc jockey. It begins with that itinerant, Dick Gibson, being thrown quite unprepared onto the air as a radio announcer at a little station in Butte, Montana. Instantly, Gibson discovers that radio is no more and no less than his voice: before going on the air he was no one, no man; on the air he becomes someone, the one.
Elkin also has Dick Gibson discover the power of language, and how media personalities perform the critical function of helping people and groups define themselves -- even when the definitions they come up with make little sense for their own well-being. The most obvious example is of how voters return the same politicians to office year after year, mostly because of the language the politician uses about sharing our burdens, or how he or she will promote opportunities that are specific to us -- and exclusionary of less deserving groups. Yet, all know for sure is that they all leave office far wealthier and more secure then when they entered office, regardless of whether or not our circumstances have improved.
Hypocrisy is not a new phenomenon. What seems new is the extent to which we tolerate it today. We know that Harry and Bess Truman had to borrow money to move their belongings out of the White House when they returned home to Independence. And we know that Bill Clinton, and Gerald Ford for that matter, were relatively well-off but not wealthy men when entering office, and became Grand Pashas when leaving. They did not have to borrow money to move the coffee pot and toaster back home, and I gainsay that few people lower down on the political food chain are strapped for cash when they leave Washington.
The language -- talk -- originating from electronic media may be the key to why Americans have become so tolerant of such hypocrisy. Early on Gibson says, "I will be a good radio man because I will rid myself of all dialect and speak only Midwest American Standard ... and have a sense of bond, and eschew the private and wild and unacceptable. I will throw myself into the melting pot while it's at the very boil and will pass a law to protect the typical. I will honor the mass, revere the regular. I will consent to consensus. And I will ... daily pray to keep down those qualities in myself that are suspect or insufficiently public-spirited or divergent from the ideal."
What Elkin is saying is that Americans want to hear what they want to hear -- and will seek out personalities who agree to whisper sweet nothings into their ears. We agree that deficits are bad and that raising taxes is bad--we consent to these public-spirited ideals -- but we won't talk about the fact that Americans 65 years and older are subsidized on average $25,000 a year ($14,000 from Social Security and $11,000 from Medicare) -- and that these subsidies cannot be sustained. Robert Samuelson, from the Washington Post, refers to this as "America's candor gap".
Talk radio hosts and their cohorts on television -- from either the political left or right -- easily if not fluently or elegantly tell listeners what they want to hear. In fact, listeners so intimately know what their talking head will say before they even say it that they have assuredly stopped listening by now. Elkin describes this phenomenon when he has Gibson, while working as "Marshall Maine" at KROP, a small station in western Nebraska, begin each show with the happy talk and shared opinion -- before launching into several hours of raw obscenities and recorded baboon-like noises. No one notices the change because the initial patter was so familiar.
By all means, we should continue to enjoy listening to Rush Limbaugh call President Obama a Socialist, and to encourage Bill Maher to make us laugh at the latest Sarah Palin joke. But will Rush -- or any public intellectual -- ever say candidly that "you" have to give up "your" social security and Medicare, and most defense spending, to avoid paying roughly 50% in taxes? Will Bill -- or any public intellectual -- ever say candidly that we need to accept deficits that no bond buyer will ever agree to finance to keep what we currently enjoy? More to the point, will we become honest and mature enough as a people to choose between high taxes, huge deficits, or massive cuts in benefits?