“In this great time of crisis”

Colin Firth.

Colin Firth as Prince Bertie in the climactic scene of The King's Speech.

More than an opportunity to drool over the stunning Colin Firth, the Academy Award winning film The King’s Speech offers something else.

I don’t mean the obvious–the tale of a monarch struggling past a chronic stammer. But that story is amazing.

For most of his life King George VI could barely speak competently to any group. Yet when push came to shove he was the one guy who had to break the news to the people of England via radio that they would enter World War II and face down the Führer.

That such a hobbled speaker should take on Hitler himself, a fearsome warmonger who was also an infamously rallying orator, raises this very human story to sublime metaphysical heights.

But what really interests me about the film is the mini-history of mass communications it offers us in its couple-hour span.

Check, check, 1, 2, 3, check

The King’s Speech is peppered with vignettes referencing the tools of electronic communications.

The film opens with Prince George “Bertie” (Oscar winning actor Colin Firth) on the BBC in 1925, miserably stammering his way through a massive stadium speech that leaves him humiliated. Then his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), delivers a Christmas broadcast to the nation. Later, when Bertie receives voice lessons from Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Jeffrey Rush), Logue explains,

I’m going to record your voice and then play it back to you on the same machine. This is brilliant. It’s the latest thing from America: a Silvertone.

It’s all so retro cool.

Throughout the film the scratch and putter of radio frequencies, microphone feedback, the hiss of broadcast silence and thick wax records warbling on gramophones detail the expanding world of early 20th-century mass communications. Radio technicians turning big dials while plugging brass jacks on the ends of cloth covered wires into walled control panels add industry, globalization and a common touch to the emerging story.

Yet King George V bemoans this, saying to Bertie about the wireless that

This devilish device will change everything if you won’t. In the past all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them. This family is reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures…we’ve become…actors!

And when Bertie is poised to be crowned king, Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang (Derek Jacobi) laments about recording the coronation, “Ah, yes, the wireless is indeed a Pandora’s Box. I’m afraid I’ve also had to permit the newsreel cameras.”

Within the context of the film and its history, each of these quaint sketches illuminates a world so distant and distinct from today’s pervasive immersion in media and communication devices, from cable TV and the Internet to social networking, texting, e-mail and iPhone uploads.

Progress? Well…

Talk, talk, it’s only talk, babble, burble, chit chat

In the movie, it all gets serious when England readies itself to enter the war. The stakes couldn’t be higher for Bertie’s now practiced but still halting public speaking skills. Few insiders believe he can do it. The drama focuses on this personal challenge.

As the moment for Bertie’s war speech draws near, the whole of England appears to crane an ear to see if the second son will flub it again. Many seem to be wondering if his stammering means he’s touched. This only adds to their anxiety as Europe faces another descent into the grueling abyss of war.

But with considerable backstage prodding, Bertie does make it through the speech. He wins respectful gazes and then erupting cheers when, afterwards, he appears on the palace balcony to the relieved crowd below. Having bolstered national resolve by hitting just the right note, Bertie proves he’s no inbred royal shame. Instead he shows himself staunchly positioned to face the worst with courage.

In this, we think we’ve just seen the triumph of the human spirit against adversity. And of course we have. Since we now know that Hitler was ultimately taken down, as viewers we conflate the two events, imagining that the story, with its metaphysical undertones, is over, and that all’s well that ends well. The world moved on, the Nazis were defeated and we got more drive-in theaters and jukeboxes.

But to me, this is where the story really begins for today’s audience.

In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!

In that final scene every citizen is listening to Bertie. Not just because it makes for good drama. But because history tells us that’s essentially how it really happened.

At a time when only radio and movies existed, and war was afoot, the ability of a king or a president to command the attention of an entire nation was formidable. School and work paused, people gathered in bars, stopped on railway platforms, and stood outside the palace and places with loudspeakers to hear the news.

