Tag Archives: Paddy Chayefsky

Network: Song for the Silent Majority

Considered by many a great movie, a “classic” movie1, both assessments I disagree with – but it is an essential movie, not because it is so bold in ambition or innovation, but because it is so frequently cited, so much a keystone of criticism of television and popular culture. It is, also, I think, a misunderstood movie: a movie thought to be from a liberal perspective that is a scathing critique of the way the news is corrupted by corporate venality, the way any experience or individual, however disturbing or repellent, can be made into a market good to be sold. This may be a mistake: it may instead be a movie that speaks first and foremost to the silent majority that made up the voters which elected and re-elected Nixon, as well as those same voters which make up the tea party and post-tea party movements2. I do not write of these voters as “conservative”, because I do not think there is an ideology, associated with specific programs, to which they might be connected – when speaking of them, it is a question of speaking to a mob feeling, a mob linked by kindred identity, and this mob feeling runs counter to anything intellectual, where we might speak of ideas, plans, programs, and the arguments supporting such things.

The movie is so well-known that I give no summary, and no spoiler warnings – every detail of its plot can be found everywhere on the internet. Its centerpiece is the fall, rise, and final fall of newscaster Howard Beale – after being fired, he engages in a series of lunatic rants, the most famous of which is his “I’m mad as hell!” screed; his popularity surges, the overseeing company curbs him back after one of his speeches gets in the way of a corporate merger, the new restraints cause him to fall in popularity, and he is eventually killed on the air after becoming too much of a ratings loser for the network. There are important nuances to all this I’ll discuss throughout, but I think that quick summary does justice to his plot. A centerpiece of this analysis is a close look at Beale’s speeches themselves, something which I think is insufficiently done, with too close a focus on the “mad as hell!” line alone.

There are, in fact, very few speeches by Beale in the movie. His initial proclamation that he’ll commit suicide on the air, his dismissal of his television work as “bullshit”, the inescapable screed where he urges his fellow citizens to give angry release, a lecture on the emptiness of TV, an argument against a pending takeover of the network’s parent company by Saudi financiers, and finally, a renunciation of this lecture, an embrace of a materialist philosophy – we are only consumers, beholden to the ever-moving, all-powerful god of capital.

I give all the speeches in full now, for easier reference, leaving out the interruptions from other characters. I take all speeches from the draft script, rather than the movie itself – they are almost entirely the same, though there may be mild differences. The first outburst:

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like at this moment to announce that I will be retiring from this program in two weeks’ time because of poor ratings –

HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
– and since this show was the only thing I had going for me in my life, I have decided to kill myself –

HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
– I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today –

HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
– so tune in next Tuesday. That’ll give the public relations people a week to promote the show, and we ought to get a hell of a rating with that, a fifty share easy –

The denunciation of everything, his television work, his life:

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
Good evening. Today is Wednesday, September the twenty-fourth, and this is my last broadcast. Yesterday, I announced on this program that I would commit public suicide, admittedly an act of madness. Well, I’ll tell you what happened — I just ran out of bullshit –
HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
(looking O.S.)
Am I still on the air?
HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
I don’t know any other way to say it except I just ran out of bullshit …
HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
Bullshit is all the reasons we give for living, and, if we can’t think up any reasons of our own, we always have the God bullshit –
HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
We don’t know why the hell we’re going through all this pointless pain, humiliation and decay, so there better be someone somewhere who does know; that’s the God bullshit –
HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
If you don’t like the God bullshit, how about the man bullshit? Man is a noble creature who can order his own world, who needs God?
HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
Well, if there’s anybody out there who can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in and tell me man is a noble creature, that man is full of bullshit –
HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
I don’t have any kids –
HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
– and I was married for thirty-three years of shrill, shrieking fraud –
HOWARD (ON CONSOLE)
I don’t have any bullshit left. I just ran out of it, you see –
HOWARD
– every day, five days a week, for fifteen years, I’ve been sitting behind that desk — the dispassionate pundit –
HOWARD
(on TV screen)
– reporting with seemly detachment the daily parade of lunacies that constitute the news — and –
HOWARD
(on TV screen)
– just once I wanted to say what I really felt –

His speech after the strange episode at night:

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
Last night, I was awakened from a fitful sleep at shortly after two o’clock in the morning by a shrill, sibilant, faceless voice that was sitting in my rocking chair. I couldn’t make it out at first in the dark bedroom. I said: “I’m sorry, you’ll have to talk a little louder.” And the Voice said to me: “I want you to tell the people the truth, not an easy thing to do; because the people don’t want to know the truth.” I said: “You’re kidding. How the hell would I know what the truth is?” I mean, you have to picture me sitting there on the foot of the bed talking to an empty rocking chair. I said to myself: “Howard, you are some kind of banjo-brain sitting here talking to an empty chair.” But the Voice said to me: “Don’t worry about the truth. I’ll put the words in your mouth.” And I said: “What is this, the burning bush? For God’s sake, I’m not Moses.” And the Voice said to me: “And I’m not God, what’s that got to do with it –”
HOWARD (ON CONSOLE)
And the Voice said to me: “We’re not talking about eternal truth or absolute truth or ultimate truth! We’re talking about impermanent, transient, human truth! I don’t expect you people to be capable of truth! But, goddamit, you’re at least capable of self-preservation! That’s good enough! I want you to go out and tell the people to preserve themselves — “
HOWARD
(growing fervor)
And I said to the Voice: “Why me?” And the Voice said: “Because you’re on television, dummy! — “
HOWARD (ON CONSOLE)
“You have forty million Americans listening to you; after tonight’s show, you could have fifty million. For Pete’s sake, I don’t expect you to walk the land in sackcloth and ashes preaching the Armageddon. You’re on Teevee, man! — “
HOWARD (ON CONSOLE)
So I thought about it for a moment –
HOWARD (ON CONSOLE)
And then I said: “Okay — ”

The famous speech, which he delivers with his hair mussed and wet, a man who’s just come out of the rain:

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job, the dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter, punks are running wild in the streets, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air’s unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit and watch our tee-vees while some local newscaster tells us today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We all know things are bad. Worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything’s going crazy. So we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we live in gets smaller, and all we ask is please, at least leave us alone in our own living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my tee-vee and my hair-dryer and my steel- belted radials, and I won’t say anything, just leave us alone. Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad –
HOWARD
I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to write your congressmen. Because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the defense budget and the Russians and crime in the street. All I know is first you got to get mad. You’ve got to say: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more. I’m a human being, goddammit. My life has value.” So I want you to get up now. I want you to get out of your chairs and go to the window. Right now. I want you to go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell. I want you to yell: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!”
HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
– Get up from your chairs. Go to the window. Open it. Stick your head out and yell and keep yelling –
HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
– First, you have to get mad. When you’re mad enough –
HOWARD (ON CONSOLE)
– we’ll figure out what to do about the depression –
HOWARD (ON CONSOLE)
– and the inflation and the oil crisis –
HOWARD (ON CONSOLE)
– Things have got to change. But you can’t change them unless you’re mad. You have to get mad. Go to the window –
HOWARD (ON THE SET)
– Stick your head out and yell. I want you to yell: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!”
HOWARD (ON TV SET)
– open your window –

The denouncement of TV:

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

HOWARD
(erupts into a Savonarola-type tirade)
Edward George Ruddy died today! Edward George Ruddy was the Chairman of the Board of the Union Broad- casting Systems — and woe is us if it ever falls in the hands of the wrong people. And that’s why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died. Because this network is now in the hands of CC and A the Communications Corporation of America. We’ve got a new Chairman of the Board, a man named Frank Hackett now sitting in Mr. Ruddy’s office on the twentieth floor. And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this tube? So, listen to me! Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park, that’s what television is! Television is a circus, a carnival, a travelling troupe of acrobats and story-tellers, singers and dancers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion- tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business! If you want truth, go to God, go to your guru, go to yourself because that’s the only place you’ll ever find any real truth! But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell! We’ll tell you Kojack always gets the killer, and nobody ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker’s house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry: just look at your watch — at the end of the hour, he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear! We deal in illusion, man! None of it’s true! But you people sit there — all of you — day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds — we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe this illusion we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We’re the illusions! So turn off this goddam set! Turn it off right now! Turn it off and leave it off. Turn it off right now, right in the middle of this very sentence I’m speaking now –

The speech against the Saudi takeover of the Communications Corporation of America, the parent company of his network:

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

HOWARD (ON TV)
All right, listen to me! Listen carefully! This is your goddam life I’m talking about today! In this country, when one company takes over another company, they simply buy up a controlling share of the stock. But first they have to file notice with the government. That’s how C.C. and A. — the Communications Corporation of America — bought up the company that owns this network. And now somebody’s buying up C.C. and A! Some company named Western World Funding Corporation is buying up C.C. and A! They filed their notice this morning! Well, just who the hell is Western World Funding Corporation? It’s a consortium of banks and insurance companies who are not buying C.C. and A. for themselves but as agents for somebody else!
HOWARD (ON TV)
Well, who’s this somebody else? They won’t tell you! They won’t tell you, they won’t tell the Senate, they won’t tell the SEC, the FCC, the Justice Department, they won’t tell anybody! They say it’s none of our business! The hell it ain’t! –
HOWARD (ON TV) (volume a bit down)
Well, I’ll tell you who they’re buying C.C. and A. for. They’re buying it for the Saudi-Arabian Investment Corporation! They’re buying it for the Arabs!
HOWARD (ON TV)
– We know the Arabs control more than sixteen billion dollars in this country! They own a chunk of Fifth Avenue, twenty downtown pieces of Boston, a part of the port of New Orleans, an industrial park in Salt Lake city. They own big hunks of the Atlanta Hilton, the Arizona Land and cattle Company, the Security National Bank in California, the Bank of the Commonwealth in Detroit! They control ARAMCO, so that puts them into Exxon, Texaco and Mobil oil! They’re all over – New Jersey, Louisville, St.Louis, Missouri! And that’s only what we know about! There’s a hell of a lot more we don’t know about because all those Arab petro-dollars are washed through Switzerland and Canada and the biggest banks in this country!
HOWARD (ON TV)
For example, what we don’t know about is this C.C.A. deal and all the other C.C.A. deals! Right now, the Arabs have screwed us out of enough American dollars to come back and, with our own money, buy General Motors, IBM, ITT, A T and T, Dupont, U.S. Steel, and twenty other top American companies. Hell, they already own half of England.
HOWARD’ (ON SCREEN)
Now, listen to me, goddammit! The Arabs are simply buying us! They’re buying all our land, our whole economy, the press, the factories, financial institutions, the government! They’re going to own us! A handful of agas, shahs and emirs who despise this country and everything it stands for — democracy, freedom, the right for me to get up on television and tell you about it — a couple of dozen medieval fanatics are going to own where you work, where you live, what you read, what you see, your cars, your bowling alleys, your mortgages, your schools, your churches, your libraries, your kids, your whole life! –
HOWARD (ON SCREEN)
– And there’s not a single law on the books to stop them! There’s only one thing that can stop them — you! So I want you to get up now. I want you to get out of your chairs and go to the phone. Right now. I want you to go to your phone or get in your car and drive into the Western Union office in town. I want everybody listening to me to get up right now and send a telegram to the White House –
HOWARD (ON SCREEN)
By midnight tonight I want a million telegrams in the White House! I want them wading knee-deep in telegrams at the White House! Get up! Right now! And send President Ford a telegram saying: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more! I don’t want the banks selling my country to the Arabs! I want this C.C. and A. deal stopped now! –
HOWARD (ON SCREEN)
I want this C.C. and A. deal stopped now! I want this C.C. and A. deal stopped now!

