Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Debate in your Living Room

During the Vietnam War, New Yorker television critic Michael Arlen coined the phrase “Living Room War” to help readers understand television’s role in shaping the public’s “experience” and perception of the disastrous conflict.

Hillary Clinton and her advisors seem unaware of Arlen’s perceptive analysis.

When candidates speak, be it in a debate or in a convention hall, their primary and overwhelmingly largest audiences sit in the comfort of their homes. In essence, the public has invited these strangers into their living rooms.

As our “guests,” they should act accordingly. The best candidates do that. Their tone is polite, congenial, informative, respectfully challenging and conversational.

Think of television-age candidates whom the public has felt “most comfortable” having in its living rooms. Kennedy, Reagan and Obama come to mind.

And whom are you inclined to invite to leave? Do Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton come to mind?

And why might that be? With Trump, the answer is obvious. Trump is an egotistical raver/ranter. He offends most who see and hear him. He appeals to the worst in us and, in our heart of hearts, we know it.

Will he be able to modify his “gut” reactions and impulses in Monday night’s first presidential debate? It’s unlikely. He seems addicted to the adrenaline rush of hatred and self-aggrandizement.

As for Clinton, her problem is that she relates to those she sees but is oblivious to the living-room multitudes she can’t see.

Witness her acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. She began calmly enough but she soon forgot about her unseen TV audience. Instead she directed herself to the convention crowd. The result was a routine, haranguing stump speech in millions of living rooms.

Clinton should be smart enough to change her approach. She certainly knows how to relate one-on-one to people. Trump relates one-on-one only with Number One, himself.

But if Clinton and Trump engage in a brawl, I for one will treat their behavior as disrespectful of my home. I will invite these two less-than-desirable candidates to “take it outside.”

In other words, I’ll hit the off button.

If Clinton gently and forcefully calls Trump on his behavior without being condescending and scolding and without insulting his followers, I may hang around.

Then again, my viewing habits might well be hopelessly old-fashioned. Television is entertainment. Increasingly mass audiences invite and even encourage the medium in its various forms to bring into their living rooms “entertainment” which we would never allow to actually take place there.

And therein lies the problem. Audiences have substituted the reality of the living room with “reality” as defined by media. Clinton and particularly Trump have fallen prey to it. They play to that substitute, artificial world.

The question is this: whose “reality,” as presented in our living rooms, best describes and speaks to our reality, its future and to our lives and values.

My hope is that the “winner” of Monday night’s debate will be the candidate I would welcome back to my living room to learn more. And there is so much more to learn….

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