Bad ideas grow in strange gardens

Boing Boing does many things reliably in its cataloging of “wonderful things”. Its five contributors give us a window on pictures of weird shit someone put up on flickr, thrilled fawnings at repetitive science fiction, customer service gripes that bring down whole industries, and attempts to confabulate the programmability of your TiVo with freedom itself. Its well-scrubbed cast of peripatetic Californians have been into the things they’re into for quite a long time, and is made up of the kind of terminal self-actuating monad that cheerfully confuses the repeated gratification of vapid, secondhand obsessions with the more profound human curiosity that in other social conditions would lead to literature, philosophy or political action.

We check it roughly every 45 minutes anyway, jonesing for the next Victorian medical illustration, biographical factoid about some long-dead spacedork, or household gewgaw from somebody’s trove of midcentury populuxe cheese that makes Richard Neutra look like Mies. Reading Boing Boing is watching American online “culture” chew its cud and fart while blankly staring at a fence.

One of these contributors is don’t-ask-us-why nerd sex symbol Xeni Jardin, a presentable go-to commentator beloved of lazy segment producers, who call upon her to jazz up snoozy NPR and PBS offerings with her insider perspective and asymmetrical outfits. During some time off from target practice, Xeni recently found out about that nasty nasty Hugo Chavez and has been helping out those who are afraid of what mass literacy and justice might do to their privilege, passing along messages from university students who are furious at losing their primary source of imported reruns.

The decision in question here is the decision not to renew the broadcast license of RCTV, a private national network. RCTV, you may remember, was one of the most egregious of the private media that lied — not misled or spun, but deliberately set out to mislead the public — about events during anti-Chavez demonstrations that were part of the coup attempt in 2002. Thinking themselves victorious, coup plotters sitting around a coffee tablewent on RCTV the next day and gigglingly described their deception, complete with knowing winks at the camera; RCTV news director Andres Izarra was so disgusted he quit and ended up heading Telesur, a pan-South American satellite channel funded by Venezuela and other pariah states. (The shootings during the coup and Izarra’s description of his role in it can bee seen here, and the goofy post-coup talk show confessions at roughly 5:30 in here, from the stellar documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised which you should watch in its entirety. Llaguna Bridge: Anatomy of a Massacre takes a more detailed look at the shootings and is available in Spanish as one long video or in English chopped up into annoying bits here. No caveats of bias need apply as documentaries, as all four of our readers surely know, are entirely true and free of absurd conjecture or deliberate silliness.)

Now after the failed coup nothing much happened; the coup plotters’ case was bounced around the courts. Under a telecommunications law passed in 1987, broadcast licensing came under the authority of CONATEL, a telecommunications regulator controlled by the executive branch. RCTV’s 20-year licence came up for renewal in 2007, and the same source (a resolutely anti-Chavez newspaper, incidentally) asserts that the station’s core argument against closure is that another administrative procedure in 2002 amounted to an extension of the 1987 license to 2022. The Committee to Protect Journalists delegation says that its principal problems with the non-renewal is the absence of a clear set of criteria and evaluative process, and other groups such as Human Rights Watch term their concern similarly. Their final report lists the primary complaints of opposition media, claiming that the government stifles the press by

blocking access to state-sponsored events, government buildings, and public institutions; by refusing to give statements to reporters working for private media; by withholding advertising; by denying access to public information; and by filing criminal defamation complaints

To put this in perspective, then: RCTV engineered an enormous public lie in the course of suborning an armed coup, and upon its non-renewal over four years later its main complaints are the government’s unwillingness to advertise with or return the phone calls of a station that doesn’t play very nice at all, and its principal claim to the airwaves is based on the degree of procedural thoroughness in denying it a license. When sedition laws weren’t on the books, the claim was that RCTV hadn’t broken the law by urging the overthrow of the elected government; now that they are, the claim is that such laws are undemocratic.

Not that anybody from RCTV has been put in jail, for sedition or even for defamation. In fact, the station is still free to transmit on satellite and cable — the license only applies to broadcasting over the airwaves on VHF channel 2. (Cable/satellite penetration rates for Venezuela, or information as to whether RCTV is already carried on alternate services, remain a mystery to us as people apparently stack some serious fucking chips collecting and selling that data. Eight bills per report or three large for site access? Makes TimesSelect look like a bargain.)

