What is the price of watching?

Michael Herr was not embedded. In his magnificent account of the Vietnam War, Dispatches, one of the great books of our time, Herr sees himself as one of the grunts. He shares their dangers, fears and daily miseries of an impossible life. They give him their helmets and flak jackets, find him mattresses to sleep on. “You’re all right, man,” they say. “You got balls.” 

One day while they watch a jeep filled with correspondents drive away, Herr hears a soldier say, “I hope they die.” Herr was not their brother and, in another passage, explains why. He hears a young soldier dismiss the domino theory and other government rationales for the war by saying, “We’re here to kill gooks. Period.” “Wasn’t at all true of me,” Herr thinks. “I was there to watch.”

What is the price of watching? 

Jonathan Kozol, a Harvard graduate, concerned about the inequities of American life and of our pervasive racism, goes into a Boston ghetto to teach school – see how he can help – and writes a book about his experience, Death at an Early Age, to draw America’s attention to what an unequal society ignores. The book is powerful, a right and righteous indictment, but it does not change things, although it does open doors for Kozol. At cocktail parties years later, people who have had one drink too many sidle up to Kozol and whisper, how does it feel to have made a killing off those kids?

John Berger, a Marxist who despaired of a human society under capitalism, leaves London for a peasant village in the French Alps that the modern world is fast disappearing. His trilogy calling attention to the plight of the peasants and the humane way in which they live is moving, heart-wrenching, powerful if not uplifting, but Berger receives the same judgment Kozol does and Herr gives himself. At a discussion of his writing, a man in the audience asks, how does it feel to make a living off those whose living you could not change? 

Herr, Kozol and Berger can stand back, leave, choose not to be where they are. Those they write about can’t.

The stories we hear from the relative at the funeral, the guy at a bar or a friend over coffee at the diner are different. The relative passes along what has come down to her mouth to mouth for generations. The guy tells us about a journey he has taken, a place we have not been. The friend explains what happened down the street yesterday. What gives their stories weight is experience. They have been there. 

Those on CNN have not. They go to where the news is, tell us what they see, watch, as Herr characterizes it. They bring us news we would not know otherwise, but is this the same as experience? Or, to put it more precisely, how does this news became part of our experience?

News is information, not experience. “The value of information,” Walter Benjamin writes, “does not survive the moment it was new. It lives only at that moment.” Think of Anna Nicole Smith. Think of Imus. Think of....Tomorrow’s news wipes today’s from memory. Its intent, Benjamin argues further, is “to isolate what happens from the realm in which it could affect the experience of the reader. The principles of journalistic information (freshness of the news, brevity, comprehensibility, and, above all, lack of connection between the individual news items) contribute as much to this as does the make-up of the pages and the paper’s style.”

I expect to be challenged here, and what I have written I see as much a challenge to myself. We need to know what is going on in the world as much as we need to know what is happening down the block. I would not have mentioned Herr, Kozol and Berger if they were not vital to me. But we need to know the limits of our understanding. Those who tell us what they see have an obligation to those they see, and how they assume that obligation is a measure of how much we trust them. Soldiers, Herr comments, “would ask you with an emotion whose intensity would shock you to please tell it, because they really did have the feeling that it wasn’t being told for them, that they were going through all this and that somehow no one back in the World knew about it.” How to make someone’s experience part of someone else’s, not just information that inevitably disappears in the next day’s news. 

Perhaps this article is no more than a plea to return the importance of the storyteller in our lives. “The storyteller,” Benjamin tells us, “joins the ranks of the teachers and sages.” He gives counsel.

That we understand. That we be understood. That it becomes experience.

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Volume 3, Issue 10, Posted 3:39 PM, 04.19.2007