Saturday, February 14, 2015

Gentle Authoritarianism and Toddler-Voicing

In response to Digital Afterlife and Public Radio, Anonymous writes:
This is all well and good (and by good, i mean annoying), but for me the actual riddle is the mannerisms, and the diction and the intonation of every single person on NPR. All of them, every single one of them, speaks like you would talk to a toddler - over-enunciating every word, and with multiple unnecessary voice inflections, and faux-folksy (but polished) well intentionedness. No one else, on any other media ever speaks like that.

WHAT'S UP WITH THAT?????? It is fucking painful to listen to, even if you don't pay attention to content, which is its own separate level of pain...

That issue--the condescending vocal intonation of NPR--touches on a lot of fun stuff. Before we go on, though, the offended must needs remember that one can criticize Dubya without implicitly complimenting Saddam Hussein. Accordingly, resist the urge to reflexively assume criticism of NPR is tantamount to support of Romney's underwear policies.

That said, why do so many of the personalities on NPR, varied as they (theoretically, officially) are in ethnic background, offer such excessive intonation? Juxtapose that question alongside the one about why so many Fox News personalities speak like their brains literally think in bullet points, hammering their words at you like boxing gloves, or why the MSNBC personalities use a stern, but not-quite-as-aggressive-as-Fox, tone. Why?

Marketing, of course. Not "marketing" in the "imaginary free market" sense of the word, but the psy-ops way. Like almost all modern American propaganda, NPR began during the Great War, when the realistic (i.e., the not at all cuddly or self-redemptive) Daddy Warbucks got together some of his friends to turn American universities into propaganda stations aimed directly at the general public, giving the then-still-somewhat-elite caste of college-goers a chance to keep the proles in line firsthand. I speak, of course, of the Association of College and University Broadcasting Stations, which had as its mission statement:
Believing that radio is in its very nature one of the most important factors in our national and international welfare, we, the representatives of the institutions of higher learning, engaged in educational broadcasting, do associate ourselves together to promote, by mutual cooperation and united effort, the dissemination of knowledge to the end that both the technical and educational feature of broadcasting may be extended to all.

If you remember anything about WMD, you know that when a bunch of Learned Americans come together to support "international welfare" or "dissemination of knowledge," the result will be bad. Very, very bad. A year after the Nazis had taken power, with Americans desperate to avoid shedding millions of lives in another European bankers' war, the Association changed its name to the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, and after plenty of Koreans had been murdered, the Ford Foundation began funding more integrated nationwide propaganda broadcasts (1961). And yes, that was indeed the very same Ford who praised Adolf Hitler, and yes, the Foundation's mission was, "To advance human welfare." Six years later, when the educated middle class needed to be convinced that killing a few million more southeast Asians was a good idea, National Public Radio gained its current name. Even since the foundation was laid in 1925 to ensure a new war in Europe, NPR has been doing exactly what it was designed to do.

So have Fox and all the others, of course. Why the stupid voices on NPR, though? Why so secretly snotty, arrogant, and randomly voluble?

Radio and TV personalities adopt a parental role when they perform. AM radio talk shows, for example--an easy, obvious one, even to people who like NPR--target people with authority issues: people who are easily confused; people who desperately need reassurance, and who seek the loud blaring of a caustic father figure who is never wrong; people who want a strident mother who always agrees with Father.

Ergo AM radio, Fox News, etc., are bastions of squawking, violent morons. Their listeners believe that the hosts don't know much about history or culture or any of that, and the hosts cultivate that image, because they want to peddle easy solutions to willful simpletons.

NPR targets a different set of the population. The target audience is just as willfully blind, but in a different area. AM radio fans want to remain eternal children, handed easy-to-understand answers from an angry daddy and mommy. They get the warm fuzzies when some loud, belligerent jerk storms that this is how things are going to finally get done around here. This month, I'm going to finally pay off the water company! And then, when the bill doesn't get paid, it's the liberals' fault! So easy.

...and then, for people who want a sometimes completely unavailable, sometimes excessively-close bipolar single parent, with just a hint of massively repressed pedophilia, there's NPR. NPR is the perfect postmodern parent for the lost, overgrown yuppie seeking to recapture childhood in a different way than the pigheaded, yet more cognitively stable, authority-seeker of AM radio. Like the tragically broken, yet economically successful superdad of America's nadirous peak, NPR is formally educated in the new way: hyper-focused on intriguing, atomized details, but unable to see the forest for the trees.

NPR is the cosmopolitan world traveler who's been to seven continents and is friends with three black full professors, but who's afraid to walk by the ethnic convenience store in the bad part of town. NPR is a hyperactive child fitted into adult clothing, able to switch between exuberant nonsense and blood-chilling bathos in the blink of an eye. One minute, a female announcer is calmly describing the details of the three sex workers in Cambodia who were sodomized to death by government "anti prostitution" morals squads wielding shock batons; not ten seconds later, the details come to an abrupt end, and an excited man with a lisp is reporting that Microsoft shares went down one and a quarter points at the end of trading this Friday. The next minute, the very same woman from before is cheerfully interviewing the man who solved three Rubik's cubes at the same time, while an unseen serial killer with a painted smile plays xylophone backup. Does the xylophone really improve the quality of the interview? Only the serial killer sitting in the sound booth knows for sure.

