In “Network”, Howard Beale asks us to get mad and do something. He’s still waiting.

Summary:  On 16 December 1773 angry patriots dumped tea into Boston harbor. Two centuries later, in the film “Network” Howard Beale yells that “he’s mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.” But unlike the patriots of 1773 he’s unable to effectively apply his anger, and so becomes an exemplar for Americans today. Individual action does little; collective action can change the fate of nations. What is the first step to put us into motion? That is the question we’ve wrestled with so often on the FM website. Today we re-visit one of the answers.

“Anger is easy. Anger at the right person, at the right time, for the right reason, is difficult.”
— Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, book IV, chapter 5 (lightly paraphrased)

“Telemachus, now is the time to be angry.”
— Odysseus, when the time came to deal with the Suitors. From the movie The Odyssey (1997)

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Here we have three brilliant comments lifted from the comments to Occupy & Tea Party are alike, both saving America through cosplay. Here is the section that caught their interest.

FM: “This is what we need to be, from “Network” (1976)”

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Bluestocking

“Network” has become one of my favorite movies because it has proven to be so amazingly prophetic.

From my perspective, the most tragic thing about Howard Beale is that the same madness which gives him the ability and incentive (or rather the desperation) to say things that resonate with so many people also prevents him from seeing the ways in which he’s being used and manipulated by some of the very same people whom he’s speaking out against.

These people are only too willing to exploit him and profit from him as long as he continues to be useful to them. However, the moment Beale starts saying things which conflict with their own agenda, they pull him aside and take away the one thing which makes it possible for them to profit from him — and at that point, they ruthlessly do away with him.

It occurs to me that some of the people from the Tea Party could stand to watch this film and learn something from it — they have quite a bit more in common with Howard Beale than they themselves realize. One can only hope for their sake that they don’t end up dooming themselves to a fate similar to his.

Coises

First, a couple observations about the Boston Tea Party.

It was not a (merely) symbolic act. When the ships bearing taxed tea did not leave Boston, as ships in other ports had done, the entire shipment — at an estimated value equivalent to over one and a half million of today’s dollars * — was destroyed. The result was not to persuade the rulers to be more mindful the protesters’ grievances. The result was increased oppression.

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I think the function of protest is no longer well understood. Almost never is the result of protest that authorities conclude that their actions have been inappropriate, and that they henceforth seek to be more accommodating.

The Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party, by Luis Arcas Brauner

Protest serves to make unconcerned citizens aware that something is going on — something with which, perhaps, they should be concerned. Things change, not because of the protests themselves, but because of their effect on a much larger number of people who would probably never engage in civil disobedience or march with a sign, but whose quiet coöperation (including voting) underpins the authorities’ power.

FM: “This is what we need to be, from “Network”

My reading of the Network scene is much different. Howard Beale (the newscaster) describes his frustration with the way things are, that they are not as he knows they could and should be, and would be if only it weren’t for… well, something, there has to be something, though he doesn’t know what it is. He is the quintessential member of the bewildered herd.

Following the clip sown above, we see a family watching the spectacle on television. A teenage girl runs, delighted, to the window, “to see if anybody is yelling.” They are. The yellers in Network are grateful — and excited! — to have been given instructions that permit them to vent their frustration in a way that demands little, risks little, and even provides a transient, false sense of community.

Meanwhile, back at the station, the executive in charge of programming exclaims, “We’ve hit the motherlode!”

Later in the film, Howard Beale happens to incite the public about an issue that actually matters to the people who employ his handlers. Shortly thereafter, his career, and his life, come to an end.

It helps little for people to “get mad” that the world is not as they feel it should be, when they not only lack effective knowledge of why it is as it is, but don’t even have a common view of how it should be. Many of us are angry that class divisions are so acute; probably at least as many believe all would be well if (other) people just knew their place. Some of us are embittered at the intrusion of government into what we see as private, personal issues. Others insist that God will judge us harshly until we bring our laws into conformance with His Word.

