Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Brian Williams on the Culture of the First Person

Brian Williams, NBC News anchor, was on Letterman's Late Show last night. They talked about a lot of things, principally the question of whether Letterman or his chief rival, Jay Leno, has more gravitas. That took a while, and it was quite funny; Letterman does a good Leno impression, and Williams has a decidedly non-newsy wit about him. But my fondness for David Letterman is not why I'm posting this.

News anchors are regularly asked--even expected--to decipher the zeitgeist, to assign a diagnosis to the current state of the culture. Their job is essentially to narrate the times we live in, and that requires a pressing problem. For Williams last night, that pressing problem is narcissism on a grand scale.

[I] still come back to this that says you're the star. It's about you. Listen to the commercials on all those channels and the message is all in the first person in ways we never ever used or would dream of in the time of say Mad Men, for a modern television reference. So I think it's that.

Admittedly, news anchors are notoriously nostalgic for more noble eras. The times they narrate are held up against older, seemingly better eras and found wanting. For Williams's predecessor, Tom Brokaw, that better era was during World War II, and he spoke in glowing terms to whoever would listen about "the Greatest Generation" who fought that war and recovered that economy. For Williams, it appears that era is the Camelot Age, when Kennedy was president and advertisers smoked and drank in their office. (They don't do that anymore, right?)

Of course, no era is without flaw, and usually, in the light of history, those flaws are pretty obvious. The Greatest Generation locked Japanese Americans (and others of Asian heritage) in internment camps; the Kennedy years were marked with racial violence. And those are just off the top of my head. No disrespect to either gilded age, but they both have their share of tarnish to contend with.

Nevertheless, the narcissism epidemic facing the current culture is well documented, far beyond my own Deliver Us from Me-Ville. I'm not sure it's the bogeyman Williams makes it out to be, but Me-Ville has a strong gravitational pull, one that in and of ourselves we don't have the strength to surmount. Fortunately, we're not left to languish in our self-absorption. In Christ God enters the culture of the first person and draws people to himself. Maybe Brian Williams and the rest of us, the next time we're tempted to look back, should spend a little more time looking up.

Uber-pious, I know. But I couldn't resist.

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