Far from being vulnerable to an instant take-down on cable talk shows or cluster blogging, a broadcast speech or announcement in those days stood on its own, reverberating in waves of pregnant silence. The news, the events, the implications could actually be digested. Yeah, it would be discussed in pubs, over dinner, on the telephone, and commented on in the newspapers. But that was the extent of it.

And then you took action.

Contrast that with today, when nothing that goes down in politics or news escapes being reduced to 140 characters and sent out worldwide 0.3 seconds later by any given trigger-happy Web surfer with a hand-held device and an opinion.

Now, without a doubt, there’s an upside to today’s media landscape, too.

News out of Tunisia and Egypt in recent weeks shows that those same hand-helds helped spawn a mass gathering of citizens to agitate for their rights. The world marvels at that. This is what the struggle for freedom looks like (in spite of Mubarak giving Egyptians the figurative middle finger for almost three weeks).

And the citizens didn’t yield. They’ve won! When strength of purpose exists, and little else competes for its attention, such flash organizing can happen.

But the opposite side of such techno-wizardy exists, too.

Just as we can lean in and witness the Egyptian story, we can also ignore it for a day spent on LindsayLohanWatch.com or mining the minutiae of Jersey Shore or tuning into the opinion-ators we love to hate.

And here’s where our media life in America today gets sticky.

Remote control

At the same time that no one is calling for a return to one central state megaphone, or for the world before interactivity, we have to admit that it’s that much more difficult to make gains on key issues when the sheer din acts against anything resembling unity of experience and understanding—when facts and general consensus are buried under the sheer multiplicity and simultaneity of democratized media outlets.

And that’s not just anecdotal.

In his contribution to the 2010 essay collection Obama: Year One, Martin P. Wattenberg describes just how far we’ve come from the shared reality revealed in the climax of The King’s Speech, or even more recently, since the Reagan era. Though media channels have increased, the ability to capture a sizable audience has plummeted dramatically, while at the same time the outlets for straight news coverage have also declined. Wattenberg writes

On the positive side, there can be little doubt that there is a good deal of potential for learning about politics from watching a substantial amount of political coverage on the cable news networks. However, as many critics of these channels have said, there is reason to be skeptical about how much people can actually learn from the free-flowing spirited discussions that often dominate these channels.

Mistakenly we believe that the Internet steps in to fill the void. And more so, because here each of us can drive our own research into the key issues of the day. But such an idealistic perspective obscures that just as much misinformation occurs, spreading even faster.

At the same time, the mere existence of the Web doesn’t mean that a higher percentage of the population will seek out solid reporting or balanced opinion on politics, leadership, economics or other pivotal issues. As Wattenberg explains

Politics is only one of a myriad of subjects that one can find out about on the Internet. Most Americans have a fairly limited interest in politics, and therefore will not often be motivated to use the Internet to look up detailed information about politics.

In this regard we take politics to mean more than just left-versus-right slugfests over health care or taxes. In a larger sense, where all politics is personal, we’re more likely to share cute kitty photographs than engage on issues that really stand to affect us. As Clay Shirkey writes in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs

Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berman Center for Internet and Society calls it the “the cute-cat theory of digital activism.” Specific tools designed to defeat state censorship (such as proxy servers) can be shut down with little political penalty, but broader tools that the larger population uses to, say, share pictures of cute cats are harder to shut down.

Problem is, most of us seem more interested in those cute kitty sites for little more than sharing pictures of…cute kitties.

Ground Control to Major Tom

In a place like Egypt, broader and more direct suffering likely illuminates the special nature of the miracle tools of social media, the Internet and cellphones in a way that Justin Bieber Nation just can’t appreciate.

We Americans are busy griping that there’s nothing on our 900 channels rather than engaging in constructive ways with the immensely powerful tools literally at our fingertips. And not just using these tools to do business, hustle, upsell and “network.”  But to connect on the fundamentals that unite us–the struggles we all face on economy, energy, ecology and humanity.

