Thursday, September 18, 2003

The 2003 Television Season: There's Reality and Reality
Every year around this time I indulge in an orgy of tv watching. I winnow through the new offerings, hoping against hope for a bright glimmer of diamond among the boulders.

So far, this is not promising.

Last week Whoopi premiered. Funny in a "I'll-say-what-you-are-thinking" sort of way. And Ms. Goldberg can deliver the one-two verbals like nobody else. But with a sympathetic..ahem...persian... as a very visible part of the cast, who knows?

But truth to tell, I don't watch comedies much. A while ago I discovered that I don't have a sense of humor, at least not one easily reachable by sitcom writers. Mostly, I cringe when the silly bodily function references and prurient little digs are trotted out. So I skipped most of the new laugh-track garbage.

Tonight was the first of the big drama premieres. Threat Matrix debuted on ABC. The premise: every day the president receives a report called "the threat matrix". He decides what needs to be dealt with and someone who surely behaves a lot like the press secretary but seems to be part of the security apparatus summons the leader of a super-secret unit of the Homeland Security agency to deal with it.

The team: an uber-competent blonde who can sew up her own wounds without anesthesia but keeps getting herself captured or shot; her ex-husband, the young Clint Eastwood type (for the sexual frisson, natch); a super geek who can access any computer in the world in minutes (I think he's also "the good arab"); another geek with linguistics skills to shame the most brilliant polyglot; a deaf woman;and another guy, who I think was a japanese-american, who didn't seem to have much to do but did it energetically. Oh, at some point a general who seemed to be an expert in facial reconstruction appeared to explain how the terrorist had changed his appearance (and why these amazingly skilled intelligence gents did not know anything about one of basics of spy trade is not explained).

This show pushes three very tired television memes: one, that the government, in spite of how it appears in our daily news, is actually competent; two, that there is "out there" in classified land such amazing technology that everyone else in the world is hopelessly outmatched; and three, that all these things must be kept secret, so as not to warn our enemies (or, for that matter, reassure the American public).

No wait, four memes: that Americans will always DO WHAT IS RIGHT AND SAVE ONE OF OUR OWN. At the end of the show, several terrorists are released in trade for the uber-blonde. Dialog (paraphrased):

Husband: They will come back to haunt us.
Press Secretary: Maybe. But I didn't want to lose her too.

This turkey should have been called "reassurance matrix." It all but pats us on the head and sends us to bed with milk and cookies, singing the lullaby from Porgy and Bess: there ain't nothing gonna harm you, with yo mama and daddy standin' byyyyyy. There's more reality in an 8 minute segment of Survivor and The Bachelor than in an hour of this dreck. Add muddled scripting and lousy acting and Threat Matrix is in trouble.

One small kudo: the deaf woman thing is handled very well. No stupid explanations or patting on the back by someone. She's deaf, she's a competent agent, and that's that. But, knowing how this type of show goes, watch out for a "explaining the deaf woman" episode soon.

The winner and still champeen of all the "super-secret-agent" shows, to my mind, is Mission Impossible. I recommend reruns.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Libraries and the Freedom to Read in Peace
I have spent all but four years years of my adult work life in academic libraries. I am proud of what I do: contribute in some small way to the education of the next generations and to the preservation of knowledge--not to mention old books, my sentimental favorites.

But the real heroes in the library world are the public librarians. Once upon a time I worked two years in the reference department of one of the largest branches of one of the United States' largest public library system. I watched as women (and some men) dealt calmly and sympathetically with everything from a high school student's homework to the sweet old lady who dressed as a nun and sent letters to heads of state informing them of how God wanted them to conduct their affairs. They provided access to government assistance information, handled queue lines for the latest bestsellers, served as unofficial babysitters for all those parents who dropped off their kids in the morning when they went shopping and picked them up in the afternoon, taught literacy classes, showed 80-year-old immigrants how to use yahoo e-mail to communicate with their relatives "back home", and helped hopeful entepreneurs to get their businesses off the ground. They worked long hours for fair-to-middling money (in rural and smaller systems I would say for crap money), to provide people from all socio-economic classes equal access to information.

And every week, month in and month out, someone wanted their scalpels on a pike.

There was the Christian religious group who was offended that we had purchased The Last Temptation of Christ, not to mention, gasp!, the works of that notorious demon-worshipper, J.K. Rawlings; there was the Islamic group who really, really hated that we had copies of the works of "that awful Indian man who calls himself a moslem"; the old ladies who frowned at Kenneth Clark's The Nude; the Republicans who hated liberal writers and the Democrats who hated conservative writers; the "just say no" campaigners who hated the teenage-market books that dealt with drug use in the inner city; the literati who looked down their noses at the romance readers; the luddites who hated "their" money being spent on computers; the geeks who hated "their" money being spent on those silly paper things with covers...

The one thing all these folks had in common was their desire to re-create the library in their own image. Librarians have developed ways of handling them diplomatically and more often than not the whole thing is settled with a minimum of fuss. But the government...well, that's something else altogether. The government can bring an incredible amount of pressure to bear, both financial and legal, on a library, or a county or state government.

For those of you who are not in my profession, here's a quick run down. Library patrons' records are protected by law in 35 or 36 states. Even in those that are not, there's an unwritten custom that says the government cannot request a patron's records without a search warrant, as an individual's reading habits are considered to fall within his or her "right to privacy". This is not to the liking of the federal agencies, who like to cast a wide net into the general population in the course of their investigation.

The Patriot Act is not the first attempt to get into library records. In the eighties, the FBI ran the "Library Awareness Program", which essentially meant recruiting librarians and libray staff to spy on patrons in order to override state privacy laws. Basically, they wanted information on anyone with an Eastern European name, or someone with a foreign accent, or anyone coming from a country considered "hostile to United States' interests" (remember, these were the dying days of the Great Red Scare). Being the FBI, they went about it with all the finesse of Inspector Clusseau, including investigating over 200 opponents of the measure to see if they were part of a Soviet plot to discredit the Bureau (the whole story can be found in Herb Foerstel's Surveillance in the Stacks, published in 1991). Libraries and their allies fought them off. But now, in the "post 9/11 world" the Patriot Act will give federal agencies the right to access the library records of anyone they desire, without their knowledge.

Americans, badly frightened by the attacks, seem mostly indifferent to the Patriot Act's assault on their privacy. They reassure themselves--and sometimes try to reassure me--by saying things like "if you're innocent you have nothing to hide" or "if you're innocent nothing bad can happen to you". Unspoken is the other, ultimate, reassurance: "I'm the right kind of American, it can't happen to ME."

Me? I'm scared shitless. Not because I care what the government learns about my reading--I publicize it often enough in this blog and other places--or even about my bad habits. I am scared because I DO NOT TRUST GOVERNMENTS TO KEEP THEMSELVES TO THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW. Give a government, even the best government, power, and IT WILL USE IT.

For those of you who pooh-pooh my "liberal scaremongering" let me ask to to consider this logic exercise:

(1)the war on terror will be an ongoing effort THEREFORE

(2)these provisions will be part of our legal arsenal for some decades to come AND IF

(3)the fickle public wants a change and elects a Democrat to the White House....

(4)the Democrats will control the Homeland Security edifice.

So, you sure you want Hillary looking over your reading list?