Balance beam part 1

As the year turns from 2020 to 2021, I’ve been thinking about some of the things that I’ve gotten wrong over time. Some of these things lots of other people whom I respect have gotten wrong, too, but that doesn’t make me happy. In this case, my misery doesn’t love company; I’d rather have gotten it right the first time.

For example, 30 years ago, August 1, 1991 to be exact, MTV had its national debut. The cable channel would play music videos 24 hours a day. Music videos, as I recall, were a thing in England at the time but not so much here. But they did get made here. In fact, I had participated in the making of a video for The Rolling Stones’ “2001 Light Years from Home” from the Their Satanic Majesties Request album in the winter of 1968. The director (I think) was the same photographer who did the cover of the album as well as the one for The Beetles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And, no, the Stones didn’t appear on the video, so I never met them.

That bit of trivia aside, I was sure that the coming together of America as a single country was well underway despite occasional evidence to the contrary. Through MTV, the proliferation of musical artists of all kinds, of all genres, of all ethnic groups, some of whom were never heard on Top 40 radio, was sure to spread this music along with their fashion sensibilities and lifestyle choices, to wherever cable TV was available. It added one more thread to the tapestry that encouraged Americans to see themselves as part of a single nation rather than 50 individual states, not to mention the subdivisions within those states.

If you wanted to dress like your favorite singers or celebrities, it was no longer necessary to go to NY, or LA, or Chicago to buy whatever you saw they were wearing; you could go to the department store in the local mall — the same store you’d go to in the biggest cities — to buy whatever you wanted. High school girls were wearing the same things as their counterparts on the coasts. It wasn’t only department stores; there were also the branches of all the national more specialized stores in the malls. If the malls and big box stores, even supermarket chains, crowded out local entrepreneurs, Americans by and large thought the exchange was worth it.

There even was the ubiquity of foreign cars all over the country. When I first saw a Volkswagen dealership in South Dakota in 1984, I couldn’t help but remember that when I had been in college 20 years before, you had to worry about driving a foreign car from coast to coast because there simply weren’t foreign car dealerships or garage mechanics anywhere between the coasts with the knowledge and tools to repair them. If nothing else, tools were calibrated in metrics rather than inches; to have a car breakdown meant you had real problems. By 1991 foreign cars were everywhere.

You want more? By 1991, NYC had long since started to lose its cache as the intellectual center of the country. Think tanks, practically governments in exile, proliferated in Washington, D.C. Not every bright and ambitious kid wanted to move to NY, Chicago or LA. As the population grew, so did the choices of where these kids wanted to be. When they left home, they increasingly moved to Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. Television had helped to change the allure of theater but not of acting and directing. Acting, film and theater departments proliferated in colleges all over the country, turning out better educated but no less ambitious budding performers and directors. Many young writers wanted to write for TV and movies rather than theater. Lots of budding poets had long since thought they’d try combining poetry and melody, giving us the singer/songwriter movement. There were serious music recording studios all over the country, so you didn’t have to go to LA or NY or Detroit to make a record. And with the proliferation of digital tools, you didn’t even need a formal studio anymore.

I could go on, but my thesis seemed pretty reasonable, didn’t it? There was and is one big problem with it: It was and is wrong, at least as a blanket assumption. Scratch the surface of national fashion and lifestyle, of music and celebrity, of American mythology, and one might find something darker.

Let’s go back to TV and 1991. The existence of TV satellites had become the primary means of TV program distribution. They enabled Americans everywhere to easily see whatever was being broadcast from anywhere in the world. CNN was available 24 hours a day with everybody who tuned in watching the same program, the same news, the same events, at the same time.

Early in the morning on March 3, 1991, the same year as MTV’s debut, Rodney King was beaten by a group of LAPD cops. It seemed that for days on end we watched nothing but the video of the beating caught on camera by a bystander. Four officers were charged with assault and use of excessive force and when they were inexplicably acquitted after a trial a year later, a riot that lasted for 7 days and caused 63 deaths, 2,383 injuries and some 7,000 fires. Smaller riots happened in other cities.

There were calls for dialog and honest discussions about the ongoing problems of race and racism in America. Like most other calls for such discussions and actually doing something about racial antagonism, the furor and passion eventually frittered away, as was usually the case. Talking became a substitute for action. Although sometimes local changes might occur, in general, the higher the discussions rose in government circles, the less actually seemed to happen. Not that people didn’t try but …

But the Rodney King video ushered in an era of citizens videoing encounters between police and citizens. It’s hard to imagine, but the iPhone was only introduced in June, 2007. Since then, you can be reasonably sure that someone’s using their smartphone to take a video of something untoward that’s going on. If the King video helped rip the veneer off police violence against Blacks, by the time of the George Floyd murder on May 25, 2020 and its accompanying video of the killing, along with all the other deaths and videos capturing them that we’ve seen through the years, most Blacks and a big portion of Whites, had had enough and the Black Lives Matter movement was born.

Are there any politicians left who still claim we live in a color-blind society, as too many did not so many years ago? In the wake of Obama’s election, some pundits posited that we now live in a post-racial society. I didn’t think that was right. At best, I thought, perhaps we now accepted the fact that we lived in a multi-national, multi-ethnic, pluralistic society. Obviously, I wasn’t right about that either. At best it was only partly true. One of the things amply demonstrated over the last several years is just how untrue that is.

Four years ago, aside from the supposed perfidy of Hillary Clinton, the presidential campaign of Donald Trump was based on three primary ideas: 1) For the previous eight years our President was illegitimate; he wasn’t even an American. 2) We had been and were continuing to be invaded by brown-skinned and Muslim hordes. And 3) America’s cities, particularly our biggest cities (all governed by Democrats) were scenes of unimaginable (and completely imaginary) carnage. Implicitly, we shouldn’t be color-blind; we should be acutely aware of color. He won.

Trump was enabled by CNN, perhaps more than anything else including his ally, Fox TV, which seemed to broadcast, in full, every one of his rallies, thereby multiplying his audience by hundreds of thousands, if not millions at little cost to himself or his campaign.

In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron famously wrote, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” Perhaps he was wrong, too.

In my next column we will explore some other ideas about our country about which I might be right and wrong.

Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.

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