Last week I was bopping through my blog feeds and whatnot and opened some links to news stories and blog posts that interested me, that I’d hoped to get to later in the day. Hours later, after I’d nearly forgotten them, I clicked through them to refresh my memory and see what was worth reading and what was a passing fancy. The first story was about the drug cartels in Mexico who are fighting back on President Calderon’s war on drugs and seemingly winning. Bodies are showing up hung from bridges and dumped in the streets, but it isn’t just political opponents who are dying, its journalists who dare to report on the country’s war, throwing the press into having to decide between self-censorship and protecting the lives of their reporters. The next article I click on is about a newspaper editor in Alaska who went to cover a town hall meeting held in a public middle school who was detained and handcuffed by the candidate’s bodyguards and accused of trespassing. Trespassing, at a public event held in a public place, by private security hired by a politician? These two things together reminded me of the gubernatorial candidate in New York who threatened to “take out” a reporter who had (admittedly) badgered the candidate. I’ll grant you, being a member of the press doesn’t give carte blanche to be belligerent, but threatening to kill a journalist (it was captured on video no less) doesn’t buy any sympathy.
This attack on the media in two neighboring democratic countries was troubling enough, but then I went one step further. Clicking on something I didn’t consider to be too controversial I chanced on an article by author Alexander Chee about teaching the graphic novel to college students. Everything was great until the second paragraph when he began examining why the graphic novel’s interest had boomed in the last ten years… and came up with an analogy to pre-Nazi Germany. Now, I realize that mentioning Nazis or Hitler is a shortcut to hyperbolic demonization, but what Chee was talking about was something different. He was taking a cultural look at what went on before, when the art was mirroring or criticizing the culture surrounding it, and in the 1930s there was a boom in the German Expressionist “picture novel” which was usually a collection of woodcuts that told a story. We would recognize the form today as a wordless graphic novel.
Chee has this idea about an “Age of Euphemism” that connects then with now, but as an artists with an understanding of history I’m sure he also is aware that the movement of artists in the early part of 20th century – the actual, physical relocation from country to country – could serve as a sort of canary in a coal mine for the way things were (and are) headed. Or perhaps they were more like rats leaving the sinking ship, as they always seemed a jump ahead of persecution. Picasso and others left Spain before the Fascists took over, German Surrealists bolted to Paris as the Nazis decried “deviant” art. They stayed around long enough to reflect and report on what they saw and knew when it was time to get out.
Looking at the graphic novel scene today I don’t necessarily see the same sort of commentary about society that the woodcut picture novels contained, but I do see a dangerous trend in the way the media is treated with scorn and disdain and how seemingly complacent society has become about it. Ten years ago the discussion was about media bias, and the minute journalism went on the defensive it lost the battle. Those who frame history get to define it, and those who defined the press as being part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” hammered that message until it was believed, unquestioningly, as truth. The natural evolution was to completely dismantle the press through co-option and counter-programming (propaganda and double-speak) and finally, threatening the press openly without fear of reprisal. It’s ironic to me that the people worried most about our current president’s “socialist” agenda are themselves behaving like police-state fascists.
With daily newspaper circulations dwindling faster than the final sands in an hour glass, with journalists under threat and attack, and with the majority of citizens getting their “news” from commentators who mask opinionated rhetoric as fact, I’m afraid the canary in the coal mine right now has fallen off its perch, its breathing labored. I’m looking around at the artists to see if they’re getting ready to scurry away. In the early 1980s I remember how we were all afraid that the superpowers had their fingers on the nuclear button and we were a heartbeat away from annihilation.
This feels much worse.