So into this situation steps Jardin, who uncritically passes along a reader-submitted piece describing RCTV’s exhibition of weepy theatrics before its shutdown. “Anonimo in Venezuela” knows which buttons to push to get through Boing Boing’s industrial-strength PR filters: “The world needs to know. Only you guys abroad can help us spread the word.” With such breathless exhortations, the commenter works the boingers’ pretentions to “citizen journalism” by implicitly characterizing RCTV as a kind of scrappy populist voice being drowned out by incipient dictatorship in a country the world forgot, instead of the vigorously defended franchise that brought Venezuela such crucial public services as ¿Quién quiere ser millonario?. Doing her correspondent one better, Jardin includes a link to a Reuters wire story including such reassuringly evenhanded assessments as “Since becoming president in 1999, Chavez has centralized power, politicizing the judiciary, military and oil industry.”

Subsequently, Jardin appended a second post with material from a dozen commenters that call attention to RCTV’s role in the 2002 coup, with three mentioning The Revolution Will Not Be Televised outright. Nearly all the commenters, however, fail to speak of any event that occurred before Chavez’ 1998 election. In this way, they perhaps unwittingly maintain the key narrative of Venezuela’s middle and upper classes — now rallying to the defense of a system under which they were rapidly dwindling away — that there were no politics before Chavez, that his “politicization” of the country’s political institutions was what set the polarization of the society in motion. Revealingly, the only pre-1998 event described is an awkward reference to Chavez’ role in an abortive 1992 coup, posing him as a kind of coup hobbyist: “So he’s also very into this subject, not just a poor victim.” We don’t like to hear the word “coup”, even when the target government does things like send the military on a rampage through the slums in response to food riots. The Venezuelan opposition is far better at tugging at our heartstrings than Chavez, who makes long speeches and wears funny shirts, and so has wrapped its coup attempts in a fuzzy blanket of “popular mobilization”, with each carefully managed demonstration a grant application to the National Democratic Institute and the Open Society Foundation.

Politics begins, as it were, when people start doing things you don’t like and they result in unhappiness among the wrong sectors of the population. When governments enact polarizing, impoverishing policies against the right people, however, politics is understood to not be present, to gracefully turn its head away from sad but necessary technical operations. We didn’t hear much about Venezuela’s “resource curse” when the right people were getting shot; now that Chavez is directing resource revenues at health and literacy and boosting the spending power of the lower classes, oil is proclaimed from middlebrow rooftops as a terrible trap (though Boing Boing collaborator Bruce Sterling seems to be clued in to the hustle). Before, educated Venezuelans looked down on RCTV and its parade of well-coiffed white people doing silly shit; now they sneer at its replacement’s display of uppity “negritos with tambores“.

On the occasion of yesterday’s Venezuela-related post (in the most recent one, found here, the jokes are getting lame and the tempest is confined to a teapot, so perhaps Jardin will be distracted by a shinier media object) we are treated to contributions from students who are clearly still tingling from the experience of their first riots (conflicts that are no more violent than those that typically accompany English soccer teams abroad — though come to think of it, that isn’t the most flattering comparison). One of these students tells us that “Things are gettin ugly” and asks readers to “Please keep an eye on us, dude.” Well homey, for most of your compatriots things got ugly a long time ago, and they were too dark and expendible to keep an eye on. But don’t worry: now that it’s your ox getting gored, Xeni’s on the case, with received opinions winging into her BlackBerry minute by minute.

The Boing Boing crew huff the vapors of their own self-creation, with Xeni Jardin’s willfully mysterious eponym merely the most glaring example. As a side effect they can barely evince interest in anything that happened before they fashioned their current persona, like university first-years who start calling themselves by their middle names and don’t want to talk about the dorks they were in high school. For the blog crowd, the angel of history roused from her sleep and lumbered into flight sometime when Macintoshes were still beige and the first trickles of venture capital started puddling in the deindustrialized wasteland between Market Street and San Francisco Bay, washing the brick warehouses clean. Anything that occurred before the boom that isn’t directly linked to computing or kitsch is mired in its own tangibility, lost in the dark and bloody warehouse of the past, so the “smart people” are out on the lawn chasing a gossamer future as it flits among the wildflowers. As such, their sympathies naturally lie with the relatively few Venezuelans who have escaped the surly bonds of a quest for food and dignity to write software. Even if it means giving in a bit to their lust for our attention, let’s keep an eye on them.

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One response to “Bad ideas grow in strange gardens

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