My family back home in America has this problem of watching the news all the time on TV, a trait you can apparently trace back a generation or two, at least on my father’s side—he told me once his mom used to listen to the news on the radio whenever she was cooking in the kitchen. As that side of the family also has an inveterate hatred of Cossacks, the beloved heroes of Gogol’s first stories, it’s possible you can trace this love of hearing the news to the desperate need to keep abreast of things, back when my ancestors were fleeing the pogroms in Russia, apparently instigated by the whips of those same friendly, drunken, blustering folk song singers you find gobbling down dumplings and cherry pies in Gogol’s juvenilia.
My dad, anyway, did the same as his mom with the TV, dosing himself with plenty of aural media as he made dinner, and then moving into the living room afterward to consume both news and food as he finally relaxed after a long day’s work. The rest of us usually joined him. But when I was young we also watched the news in the morning—as my parents still do, though I abandoned TV when I moved to college after I became convinced that it is a horrifying mind control device that turns people into zombies and reduces the citizens of first world nations into a state of modern intellectual serfdom—and so from my earliest days on Earth I too was devouring lots of media without really knowing what any of it meant, and without knowing that I was being indoctrinated. TVs are, if nothing less, totally mesmerizing. People can be informed by them, and even outraged a little, but the idea that they will think for themselves beyond the pale of what TV considers appropriate, and rise up to go and do something about mass murders in Bosnia—that is impossible.
The recent news of Ratko Mladic’s capture spurred on a few of those memories of blind naive media consumption: lots of associations with rain and cold weather, a wrecked city bombed to rubble, crying civilians, “Bosnian Serbs”, Zlata’s Diary (which I read), NATO, Clinton’s bombing campaign (and the idea that it worked), ethnic cleansing, Sarajevo, shelling, and Slobodan Milosevic. That last guy had such an amazing name, and his international recognition lasted well outside the nineties, until he expired in jail (which will probably also be the fate of Ratko and Radovan) so he’s what sticks out clearest of all. I remember walking around High School and annoying anyone who would listen by declaring that I would name my first son Slobodan. There was also a certain sleaze permeating these images. True fascists can never wash off all the grease and barbarism leaking out of their pores, not with every last drop of blue Neptune’s oceans. I mean, just look at these guys.
I absorbed all of this media without really understanding that I was being programmed into believing that the TV is a source of knowledge and entertainment, rather than a device used to keep people content and docile. The sight of OJ Simpson’s white SUV barreling down the highway, viewed from up in a helicopter, was no different to me than watching a mother in a headscarf wail over the rape of her daughter and the murder of her son: the images were just images, and not really unified to the media apparatus or to popular culture. Mindlessly walking around my High School corridors and repeating Milosevic’s odd name just goes to show how deeply I was (and probably still am) infected by the unconscious worship of a device from which humanity desperately needs to be liberated. Outside of firsthand experience, the best knowledge is to be found in books and through democratic mediums, like simple discussions, or the internet—and so long as televisions are blazing from the living rooms of the world, people will be distracted from seeking real knowledge, enslaved, instead, by endless barrages of advertisements that are only slightly less annoying and boring than the level required for most people to hurl their televisions out onto the street in disgust, overthrow their corporate oppressors, and enact real democracy.
Genocide was shown to us, but kept at arm’s length. We learned, through our televisions, that it was regrettable, but that nothing could be done. Important People were talking it over and taking care of it, so there was no reason to interrupt our dinners over murder, rape, and carnage, on a massive scale. Maybe people really just don’t give a shit about problems on the other side of the world: but maybe if they’d been reading, talking, and thinking, more, instead of staring into a television like a pendulum swinging back and forth on a mesmerizer’s necklace, things would have been different.
I did not remember Ratko Mladic, but the locks of Radovan Karadzic are completely unforgettable. And then aside from a brief reference of the war in Before Sunrise, my wife’s favorite movie, nothing. I completely forgot this war. If someone had asked me about Bosnia, it might have jogged my memory and brought back some of those recollections, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what the hell had actually happened—at least in the way a summarizer and a historian can. I couldn’t unify these scattered images into any kind of coherent narrative—or a favored buzzword, “framework”.
Now I’ve read up on it a bit, mostly taking advantage of my access to the New Yorker’s archive as well as a few entries on wikipedia, and so I know all about the genocide, the raping, the arms embargo, the uselessness of the United Nations, the barbarism of it all, Srebenica, and the way it was allowed to happen because Clinton was afraid of hurting his chances of being re-elected (as well as America’s continuing issues with Vietnam, which do not appear to be so important now, almost two decades and several wars later), a four-year siege of a modern city (yet another “Paris of the East” destroyed, joining the likes of Phnom Penh and Beirut), nationalism, racism, senseless destruction, a modern rebirth of all the horrible things that happened in Europe in the first half of the century, when Cossacks and Jews donned different disguises, as Serbs and Muslims, and returned to re-enacting a medieval conflict that refuses to go away—that’s what I’ve gleaned from reading, while I saw nothing but images, and learned nothing but indifference, from the TV.