His surrender to a materialist creed:

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
(sad, resigned, weary)
Last night, I got up here and asked you people to stand up and fight for your heritage, and you did and it was beautiful. Six million telegrams were received at the White House. The Arab takeover of C.C. and A. has been stopped. The people spoke, the people won. It was a radiant eruption of democracy. But I think that was it, fellers. That sort of thing isn’t likely to happen again. Because, in the bottom of all our terrified souls, we all know that democracy is a dying giant, a sick, sick dying, decaying political concept, writhing in its final pain. I don’t mean the United States is finished as a world power. The United States is the most powerful, the richest, the most advanced country in the world, light-years ahead of any other country. And I don’t mean the Communists are going to take over the world. The Communists are deader than we are. What’s finished is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It’s the individual that’s finished. It’s the single, solitary human being who’s finished. It’s every single one of you out there who’s finished. Because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. This is a nation of two hundred odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter- than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods –
HOWARD (ON TV)
– Well, the time has come to say: is dehumanization such a bad word? Because good or bad, that’s what’s so. The whole world is becoming humanoid, creatures that look human but aren’t. The whole world, not just us. We’re just the most advanced country, so we’re getting there first –
HOWARD (ON TV)
– The whole world’s people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, wired, insensate things useful only to produce and consume other mass-produced things, all of them as unnecessary and useless as we are –
HOWARD (ON TV O.S.)
– that’s the simple truth you have to grasp, that human existence is an utterly futile and purposeless thing –
HOWARD (ON TV)
– because once you’ve grasped that, then the whole universe becomes orderly and comprehensible –
HOWARD (ON TV)
– We are right now living in what has to be called a corporate society, a corporate world, a corporate universe. This world quite simply is a vast cosmology of small corporations orbiting around larger corporations who, in turn, revolve around giant corporations — HOWARD (ON TV)
– and this whole, endless, ultimate cosmology is expressly designed for the production and consumption of useless things –

What is notable about Beale’s speeches is that they are often seen as a substantial, political alternative to the news content of the time, when they are in fact insubstantial, apolitical. There is the pose of the angry speaker on a political soapbox without any of the expected accompanying political content. His speeches are a dismissal of the medium he works in, a nihilistic dismissal of all things in life, a claim of a spiritual encounter, another dismissal of the medium he works in, a denouncement of a corporate deal, and, finally, an affirmation of a materialist ethos which he’d previously denounced, the very ethos that supports and controls his medium. The most striking quality of his speeches, and the one people remember from them, is the emotion, especially the anger, which is striking because it is so counter to that of the newsman’s expected pose of cool authority.

Beale’s rejection of television should not be seen as rejection of the content-free in favor of content, a substantial book of reporting over a series of captivating but empty images – Beale is as content-free as the medium he condemns. He is an extension of the degenerate rhetorical style of television. Rather than a series of points building in a syllogism or other form of argument, he simply makes the same point over and over and over again, without nuance or variation. The point of the mad as hell speech is “I am one of you – you are angry, and I am angry in the very same way”. The point of his television speech is television is false, its players all liars. That of the CCA speech is the very one made again and again at its end: “I want the CCA deal stopped!” That of his last oratory, conceding defeat: we must accept that we are machines now.

Having made clear what Beale is not, it must then be asked, what is his appeal and why is it distinct from the television programming around him? This goes to the issue of the political context of Network which, intentionally or unintentionally, is most aptly suited for a member of the silent majority of the time – an older white voter, religious, fearful of student and urban unrest, middle class or blue collar, but fraught with income anxiety – the class tiers above him moving further and further out of reach, those defining elements of the middle class – economic security, proper health care, good schools for one’s children – starting to weaken, the beginnings of the massive income gap that has culminated in our present.

Let us look again at the part of the speech where Beale finds community with others, what it is that joins them:

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job, the dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter, punks are running wild in the streets, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air’s unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit and watch our tee-vees while some local newscaster tells us today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

In this movie set in 1975, the focus is on economic stagnation and rampant crime. The very issues on which Nixon campaigned, especially violent crime, and won. On the other hand, those things that caused so many to lose faith entirely in their government, the corruption of the presidency, the persecution of enemies of the state – with Daniel Ellsberg perhaps the most well-known – the mendacity around the escalation of the Viet Nam war under Nixon and Johnson, which left so many good men damaged or destroyed for no purpose – all these issues go unmentioned, and are not expected to stir up the anger of the audience. Images of police brutality of that era, in Newark or at the ’68 convention, are not evoked either. I do not suggest that Beale must address every point of a possible watcher, only that he’s often seen as an everyman expressing universal anguish, and I would argue that the anguish he addresses is not that of all in the country, but a very specific fragment, whose anger had already been catered to.

I would further argue that Beale’s response to these problems is similar that to the Nixon administration’s: he cannot do anything about their economic plight, so instead he will address an immaterial aspect of their lives, an acknowledgement that they exist, that they have a significance beyond whatever their incomes or possessions are3. This was done through speeches, especially Spiro Agnew’s, which attacked all those – hippies, radicals, bohemians, anyone under thirty with a beard – who might be considered an enemy of the traditional american4. It was accompanied by policies that eased or eliminated desegregation edicts and gave comfort to the religious, on issues of abortion and prayer. The power of these things lay not in the actual material effects of the policy themselves, but that these immaterial concerns related to ethnicity and faith were of importance, that these immaterial concerns were now acknowledged and granted proper respect.

I would argue that Beale’s power is similar, and appeals to the same audience. His focus is not on changing their material condition:

I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to write your congressmen. Because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the defense budget and the Russians and crime in the street.

Though he later speaks of working together to solve the problems of inflation and unemployment, this moment never comes, is of no importance, and has no impact on his popularity. His following is not due to any attempt on his part to conceive a solution, but in this recognition of a need for dignity in this part of the audience.

I bold a part of his famous quote that’s crucial in this context, and that’s often forgotten:

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more. I’m a human being, goddammit. My life has value.

I make two small notes before moving on. First, Schumacher’s family stays still and does not move to yell out the window; they, in their book-lined, large comfortable high rise apartment, are part of the very liberal elite hated by the majority, and are not the intended audience for this speech.

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

A second point is that whether or not one agrees with my interpretation of who is the most suitable audience for this movie, that Chayefsky looks at this uprising crowd as a liberal or even sympathetic populist movement is wrong. He sees it as frightening a phenomenon as any mass movement in blind thrall to a leader – we know this because of a small note on the people’s rage in his draft script. I bold the relevant part:

A terrifying enormous CLAP of natural THUNDER, followed by a frantic brilliant FULGURATION of LIGHTNING; and now the gathering CHORUS of scattered SHOUTS seems to be coming from the whole, huddled, black horde of the city’s people, SCREAMING together in fury, an indistinguishable tidal roar of human rage as formidable as the natural THUNDER again ROARING, THUNDERING, RUMBLING above. It sounds like a Nuremberg rally, the air thick and trembling with it –

When someone has a favorable view of an event, do they compare it to a Nazi ceremony?

Beale’s message has a magnetic power almost entirely because of his role as newscaster – this is not the same, it should be emphasized, as being seen by millions on television, but because he met the stringent criteria and codes of this role. When the network tries to find a replacement for Beale – all of them christian mystics, no political thinkers or activists – they are all failures.

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

DIANA
What about that terrific new messiah ABC was supposed to have assigned as our competition for next year?

EXECUTIVE
That’s him.

DIANA
That’s him?

EXECUTIVE
I’ve got three more. But you’ve already seen the best ones. I’ve got a guru from Spokane, and two more hellfires who see visions of the virgin mary.

Diana says then that “messiahs do not come in bunches”, but I think it is both more complicated and simpler than that. Beale’s attraction lies in the fact that he is an apostate, the quality of an imam, rabbi, or a priest who abandons his faith and converts to another. What he does and says initially is not extraordinary, is in fact rather banal – he expresses a desire to commit suicide, he appears unkempt, he curses – this is all banal behavior, and it is unexceptional if any these things were part of a TV broadcast where a non-newscaster did these things. However, the newscaster is supposed to embody the coolness of the TV medium: distant, authoritative, solemn, clean, civil, passionless, a man speaking to us, rather than with us. Beale violates all of these taboos – he curses, he yells, he speaks of his despair, he appears unkempt, he declares himself not a man speaking to the crowd, but a man of the crowd, and urges the audience to speak in an angry chorus, a chorus in which his voice is one of many. The voice and appearance of the newscaster suggest a privileged existence we do not share, but Beale destroys that as well: he confesses to a loveless, meaningless marriage and a sense of a pointless life – the despair felt by many of us every day is truly felt by him as well.

He first defames this sacred temple, the newsroom, with his initial rants. Then we have an unusual, ambiguous moment. An excellent, though not unflawed5 piece “Scenic Routes: Network” by Mike D’Angelo in the A.V. Club, describes the surreal quality of the scene between Arthur Jensen and Beale, as a break from the movie’s previous naturalism. This, I think, ignores an earlier moment that is far more exotic (I do not think the meeting between Jensen and Beale is as surreal as Mr. D’Angelo does, but I’ll get to that later): Beale is resting at home after his outbursts and he is perhaps visited by something metaphysical, a messaging spirit, maybe. We are given a shot of Beale asleep, and then suddenly we cut to Beale with his eyes wide open, awake, speaking to this unseen presence:

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

BEALE
I can’t hear you. You’ll have to talk a little louder.

BEALE
Yes? I hear you. Yes. Yes. Why me? I said why me? Okay.

The scene as shot, with its sudden cut from a sleeping Beale to a wide awake Beale, is far more surreal (as well as more succinctly effective) than the scene as written6, but neither tips their hand about what exactly takes place here, whether Beale is dreaming, whether this is another stage in his madness, or an actual visitation by something supernatural. I am rarely, if ever, interested in questions of what actually takes place, and almost always on what characters perceive or want to take place; here, Beale genuinely thinks he has been visited by something metaphysical, his audience believes him, and, more importantly, his audience wants to believe him – he gives no physical evidence of such a visitation and he has no need to give such proof. So, he has profaned his earlier role, and now takes up another one, as an instrument of this metaphysical force, whatever it is. He is to give a message of self-preservation, of giving the people a sense that their lives have value, a message that he says is not christian, but which is couched in christian terms, and which this movie, implicitly, very much views as a creed, a creed threatening to other theisms, a creed that arguably flows from christianity. Its impact on Beale, inarguably, takes place on a metaphysical level, a transcendence and a connection that has nothing to do with the material world:

MAX
I think you’re having a breakdown, require treatment, and Dr. Sindell agrees.

HOWARD
This is not a psychotic episode. It is a cleansing moment of clarity. (stands, an imbued man) I am imbued, Max. I am imbued with some special spirit. It’s not a religious feeling at all. It is a shocking eruption of great electrical energy: I feel vivid and flashing as if suddenly I had been plugged into some great cosmic electromagnetic field. I feel connected to all living things, to flowers, birds, to all the animals of the world and even to some great unseen living force, what I think the Hindus call prana.

He stands rigidly erect, his eyes staring mindlessly out, his face revealing the anguish of so transcendental a state.

HOWARD
It is not a breakdown. I have never felt so orderly in my life! It is a shattering and beautiful sensation! It is the exalted flow of the space-time continuum, save that it is spaceless and timeless and of such loveliness! I feel on the verge of some great ultimate truth.

