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.
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
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.
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.