Flipping channels one evening last spring on my last trip home to the States, I happened across one of those C-Span panel discussions on issues of the day. You know the kind I mean, sponsored by some think tank you may vaguely have heard of, with a live audience of two dozen bored-looking youngsters (presumably interns at the same think tank), of whom the camera every few minutes affords an embarrassing glimpse.
The panelists were a mix of Washington correspondents for top papers; a high-placed former Clinton staffer; an academic; and a mid-level representative of the Bush White House. If you’d never seen such a program, or if you’d been away from American TV as long as I’d been, you might have expected so opinionated a group to engage in energetic sparring. At the very least, in terms of conflict, you might have predicted that everybody else would lay into the Bushie.
Not a bit of it. The reporters, none of them renowned as a GOP sympathizer, said nice things about the White House. The Bush staffer praised the press. The professor praised everybody else. And the moderator, after noting how much everyone missed the Clinton alumnus, hastily added a compliment to his Bush administration successor (who was not present, and probably not watching, but you never know).
If my description strikes you as a bit generic, it’s because I know at least one of the people involved, and would rather not give offense. If I’d run into any of the participants the following day, I would undoubtedly have told him how much I’d enjoyed the stimulating discussion. And if I’d been on the panel itself, I’m sure I would have joined lustily in the orgy of back-slapping. I’m no Washington insider, but I’ve spent enough time inside the Beltway to know myself susceptible to the allure of mutual admiration.
It’s not just Washington. If you own a DVD player, you can watch a West Coast version of the same game by clicking on the “special content” section of your next movie rental. The first few times I did so, I was curious about the “behind-the-scenes” material, hoping to learn how technicians had achieved a certain special effect, or how the cameraman had managed an especially striking shot.
More often than not, I’ve found myself listening to the stars and director recount what a privilege and pleasure it was to work with each other. Some disks let you play the whole movie with comments by the director or one of the cast laid over the soundtrack. These remarks, too, run to the likes of: “Here’s Brad juggling. I love this scene. He only had three weeks to practice but you’d think he was a pro.”
Stroking one’s peers, to say nothing of one’s betters, is an eternal feature of human society, not least among politicians and journalists. Once, however, most sycophancy went on before an exclusive audience of patrons and fellow courtiers. Now, like everything else in our exhibitionistic culture, it’s become a public spectacle.
Flattery is easy filler, too. As TV channels proliferate, and ever-smaller plastic disks hold ever more data — not to speak of the Internet and the logorrhea epidemic it’s set off in the form of Blogs — the cheapest sort of content is words.
Naturally those words needn’t be sweet. As cable news talk shows eloquently demonstrate, journalists will readily interrupt and shout at each other in feigned outrage if that’s what the producer wants. Yet given the unappetizing choice between rudeness and servility, I’d have to choose the latter, not because it’s more polite but because it’s more revealing.