* estimate of value equivalent to £968 thousand today from Wikipedia; multiplied by 1.62 US Dollars per British Pound current conversion rate per Google.

Bluestocking

Coises’s analysis of Beale’s outburst is indeed interesting and enlightening since it highlights something very ironic about the people who yell in response to his impassioned monologue. They’re not just “grateful — and excited! — to have been given instructions that permit them to vent their frustration in a way that demands little, risks little, and even provides a transient, false sense of community” — they’re actually inspired to do the exact opposite of what Beale is trying to get them to do.

This and most of Beale’s subsequent speeches are in essence an appeal for people to turn off the television and begin thinking (and acting) for themselves instead of mindlessly accepting whatever someone on the television shows them — but unfortunately, these pleas only serve to encourage more people to tune into his show and parrot the phrase which has become associated with him.

Of course, the consummate irony is that Beale himself — without being consciously aware of it — is dependent on the fact that they’re not really listening and would probably have merely met his end even sooner if they had done what he said.

For More Information

(a)  See the FM Reference page listing all posts about Politics in America

(b)  About films:

  1. Does the Tea Party movement remind you of the movie “Meet John Doe”? , 27 January 2010
  2. About the movie “Fight Club”, 28 March 2010
  3. Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit, 12 March 2011
  4. We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America., 11 January 2013
  5. Loki helps us to see our true selves, 15 May 2013
  6. My movie recommendation for 2010: Vitual JFK (the book is also great), 30 June 2013
  7. Hollywood’s dream machine gives us the Leader we yearn for, 30 June 2013
  8. Rollerball shows us one aspect of America, and a possible future, 13 August 2013

(c)  Posts about music and revitalizing America:

  1. A great artist died today. We can gain inspiration from his words., 26 June 2009 — About the Man in the Mirror
  2. The New America needs a new national anthem! Here’s my nomination., 24 November 2012
  3. Listen to hear the state of America (and its cure) explained in song, 8 February 2013
  4. The third step to reforming America, with music, 3 September 2013

(d)  About protesting in America:

  1. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
  2. More people participating in politics: is this good for America?, 20 June 2010
  3. How do protests like the TP and OWS differ from effective political action?, 26 October 2011
  4. What are the odds of violence from the Right in America?, 2 October 2013
  5. The Million Vet March, a typical peasants’ protest. Does it portend more serious protests in our future?, 13 October 2013

(e)  Steps to fixing America:

  1. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  2. Five steps to fixing America, 19 October 2011
  3. A third try: The First Step to reforming America, 28 May 2013
  4. The second step to reforming America, 14 August 2013
  5. The third step to reforming America, with music, 3 September 2013

(f)  Other posts about reforming America:

  1. Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
  2. The project to reform America: a matter for science or a matter of will?, 16 March 2010
  3. Can we reignite the spirit of America?, 14 September 2010
  4. The sure route to reforming America, 16 November 2010
  5. Should we despair, giving up on America?, 5 May 2012
  6. We are alone in the defense of the Republic, 5 July 2012
  7. The bad news about reforming America: time is our enemy, 27 June 2013
  8. Why the 1% is winning, and we are not, 26 July 2013

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10 thoughts on “In “Network”, Howard Beale asks us to get mad and do something. He’s still waiting.

  1. “When the ships bearing taxed tea did not leave Boston, as ships in other ports had done, the entire shipment — at an estimated value equivalent to over one and a half million of today’s dollars — was destroyed. The result was not to persuade the rulers to be more mindful the protesters’ grievances. The result was increased oppression. I think the function of protest is no longer well understood. Almost never is the result of protest that authorities conclude that their actions have been inappropriate, and that they henceforth seek to be more accommodating.”