So, after his rejection of his newscaster role, he becomes an ardent vessel for this spirit, just as Saul became Paul. He abandons his old church, in order to more truly embody the church’s ostensible role – a deliverer of truth; this analogy is made explicit in both script and movie. Diana, describing how they should market Beale:

DIANA
I see Howard Beale as a latter-day prophet, a magnificent messianic figure, inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times, a strip Savonarola.

The script’s intro to his first speech on this program:

HOWARD (erupts into a Savonarola-type tirade)

Savanarola, of course, was the catholic heretic who led a fanatical mob in attacking the catholic church for its corruption and vice.

We may either believe the message he is to reveal as one that is never ultimately stated, as he becomes first obsessed with the CCA takeover, then gives himself over to a strictly materialist perspective, or: that his message lies with his angry antagonistic pose itself, a pose shared by a vast number of others. This second possibility strikes me as the truer one, it is this possibility that further overlaps with the idea of Howard Beale speaking directly to the men and women of the silent majority, and the best way to talk about it in the next section is to bring up a slightly obscure text which should be far less obscure in our historical moment.

THE CROWD

The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon is a study of crowd behavior which I came across utterly by chance, about whose context and author I remain almost entirely ignorant. It was written towards the end of the nineteenth century and it contains many of the noxious marks of a by-gone time, an emphasis on the racial traits of various peoples, a reactionary attitude towards the poor, with any attempt to improve the condition of any man or woman in want is considered an outrageous impulse of the mob. However: its description of a group of people moving in a primal fashion, the unified clump embracing ignorance and immune to reason, is uncanny for its insight into the tea party, and, I think, retrospectively on the silent majority and the reasons for Harold Beale’s appeal. I do not glom on to Crowd‘s insights because I’m critical of these conservative populist movements and because Crowd‘s attitude towards such movements is helpfully pejorative; for one, the insights are not wholly pejorative (indeed, one value is explaining what the attraction of such movements for a member), but more importantly, they might be applied to conservative populist groups today, but they could no doubt be applied to progressive equivalents at a future time.

I now mention some of the book’s relevant insights in as concise a format as possible, the full supporting quote in footnote. Le Bon describes a crowd as guided by an unconscious, irrational instinct, the possible high level of intelligence of some members of the crowd irrelevant as it is overwhelmed by this group feeling7. It is given over to capricious feeling, and capable only of these mercurial and quick passions, rather than sustained commitment to any project8. This crowd is guided by images, however ludicrous and contradictory, as well as stories and rumors, however ridiculous9. The crowd works with primitive analogies, whose description by Le Bon10 bears a striking resemblance to the illogical reasoning of the modern tea party11. We see here why efforts to understand the illogic of tea party activists in so many of their beliefs and actions12 are futile. How, it was too often asked, could this could group believe in two things that logically contradict each other? The answer is simple: the crowd is not moved by logic or rationality. We also see this in all the foolishness over a president’s birth certificate or school record, his devotion to communism, or his betrayal of diplomats in Benghazi, the belief persisting despite whatever proof offered that pointed to the ludicrousness of the belief: what animated the belief was not any proof, but the image of a traitorous, illegitimate head of state.

These are all of some relevance to Network, but here are the concepts of Le Bon that are crucial to the movie: the conception of the leader of the crowd as a man carrying prestige, either through name, wealth, or achievement13; that the crowd is most drawn to the individual unfettered by doubt or the faculty of reason, that they wish to follow the leader of greatest passion, whose passion is unhampered by any rational self-examination14; this group responds best to simple words and declarations – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”, or “liberty”, “freedom”, “constitution”15 – that are instilled through repetition, and might easily catch on16 – the same rhetorical method favored in a present day tea party rally17; that the crowd is animated by religious feeling, a passion that can be distinguished from religious belief, an idolatry that holds a leader in blind fealty18. The crowd, moreover, does not simply follow this man, but follows this man because he embodies some feeling which they carry themselves, perhaps some shared religious, ethnic, or national feeling, or some great cause19. An example of our time of the first point would be George W. Bush, his prestige flowing from his family’s wealth, and the distinction of his name, or, in our parlance, his “brand”. He, and Sarah Palin were ideal leaders of a crowd because they lacked any doubts, their lack of any self-examination supposedly one of their great assets. Both had followers that counted many evangelicals and others of the passionate faithful among their followers, and both were followed not simply for their distinct strengths, which were meager or completely absent, but because they embodied some part of the crowd themselves – that both were rather undistinguished, mediocre, and ignorant, set against and belittled by more educated people only enhanced this feeling. Le Bon emphasizes that the fealty of the crowd, though intense, is also fickle, and these two also serve as solid examples of this, one a leprous exile after the substantial damage his ignorant tenure brought down, the other a screechy joke20. All these themes can be found in Network, the crowd drawn to the prestigious newscaster, this prophet magnetizing the religious feeling of these men and women, Beale’s edicts simple, repetitive, and absent anything like doubt or reason, the crowd capriciously moving away from him the moment his screeds, and he, stop carrying the religious feeling of the crowd, and embrace a strict materialism.

A rational problem solver may be frustrated by Beale, and why he holds a fascination with a larger group: he never makes any attempt to move towards solutions in crime, inflation, or employment. It might be argued that the crowd is not drawn to Beale for any such solutions, it is drawn simply to express its anger as a chorus, that the crowd, absent reason, cannot construct, build, or solve any problem; Le Bon sees the crowd as being only able to destroy21. However, and this is crucial for seeing the appeal of the crowd, it is also possible to perform heroic deeds in its uninhibited, unreasoning state, and those who belong to a crowd feel a greater possibility of heroism than being outside it22. In being part of this crowd, they are not simply following Beale, but instead, belonging to something greater, part of a heroic cause larger than themselves. All this can also be said of any tea party activist.

THE MESSIAH AND THE PROPHET OF THE MARKET

Beale only calls his followers to direct action, to anything other than communal anger, one time – a call to stop the Saudi takeover of C.A.A. Given that Beale is sometimes mistaken for a progressive hero, a relevant part of his speech should be quoted:

Now, listen to me, goddammit! The Arabs are simply buying us! They’re buying all our land, our whole economy, the press, the factories, financial institutions, the government! They’re going to own us! A handful of agas, shahs and emirs who despise this country and everything it stands for — democracy, freedom, the right for me to get up on television and tell you about it — a couple of dozen medieval fanatics are going to own where you work, where you live, what you read, what you see, your cars, your bowling alleys, your mortgages, your schools, your churches, your libraries, your kids, your whole life!

This, I think, is a standard reactionary, nativist rant. The issue is not assets shuffled about, with employees treated as so many chits by distant employers, but something xenophobic – at another time, the enemy might be the japanese, the chinese, or some other foreign horde that will control every aspect of american life. The issue is not this control exerted by corporations, but control exerted by foreigners. It is here that, intentionally or not, Beale’s mysticism declares itself to me as some variation of christianity, a christianity that refuses to call itself as such until ready, or a post-christianity, a new creed, but most definitely tied to the old faith, as the nicene creed built on judaism. Because the enemy for Beale here, clearly, are arabs, a couple of dozen medieval fanatics. Why would the rule of these distant men be so much more objectionable than the men who now head C.C.A.? Because these fanatics would doubtless be muslims, in opposition to any christian creed of Beale’s, and he fears they would shut him down.

I go to the beginning of his speech after the successful campaign, and bold the most relevant part.

Last night, I got up here and asked you people to stand up and fight for your heritage, and you did and it was beautiful.

What was the heritage they fought for in this campaign? A christian one. Again, Beale is occasionally mistaken as a progressive hero; can anyone imagine a progressive making anything like this speech? On the other hand, the reckless warning of a foreign people buying everything in sight, and the claim of a common ethnic or religious heritage, this, I don’t think would be surprising to find in a speech by Sarah Palin or Steve King.

Beale, as said before, is explicitly referred to in terms couched in christian faith – a messiah, a prophet, a modern Savonarola; he is a seer of religious visions, and suffers from the faints of a mystic possessed by a divine spirit; during his program, he appears before a stained glass window, like a pastor; lastly: that he is so threatened that his network will be taken over by muslim owners suggests a christian prophet fearful of enemies of his faith. Now, in his meeting with Arthur Jensen, he confronts a member of a rival creed, a creed to which he will lose. That this rival creed is something like a religion is emphasized in the screenplay’s description of the conference room where the confrontation takes place (the relevant words bolded):

The overwhelming cathedral of a conference room remembered perhaps from an earlier scene where Frank Hackett gave his annual report. When last seen, it was in pitch darkness, but now the enormous curtains are up, and an almost celestial light pours in through the huge windows. Being on the 43rd and 44th floors, the sky outside is only sporadically interrupted by the towers of other skyscrapers. The double semi-circular bank of seats are all empty, and the general effect is one of hushed vastness –

JENSEN
Valhalla, Mr. Beale, please sit down –

And Valhalla is, of course, the home of the gods. What takes place next is labeled by Mr. D’Angelo in his insightful description as surreal, but I cannot see it as such. It is a nascent messiah encountering a man who is the actual prophet of the age, a man also animated by a spirit, that of ever moving, ubiquitous, transcendent capital. Jensen is the prophet of the free market, the protector of the divine, invisible hand. Beale has not simply interfered with a business deal, he has trespassed against a god. Jensen’s speech is both an act and not an act; he plays the part of a counter-prophet to convert Beale to his faith, and yet he sincerely believes in the near divine power (or perhaps not simply near) of the market – this is no simple charade for short-term practical purpose. There is an immaterial world that transcends all nations, but it is not the faith of the nazarene, the muslim, or the hindu, but mobile invisible capital, the spirit of our age which trespasses all borders, to which all nations and peoples must bow, and by which we shall all achieve heavenly sanctuary on earth, within the sacred confines of the corporation.

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

JENSEN
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it, is that clear?! You think you have merely stopped a business deal — that is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity, it is ecological balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians. There are no Arabs! There are no third worlds! There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars!, Reichmarks, rubles, rin, pounds and shekels! It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?
(pause)
You get up on your little twenty- one inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and A T and T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx? They pull out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories and minimax solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, Mr. Beale, will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale.

Jensen, it should be emphasized, is portrayed before this as an unassuming man, described in the script as a bespectacled face from a Grant Wood painting, with Ned Beatty playing him as a placid non-entity, his energies all hidden deep beneath until this moment. Just as Beale derives his power from his connection with the crowd, Jensen’s energy flows through capital; the “cosmic electromagnetic field”, the “great unseen living force” which Beale briefly touches, is for Jensen the hyperkinetic cash and credit of this earth. “I have seen the face of God!” exclaims Beale after Jensen’s speech, and indeed he has. The messiah Sabbatai Zevi converted to islam in sultan Ahmed IV’s court, and Howard Beale becomes a secular materialist in the court of Arthur Jensen. His re-birth is genuine, and yet something is lost. He accepts that he is a machine, simply a consuming and producing machine, and he believes that others have no choice but to accept this as well; that there is something beyond this material aspect of life, Beale’s past recognition of this, is what drew the crowd towards him. His prestige as a newscaster may have made him a leader, but without this shared belief, he cannot be part of the crowd he leads. When he changes his faith, the crowd moves on, seeking someone else who will give them hope, that will grant them that their lives are not simply these meager crude materials.

Beale is now allowed to continue his show, though because of the change in message it is unprofitable. Here we have the irony that Jensen, a man who values the market above all, allows a company product the privilege of losing money, since it does so for the greater good of evangelizing capitalism, just as in the past a news division was such an exemption, in exchange for the social good it provided. Now, the only public service the corporation will permit is the promotion of the free market. This is not simply an irony of fiction: movies adapted from Atlas Shrugged keep getting made, even though they keep losing money: the market is always right, except for when it comes to products celebrating the power of the market23. If you see this as a paradox, it is only because you are weak of faith.

