Entertain Us

“Here we are now, entertain us! It’s stupid and contagious!” – Kurt Cobain

Do you like the rock band Nirvana? Neither do I. But the above song lyric has come to mind this morning. Why?

I had started to write a very heavy going “blog” about interconnections between military history and the history of slavery. But that doesn’t suit either the time or my current state of mind. The media is full of “all is changed utterly” stories that make it seem as if “the world” is at one of “those moments” that shuts down previous trends of thought. Will this be a moment for future historians to analyse long after it has passed? Or are nerves simply being frayed? It is hard not to feel uneasy. Or to seek a distraction in silly entertainments.

“The media is the message”, Marshall McLuhan once said. I cannot remember what exactly he meant. I know it was something to do with the power of media, even entertainment industries, to make things seem suddenly relevant or even out of date. “1968”. No, The Beatles did not change music. But perhaps they did mark the beginning of pop musicians being turned into politicised celebrities, even if they were just eighteen year olds who only knew the way in and out of their local public house. Even prior to then, new movie stars (being suddenly rich and famous and thereby influential) were often expected to start speaking about politics too. That thought has inspired the idea of this current improvised blog.

Many historians have written about “wartime propagandas” and associated campaigns of censorship (the Irish had a story there too). But what of “peace-time propagandas”? What are they? How and when can you recognise them? There is a theme that could inspire a thousand Orwellian dreams, or conspiracy theories, or vague impressions that are not even worth mentioning, least of all (perhaps) by “a historian”. But who has never entertained such thoughts? Go on…“confess, confess”.

For instance, “is it just my imagination or has the number of war-movies, both old ones on TV and new ones on cinema/pay per view etc., increased greatly in the last couple of years, at the same time as international political alliances are, some want us to believe, fraying?” Is this all a form of social or mental conditioning? And when and why do various historians both a) pick their themes; b) redefine their themes? During a trip to a bookshop recently, I saw books with titles such as “a global biography” of Hitler and “a global history” of slavery, which, in case you are not aware of the subtle meaning of language (which of course you are), implies that both Hitler and slavery are of “global” relevance (today). “Why do we all like or think X, Y or Z” is a great journalistic phrase to imply a collective thought that, rationally speaking, surely does not even exist. But it is a tool of persuasion that is used by many, potentially to spread confusion.

The fact that I spent a lot of time reading history means that I do not have a lot of time for reading fiction. I generally get my “fiction-fix”, if I seek one, not from novels, but from film. If I was in a DVD watching mood these last few weeks, perhaps I could have done another Saturday Night At The Movies blog. But I have hardly watched any movies at all. Instead, some random Internet browsing has reminded me of some old TV shows that I either had or had not seen before.

For instance, last night, I saw bits of a confusing 1967-68 TV show called The Prisoner, starring and reputedly co-written by Patrick McGoohan, who Wikipedia informed me, to my surprise, was actually an Irish citizen. It is a strange show with a political context. Forgive the conspiratorial thought, but the fact that it was broadcast internationally just prior to 1968 student unrests etc. had me wondering last night if that was entirely a coincidence or if there was even an element of social conditioning or preparation at work. Are fictional stories sometimes inspired by current events? Last year (or was it the year before?), I was reading for the first time about the politics of “Irish-America” in the mid-to-late 1970s and some tensions evident therein. Only last night, however (blame it on The Prisoner), it struck me as rather strange that an episode of Columbo that I remember seeing years ago called “The Conspirators” (you can read about it and probably watch it online), was made at the exact same time, portraying the same milieu in a very unflattering light. Curiously, that was the last ever episode of Columbo to be made before it was pulled off the air for a decade. “This far and no further”.

Coincidental thinking may spot how trends in public life can shape innocuous “popular culture” presentations in the media. Have you ever thought if the interactions between Tom Selleck and John Hillerman in Magnum P.I. were subtle reflections on the dynamics of a trans-Atlantic naval and commercial “special relationship”? No, neither have I. But on the “international relations front”, here is a curious one. Does anyone remember The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? Well, it was from before my time, but it was still on TV when I was a kid. Apparently, however, when the show was first conceived in 1963, the idea of “U.N.C.L.E.” was actually inspired by the “U.N.” (United Nations), which was at an early peak in its popularity and that was reflected in the “serious” tone of the first series of the TV show (especially during its introductory credits: ‘U.N.C.L.E. is an organisation consisting of representatives of every nationality’). But as the U.N. started receiving less priority during the mid-to-late 1960s, the show became rather daft and was soon pulled off the air completely. Its selling point had been lost. Is that a coincidence or not? Most likely it was simply a case of bad writing/storytelling and had nothing to do with international criticisms at the UN of the Vietnam War etc.

Returning to the present day, is it not bizarre that Martin Scorsese has entitled his latest gangster film “The Irishman”? If Coppola had given “The Godfather” the title “The Italian”, I’m sure it would not have sparked a diplomatic incident, but it would possibly have raised a few eyebrows in terms of the creation of negative cultural stereotypes in the 1970s/1980s. What stereotypes will Irish guys have in the next decade? I shudder to think. And…to conclude…all this entertaining nonsense has reminded me of a book I picked up second-hand a good while ago, but have never actually read. It was called “The Irish-American in popular culture 1945-2000”. Perhaps it is time I gave it a glance (it looks like a quite detailed and sophisticated analysis). In the meantime, my mind is evidently full of more popular cultural references right now than is sensible. Blame it on having watched “The Prisoner” last night. “Be seeing you!”