Saunders is one of my favorite writers. I rarely go a week without thinking about or saying the phrase "celebrating my preferences," the disturbing organizing principle of his stealth sci-fi short story "My Flamboyant Grandson." It's an example of Saunders' ability to encapsulate in a pithy, evocative concept aspects of our culture that are hard to describe -- in this case, the mandate from the advertising industry to define ourselves by our consumption -- and "The Braindead Megaphone" coins a phrase that's just as vital to understanding this early twenty-first century moment.
I gave the essay to two different groups of students this week, and asked them to identify Saunders' main points. The responses I got showed that his description of the sea of media in which they swim had hit a chord. "Media make us dumb," they said. "Journalistic responsibility is in decline. Truth is buried by trivia."
When I asked them if they were victims in this process, innocent bystanders, or part of the solution, they uniformly argued that they were part bystander, part antidote. They aren't fooled that Brittney Spears is actually important despite the tons of ink and airtime devoted to her, so they've escaped the trap; they're too busy as college students to watch much TV anyway, so they feel removed from the problem.
Yet when I inquired what it meant to be the antidote against what Saunders calls the "Megaphonic tendency" of the mass media -- its need to shout over any other substantive conversations that might be going on, to force us to respond to it against our will, to reduce all information to its entertainment and therefore monetary value, to move us as a population away from careful thought and toward anxiety and sloganeering -- the students were stumped. They had expended their attention agreeing that the media is in the toilet, and failed to notice (or perhaps preferred not to notice) that Saunders was expecting them to do something about it.
I directed their attention to the last page of the essay, and instructed them to bind these words upon their foreheads and their upper arms and their doorposts, to meditate on them day and night, as I have done since I read them, as I do every time I prepare for class or read student work, as I do every time I sit down to write in this blog, poor as it may be. And, I dare say, as you should do, dear reader, because you are somewhere and at some time a writer, a responder, a person with a keyboard connected to the greatest publishing apparatus ever built.
Every well-thought-out rebuttal to dogma, every scrap of intelligent logic, every absurdist reduction of some bullying stance is the antidote. Every request for the clarification of the vague, every poke at smug banality, every pen stroke in a document under revision is the antidote.
This battle, like any great moral battle, will be won, if won, not with some easy corrective tidal wave of Total Righteousness, but with small drops of specificity and aplomb and correct logic, delivered titrationally, by many of us all at once.