A last point: we might see this divide between Jensen and Beale (before his conversion to Jensen’s creed) as the long-standing divide in the conservative movement, on one side those who supported republicans for reasons both cultural and religious, on the other those who believed in an unrestrained free market, with neither side fully sharing the other’s beliefs. This split and its tensions were described very well recently in a short, but very perceptive, essay, “Paul Ryan’s Debt To Barry Goldwater”, by Elias Isquith:

Yet for all the similarities between Goldwater then and Paul Ryan now, there is one conspicuous difference: Unlike the devoutly Catholic Ryan, Goldwater mistrusted — hated, really — the Religious Right. Responding to the leader of the Moral Majority’s campaign to keep Sandra Day O’Connor from the Supreme Court, Goldwater proclaimed, “every good Christian should kick [Jerry] Falwell right in the ass.” Ryan, who along with Todd Akin and 171 other members of Congress cosponsored a bill outlawing abortion except in cases of “forcible rape,” would never wield such language against the GOP’s “values voters,” because he is one of them. Romney’s vice-presidential pick has integrated religious fundamentalism into his economic and diplomatic conservatism in a way Goldwater never could — and never wanted.

This is one of the great ironies of the modern Republican Party: Without the Religious Right that Goldwater so despised, there would be no Reagan Revolution, no Contract with America, and no George W. Bush presidency. No defense buildup in the early 1980s; no tax cuts in 1981, 2002, and 2003. Throughout the past 30-plus years, it’s been the Moral Majority and its fellow travelers knocking on doors, pounding pavement, and writing checks to keep Republicans ascendant in Washington. As the party’s stance on taxes, foreign policy, and domestic spending drifted closer to Goldwater and further from the political center, it was Tony Perkins — not Milton Friedman — making sure the GOP held onto its 51 percent.

BITCH BOSS, PARIAH ARMY, DEATH SQUAD

If Beale represents an apt demagogue for the silent majority, then Diana Christensen is a suitable villain. This movie is from a time when an old guard media might be accused as too complacent, too accommodating, of aggressive policy against citizens at home, and reckless wars in Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. There is some hint of this taint when Diana accuses Max Schumacher of his responsibility for the bottom feeder tabloid material that makes up his news program – but he is still a moral man, a man of past achievements, who regrets what he does now, and what he has become. Diana, however, is absolutely and irredeemably a creature of markets and television, unable to be anything else; Schumacher says as much to his wife:

MAX
I’m not sure she’s capable of any real feelings. She’s television generation. She learned life from Bugs Bunny. The only reality she knows comes to her from over the TV set.

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

She no longer has the same feelings as these older people, not out of any pathology but simply because when she was born, she fell entirely under the influence of television: she is less human than they are. So we have Max Schumacher, a man of about the same age of many of the silent majority, confronting their generational enemy, and it is a rigged fight. Schumacher may stray from the righteous path, but Diana can be this creature and nothing else. There is another aspect to Diana that makes her an ideal villain for this audience: she is an ambitious woman, a woman with the unapologetic sexual appetites of a man, a woman who is almost entirely a man. “I don’t want to be the bitch boss,” she says, but she is written as exactly that. This is the anti-feminist villain of that time, and ours, a woman who refuses to conform to the codes of her gender24. This idea of Diana as someone who has trespassed gender lines is not mine, but Diana’s own description of herself, one she gives in her dinner with Schumacher. The entire quote is of note, but I bold its most relevant sentence:

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

DIANA
I can’t tell you how many men have told me what a lousy lay I am. I apparently have a masculine temperament. I arouse quickly, consummate prematurely, and can’t wait to get my clothes back on and get out of that bedroom. I seem to be inept at everything except my work. I’m goddam good at my work and so I confine myself to that. All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating.

Her opposing number in this triangle is Louise, Max’s wife. Where Diana is a youthful woman with a cold beauty, and a man’s predilection for quick, efficient, selfish sex, Louise is entirely a matron, defined entirely by her marriage to her husband, her marriage the only thing we know of her. Her appearance gives no hint of youth, not in an occasional lapse in casual dress, not in any quick caustic putdown of her man or her rival. She speaks in the artificial, formal sentences we associate with the old, with the dull theatre plays a parent might drag a child to – she is an older woman, a wife and mother, but it is as if she has been conceived as always having had this role and never anything else. These are two of the major portraits of women in this movie, the evil woman who takes on manly roles in sex and work, and the wife who is a noble victim. I think I’ve given a fair-minded description of both parts (if I have not, it is due to lack of skill, not an attempt to sand down any corners to make my case), and they suggest to me not actual characters, but a reactionary caricature of feminism: working woman bad, wife woman good.

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

The relations between Max, Louise, Diana, are, as I think even fans of the movie acknowledge, its weakest, falsest point. I do not expect attraction to be rational, but it should have some intuitive sense, and the affair of Max and Diana has none of it. One might believe the possibility of Diana drawn to Max because of his power, but she continues to be drawn to him even after he is fired from the network. It is a relationship that may have worked, conceptually, on paper. In one of the first scenes, Howard’s talk of killing himself on air inspires in Max a mad, drunken nightmare of a programming schedule25:

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

HOWARD
I’m gonna blow my brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the seven o’clock news.

MAX
You’ll get a hell of a rating, I’ll guarantee you that. Fifty share, easy.

HOWARD
You think so?

MAX
Sure. We could make a series out of it. Suicide of the Week. Hell, why limit ourselves? Execution of the Week. Terrorist of the Week! I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hit men, automobile smash-ups…The Death Hour. Great Sunday-night show for the whole family. We’ll wipe that fuckin’ Disney right off the air.

This suggests that Max and Diana are closer in type than they are in the movie: two ambitious workaholic showpeople, hunting out good stories, but with a strong streak of opportunism and cynicism, which Max restrains while Diana freely flaunts. There should perhaps be a sense that they are an ideal pair, though out of sync because of when they are born – something very different from the obstacle of a massive age gap. Were he of the same generation as her, he might well have been not a newsman, but a hungry producer of exploitative TV, and were she able to work as a journalist in his time of ascent, she might well have been a fearless war-time reporter. They should intrigue each other as perfect mirrors, but shaped by different times.

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

I suggest this as a possibility, because, as it takes place in the movie, the intimacies of these characters make no sense. I quote another part of Chayefsky’s script, a description of Diana in Max’s office, as a possible insight into why:

She leans forward to flick her ash into MAX’s desk ash tray. Half-shaded as she is by the cone of light issuing from the desk lamp, it is nipple-clear she is bra-less, and MAX cannot help but note the assertive swells of her body.

There is something ridiculous in the leering here – the “nipple-clear” evidence of her chest makes you roll your eyes at this dirtiness instead of laughing along, and suggests a clumsiness with the sensual life. The dialogue of Louise hints at this as well, a woman cut to the deep by a betrayal who does not speak in unrestrained outburst, or tensed formality to keep from falling into a torrent of tears or anger, but as if the most natural language of our most ardent, most desperate moments are lines such as these, tidy sentences that sound as if they’re read straight from an old and respectable novel:

LOUISE
This is your great winter romance, isn’t it? Your last roar of passion before you settle into your emeritus years. Is that what’s left for me? Is that my share? She gets the winter passion and I get the dotage? What am I supposed to do? Sit home, knitting and purling, while you slink back like some penitent drunk?

This romantic triangle, whether due to the writer’s intention or ineptitude here, conveys to me a downbeat sexual fantasy of a silent majority man. He sleeps with a much younger, very beautiful woman, but guys, don’t worry: if you don’t score something like this, the sex isn’t worth it – she wants you in, she wants you out, and then she’d appreciate it if you’d go to sleep. You may stray, but it is she that is evil. A fantasy for the silent majority wife at home as well – the straying is not because of any inevitable dullness of marriage, or that he finds you dull, but because of this unfeeling evil temptress. The sex with her won’t be that good at all, and afterwards, he’ll beg for you to take him back.

There is a third woman, whose part is as flat as those of Diane and Louise, and that’s the communist revolutionary Laureen Hobbs. She is one more aspect hinting at this movie’s ideal audience. Hobbs, as well as her allies the Ecumenical Revolutionary Front, are intended as the opposites to Howard Beale.

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

Where Beale calls on religious feeling, Hobbs appeals to secular anti-state fervor. Both are intended as dramatic examples of how the market is able to take these two forces outside the market, fighting against the market, and transform them into entertainment goods inside the market, the market so encompassing and all-powerful it can make commodities out of its enemies. It is not, however, an equal symmetry. Chayefsky may fear the rhetorical power of Beale, but there is no doubt of Beale’s sincerity: this is no Elmer Gantry. When he converts to Jensen’s creed, he is equally sincere, a man genuinely seeking the divine, and he believes he has now truly found it, “I have seen the face of God!” This is a quite different from Hobbs, who almost immediately begins arguing the terms of her contract:

LAUREEN
(whose nerves have worn thin, explodes:)
Don’t fuck with my distribution costs! I’m getting a lousy two- fifteen per segment, and I ‘m already deficiting twenty-five grand a week with Metro. I’m paying William Morris ten percent off the top! (indicates the GREAT KHAN) — And I’m giving this turkey ten thou a segment and another five for this fruitcake — (meaning MARY ANN GIFFORD) And, Helen, don’t start no shit with me about a piece again! I’m paying Metro twenty percent of all foreign and Canadian distribution, and that’s after recoupment! The Communist Party’s not going to see a nickel out of this goddam show until we go into syndication!

The ardent communist is a hypocrite, as cutthroatly competitive about a deal as any corporate executive, a capitalist deal-maker at heart. This all is a neat fit for the worldview of a man of the silent majority – your heroic leaders speak a truth so dangerous that men like Jensen try to silence them, while the pariah army who undermine and destroy your society are actually a bunch of phonies, abetted, of course, by elite white shoe lawyers, and opportunist liberal feminists who let them run riot for their own financial gain.

The movie is quite astute over what people want from popular culture and how it is provided; however, Diana’s anticipation of who will tune in for Hobbs’ show and why is a small mis-step. We can imagine “The Mao-Tse Tung Hour” as a clever conception that is able to be seen by both sides of the cultural divide, each seeing what they want, just like many of the cultural artifacts of that time, with Joe gaining a huge audience from those wanting to see the older generation as a bunch of psychopaths, and the members of this very same generation cheering on a movie where they finally take back the world from disgusting hippies, or Taxi Driver enjoyed as both an effective critique of the violent impulse and as an exercise of violent catharsis for those beleaguered by urban crime and rot26. A similar divided audience might await for “Mao Tse-Tung”, with half seeing the revolutionaries as suitable heroes, while the other half watches to hate-watch, their nightmare vision of cities rife with revolutionaries who’ll kidnap their children kept alive every week, a program that provides the same satisfaction as something called “The Welfare Cheats” or “The Union Thugs” might provide. The flaw in Diana’s selling of the show is that she proposes that those overwhelmed by existential despair, who found comfort in the violence of Travis Bickle, would turn to “Mao Tse-Tung” and look on the characters as similar proxies, and this, I think, is a mistaken crossing of the wires:

DIANA
Look, I sent you all a concept-analysis report yesterday. Did any of you read it? Well, in a nutshell it said the American people are turning sullen. They’ve been clobbered by Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, the Depression. They’ve turned off, shot up, fucked themselves limp. Nothing helps. So this concept-analysis report concludes the American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them.

