May 17, 2018

Buffalo Bill

Buffalo Bill

Numero Two-o: I’ve never seen a generation so convinced that there should be punishment for speech. And not just public scolding. Loss of job. Loss of livelihood. Permanently labeled as a jerk. A soap opera friend of mine was disinvited to the network’s reunion show because of some tweets about NFL players not standing for the National Anthem. We all know at least one example of a teacher or professor booted because of an unpopular statement.

There’s something very Soviet about all this. In the Soviet Union citizens were rewarded for reporting friends and acquaintances who voiced weird opinions, or opinions that were outside the mainstream. In many cases this would result in the loss of a job or being placed in a police registry as a troublemaker. Today we don’t need to inform the KGB, we just open an anonymous Twitter account and circulate the hashtag #millermustresign. The tactics are all the same: humiliation, ignominy, firing. It doesn’t matter so much in the case of public celebrities, most of whom have some money saved up, but it matters a great deal when the public shaming campaigns filter down to middle managers, florists, restaurant owners, and the like.

The other Soviet aspect is that it makes our world more and more like Moscow—a gloomy fearful vindictive place.

I was thinking about all these things while wandering this week through the site where the first motion pictures were made by W.K.L. Dickson and his co-workers at the Thomas Edison Laboratories. People argue about what was really the first film ever made, but the most likely candidate is Fred Ott’s Sneeze in 1894. Fred Ott was a laboratory worker known for his good humor, and so Dickson asked him to sneeze for the camera. He gladly did so, then told people for the rest of his life that he was the first movie star.

What strikes you about these early motion pictures—which really had the character of YouTube videos shot on 35-millimeter film—is their playful nature. You had all these scientific geniuses who knew all about celluloid and the kinetograph but had no idea what to put on camera, and so they chose exuberant subjects—dancers, acrobats, actors, sharpshooters, Indians in warpaint, boxing cats, anything that moved and seemed fun. They admitted later that often they chose their subjects so that they could meet celebrities like Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and Little Egypt. Almost immediately some of their films faced censorship, notably the 1896 flick The Kiss. They ignored the censors, went on with their celebration of the new medium, and quickly established the exploitation elements that still exist today, most of them involved with sex and violence. The first filmmakers in France, England and Germany weren’t so lucky—they had to deal with the expectations of polite society. They had to deal with public scolds and gloomy influencers in the business of deciding what’s appropriate and decent and healthy, especially what’s appropriate and decent and healthy for you. The other guy. The guy over there who doesn’t take this stuff seriously enough.

It was an exuberant time, a time when the American ideal said that every man was his own unique symphony, and it lasted more than a century. And then we decided that too many people were taking advantage of that freedom. We needed some deciders and influencers. We needed to clean up our act. We decided to become more and more like Europe.

So to the Finland Station. Good luck with that.

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