In the 1990s, liberal icon Thomas Frank’s journal, The Baffler, released a collection called Commodify Your Dissent. This compiled some of the strongest pieces from the crankily idiosyncratic quarterly, all revolving around the theme that there are pop-culture hucksters queuing up to profit from the well-worn paths of youth deviance. Considered en masse, the collection held that the youth would be better off creating subcultures that couldn’t be defined in a pat way, in order to escape corporate shaping of their desires.
Times have changed. Thomas Frank has become part of the liberal establishment he once decried. Meanwhile, that liberal establishment has made ever-more aggressive inroads into turning youth rebellion into commodities. We saw it last summer, with rock-music package tours designed to lead the kids to run President Bush out of office. This year, there is no election, but there are calls to revolution all the same. Among the most prominent: Current TV, a network created by a consortium led by former Vice President Al Gore, which seeks to tap into the youth market that is deserting television for the more free-form environs of the internet.
It is important to be clear about what Current TV is -- and isn’t. As Gore himself said at an April press conference, “"We have no intention of being a Democratic channel, a liberal channel or a TV version of Air America. That's not what we're all about. We are about empowering this generation of young people in the 18-to-34 population to engage in a dialogue of democracy and to tell their stories of what's going on in their lives, in the dominent medium of our time."
Of course, one man’s empowerment is another man’s soft propaganda. The network’s Web FAQ plays fast and loose with saying, like, what the network is really about. The FAQ makes a habit of answering non-questions [“I like cartoons,” reads one “question”], and answers relevant questions with something less than honesty.
Current, for example, claims that it’s “not exactly” a news network; rather, it is “unencumbered by old conventions,” falling somewhere between TBS and that hard-news staple [insert laughter here] CNN. Elsewhere on the website, some dismal attempt at explaining the network’s modus operandi is made: “We slice the rest of the schedule into short pods -- each just a few minutes long -- that range far and wide, from international dispatches to profiles of cool people to intelligence on new trends. This is not a traditional TV network; watching Current, you'll see more, on more topics, from more points of view.”
What this means, in application, is that the network is pabulum for the Ritalin generation, a haphazard amalgam of MTV’s “Total Request Live” and CNN’s “Headline News.” With a mission statement that embraces shallowness like it’s a new diet craze, it’s hard to be optimistic about the programming offered therein. The programming, while affecting to offer counter-programming against the centralized mainstream media, instead offers up a soporific, sophomoric “news-lite” that does little to inform its target audience about what’s going on in the world. Current’s programming isn’t “political” in any direction; it effectively depoliticizes, pushing a multicultural approach to commodity fetishism. It pushes people away from ideological discussions, from active engagement with the politics of our time, and toward an amorphous “tolerance-based” approach to politics that has very little relevance in today’s world.
In addition to pushing the virtues of multiculturalism as an end in itself, Current TV’s programming seems to drive its viewers toward linking purchases with ideological purity. Such “Commodity Fetishism” was a major focus of the initial bloc of programming. “Current TV.” One “pod” [read: segment] dealt with a twenty-something’s obsession with Air Jordans “and other exclusive shoes. A balding fellow with a shaved head and a double chin, looking resplendent in a $400 Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls replica jersey, went into a mall and dropped a couple hundred dollars on two pair of Asian-made shoes for the benefit of the cameras. “I’m a sneaker freak, a Jordan fiend, and I’ll be buying these until I die,” said this fellow in closing. “It was like Nelly said in ’Air Force Ones.’” Some men seek God, apparently, while others settle for Nike.
Many pods dealt with supposed cultural icons. One recycled an old story about the person who came up with the “Andre The Giant Has a Posse” bumper-stickers that came to prominence in skateboard culture in the early 1990s. Twelve years after inventing this gimmick, he still goes around putting bumperstickers on lampposts and other public fixtures; he reckons that “as a taxpayer, I have a right.” Inspirational, but nothing compared to the pod about childbirth, which included, inexplicably, a close-up shot of a child’s soiled diaper.
William Faulkner, when commenting on his seminal As I Lay Dying, said that his central conceptual image was this: A young girl with dirty underwear climbs a tree. That image evolved into the heroine of the novel, Caddy. I’m not sure if the folks at Current had a central image in mind when conceptualizing this hodge podge of played out cultural tropes they call a network. But after watching it for a few hours, and seeing some segments twice, I can’t get the streaky diaper out of my mind. It should be the network’s logo. Now, that would be cutting-edge and relevant….
Of course, some pieces did deal, however shallowly, with world politics. One particular piece took us to Tehran, Iran, where the Current reporter rode along with some Iranian girls to an “ecstasy party,” similar in scope to those popular in the UK and the U.S. ten or fifteen years ago. “The biggest surprises of the party were the grain alcohol, the ecstasy, and the scantily clad women,” said the reporter, adding that “I could’ve been at a party in Brooklyn.” Footage was shown to prove that Iranians are just like Americans for a couple of minutes thereafter; the argument of the footage, augmented by the host at the end, was that Iranian and American youth have much in common, but with one difference. “In America,” said the host, a sassy African-American female named Shauntay Hinton, “I can do whatever the hell I want to do.”
You go, girl. But don’t bother to tell your viewers about what’s really at stake in our Asian wars. Don’t tell them about the nature of the Tehran regime, or about what it will mean for American national security if Tehran gets what it wants. Better to distract them with endless paeans to the relevance of Current TV, which very neatly turns the so-called idealism of alternative cultures into a fluffy commodity which demands little from its producers or consumers.
There is much that is contemptible about Current TV, but some conservatives will see a high-camp value in some of the network’s endeavors. Deepak Chopra, famed of late for his side-splitting blogs at the Huffington Post, makes an appearance here as a Current Mentor. Chopra inexplicably holds his head at an angle during the segment, while saying his usual bromides under his breath: “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do,” he advises. “Sing your song.” Say what?
It seems criminal to push this substance less quasi-spirituality on impressionable youth seeking to find some “authentic” subculture to identify with. But that is the nature of the pop culture swamp in which folks like Chopra wade. And for Al Gore to lend his imprimatur to this garbage suggests, as does so much he’s done this decade, that the American people were right not to elect him president in 2000. This bland infotainment is a familiar and sad shell game, and the reasonable expectation is that this network will be gone just as soon as the advertisers get hip to just how bad it is.