Diana confuses here anti-state culture from the left, with anti-state culture from the right. There are many examples of the former, with something like Hair being the more prominent, with the state persecuting students over drugs and the draft, and police brutality exemplifying the unlawful violence of the state. Anti-state culture from the right, on the other hand, would include Dirty Harry, where Harry Callahan could well stop a serial killer if only it weren’t for meddlesome bureaucrats and laws which constrained police conduct. The movie ends with the detective rejecting the state entirely, throwing his badge down to the ground, a man more morally pure than the state which interferes with him. A later example would be Rambo, where the title character is betrayed by the state once during the war, and again during a bogus rescue mission, which it has designed for its own propaganda purposes. Rambo does not fight for the state, but for himself and others abandoned by it.

It is not difficult to imagine a program which emulated these feelings, and Chayefsky, in fact, had imagined it. In an article on the genesis of the movie, “Paddy Chayefsky’s Notes for ‘Network’”, Dave Itzkoff mentions the “tantlizingly grotesque titles” of a program schedule Chayefsky came up with for his fictional network, including “Death Squad,” “Killer Theater” and “Celebrity Checkers.” What “Checkers” and “Theater” might have been, I’m not sure, but I believe “Death Squad” is described in a scene from the draft script, though under a duller title. What’s insightful in the relevant excerpt is realizing that Network, though often described as prescient, is in fact a realistic analysis of the present day of the movie, rather than any attempt at doomsaying or foresight. Media companies had already exploited the sense of exclusion and rage of the silent majority that Beale feeds on, and the “Howard Beale Show” is simply a logical outcome of discovering another profitable outlet in this exploitation.

I bold the part most relevant to this idea of the movie as a report of the present-day circumstances during which it was made, from the draft script excerpt where a show is described that is most likely the infamous “Death Squad”:

DIANA
I have an idea for an hour television series, and I’d like to lay it in your lap. Here’s the back-up story. The hero is white-collar middle-class, an architect, aviation engineer, anything, a decent law-abiding man. He lives with his wife and daughter in a large city. His wife and daughter are raped and he’s mugged. He appeals to the police, but their hands are tied by the Warren Court decisions. There’s nothing but pornography in the movies, and vandals bomb his church. The animals are taking over. So he decides to take the law into his own hands. He buys a gun, practices till he’s an expert. He takes up karate, becomes a black belt, an adept in Kung Fu and all the other martial arts. Now, he starts walking the streets of the city, decoying muggers into preying on him. He kung fu’s them all. Pretty soon, he’s joined by a couple of neighbors. What we’ve got now is a vigilante group. That’s the name of the show — the Vigilantes. The idea is, if the law won’t protect the decent people, they have to take the law into their own hands.
NORMAN
That may be he most fascistic idea I’ve heard in years.
DIANA
Right.
NORMAN
And a shameless steal from a movie called “Death Wish.”
DIANA
I know. And, so far, “Death Wish” has grossed seventeen million domestic. It obviously struck a pulse in Americans. I want to strike the same pulse. Now, let me finish, Hy. The format is simple. Every week a crime is committed, and the police are helpless to deal with it. The victim turns to our group of vigilantes. What the hell, it’s FBI, Mission Impossible, Kojack, except the heroes are ordinary citizens, your neighbors and mine.
NORMAN (standing)
I find the whole thing repulsive.
DIANA
You give me a pilot script we can use as a movie of the week for January, and I’ll commit to twelve segments on the basis of that script.

DESCENT (AN ENDING)

I attempt an end for this essay, a concluding note on why this movie, however intriguing I find it, dissatisfies me, and I think I can find a starting point for it in a moment with Laureen Hobbs. I quote it now:

Network by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

DIANA
I’m Diana Christenson, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.

LAUREEN
I’m Laureen Hobbs, a bad-ass Commie nigger.

It isn’t the racial epithet that bothers me here, it is that this entire exchange, between a radical communist, an Angela B. Davis-type figure, and Diana, strikes me as false, not emerging naturally, but created for effect, all ending with the percussive frisson of a forbidden word. This meeting between these two powerful, determined women of very different backgrounds could have been fascinating, with brilliant, well-observed details in how they dealt with each other, where they are the only women in a room filled with men, and the two most important people as well. The scene has nothing like this energy because it is conceived for effect, just as this exchange is there for effect, and these effects could not be possible if Hobbs felt like more of an actual character, rather than an effect generator. If she were an actual character, however, full of tangible life, I don’t think this exchange would be possible because an audience would not be able to imagine a black radical making such a throwaway, comforting joke out of race at this moment, right before a meeting with executives that were all white. To do so suggests a concession, a surrender, a pointless tactical move that Hobbs, a woman of some solid experience with this world, would never make.

This, I think is Network‘s strange weakness: it is a movie focused on the cultural diminishment of TV, yet it is designed around the simple, shallow effects and statements of TV as well. We might describe these same effects with short convenient sentences, all touched with the apt hyperexcitement of an exclamation mark. The newscaster said bullshit! He said bullshit again! The sexy woman acts like a man! The sexy woman is a TV baby! The newscaster is like Cronkite, but he’s angry! The newscaster is like Cronkite, but he’s insane! The black commie said nigger! The black commie acts just like a capitalist! The meeting with the revolutionaries is just like a board meeting! A board meeting, but with a gun! Max Schumacher is a good man! His wife is a good woman! His wife is crying! His wife is crying a lot! The executives love ratings! The executives would kill for ratings! No, really: they would kill for ratings! The executives kill for ratings! Howard Beale is shot dead! There’s blood! The cameraman acts like it’s all still a TV show! The cameraman’s a TV baby too! It bleeds, it leads!

We also have the same symptoms of the short-attention span drama emblematic of TV. A character is a single thing, and only one thing throughout, without shadings. The veteran producer. The mercenary opportunist. The good wife. The lunatic. The revolutionary. The greedy executive. The other greedy executive. Another greedy executive. Great actions are implied and expected, then forgotten about. Schumacher threatens to fight UBS every step of the way after the “mad as hell” speech, then does nothing at all, and never attempts to contact his dear friend again. When Max leaves Louise, she says she’ll fight for him, and then she disappears from the movie. These simple characters and inattention are not issues that began with TV, but given this medium’s emphasis on constant motion, and characters who must remain relatively stable week after endless week, the medium made both problems more commonplace.

This movie whose sympathies are ultimately with the silent majority, this movie that carries all the malignant symptoms of TV drama; this movie is furious with the audience that has accepted the tube’s bottom barrel drivel, this movie is furious with the tube. This movie is maybe furious with itself as well.

FOOTNOTES

1 I can no longer see the use of the adjective “classic” as anything but a misuse now, an assertion that a movie belongs with the classic period of Greek and Roman art rather than a timeless work; for that matter, whenever I hear something described as a timeless work I get the ominous sense that it’s actually quite terrible, because so much of the best movies and books are rooted in a place and a time, with ignorance of that context making the audience wonder at the appeal of those works.

2 This is not entirely some renegade belief. Thomas Frank in Pity the Billionaire, writes of the long association with the silent majority and post-silent majority movements. Frank describes a tea party rally, then provides an insightful footnote:

The first of those snake flags was hoisted at a Tea Party rally in Washington eight days after the Santelli broadcast, and it was as perfect an example as any of the Right’s ability to capitalize on public confusion. That original Tea Party rally sure didn’t look spontaneous or grassroots to me when I showed up. In fact, it had every appearance of being one of those staged protests that happen all the time in Washington, in which a handful of people from a pressure group pose with signs for the media.

There was talk about the conflict of “freedom versus tyranny,” as though the real danger Americans faced was not economic collapse but some bid to crack down on personal liberty. And there was a slogan, a cry of existential anxiety from the bitter seventies-or, rather, a confused homage to Rick Santelli-as speakers began one after another to repeat a famous line from Network: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”*

The footnote to the use of this line:

* The line has a long history on the right. Howard Jarvis made it the rallying cry of the Prop 13 tax revolt in California in the seventies; Arnold Schwarzenegger picked it up from him. Journalists have used some variation of it to summarize the appeal of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and Fox News boss Roger Ailes. It has been processed into titles for histories of both the populist Right in the seventies and the Tea Party movement. And about a month after Santelli was widely compared to Howard Beale, Glenn Beck claimed that he, too, had been inspired by the Beale character. See the profile of the star in the New York Times, March 29, 2009.

3 From Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein:

“Thank God for the hard hats!” Nixon cried. He had been so delighted by the liberal Pete Hamill’s exposĂ© of the political alienation of the white working class in New York magazine in 1969 that he ordered a Labor Department study on the question. Assistant Secretary Jerome S. Rosow had just delivered his report “The Problem of the Blue Collar Worker.” It described a population “on a treadmill, chasing the illusion of higher living standards,” fighting via the only apparent weapon at their disposal: “continued pressure for high wages.” Their only champions “seem to be the union leaders spearheading the demand.” But to reduce the problem to economics, Rosow suggested, was to miss more than half the story. The more profound distress was cultural-a problem of recognition. Negroes at least had a clamoring lobby-Daniel Moynihan’s “hysterics, paranoids and boodlers”-making noise on their behalf. Blue-collar whites “feel like ‘forgotten people’-those for whom the government and society have limited, if any direct concern and little visible action.”

Here was the germ of a revolution in the Republican’s message. Unless they took workers’ votes from the Democrats-as Ronald Reagan had in California in 1966-Nixon would never be able to achieve the New Majority he dreamed of. But to do so with ongoing economic concessions-previously the only way politicians imagined working-class voters might be wooed-offended a more foundational Republican constituency: business. And contributed to the inflation that was driving the stock market into the low 600s.

But to extend to blue-collar workers the hand of cultural recognition-that was a different ball game altogether. It’s not that right-leaning politicians hadn’t tried it before-Nixon had done something like it in the Checkers Speech, when he styled the people accusing him of corruption as hopeless snobs, and himself as an ordinary striver just trying to make an honest living. But the hard-hat ascendency set into motion a qualitative shift: the first concerted effort to turn the white working class, via its aesthetic disgusts, against a Democratic Party now joining itself objectively, with their Cooper-Church and McGovern-Hatfield amendments, to the agenda of the smelly longhairs who burned down buildings.

The Democratic Party: enemy of the working man.

4 The examples are plentiful, and I pick them out quickly and lazily from Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein:

“The liberal media have been calling on me to lower my voice and to seek accord and unity among all Americans,” he would say. “Nothing would please me more to see all voices lowered…to see an end to the vilification, the obscenities, the vandalism, and the violence that have become the standard tactics of the dissidents who claim to act in the interests of freedom. But I want you to know that I will not make a unilateral withdrawal and thereby abridge the confidence of the Silent Majority, the everyday law-abiding American who believes his country needs a strong voice to articulate his dissatisfaction with those who seek to destroy our heritage of liberty and our system of justice.

“To penetrate the cacophony of seditious drivel emanating from the best-publicized clowns in our society and their fans in the fourth estate, yes, my friends, to penetrate that drivel, we need a cry of alarm, not a whisper.”

Agnew appeared on the cover of Life magazine: “Spiro Knows Best: Stern voice of the silent majority.”

Three days after that, the Kent State killings happened.

Agnew had a speech scheduled for that night to the American Retail Federation. He changed nothing, lustily reading his swipes at liberal elites “all too willing to believe that the criminal who throws a bomb at a bank is a hero and the policeman who gets killed while trying to stop him is a pig” exactly as written.