    One of the little ironies about the Boston Tea Party is that it was essentially an act of terrorism even though the concept of terrorism hadn’t really been invented yet — one in which property was attacked instead of people and one which the American people celebrate as a justified action in the name of freedom, but an act of terrorism nevertheless as far as the British Crown was concerned. It fits the profile — a subordinate and/or subjugated group engaged in a political struggle with a ruling or otherwise dominant group which insists on remaining largely immune to their pleas, inciting the subordinate group to take drastic and/or violent action in the attempt to draw attention to their cause (based on the rationale that negative attention is preferable to being ignored, overlooked, and dismissed). Unfortunately, as Coises pointed out, this usually results in even more resistance and oppression rather than concessions. It does rather serve as evidence for the argument that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, and that the definition depends very much upon which side you find yourself.

    While protests rarely encourage the authorities to acknowledge that they have been unjust, those which have proven to be successful (at least after a period of time) do seem to share some defining characteristics — I’m thinking specifically of India’s fight for independence from Great Britain and the civil rights marches of the 1960’s here in the States (which actually drew inspiration from it).

    One of these characteristics is volume. It’s simply not enough to have a few token protests here and there — you have to get large numbers of people involved in order to get people’s attention, and larger populations require larger numbers of protesters in order to achieve this. The primary reason why Gandhi and MLK were successful is because the protests resonated with large groups of people and involved them to get involved. I think the only reason why Occupy managed to gain national attention was because the concept appealed to enough people that it went viral and encouraged people in other parts of the world as well as other parts of the country to conduct similar protests — even if they haven’t proven politically effective, they have drawn enough attention for local authorities to crack down hard (sometimes extremely so).

    Another of these shared characteristics is nonviolence. Nonviolence is easier said than done since a sense of oppression tends to breed resentment, resentment tends to lead to anger, and anger can very easily result in violence against people and property (even if only in reaction to violence committed by the dominant group). There’s a reason why nonviolence is a cornerstone of true civil disobedience (which many people don’t understand correctly) — unless the authorities are totalitarian in nature and do not allow protest of any kind, nonviolence usually robs them of justification to respond harshly or violently. (This does not mean that they will not respond at all.). Nonviolence, especially in response to violence from the dominant group, also has a way of demonstrating to bystanders (whether inside or outside the country) that the protesters have the moral high ground — and this may have the effect of encouraging those outside the struggle to appeal to the conscience of the dominant group and/or denounce them. If this call to conscience is widespread enough, the dominant group may find it difficult to resist it for fear of damaging their reputation and the image they wish to present.

    Another cornerstone of civil disobedience — and this is another place where a lot of people fall down — is the willingness to accept the consequences of your actions in the name of your cause even if they involve risk of personal harm (including potential injury or death). This was certainly true of the protests led by Gandhi and MLK, both of whom willingly submitted without resistance to being arrested and imprisoned for their actions. The people who participated in these protests knew that they could be — and many were — arrested, imprisoned, attacked, injured, and (in some cases) killed. It’s said that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction — and despite what many Americans have apparently chosen to believe, there can be no rights without accompanying responsibiities. As Adlai Stevenson is quoted as saying, the right to be heard (i.e., Freedom of Speech) does not necessarily include the right to be taken seriously — and especially not when the people in question prove through their actions that they are not willing to take any significant risks or make any significant compromises in order to get what they say they want.

  2. One of the new great problems, in my mind, is that the Information Age has undone much of the power of experts.

    Part of the enforced conformity in the 1940s and 50s was created by a belief that others knew better because so many people knew they could never have access to the same level of information.

    The opposite belief is now true. Many people believe they know better than the experts and create their own opinions without access to in-depth knowledge.

    Moreover, society has grown so complicated, with so many variables, that to have a well-informed opinion on just one subject – say, something relatively unimportant, like Syria – requires time and effort outside the ability of most citizens who are busy at their own highly specialized jobs that are requiring higher and higher levels of education. Can any society as complicated as our own overcome human biology – that is, can any one person ever be well informed enough considering our brains can only learn so much, so fast, at any given time?

    1. MrB,

      I agree; nicely said.

      “The opposite belief is now true. Many people believe they know better than the experts and create their own opinions without access to in-depth knowledge.”

      I agree. But what has caused this change? The wide range of available information should just as easily show people how little they know. One look at journal articles in economics or climate science should convince laypeople of the complexities of these subjects — not, as has happened — the opposite.