What’s lacking is any objective sense of where we are in the experience of our shared communication tools. For that reason, I’d argue that we need to reach in communications consciousness that same self-awareness that arrived when astronaut William Anders of Apollo 8 sent back the famous “Earth Rise” photograph while circling the moon in 1968.

Seeing an image of our earth from space is credited with helping to launch the modern environmental movement. It brought a potent sense of perspective that linked us all to the bigger picture, to our place in the universe, to our fragile planet.

There’s hope that we can achieve that consciousness. Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker that while all time periods have faced assaults on consciousness due to emerging communication modes and technologies, the Internet is different in that it is “the wraparound presence, not the specific evils, of the machine that oppresses us.” He goes on to say

Thoughts are bigger than the things that deliver them. Our contraptions may shape our consciousness, but it is our consciousness that makes our credos, and we mostly live by those. Toast, as any breakfaster knows, isn’t really about the quality of the bread or how it’s sliced or even the toaster. For man cannot live by toast alone. It’s all about the butter.

Toast in the machine

America now faces the biggest challenges of its existence with peak oil at our doorstep and roiling financial crisis under our feet. But this must compete with the latest Dancing with the Stars tally and pictures of hot-bodded “family values” Congressmen who cheat on their wives and send shirtless cellphone shots of themselves to dates on Craigslist.

Waking a sleepwalking population from its diversions of choice to see our shared plight and take action while we can will certainly not happen as long as we feel compelled to play everything cool. For example President Obama saying in his recent State of the Union address that on clean energy now is our “Sputnik moment” and then giving absolutely no reasoning why. No causes, no real urgency, no straight talk.

And who can blame him when there’s no single center of gravity in our nation? Who can blame him when the airwaves are glutted with manufactured disputes over whether a given issue is even valid to pursue, such as with climate change? Who can blame him when the ethos of corporate profits and single-minded growth ultimately trump manifold concerns in a “democratic” system that no longer actively responds within a viable communicative feedback loop grounded in the conditions of material reality and driven by an ennobled purpose?

Unlike that moment in The King’s Speech, when the nation paused together in order to face the inevitable with the full force of consciousness, now we get only grand disconnected gestures and then, if we were paying attention at all, a return to checking in to local spots via FourSquare. “Look at me, I’m the mayor.”

How do we deal with it?

I suggest little things, like:

  • Promoting a culture of self-policing, elevating the value of #gettingfocused among those who are paying attention.
  • Perhaps stepping up your game and #formingcoalition across like-minded organizing groups.
  • Encourage the awakened to tune in.
  • Or, ironically, as I’ve been tweeting, to #standupfightback—which doesn’t have to mean either violence or confrontation. But it must mean an unyielding sense of purpose and an Egyptian-style demand for a place at the currently corporate-owned table.

How we cross from yearning to action to some cohesion I don’t know. I hate to think we’ll have to sink to the lows the Egyptians have faced before we get it and turn things around.

If Dmitri Orlov is right, we will have to go that low. And by then it may be too late. But I hope not.

Can you hear me now?

– Lindsay Curren

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Comments

  1. says

    I really appreciate what you have written here. The topic you’re addressing here – the problems and potential of the internet and current media in general – are timely indeed. I’ve just finished reading a column written by Virginia Heffernan in which she laments the noise of the net and praises “the silence I’ve found on the Kindle.” I think many of us are really struggling to come to terms with the social web. I certainly am. It’s refreshing to see someone writing so thoughtfully on this matter in relation to a movie that everyone else seems to be looking at through a very different lens. Please reach out anytime. Perhaps, if you’d be open to it, it would be good for us to discuss your ideas in more detail on Blog Talk Radio. And perhaps too, Ms. Heffernan would be kind enough to join us! In any event, I look forward to reading more of what you’ve to say on this topic.

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