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Art by E.R. Bills

Sometimes you find hope where there is none.

It rarely comes from the truth or even people you admire, respect, or love. The truth these days is unpleasant. And our circle of intimates and quasi-intimates is constantly impressed upon by advertising, psychologists, and self-help gurus to make us or keep us happy.

I wasn’t looking for truth last Saturday. It was just a tune, a song, and not even a protest song. It was more like a giant, brave “Fuck you” to me, my generation, and generations of the recent past. Rolling Stone describes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” as “a smoldering cut” that “builds to a massive peak filled with crashing drums and keening guitar riffs,” but it’s more than that. And it addresses us — me and you — in the first line: “Cowards, here’s the sun / So bow your heads.”

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And it doesn’t let up:

 

In the absence of bombs

Draw your breath

Dark, dark places shall be none

She’s melting houses of gold

And the kids cry out

We’re spitting off the edge of the world

 

Ouch!

We may not be paying attention, but someone is. And though all the blame or fault for the current state of things may not be ours to shoulder alone, I understand why so many of us remain oblivious to what’s happening. It has an interesting history.

 

******

 

Elevator music, more commonly referred to as Muzak, became in vogue a century ago this year. The original purpose of Muzak was to calm passengers who were fearful of riding in elevators. The mechanical lurch of the strange, artificial ascent. The startling, obverse sensation of falling or rising in slow motion. It was all new at the time.

The increasing use of elevator Muzak is a near-perfect metaphor to explain what just happened in the recent Lone Star election cycle. And the last several, in fact.

A couple of weeks ago, I was passing through East Texas doing research. It was late, and I stopped at the first Tex-Mex place I saw in Lufkin. It was a great little spot with four TV screens. Two were tuned to the Astros (yay!). Two were set on Fox News. The baseball game was silent, and the Fox News broadcast was a low drone.

I was suddenly certain that Republicans would remain in power in Texas come Nov. 8, because I had the sinking suspicion that the scene in this Tex-Mex eatery was being ceaselessly replicated in small-town restaurants across the state leading up to Election Day. Conservatives have been busy and meticulous. Many of these areas often don’t have easy access to NPR, much less MSNBC, but they’ve always got Fox News. It’s a staple of their existence.

That’s the genius of it. Though inane and existentially perverse, Fox News is Muzak for the apocalypse. And the idea for it originated a half-century ago.

 

*****

 

By the early 1970s, our war in Vietnam was wildly unpopular. The nationwide protests of the late 1960s and early ’70s had been incredibly successful, and the public’s opinion of President Richard Nixon and the conflict had begun to fluctuate in ways that made the administration uncomfortable. Simply put, the problem was that Nixon wasn’t doing what he promised (i.e., getting the United States out of Vietnam), and his charade was complicated by the Kent State shootings and other harrowing, ugly optics. But a new media advisor helped Nixon weather the storm and win reelection in 1972.

His name was Roger Ailes.

For the former Fox News founder and the Nixon administration, the problem was never what Nixon was doing wrong or the promises he refused to deliver on. It was how what he was doing was being reported by the American media. And during the course of the summer of 1970, a memo titled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on the News” was circulated. The memo was discovered by John Cook at Gawker in 2011. Here is a telling excerpt from this 50-year-old Republican manifesto:

 

Today, television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather from any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit — watch — listen. The thinking is done for you.

 

Ailes’ handwritten notes are all over the memo, and it outlines a plan hatched between the Nixon White House and Ailes to coordinate the dissemination of pro-Republican “news” to television networks around the country.

Long before Ailes became the nefarious progenitor of Fox News and Fox Television Stations, his acknowledged difficulty with the American media was not that it was too liberal or couldn’t be trusted or was even “lamestream.” It was simply that journalists were doing their job and the coverage of the Nixon Administration’s general failings and contemptible strategies was unfavorable, particularly where the unpopular war was concerned. White House staffers like Ailes (and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) considered Nixon’s unscrupulous tactics irrelevant. They were simply concerned with the American public’s perception of them.

The Vietnam War was considered the first “TV war,” and LBJ and Nixon both claimed that TV coverage hurt the American military effort. The images of the dead and wounded soldiers and body bags during the LBJ and Nixon administrations were disturbing and demoralizing. And the footage of the antiwar protests and the assault and murder of antiwar protesters during the Nixon administration were unequivocally damning, in the same way the images of the beating of Civil Rights protesters had been in years previous.

