The President and the Press

But for a humble secret agent, [death is] an everyday thing, like whiskey. And I’ve been drinking all my life.~ Lemmy Caution

Today is the day that the Boston Globe has encouraged American newspapers to pen opinion pieces about the necessity for a free press and to protest President Trump’s attacks on the media. I might not be a journalist, but I am an American, and I feel that it’s time for all of us to speak out against these attacks. 

While many opinions have been written about the role that the press plays in keeping the often-nefarious other players in check, my favorites come from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a book that one hopes every president since Andrew Jackson has read. However, I also deeply appreciate Jean-Luc Godard’s film Alphaville, and as I worked through this piece, I realized that I want to focus on the character Beatrice; she represents so many players in the current political environment: immigrant parents who have been separated from their children; the press; and, significantly, the majority of the electorate in America who didn’t vote for the current president.

The film opens with a bright pulsing eye, one which previsions Stanley Kubrick's HAL, blinking on and off, leaving the viewer with the impression that we're being surveilled through our television screens. The pulsing eye belongs to the Alpha 60 computer, which runs the city. This is a city that appears to have fully mastered constant surveillance. Unlike Bentham’s panopticon, whose victims are left to wonder if they are being observed, Alphaville’s residents appear to be under surveillance at all times. We soon learn that this is a city that is run on order, logic, and efficiency, and is, culturally, essentially an ant or termite colony. Illogic is considered a capital offense, and suicide and state-sanctioned murder are common. 

Secret agent Lemmy Caution drives a Ford Mustang into the city, the only one of its kind that we see in town, signifying his individuality. He arrives pretending to be a reporter, and as he approaches the city, he sees a sign saying “Silence, Logic, Safety, Prudence” - Alphaville’s motto. From his car alone we know that Caution, named ironically, is a contrarian force in Alphaville. We also know that this isn’t a healthy environment. 

Through Caution, we're shown the citizenry. They’re restrained, uninspired, anesthetized automatons. Each knows their role, but none exhibit passion. They function simply as extensions of the Alpha 60 computer.

The anesthetization of the citizenry becomes apparent when Beatrice, a third-level seductress, escorts Caution to his hotel room. As they walk, he insults her repeatedly, yet she doesn’t respond. No anger, no offense, nothing at all. Instead, she asks him the same questions that we later hear other seductresses asking: “Are you tired, sir?”, “Would you like to sleep, sir?”, “If you’re tired, you can rest, sir.”

Upon entering the room, Beatrice immediately checks for a Bible. Caution asks if she believes, and she says of course. We are led to believe that Caution is asking if Beatrice believes in God, though her affirmation doesn’t mean what he thinks it does. Later, we learn that the text she seeks isn’t religious in any sense a modern viewer could relate to, but a dictionary of all the words authorized for use in Alphaville. Words are regularly added and deleted. This Bible functions as an artifact to keep the citizenry on script, to control their minds and their behavior. That Alpha 60 is the author of the Bible elevates the computer to godhood. Alpha 60 is the god that Beatrice believes in, worships, and would never betray. I believe that this scene is a poignant metaphor for current events in America.

We similarly see the White House trying to control the narrative presented to the world. While presidential manipulation is common, never have our commanders in chief approached Alpha 60’s level until now; from the president’s use of his Twitter account, to Sarah Sanders’ refusal to answer press queries about specific topics, to the whole administration’s readiness to seize any opportunity for attacking reporters when they ask the “wrong” questions, control is the order of the day. As a result, the news and the people, like Beatrice, become more alienated from the doings of the powerful, and we descend more and more into Beatrice’s helplessness.

While there have been many books written about how controlling language controls how we think, my favorite is Mark Dunn’s epistolary novel, Ella Minnow Pea. Due to a series of events, the use of certain letters of the alphabet is outlawed on Nollop, a small, independent island nation off the coast of South Carolina. Its citizens worship Nevin Nollop, author of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy brown dog” and bestower of their nation’s name. The residents have gone so far as to erect a shrine honoring his sentence. However, the glue holding the holy panagram’s tiles weakens, and letters begin falling off. The leadership takes this as divine guidance from Nollop to eliminate these letters from the citizenry’s vocabulary. So the islanders begin changing their language to remove the fallen letters. As more letters fall, their speech becomes simpler and simpler, as do their thoughts, and Dunn compellingly explores the effects.

Even more than the residents of the island of Nollop, Beatrice’s thought processes have become so simple, so inculcated, that she is devoid of any emotion or true desire. She “wants” to seduce Caution, but only because that is her job. When he fires his gun at a pinup she’s holding above her head, both shots hitting the pinup’s breasts, instead of being angry, she compliments him on his excellent aim and attempts again to seduce him. When he strikes her, she doesn't respond. That is her script and her life.

In America we are experiencing this sense of resignation more and more; this belief that things can’t be changed, that our very thoughts and desires are scripted.  The president describes the Russian probe as fake news, and we shrug. What else would he say? He denies having affairs, and we shrug. What else would he say? He assails veterans, and we do nothing. What else would he say?

But compliance doesn’t always come easily. Before leaving Caution, Beatrice places several bottles of tranquilizers beneath his bathroom mirror, swallowing some herself. This isn't an unusual act in Alphaville. Throughout the film we see the characters using tranquilizers to keep themselves anesthetized. We too anesthetize ourselves, but our culture’s drug of choice is consumerism. Collectively we think, “As long as the economy doesn’t become too bad, as long as the tariffs don’t affect me, then it’s ok. And when they do affect me, it’s too late.”

But all is not lost, as Alexis de Tocqueville, the writer who first inspired the shape of this essay points out. De Tocqueville argues that the press wrestles power from the minority (leadership) and transfers it to the majority (the people) by keeping the latter informed. Information is power. “One cannot entrust the exercise of local powers to the principal citizens as in aristocracies. One must abolish these powers or hand over the use of them to a very great number of people.” The press, in other words, by keeping us informed, helps decentralize power and allows the many to govern, perhaps through protest, perhaps through other means. The suppression of a free press is an attempt by the White House to circumvent examination of presidential behavior by the electorate. A press that is free of presidential attack is essential for our democracy to function properly.

As John Berger reminds us in Hold Everything Dear, “Any tyranny’s manipulation of the media is an index of its fears.” This administration has sought to demonize the press seemingly at every turn. That needs to stop.