5 Mr. D’Angelo writes of the conference room, “Only in retrospect might one ask: Why, exactly, would a company’s conference table require each seat to have its own individual desk lamp? What possible function could they serve? The answer, of course, is that they serve only to create an illuminated runway leading to Beatty.” I disagree: these lamps are often found in such older boardrooms, making it easier to read the fine print of a document that cannot be read with the distant light from a ceiling lamp in a high ceilinged room. These lights are also mentioned in the script’s description of the anticipated room: “Then, the little pinspots at each of the desks, including the one behind which HOWARD is seated, pop on, creating a miniature Milky Way effect.”

I would argue there is also a misunderstanding of the use of one word; Mr. D’Angelo writes admiringly of the film’s occasional use of esoteric language – “And what was the last Hollywood movie that necessitated a trip to the dictionary (not counting, say, medical or legal jargon that’s meant only to create a sense of verisimilitude)? I had to look up “immane,” which means both “huge” and “dreadful.”” – immane in this piece of dialogue should not be read as just huge and dreadful, but something more. The word is made use in Jensen’s speech, my bold:

JENSEN
There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars!, Reichmarks, rubles, rin, pounds and shekels!

Immane, here, does not mean simply the huge and dreadful – it implies that the divine is to be found in the material, immanent versus transcendent. That the divine is to be found in the material, in currency, is crucial to Beale’s conversion from a christian prophet to a market evangelist. This is given further context in the section on Jensen’s speech.

6 The scene in the script:

HOWARD BEALE, fast asleep in his dark, empty, hushed room.

HOWARD
(suddenly)
I can’t hear you. You’ll have to speak a little louder.

He gets up on one elbow, eyes still closed, cocks his head as if he were listening to someone mumbling from the rocking chair across the room.

HOWARD
You’re kidding. How the hell would I know what the truth is?

He sits up, gets out of bed, walks around and perches on the foot of the bed, stares at the empty rocker, nods his head as if he is following a complicated argument –

HOWARD
What the hell is this, the burning bush? For God’s sake, I’m not Moses –

Whoever he thinks he is talking to apparently gets up and crosses the room to the overstuffed chair and sits there, since HOWARD follows this movement with his eyes and finally gets up and perches on the side of his bed in order to continue the curious conversation.

HOWARD
Why me? I’m a deteriorating old man.

HOWARD listens, sighs, shrugs:

HOWARD
Okay.

7 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

Whoever be the individuals that compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation. There are certain ideas and feelings which do not come into being, or do not transform themselves into acts except in the case of individuals forming a crowd. The psychological crowd is a provisional being formed of heterogeneous elements, which for a moment are combined, exactly as the cells which constitute a living body form by their reunion a new being which displays characteristics very different from those possessed by each of the cells singly.

Men the most unlike in the matter of their intelligence possess instincts, passions, and feelings that are very similar. In the case of every thing that belongs to the realm of sentiment–religion, politics, morality, the affections and antipathies, &c.–the most eminent men seldom surpass the standard of the most ordinary individuals. From the intellectual point of view an abyss may exist between a great mathematician and his boot maker, but from the point of view of character the difference is most often slight or non-existent.

It is precisely these general qualities of character, governed by forces of which we are unconscious, and possessed by the majority of the normal individuals of a race in much the same degree–it is precisely these qualities, I say, that in crowds become common property. In the collective mind the intellectual aptitudes of the individuals, and in consequence their individuality, are weakened. The heterogeneous is swamped by the homogeneous, and the unconscious qualities obtain the upper hand.

This very fact that crowds possess in common ordinary qualities explains why they can never accomplish acts demanding a high degree of intelligence. The decisions affecting matters of general interest come to by an assembly of men of distinction, but specialists in different walks of life, are not sensibly superior to the decisions that would be adopted by a gathering of imbeciles.

Moreover, by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian–that is, a creature acting by instinct. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings, whom he further tends to resemble by the facility with which he allows himself to be impressed by words and images–which would be entirely without action on each of the isolated individuals composing the crowd–and to be induced to commit acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits. An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.

8 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

Its acts are far more under the influence of the spinal cord than of the brain. In this respect a crowd is closely akin to quite primitive beings. The acts performed may be perfect so far as their execution is concerned, but as they are not directed by the brain, the individual conducts himself according as the exciting causes to which he is submitted may happen to decide. A crowd is at the mercy of all external
exciting causes, and reflects their incessant variations. It is the slave of the impulses which it receives. The isolated individual may be submitted to the same exciting causes as the man in a crowd, but as his brain shows him the inadvisability of yielding to them, he refrains from yielding.

Any display of premeditation by crowds is in consequence out of the question. They may be animated in succession by the most contrary sentiments, but they will always be under the influence of the exciting causes of the moment. They are like the leaves which a tempest whirls up and scatters in every direction and then allows to fall. When studying later on certain revolutionary crowds we shall give some examples of the variability of their sentiments.

However, to believe in the predominance among crowds of revolutionary instincts would be to entirely misconstrue their psychology. It is merely their tendency to violence that deceives us on this point. Their rebellious and destructive outbursts are always very transitory. Crowds are too much governed by unconscious considerations, and too much subject in consequence to secular hereditary influences not to be extremely conservative. Abandoned to themselves, they soon weary of disorder, and instinctively turn to servitude.

9 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

In consequence, a crowd perpetually hovering on the borderland of unconsciousness, readily yielding to all suggestions, having all the violence of feeling peculiar to beings who cannot appeal to the influence of reason, deprived of all critical faculty, cannot be otherwise than excessively credulous. The improbable does not exist for a crowd, and it is necessary to bear this circumstance well in mind to understand the facility with which are created and propagated the most improbable legends and stories.*

* Persons who went through the siege of Paris saw numerous examples of this credulity of crowds. A candle alight in an upper story was immediately looked upon as a signal given the besiegers, although it was evident, after a moment of reflection, that it was utterly impossible to catch sight of the light of the candle at a distance of several miles.

The creation of the legends which so easily obtain circulation in crowds is not solely the consequence of their extreme credulity. It is also the result of the prodigious perversions that events undergo in the imagination of a throng. The simplest event that comes under the observation of a crowd is soon totally transformed. A crowd thinks in images, and the image itself immediately calls up a series of other images, having no logical connection with the first. We can easily conceive this state by thinking of the fantastic succession of ideas to
which we are sometimes led by calling up in our minds any fact. Our reason shows us the incoherence there is in these images, but a crowd is almost blind to this truth, and confuses with the real event what the deforming action of its imagination has superimposed thereon. A crowd scarcely distinguishes between the subjective and the objective. It accepts as real the images evoked in its mind, though they most often have only a very distant relation with the observed fact.

Just as is the case with respect to persons in whom the reasoning power is absent, the figurative imagination of crowds is very powerful, very active and very susceptible of being keenly impressed. The images evoked in their mind by a personage, an event, an accident, are almost as lifelike as the reality. Crowds are to some extent in the position of the sleeper whose reason, suspended for the time being, allows the arousing in his mind of images of extreme intensity which would quickly be dissipated could they be submitted to the action of reflection. Crowds, being incapable both of reflection and of reasoning, are devoid of the notion of improbability; and it is to be noted that in a general way it is the most improbable things that are the most striking.

Whatever be the ideas suggested to crowds they can only exercise effective influence on condition that they assume a very absolute, uncompromising, and simple shape. They present themselves then in the guise of images, and are only accessible to the masses under this form. These imagelike ideas are not connected by any logical bond of analogy or succession, and may take each other’s place like the slides of a magic-lantern which the operator withdraws from the groove in which they were placed one above the other. This explains how it is that the most contradictory ideas may be seen to be simultaneously current in crowds. According to the chances of the moment, a crowd will come under the influence of one of the various ideas stored up in its understanding, and is capable, in consequence, of committing the most dissimilar acts. Its complete lack of the critical spirit does not allow of its perceiving these contradictions.

However, the arguments they employ and those which are capable of influencing them are, from a logical point of view, of such an inferior kind that it is only by way of analogy that they can be described as reasoning.

The simplicity and exaggeration of the sentiments of crowds have for result that a throng knows neither doubt nor uncertainty. Like women, it goes at once to extremes. A suspicion transforms itself as soon as announced into incontrovertible evidence. A commencement of antipathy or disapprobation, which in the case of an isolated individual would not gain strength, becomes at once furious hatred in the case of an individual in a crowd.

10 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

The inferior reasoning of crowds is based, just as is reasoning of a high order, on the association of ideas, but between the ideas associated by crowds there are only apparent bonds of analogy or succession. The mode of reasoning of crowds resembles that of the Esquimaux who, knowing from experience that ice, a transparent body, melts in the mouth, concludes that glass, also a transparent body, should also melt in the mouth; or that of the savage who imagines that by eating the heart of a courageous foe he acquires his bravery; or of the
workman who, having been exploited by one employer of labour, immediately concludes that all employers exploit their men.

The characteristics of the reasoning of crowds are the association of dissimilar things possessing a merely apparent connection between each other, and the immediate generalisation of particular cases. It is arguments of this kind that are always presented to crowds by those who know how to manage them. They are the only arguments by which crowds are to be influenced. A chain of logical argumentation is totally incomprehensible to crowds, and for this reason it is permissible to say that they do not reason or that they reason falsely and are not to be influenced by reasoning. Astonishment is felt at times on reading certain speeches at their weakness, and yet they had an enormous influence on the crowds which listened to them, but it is forgotten that they were intended to persuade collectivities and not to be read by philosophers.

11 There are many examples to choose from. I go to an interview with Matt Taibbi, quoted in Frank’s Billionaire:

Most of the Tea Party people I talk to – a lot of them are small business owners. They have hardware stores or restaurants, and they see regulation as an ADA inspector or a health inspector coming to bother them and ring them up with little fines here and there. That’s their experience with government regulation. And so when they think about JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs and regulating those banks, to them it’s the same thing. They have no idea that regulation for these big companies is really a law enforcement problem, that it’s not this little niggling health inspector type of business.

12 Among many, many possible examples, I pick one of the most heartbreaking, from a recently read book, Frank’s Billionaire:

[Something] you come across all the time in the rhetoric of the resurgent Right: America is made up of two classes, roughly speaking, “ordinary people” and “intellectuals.” According to this way of thinking, as we see again and again, either you’re a productive citizen, or you’re some kind of snob, a university professor or an EPA bureaucrat. Compared to the vivid line separating intellectuals and productive members of society, all other distinctions fade to nothingness. Between small-business owners and sharecroppers, for example, there is no difference at all, just as other Tea Party authors saw no real difference between Rick Santelli’s bond traders and “working people.”

Erasing class distinctions in this self-serving way is one of the conservative revival’s great recurring techniques. There is no better instance of this erasure than the enormous rally held in West Virginia on Labor Day 2009 for the express purpose of announcing the solidarity between coal miners and the coal mine operators who employ them. The get-together featured the protest favorites Sean Hannity and Ted Nugent and was presided over by Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, a pollution-spewing, strikebreaking mogul of the old school. Dressed in American flag clothing and boasting that the gathering had cost him “a million dollars or so,” Blankenship took the stage and declared that he was there to “defend American labor because no one else will.” Specifically, the CEO was standing tall against “our government leaders,” who are, with their safety and environmental meddling, “American workers’ worst nightmare.”

Eight months after that rally, twenty-nine workers in Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine were dead from a huge underground explosion that almost certainly would have been minimized if Massey had followed standard safety and ventilation practices-or if U.S. mine inspectors had backed up their many citations of the operation with proper enforcement.

Now, when we find a mine operator claiming that his own struggles against regulation are actually the struggles of mine workers-workers who are then killed because mine regulations are not properly observed by said operator-we have stumbled upon a nearly perfect example of what the sociologists call “complete horseshit.” The man’s ideas about class are so contrary to reality, so absurdly false, that they serve to bring into sharp focus precisely the difference they are meant to conceal.

