The Starting Five, 2/3/2015


Language, according to

the late, great writer and counter-culture wise guy William S. Burroughs, is a

virus. Burroughs did most of his work with language before the Internet found

popular favor. But were he around today, he'd probably find most of what's

going on in our wired world all too predictable.

Burroughs might be

amused, for example, by our infatuation with information. Information is the

currency the Internet runs on. Indeed, once upon a time, the net was called

"the Information Superhighway," a conduit capable of closing the gap between

the "information rich" and "information poor," providing people with an almost

infinite array of resources that would make their lives better.

Information, according

to this formulation, was like air. It was objective, factual, useful.

But just as air can be

tainted with barely detectable toxins, information is complicated by language.

And since language, as Burroughs pointed out, is viral, it has a way of making

information weird.

Take this recent item

from the Washington Post:

It revealed that when President Obama traveled to Chicago to celebrate his 49th

birthday, he reportedly called on three Christian pastors to pray with him via

a telephone conference call. According to Joel Hunter, one of the pastors who

participated, the session dealt with the year that had passed, what's really

important in life, and the challenges ahead.

What made this a

story, as far as the Washington Post was concerned, was that it shed light on the low-key and private

character of Obama's Christianity, something worth noting because recent polls,

including a Harris survey taken last spring, have shown that as many as 57

percent of Republicans insist on believing Obama is a Muslim. The story implied

that Obama might do himself a favor in terms of public relations if he wore his

Christianity more prominently on his sleeve.

But that assumes a

little more information might change, or at least temper, the way some people

think. Given the viral nature of language, its ability to feed upon itself and

find its own logic, this seems like wishful thinking. It wasn't that long ago

that Obama was being slammed for membership at a Christian church presided over

by radical preacher Jeremiah Wright. Whatever he does, it seems clear that

those already disposed to hate Obama are incapable of being swayed by

information. It's language that carries them away.

Across the border in

Illinois, the news media has created a long-running carnival based on the

profane misadventures of the state's impeached governor, Rod Blagojevich, or

Blago as he is disaffectionately known.

Blago, like Richard

Nixon, was undone by information revealed through audio recordings. But where

Nixon was recorded scheming to compromise the Constitution, Blago was caught

merely being venal, bitching about money – mostly about how totally

pissed-off he was that he couldn't parlay his office and, in particular, Barack

Obama's Senate seat, into a juicy payday.

The information

contained in Blago's tapes was outrageous. But not necessarily for the reasons

the media claimed. As far as the media has been concerned, Blago was the hood

ornament for the corruption permeating Illinois politics. Even worse was

Blago's self-aggrandizing sense of entitlement. The guy was crass, a paragon of

bad taste who spent tens of thousands of dollars on custom-tailored clothes and

then turned around and complained that he didn't have enough money to send his

daughter to college.

The media, following

Patrick Fitzgerald, the Federal Prosecutor responsible for bringing Blago to

trial, seemed hell-bent on making an example of this guy. They amassed a small

mountain of damning information but forgot one thing: Information is not the

same as evidence. In the end, the jury gave Blago a pass on 23 of 24 counts

filed against him. The only charge that stuck was for lying to Federal

authorities, who now say they want a retrial. Blago says they should be out

trying to catch real criminals.

For once, he may have

a point. While Blagojevich's story has had a viral life of its own, playing out

across a range of media platforms from reality TV to talk radio – even

finding a moment in the subculture of Elvis impersonators when he covered"Treat me Nice" at a street festival

– all this information revealed little that is actually criminal. You can

find Blago guilty of bad taste, but so what?

The real outrage

should be that a twerp like Blago got himself elected governor in the first

place. Chalk that up to connections and corruption, if you like, but the people

of Illinois voted for him once and then for a second term. They elected him to

Congress before that. Where was the information that might have enabled them to

make a better choice? Surely there were plenty of facts about Rod Blagojevich

that might have disqualified him for public office. But no one was describing

him then the way they do now. The language for Blago had yet to get weird.

Or, as Burroughs might

have put it, the virus was still latent.


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