    2. Part of the enforced conformity in the 1940s and 50s was created by a belief that others knew better because so many people knew they could never have access to the same level of information.

      I wonder if this is correct. Doesn’t the United States have a history of being suspicious of “intellectuals” and “experts”?

      An alternative explanation: Mass media was much more homogeneous. How do you know who is an expert, and how do you know what “experts say”? Journalists tell you those things. (It takes some expertise to make use of primary sources even when they are available.) Because the news sources available to the average person were largely consistent, most people were starting from the same set of “facts.” They accepted the conclusions of experts when the media accepted them, because—without going well and obviously off the beaten path—there was no other narrative available.

      In the 1960s and ’70s, going off the beaten path became more widely acceptable. Then came Watergate. Then the changes in journalism satirized before the fact in Network. Now, the Internet. Pick a viewpoint—any viewpoint!—and you can find an information bubble to support it with a Google search and a few mouse clicks.

    3. I believe mass media at that time was also a reflection of a wider cultural acceptance of experts. Much of that was probably created out of necessity in the response to depression and world war. By the 60s, a new generation had arose that did not have the same problems facing them and so could afford to question the powers that be.

    4. MrB,

      That sounds plausible.

      I’m more interested in what a future looks like where people have less confidence in experts. We’re going there quickly, I suspect. On the right faux-economists tell tall tales about economic theory, while faux-strategists spin fantasies about our imperial power (to see how this works, read this from 2004 about Niall Ferguson, helping the US & UK get into and losing two wars, but doing quite well for himself).

      On the Left, activists have pushed climate scientists aside — preaching about the coming climate doom. Organizations like the IPCC give rebuttals to their nightmares, but the Left ignores them.

      All this cannot end well for us, IMO.

    5. But what has caused this change? The wide range of available information should just as easily show people how little they know.

      Choices in the face of mountains of complex and conflicting information you don’t understand:

      1. Invest years of study and hard work in becoming expert in the field.

      2. Admit that you do not know, and will not learn, enough to have any meaningful opinion.

      3. Use what resources you can spare to learn what you can that will help you pick an expert you trust, then rely on that expert.

      4. Pick an oversimplified narrative that is to your liking. “Learn” as much as you care to, then amaze and entertain your friends with your ability to explain allegedly complicated issues in simple, common-sense terms that anyone can understand. (If you can answer this correctly, you can answer the question on what action to take on raising the Federal debt ceiling. You come home from work and find there has been a sewer backup and you have sewage up to your ceilings. What do you do… raise the ceilings, or pump out the s*#t?

      If we were talking about, say, whether to undergo brain surgery, or how to defend oneself against serious criminal charges, most reasonable people would immediately recognize the third option above as the only sane one.

      Political questions are different for most of us (those with public followings excepted), since we know there is no significant chance that anyone who has the power to change anything will listen to us. Whether I support Modern Monetary Theory or accept the gospel according to Milton Friedman, the world will go on the same. (If I have my own money to invest, I probably ignore my opinions and consult a professional. Those who don’t are likely to discover that reality is a bitch… then again, in that area, so are many of those who do consult a professional.) Nearly all the personal consequences of our political opinions are contingent on their social and psychological utility, not on their accuracy. Opinionated people are fun, especially when their opinions build on the preconceptions of their audience. Nuance and fact-checking—“Actually, the primary surplus for Social Security is now negative; the cash flow is still positive because the Treasury pays interest on the existing surplus; so, arguably, if we look at the trust funds as an accounting fiction and consider only current taxes and spending, your statement that ‘The Federal Government does not fund Social Security, Social Security is funded by American workers’² doesn’t seem to make sense even in the limited sense that it could make sense.”—isn’t usually much of a hit at parties, or on Facebook.

      Human beings crave clear, simple narrative. Most of us only abandon it in the face of immediate, dire consequences for error.

      ¹ actual e-mail I received
      ² actual Facebook post

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