Like that unstable, bipolar parental figure, NPR is briefly informative--so quixotically informative that you're telling yourself you have to remember that anecdote to tell your friends later--and then, suddenly, NPR is so immensely droll for forty minutes straight that you're left wondering if that voice actually belongs to the same person who told the opening story. What do the maple trees in that one abandoned town park in Wyoming have to do with the forty-three tribesmen murdered by Shell's mercenary army in the Congo? And why is the same person now trying to get you to remember the link to a website where you can convert any recipe to vegan through SmartIngredient's new technology?

All modern news has that mind-assaulting blend, but NPR's psychotic instability makes it more powerful. Those who have the capacity to intake a lot of NPR can be more deeply affected than those who are only bright enough to listen to AM radio. NPR frets about ideals, deeply and passionately, for twenty-two minutes, then immediately destroys all the imaginary ambition, defers to business-as-usual, and holds a pledge drive. It's the parent who bought you a new bicycle every Hanukkah, took lots of pictures of you next to the bike and posted them on tumblr, but who never remembered to teach you how to ride it.

By contrast, Sean Hannity (or any other AM/Fox person you prefer) forgets to buy you the bicycle for two Christmases, then buys you the best one ever on the third Christmas after you asked for it. He spends hours with you out back, helping you learn to balance. You do okay riding it, he gives you a big hug, and it's the happiest day of your life. That night, he gets loaded, beats you and your mother half to death with a monkey wrench, and blames it on the liberals.

Neither parent is very good, but NPR is the creepier one, overall. Just like Glenn Beck raises you to be a violent pig who feels very confident, Terry Gross raises you to be a version of herself: a neurotic, neutered cubicle junkie, obsessed with trivia and utterly bereft of soul. NPR hurts you inside, without breaking the skin. When you encounter one of the AM radio people, you're usually able to tell pretty swiftly that they think blowing the hell out of Africa/Asia/Europe/whatever is just fine. The bruises are evident. When you encounter an NPR person, though, you can get to know them for weeks, months, years--never discovering that, deep inside, they're completely fine with obliterating anyone who stands in Mommy's way.

Daddy Beck's children may be able to, later in life, look back on Glenn, and admit, "Yeah, he was one mean sumbitch..." But Mommy Gross' children can't do that. When they think about Terry, they still believe, in their heart of hearts, that their bathetic mother-figure was the apex of nihilistic tolerance in a weary world.

As in all things political, when you consider the end results of entertainment policy, you may find all of the defensive triggers of your childhood programming lightning up in response. You may feel an overwhelming urge to not discern patterns. You may feel a desperate need to trust distant parental figures as being "too honorable to lie to you." You may find yourself beginning to "tune out" unwanted thoughts, mentally filing them away under the "loony bin" category, so that you can focus on recess, or next week's quiz, instead. If so--if those programmed responses are insurmountable--you can, at the very least, tell yourself that mass media characters pan out this way due to "market forces," or some other unfathomably beautiful deity you've been taught to believe in.


  1. The news parenting aside, it strikes me how more generally, in all popular culture (movies, sitcoms, books), adults are portrayed as overgrown children. It is universal, and not subtle at all, which really boggles my mind - how can it be effective if it is so obvious? Or is it really soo deeply embraced?

    But the typical protagonist is a polite middle-classer, mostly whining, though cleverly, but never DOING anything. Just reacting to whatever happens, and then reintegrating themselves into it, though 'asserting' their individuality with some clever quip in the process.

    Friends, Raymond, Seinfield, Modern family, Roseanne, Cheers, Sex and the City, etc. 'iconic' productions are all practically the same show. Don't get me started on 'quirky' "New Girl"

    1. Reacting to externally-imposed plot situations is a big part of all this. If you're a C&H fan, you'll remember that, when he was politely praising Fox Trot, Bill Watterson commented that too much modern fiction was like that--characters reacting, not acting. It serves a lot of useful purposes, to whit:

      1) It's how they want us to behave--reactive, rather than proactive;

      2) It's how we already do behave, so it's possible for us to identify with the characters (whereas proactive characters are too difficult for us to see as believable);

      3) It's much easier to write that way.

      One of the many crippling deficiencies of the Powers That Be is that they are not creative. All they can do is copy. Even if they wanted to produce mass entertainment targeted at the small percentage of people who want developed characters, they wouldn't be able to, because they're unable to be that creative.

  2. Well, that's just great. The truth is, that as much as I personally complain about this, i too, am unable to envision a meaningful active life (safe for breaking a minor law here and there)