Ailes essentially proposed a “GOP TV” strategy, and though it took twentysomething years and the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine to accomplish, once Ailes and Rupert Murdoch pulled it off, America changed.

If broad swathes of the provincial U.S. citizenry didn’t like what responsible journalists were reporting, they had a friend they could turn to, a “news” source that would filter out unwanted criticism, promote conventional perspectives, encourage tacit consent (and conformity), and limit and censor authentic reporting that challenged complacency and established mores. Witch hunts could be perpetrated and never seriously condemned. Wars predicated on outright prevarications could be waged. Journalism hazardous to staid principles and prescribed dogma could be mitigated. TV that portrayed war efforts in unflattering lights could be mitigated. And a viewership that knew why or knew better could also be mitigated. And Ailes’ successful incarnation of GOP TV changed everything, even eventually wooing many aging ’60s antiwar protesters — who had previously despised almost everything about Nixon’s machinations — into the fold.

The undeniable genius of Roger Ailes was that he knew then what we’re finding out now: If Fox News had been around in the early 1970s, the war in Vietnam would not have ended. It might have gone on and on like the war in Afghanistan. And the Nixon presidency would not have been mortally wounded by Watergate, and Nixon himself wouldn’t have been forced to resign in disgrace.

Locally, Fox News would help goober gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush and his hatchet man Karl Rove underhandedly torpedo wildly popular incumbent Texas Gov. Ann Richards, and the leadership of the Lone Star State since then has been little more than the oafish natterings of an arrogant Republican sausage factory, mostly benefiting all things straight, white, and male and obligatorily prostrate before petroleum profiteers and shameless right-wing billionaires.

The once legendary, mythic Texas free for all — independent, mysterious, unpredictable, and high-flying — is now a monument to cowardly conservative obviousness, sinking instead of rising and certainly more diminutive in spirit and stature than the late 20th century. Texas is a national and international embarrassment. We have wonderful institutes of higher education that most of us — including college graduates — manage to emerge from without being educated and flatly ignore except on gameday. We have a wealth of cultural diversity, but this diversity is ignored by our leadership and undermined by unconstitutional gerrymandering regimes, voter suppression and intimidation, false accusations of voter fraud, and good, old-fashioned economic exclusivity.

It’s a sorry, pathetic state of affairs, but that’s the way the seeming majority of our voting populous prefers it, so the only things really bigger in Texas these days are ignorance, xenophobia, historical amnesia, and white fragility. And they’re colossal, mythic totems of a toxic social hellscape.

Why do we stand for it?

That’s easy. Fox News Muzak.

Texans are suffering. Texans are being murdered en masse by Fox News devotees. And Fox News viewers from other states — some who have gotten away with murdering American protesters — are moving to Texas to feel more at home. Texans also made up a large part of the contingent that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

But you get only superficial treatment of these stories from Fox Muzak outlets. Even as Texas descends into gross asininity and willful delusion, Fox Muzak viewers never tremble at the unexpected lurches toward hate and bigotry or feel their stomachs drop during freefalls regarding standards of decency and conscience — i.e., if brown children are held in cages at our border, they deserve to be … if young women can’t keep their legs together, they don’t deserve sovereignty over their own bodies or complete access to reproductive choices … and if desperate immigrants show up in our proud, unrepentantly conservative backwater, we’ll ship them up north to Yankee states!

Fox Muzak consumers get soothing, reassuring conservative elevator prattle on a 24/7 loop. It’s calming background noise, and its consumers absorb the same ceaseless, prescribed codifiers.

 

Honor. Liberty. Forefathers.

United. Freedom. God.

Hard Work. Duty. Patriot.

 

Fox Muzak personalities do occasionally lapse into sets of hostile jargon, but it almost invariably serves to affirm their prescribed positive codifiers.

 

Science. Academics. Abortion.

Rapers. Murderers. Sex ring.

Socialist. Liberal. Traitor.

 

It may barely register at first, but repeating is believing.

It’s the cadence of denial and resignation, passed along as practical faith and prudent judgment. It’s the language of superficiality and hatred, but spoonfed like Gerber baby food to generations of feckless Boomers, Gen-X rubes, and Millennial waifs so they don’t have to rage, rage against the dying of the light or even be alarmed by the accelerating descent of our nation’s formerly celebrated place in the world.