Another, from “The Truth About The Tea Party” by Matt Taibbi, when he attends one of the party’s first rallies:

Scanning the thousands of hopped-up faces in the crowd, I am immediately struck by two things. One is that there isn’t a single black person here. The other is the truly awesome quantity of medical hardware: Seemingly every third person in the place is sucking oxygen from a tank or propping their giant atrophied glutes on motorized wheelchair-scooters. As Palin launches into her Ronald Reagan impression – “Government’s not the solution! Government’s the problem!” – the person sitting next to me leans over and explains.

“The scooters are because of Medicare,” he whispers helpfully. “They have these commercials down here: ‘You won’t even have to pay for your scooter! Medicare will pay!’ Practically everyone in Kentucky has one.”

A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can’t imagine it.

After Palin wraps up, I race to the parking lot in search of departing Medicare-motor-scooter conservatives. I come upon an elderly couple, Janice and David Wheelock, who are fairly itching to share their views.

“I’m anti-spending and anti-government,” crows David, as scooter-bound Janice looks on. “The welfare state is out of control.”

“OK,” I say. “And what do you do for a living?”

“Me?” he says proudly. “Oh, I’m a property appraiser. Have been my whole life.”

I frown. “Are either of you on Medicare?”

Silence: Then Janice, a nice enough woman, it seems, slowly raises her hand, offering a faint smile, as if to say, You got me!

“Let me get this straight,” I say to David. “You’ve been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?”

“Well,” he says, “there’s a lot of people on welfare who don’t deserve it. Too many people are living off the government.”

“But,” I protest, “you live off the government. And have been your whole life!”

“Yeah,” he says, “but I don’t make very much.”

One more from this Taibbi piece:

It’s not like the Tea Partiers hate black people. It’s just that they’re shockingly willing to believe the appalling horseshit fantasy about how white people in the age of Obama are some kind of oppressed minority. That may not be racism, but it is incredibly, earth-shatteringly stupid. I hear this theme over and over – as I do on a recent trip to northern Kentucky, where I decide to stick on a Rand Paul button and sit in on a Tea Party event at a local amusement park. Before long, a group of about a half-dozen Tea Partiers begin speculating about how Obamacare will force emergency-room doctors to consult “death panels” that will evaluate your worth as a human being before deciding to treat you.

“They’re going to look at your age, your vocation in life, your health, your income. . . .” says a guy active in the Northern Kentucky Tea Party.

“Your race?” I ask.

“Probably,” he says.

“White males need not apply,” says another Tea Partier.

“Like everything else, the best thing you can do is be an illegal alien,” says a third. “Then they won’t ask you any questions.”

13 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

Prestige is the mainspring of all authority. Neither gods, kings, nor women have ever reigned without it.

The various kinds of prestige may be grouped under two principal heads: acquired prestige and personal prestige. Acquired prestige is that resulting from name, fortune, and reputation. It may be independent of personal prestige. Personal prestige, on the contrary, is something essentially peculiar to the individual; it may coexist with reputation, glory, and fortune, or be strengthened by them, but it is perfectly capable of existing in their absence.

Acquired or artificial prestige is much the most common. The mere fact that an individual occupies a certain position, possesses a certain fortune, or bears certain titles, endows him with prestige, however slight his own personal worth. A soldier in uniform, a judge in his robes, always enjoys prestige.

14 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

The leaders we speak of are more frequently men of action than thinkers. They are not gifted with keen foresight, nor could they be, as this quality generally conduces to doubt and inactivity. They are especially recruited from the ranks of those morbidly nervous, excitable, half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness. However absurd may be the idea they uphold or the goal they pursue, their convictions are so strong that all reasoning is lost upon them. Contempt and persecution do not affect them, or only serve to excite them the more. They sacrifice their personal interest, their family–everything. The very instinct of self-preservation is entirely obliterated in them, and so much so that often the only recompense they solicit is that of martyrdom. The intensity of their faith gives great power of suggestion to their words. The multitude is always ready to listen to the strong-willed man, who knows how to impose himself upon it. Men gathered in a crowd lose all force of will, and turn instinctively to the person who possesses the quality they lack.

15 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

Reason and arguments are incapable of combatting certain words and formulas. They are uttered with solemnity in the presence of crowds, and as soon as they have been pronounced an expression of respect is visible on every countenance, and all heads are bowed. By many they are considered as natural forces, as supernatural powers. They evoke grandiose and vague images in men’s minds, but this very vagueness that wraps them in obscurity augments their mysterious power. They are the mysterious divinities hidden behind the tabernacle, which the devout only approach in fear and trembling.

16 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

Affirmation pure and simple, kept free of all reasoning and all proof, is one of the surest means of making an idea enter the mind of crowds. The conciser [sic] an affirmation is, the more destitute of every appearance of proof and demonstration, the more weight it carries.

When an affirmation has been sufficiently repeated and there is unanimity in this repetition–as has occurred in the case of certain famous financial undertakings rich enough to purchase every assistance– what is called a current of opinion is formed and the powerful mechanism of contagion intervenes. Ideas, sentiments, emotions, and beliefs possess in crowds a contagious power as intense as that of microbes.

17 Billionaire, by Frank:

From the day the newest Right emerged from the shell of its rattlesnake egg, apocalypse (on the one hand) and perfect capitalism (on the other) have been its two lodestars, its omega and its alpha, its fear and its hope. “What do we say to socialism?” went the rallying cry at a Los Angeles Tea Party protest in 2009, according to two pollsters who have studied the movement. “Nooooo,” yelled the crowd on hand. “What do we say to free market?” “Yessssssssss.”

18 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

Whatever strikes the imagination of crowds presents itself under the shape of a startling and very clear image, freed from all accessory explanation, or merely having as accompaniment a few marvellous or mysterious facts: examples in point are a great victory, a great miracle, a great crime, or a great hope. Things must be laid before the crowd as a whole, and their genesis must never be indicated.

When these convictions are closely examined, whether at epochs marked by fervent religious faith, or by great political upheavals such as those of the last century, it is apparent that they always assume a peculiar form which I cannot better define than by giving it the name of a religious sentiment.

This sentiment has very simple characteristics, such as worship of a being supposed superior, fear of the power with which the being is credited, blind submission to its commands, inability to discuss its dogmas, the desire to spread them, and a tendency to consider as enemies all by whom they are not accepted. Whether such a sentiment apply to an invisible God, to a wooden or stone idol, to a hero or to a political conception, provided that it presents the preceding characteristics, its essence always remains religious. The supernatural and the miraculous are found to be present to the same extent. Crowds unconsciously accord a mysterious power to the political formula or the victorious leader that for the moment arouses their enthusiasm.

A person is not religious solely when he worships a divinity, but when he puts all the resources of his mind, the complete submission of his will, and the whole-souled ardour of fanaticism at the service of a cause or an individual who becomes the goal and guide of his thoughts and actions.

19 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

The men of ardent convictions who have stirred the soul of crowds, the Peter the Hermits, the Luthers, the Savonarolas, the men of the French Revolution, have only exercised their fascination after having been themselves fascinated first of all by a creed. They are then able to call up in the souls of their fellows that formidable force known as faith, which renders a man the absolute slave of his dream.

20 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

It is seen from what precedes that a number of factors may be concerned in the genesis of prestige; among them success was always one of the most important. Every successful man, every idea that forces itself into recognition, ceases, ipso facto, to be called in question. The proof that success is one of the principal stepping-stones to prestige is that the disappearance of the one is almost always followed by the disappearance of the other. The hero whom the crowd acclaimed yesterday is insulted to-day should he have been overtaken by failure. The reaction, indeed, will be the stronger in proportion as the prestige has been great. The crowd in this case considers the fallen hero as an equal, and takes its revenge for having bowed to a superiority whose existence it no longer admits.

21 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

Crowds are only powerful for destruction. Their rule is always tantamount to a barbarian phase. A civilisation involves fixed rules, discipline, a passing from the instinctive to the rational state, forethought for the future, an elevated degree of culture–all of them conditions that crowds, left to themselves, have invariably shown themselves incapable of realising. In consequence of the purely destructive nature of their power crowds act like those microbes which hasten the dissolution of enfeebled or dead bodies. When the structure of a civilisation is rotten, it is always the masses that bring about its downfall.

22 From The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon:

The conclusion to be drawn from what precedes is, that the crowd is always intellectually inferior to the isolated individual, but that, from the point of view of feelings and of the acts these feelings provoke, the crowd may, according to circumstances, he better or worse than the individual. All depends on the nature of the suggestion to which the crowd is exposed. This is the point that has been completely misunderstood by writers who have only studied crowds from the criminal point of view. Doubtless a crowd is often criminal, but also it is often heroic. It is crowds rather than isolated individuals that may be induced to run the risk of death to secure the triumph of a creed or an idea, that may be fired with enthusiasm for glory and honour, that are led on–almost without bread and without arms, as in the age of the Crusades–to deliver the tomb of Christ from the infidel, or, as in ’93, to defend the fatherland. Such heroism is without doubt somewhat unconscious, but it is of such heroism that history is made.

23 From “‘Atlas Shrugged’ Producer Promises Two Sequels Despite Terrible Reviews, Poor Box Office” by Paul Bond (article is behind paywall):

The critics are “revitalizing me with their outrageousness,” John Aglialoro, who spent $10 million of his own money on the film, tells THR.

The man who says he spent $10 million of his own money to bring Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 to the big screen vowed Wednesday to go through with his plans to make the next two installments, even though critics hate the movie and business at movie theaters has fallen off a cliff.

24 That this character isn’t insufferable, is because she’s played by a great actress who employs a contrarian tactic in her portrayal, making Diana not a sleek vamp, but an awkward, gawky, but very determined girl who, in high school or college, somehow ended up with a model’s looks. Her expressions are not those of a cold villain, but the bulging eyes and animated expressions of a screwball comedienne, the 1930s brassy, brilliant girl pal that the hero finally had the good sense to fall in love with – who has now been tossed into this thicket where she is turned into the good people’s nemesis.

25 The dialogue for this scene in the draft script is even darker:

HOWARD
I’m going to blow my brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the seven o’clock news.

MAX
You’ll get a hell of a rating, I’ll tell you that, a fifty share easy –

HOWARD
You think so?

MAX
We could make a series out of it. Suicide of the Week. Hell, why limit ourselves? Execution of the Week — the Madame Defarge Show! Every Sunday night, bring your knitting and watch somebody get guillotined, hung, electrocuted, gassed. For a logo, we’ll have some brute with a black hood over his head. Think of the spin-offs — Rape of the Week –

HOWARD
(beginning to get
caught up in the idea)
Terrorist of the Week?

MAX
Beautiful!

HOWARD
How about Coliseum ’74? Every week we throw some Christians to the lions! –

MAX
Fantastic! The Death Hour! I love it! Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, murder in the barbershop, human sacrifices in witches’ covens, automobile smashups. The Death Hour! A great Sunday night show for the whole family. We’ll wipe fucking Disney right off the air –

26 Perlstein’s Nixonland gives another example of this:

The three-hour epic Patton had come out in February. It shared with the Spiro Agnew wristwatch the power to appeal to both sides of the cultural divide. The film began with George C. Scott as General George S. Patton in front of a gargantuan American flag, giving a speech to the troops so bombastic the left experienced it as a satire of militarism gone mad (“We’re not just going to shoot the bastards, we’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks”). The next scene opened with Arab children picking battlefield corpses clean; its profane stylishness recalled Bonnie and Clyde.

