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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What would Paddy Chayefsky say?

One of the great screenwriters of the 20th century was Paddy Chayefsky, who won Oscars for his scripts of Marty (1955), The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976). Marty examined loneliness, love, and the lives of those who are “below average” as Garrison Keillor might say. The Hospital was a critique of institutional medicine and the importance of individualism in that context.

But Network is probably the most memorable of Chayefsky’s works. Besides its minor themes of powerful multinational corporations and capitalism’s ability to subvert subversives, Network identified the suppressed anger of the middle class and the unfortunate overlap of news and entertainment. Chayefsky’s prediction of the future was uncanny. These days both his observations are poignant.

The electorate is mad, and it’s easy to see why. Their dreams of getting rich on residential real estate are gone. They can no longer use credit cards to fund a lifestyle well beyond their income. Their expectations of a comfortable if not lavish retirement have been dashed. Young persons with expensive college educations are finding that the only jobs available won’t pay off their student loans. Businesses that depend on consumer spending are in the tank. Economic polarization in the U.S. is as bad as in the late 1920s.

The harsh reality is that none of this will improve significantly in the near-term, regardless of what happens in Washington. Nevertheless, voters are “as mad as hell”. Incumbent politicians of both parties are at risk. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, one Republican and the other Democrat, were tossed out of office in times that weren’t as bad as this.

And whether you prefer Fox News or MSNBC, Chayefsky’s prediction that truth will be sacrificed for entertainment has materialized. Although the dominant mediums of Chayefsky’s day -- the NBC Nightly News, The New York Times, etc -- were not immune to criticism of political bias, nobody even thinks about those outlets anymore. Instead we attend to Glenn Beck or Rachel Maddow, each of whom spouts ideology as truth. Professional comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have become the most influential sources of news among the young.

Chayefsky died of cancer in 1981 at age 56. If he had lived for another 25 years, I wonder what his genius for satire and his penetrating insights into society would have produced.