Ever since Fox Muzak landed in Texas, it’s owned Texas and governed Texas. And the Democrats here and across America have no real answer for it.

But how could they?

Ailes’ GOP TV has half the American population no longer even pretending to believe in American ideals. And the tough questions and honest answers about this stupefying development involve complexity and require nuanced conversations, neither of which the largest percentage of American voters find entertaining or will entertain, much less consider.

And not to be redundant, but how could they?

With the middle class gutted and most working Americans laboring furiously just to stay afloat, who has time for nuance or complexity? Certainly not our employers or our mortgage companies.

Who has time to contemplate the novelty and wisdom of America’s great experiment or what’s written at the base of the Statue of Liberty?

How many Americans still wonder at the incredible audacity of the New World concept of due process (and how it’s still not universally observed) or the courage of a clear mandate of separation of church and state (and how it’s now flagrantly ignored)?

From elevators, Muzak tunes spread to grocery stores, shopping centers, airports, cruise ships, corporate offices, and bingo parlors. And psychological studies have shown that Muzak makes listeners more comfortable with being consumers, with buying more, and arguably even buying into things more, in general.

Repetitive, tonal simplicity.

Uplifting, uncomplicated melody.

Honor. Liberty. Forefathers.

United. Freedom. God.

Hard Work. Duty. Patriot.

Not so coincidentally, Muzak is also great for insane asylums, but many folks aren’t susceptible to it.

Capitalism was a great idea when the United States composed 7% of the world population but somehow consumed two-thirds of the planet’s natural resources, but now unrestrained, unregulated capitalism is global, and resources are scarce and human beings are consuming 1.7 times more than the planet can produce. It’s become an unsustainable social cancer destroying our own habitat and extinguishing whole species wholesale. Our children will rarely consume foodstuffs pollenated by real bees. GMOs will fill the gaping holes in our food supply chain with unwholesome substitutes. Our children will not enjoy fair pensions or natural longevity. Social Darwinism, arranged in hierarchies determined by wealth, will reign triumphant and be enforced in dooming perpetuity. And our children and our children’s children — especially here in Texas — will never be taught what things were really like before. The truth. The truth about what happened. The truth about what’s happening. And why plenty of us are mad enough to spit.

We have been reckless and unwise. And the repercussions are already being felt.

Critical Human Race Theory is even more dangerous and undesirable than Critical Race Theory.

Because they hate us for our freedom. Because Big Oil. Because unrestrained, unregulated capitalism. Because uninformed, unconscionable American Empire.

 

*****

 

Though occasionally tempered with the cautionary prejudices of the meek, GOP TV offers lie-affirming daydreams and the deluded slumber of the pseudo-just. Challenging or even cluttering these lie-affirming daydreams or creating unrest is honest and noble but a losing proposition. Attempting or even talking about attempting to disentangle us from our existing and rapidly worsening existential nightmares is political suicide.

Progressive leadership is mostly guilty of telling us too much of what we don’t want to hear. It slaps our wrists for past and present mistakes and asks that we atone for our existential indiscretions and social transgressions before it’s too late.

Then Fox Muzak swoops in, feigns indignance, and tells us exactly what we want to hear while it holds our hands and pats our heads.

Ailes was clear from the beginning. GOP TV doesn’t require you to think. GOP TV doesn’t want you to think.

But at least the right’s liftmen are managing our plummet with comforting, profitable fortitude.

 

Fort Worth native E.R. Bills is the author of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas.

 

This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. He will gently edit it for factuality, clarity, and concision.

1 COMMENT

  1. ER you need to get off the tree, most citizens are cord cutters and choose other forms of news aggregation or gathering in their home to develop an opinion of the daily news. If you wanted to see CNN or MSLSD you could go to an airport or your home or motel. The main stream media including much of fox has been politicized so badly that they all have the same script or marching orders on a daily basis, that and throw in a few racist News Anchors with their Hate Whitey rhetoric makes it pretty much unwatchable. To sum it up main stream TV may or may not be the place to develop an opinion wether you are a socialist or a capitalist. Fact is we are all being worked. Journalism is dead.

    And I look at you as a journalist a bad one at that.

    Now your statement “ Texans are being murdered en masse by Fox News devotees. And Fox News viewers from other states — some who have gotten away with murdering American protesters — are moving to Texas to feel more at home.”

    Is this some sort of Call to Action you are putting out here? Sounds threatening to me.

    Who has been convicted of murdering American Protesters?

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