(An earlier version of this post mixed up Mike D’Angelo with his colleague Sean O’Neal; I regret the error.)

(All images copyright United Artists, MGM, Warner Home Video)

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Gore Vidal (1925-2012): The Patrician Defector

He wrote often of politics, sometimes very compellingly, not as the rabblerouser grafittiing up a monument, but an exile from the patrician elite. John Kennedy asked him to help kill a story on his Addison’s, and he heard first hand from Eleanor Roosevelt of the measure of Kennedy pere‘s indifference to Nazi domination of Europe*. The conspiracies of the political class in his novels and essays are accompanied by no ominous piano chords; it’s everyday work to treat certain people less well, not stemming from the evil of any man, but a common feeling that there are lessers and betters, and it’s no great issue for the lessers to get a little swindled or have a few of their children die in a war, and any petulance on the part of the lessers to this is rather tiresome. That Roosevelt allowed the bombing of Pearl Harbor so that the U.S. might enter the war is given not as dramatic revelation, but a casual aside, and the very casualness gives it the aspect of truth, though the underlying facts do not. The sordid details of this class are told, not as blemishes on a myth, but like the bathroom life of anyone. Yes, of course Lincoln had slept with whores. Yes, of course Mary Lincoln had gone insane because of syphilis contracted from her husband. This is related to the guileless reader not in a tone of angry defacement, but the mild exasperation of the sophomore advising a wide-eyed innocent who’s never given a blow job**.

The american political system of his novels and essays was no idealistic engine, or even such an engine gone astray, but resembled something like the politburo, its members pre-sculpted for the demands of the institution, the institution and its interests demanding fealty to those interests first, all while making a few happy noises about god’s children and equality as necessary cover. The exceptional presidents, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, were those who became double agents at the pyramid’s zenith, giving assurances to the moneymen and influence holders that they would be following orders, then through guise and guile, having the audacity to do a few things for the people’s benefit. Vidal wrote of this as a separate world, like a defector who’d scaled america’s own iron curtain, a Gilded Wall perhaps, and his manner was always of his exiled class. His attitude could be as disdainful as a soviet agent now stuck among malls where nobody’s heard of Tolstoy. The infamous sparring with William Buckley was not a fight between the within and the without, but something like a debate between Khruschev’s propaganda minister and an emigré spy chief, men who disliked each other, but were both familiar with the texture of Russia’s black earth and could quote Lermontov with ease.

His father served under Roosevelt as head of the FAA, and his sister, through his mother’s re-marriage, was an obscure figure sometimes known as Jackie O. He was often seen as a liberal, and this may have been a mis-indictment. Vidal’s politics were those of a man of the west, forever suspicious of the stock jobbing con men back east. His isolationism took after William Jennings Bryan, as did his other ruling passion, a horror for paper currency. Some saw his siding with Timothy McVeigh, in part because of the latter’s cause for a metal currency, as a momentary lunacy, when it was nothing of the kind: the animus of paper dollars is there in his scathing look of Alexander Hamilton in Burr, and the deal over scrip in Lincoln. This was not a man who was moved to a better life for others after seeing his father destroyed by coal mine work, or someone who might happily pore through inches of labour stats. He wanted as small a government as possible, but as long as the ruling committee were going to raise funds for ordinance to kill Vietnamese or Koreans, they might as well spend that cash on schools and hospitals. He likewise had no interest in ivory tower theories on sexuality or being part of any guild because of a sexual act. You pulled certain people into bed, and all that he required was that no meddlesome fanatic should intrude: if a certain pesky Nazarene’s act hadn’t caught on, Rome would have been a better place, and so would the United States.

When he was to be cast as the snob villain in the terrible movie With Honors, the producers wanted someone with a haughtier Oxbridge accent, but Joe Pesci demurred: “Why go with one of these english assholes when we’ve got one of our own?” I am a far more sentimental man than Vidal, but I find the necessity to find a compassionate humanity to enwreath in epitaph as tiresome as he would, something like an inverse Egyptian death ritual, where a beating heart is now placed back in the body. I didn’t read Vidal because of his overwhelming kindness, any more than I read him for christian ethics. His essays, and some of his fiction, were good because they had an easy, funny eloquence; as usual, of course, I mean easy as easy to enjoy, not easy to achieve. This photo, accompanying a memorable eulogy by Christopher Buckley, shows the imperial look of a gorgeous young man, which emphatically declares “No…I don’t think I’ll be sleeping with you.” Such an attitude impairs his novels, where the characters are simple puppets of a political system, as well as simple puppets of the writer, but that same arrogance only enhances his essay work, which is joyfully piercing and arsenic stained. Lee Siegel points to Vidal’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky as an example of his empathy with the working poor. I observe instead a man who had an unostentatious ethic that you do solid, good craftsmanship, whatever the material, if someone’s paying you for it. His scriptwork on Ben-Hur demonstrates this same principle, not any hidden sympathy for the teachings of the galilean carpenter. He was as prolific a writer, a sitting at a desk activity, as he was at a sleeping in a bed activity, and he looked at both with a lack of piety: you read not because you wish to kneel at any holy place, but for the same selfish pleasure that the cruel, heartbreakingly beautiful boy or girl gets chosen over the kind-hearted wallflower.

His last years were not his best, the casual asides of state evil becoming now something witlessly screechy. The cruel dismissal of Roman Polanski’s rape victim suggests to me nothing more than Michael Richards, a comedian whose old material is getting a nonplussed stare, so he tries for a rise with a few vile fireworks. A last brief skirmish involved a Minnesota schizophrenic, mistakenly admitted to Congress rather than a more apt public institution, who credited her political genesis to the violent offense she felt at Thomas Jefferson’s depiction in Burr. The man who’d served in World War II and made his own fortune through writing embodied once again anti-capitalism and anti-americanism, this time for a woman who’d spent most of her pre-political time at the IRS, almost all of it on maternity leave. Great, he might have thought. My epitaph’s now going to read, Gore Vidal, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, wit, skeptic, and: co-creator of Michelle Bachmann. He prophesied many times the coming end of the United States, and, once again, it couldn’t come soon enough.

* The sentence of an earlier edition of this post read instead “he knew from his father of Joseph Kennedy’s enthusiastic desire to help Nazi Germany”; I mis-remembered that Vidal heard from Eleanor, not his father. I’ve also slightly shifted the claim to safer ground. What Eleanor related to Vidal was of her husband being deeply, deeply offended by what his former ambassador gave as advice. FDR was a cold-blooded political realist, isolationism was not difficult to find in the country, yet somehow, what Kennedy said to the president went so far as to cause him to never want to see this man again. It was not blackmail, because the president happily took up cudgels against his former ambassador. It can be presumed to be something truly vile, in the context of the war, but what that is, from Vidal’s claim of Eleanor’s remembrance, is unknown. The original sentence perhaps weighed the scales down too much, but perhaps not entirely without basis.

My knowledge of this incident comes from Seymour Hersh’s disturbing and controversial The Dark Side of Camelot.

Here is the context prior to the last meeting of ambassador Kennedy and the president.

Three days after the [1940 presidential election], [Joseph] Kennedy self-destructed. In an interview with Louis Lyons of the Boston Globe and two other journalists, he essentially declared that Hitler had won the war in Europe. “Democracy is finished in England,” Kennedy told Lyons. “Don’t let anybody tell you you can get used to incessant bombing. There’s nowhere in England they aren’t getting it…It’s a question of how long England can hold out…I’m willing to spend all I’ve got to keep us out of the war. There’s no sense in our getting in. We’d just be holding the bag.” The story made headlines. Ther American response was devastating for Kennedy: thousands of citizens wrote Roosevelt urging him to fire his defeatist ambassador.

Here is Eleanor’s recall of the meeting itself, related to Vidal:

Roosevelt finally lashed out at Kennedy after a private meeting with him at Thanksgiving: Kennedy was to be a weekend guest of the president and his wife at their estate at Hyde Park. It is not known precisely what took place, but Roosevelt ordered Kennedy to leave. Eleanor Roosevelt later told the writer Gore Vidal that she had never seen her husband so angry. Kennedy had been alone with the president no longer than ten minutes. Mrs. Roosevelt related, when an aide informed her that she was to go immediately to her husband’s ofice.

So I rushed into the office and there was Franklin, white as a sheet. He asked Mr. Kenendy to step outside and then he said, and his voice was shaking, “I never want to see that man again as long as I live. Get him out of here.” I said, “But, dear, you’ve invited him for the weekend, and we’ve got guests for lunch and the train doesn’t leave until two,” and Franklin said, “Then you drive him around Hyde Park and put him on that train.” And I did and it was the most dreadful four hours of my life.

Just what happened between the two men is now known, but Vidal, recounting the scene in a 1971 essay for the New York Review of Books, quoted Mrs. Roosevelt as wistfully adding, “I wonder if the true story of Joe Kennedy will ever be known.” (Discussing the scene years later, in an interview for this book, Vidal said he thought at the time that Mrs. Roosevelt’s real message was not only that the truth about Kennedy would not be known, but that it would be “too dangerous to tell.”)

The book then follows with a possibility of what led to this complete rupture:

Published and private reports available to the White House and the British Foreign Ministry early in 1941 alleged that a notorious Wall Street speculator named Bernard E. “Ben” Smith had traveled to Vichy France in an attempt to revive an isolationist plan, favored by Kennedy, to provide Germany with a large gold loan in exchange for a pledge of peace. Kennedy, still intent on saving American capitalism from the ravages of war, was described in one British document as “doing everything in his power to try and bring this about.” Smith, known as “Sell ‘Em Ben” in his Wall Street heyday, was identified as Kennedy’s emissary. In a confidential report to the Foreign Ministry dated February 4, Kennedy was reported to have sent Smith to visit senior officials of Vichy France in an effort to encourage “Hitler to try to find some formula for the reconstruction of Europe…Having secured this, [Kennedy] hoped that, with the help of two prominent persons in England [he could] start an agitation in England in favour of a negotiated peace.” Roosevelt learned of the Kennedy plan in advance, according to the Foreign Office report, and was able to abort it. Smith, a heavy contributor to Wendell Willkie’s presidential campaign, did travel to Vichy France in late 1940, but the plan went nowhere.

** I give a better example of this casual intimacy with a ruling class than what is there in the opening paragraph or the first footnote; it is the beginning of the essay “Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy”, from The Second American Revolution and Other Essays (1976-1982) which I came across around November 21, 2013, the date on which this footnote was added:

In Washington, D.C., there is – or was – a place where Rock Creek crosses the main road and makes a ford which horses and, later, car could cross if the creek was not in flood. Half a hundred years ago, I lived with my grandparents on a wooded hill not far from the ford. On summer days, my grandmother and I would walk down to the creek, careful to avoid the poison ivy that grew so luxuriously amid the crowded laurel. We would then walk beside the creek, looking out for crayfish and salamanders. When we came to the ford, I would ask her to tell me, yet again, what happened when the old President Roosevelt – not the current President Roosevelt – had come riding out of the woods on a huge horse just as two ladies on slow nags had begun a slow crossing of the ford.

“Well, suddenly, Mr. Roosevelt screamed at them, ‘Out of my way!’” My grandmother imitated the president’s harsh falsetto. “Stand to one side, women. I am the President.” What happened next? I’d ask, delighted. “Oh, they were both soaked to the skin by his horse’s splashing all over them. But then, the very next year,” she would say with some satisfaction “nice Mr. Taft was the president.” Plainly, there was a link in her mind between the Event at the Ford and the change in the presidency. Perhaps there was. In those stately pre-personal days you did not call ladies women.

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