December 24, 2002

Christmas Week: Media Impressions

The December 30/January 6 Time magazine is out with its “Persons of the Year” cover. This year the “winners” are “The Whistleblowers,” including Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, Coleen Rowley of the FBI and Sherron Watkins of Enron. The three of them are posed in a semicircle together, as if they are circling for self defense. They all have their arms folded and are staring toward the camera. A flood lamp from above is illuminating their hair brilliantly, like blazes. The cover looks virtually indistinguishable from a promotion for a new movie.

I guess we should be glad Time put these women on their cover instead of Ken Lay or some of the other criminals these women blew the whistle on. But the showbiz, glam-celeb presentation cheapens and trivializes what they did.

It’s very close to the Mad magazine movie poster of the Gulf War as a sequel. Looking at it, it’s hard not to wonder what bizarre distortion of humanity we in America have become.

Sunday's New York Times had a photo of Bush standing in front of his new senatorial control puppet Bill Frist and it was one of the scariest photos of him ever. It was the cockiest, most aggressive, arrogant, swaggering, confrontational-looking visage one could ever conceive of. And it represents the sad truth of our situation. We are in the new Rome and Bush is the emperor. The republic of America is now a glimmer in memory, a fable in history books.

But always a refreshing break from the conformity of the major sheep media is Harper's and Lewis Lapham's monthly commentary "Notebook". In December's entry "When in Rome," Lapham manages to find a humorous take on the current political situation without shying away one bit from the horror of what is now happening to America. Using freedom of speech while there still is some, Lapham takes an ironic approach and talks about how much farther America has to go to equal the viciousness, decadence and injustice of the Roman Empire.

It's sobering for those who may like the idea of being the new Rome but who haven't done much reading on the subject to learn that Emperor Nero used to like to don commoner's clothes and go bar-hopping, "sometimes surprising the company by stabbing to death one or two of the patrons seated incautiously near the door."

Nero liked to loot shops and bring the stuff back to the palace where it would be auctioned off at outrageous prices to his courtiers who may be forced into poverty by having to spend 100,000 sesterces for a thimble or a comb. "[T]o those buyers forced into instant penury, Nero sometimes offered what his uncle Caligula considered an amusing but prudent choice -- the debt excused and half of the courtier's estate allowed to pass unmolested to his children on the condition that he promptly commit suicide. The other half of the estate the emperor reserved to his own use."

An historian who called Caesar's assassins Brutus and Cassius as "the last of the Roman's" was summarily executed, his books destroyed and his body thrown into the Tiber. We're showing promise in our progress toward the value system of an empire, but we have a ways to go, Lapham says.

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