It's impossible to adequately sum up any year, and 2002 is probably more difficult than most to grasp. Bursts of militaristic fervor bracketed the 12 months, which began in the terrible aftermath of 9/11 with the United States waging a fierce war in Afghanistan. Now, an even larger war against Iraq seems about to begin.
We can try to remember the nonstop avalanche of media that came between New Year's Day and late December, but most of it is forgettable — if we're lucky. This is a more or less constant problem in our lives as we avail ourselves of daily mass communications. Whether the medium is television, radio, print or the Internet, the vast majority of what passes before our eyes and gets into our ears is not worth remembering.
The end of a year lends itself to introspection and reminders of mortality. We don't have time to waste, and we may fear that we're wasting it anyway! An old TV Guide or a pile of yellowing newspapers is testimony to the brief shelf-life of media sizzle.
There's no doubt that the new media technologies have opened up fantastic possibilities — and appreciable disadvantages. For example, take e-mail. By now you probably find it hard to take. If your inbox is anything like mine, most of it is filled each day with advertisements and other stuff that just seems like clutter.
Sure, I want to learn what's happening in a lot of different places, and I'm often glad to hear from people whose names are unfamiliar. But during the past year alone, the level of out-and-out commercialism via e-mail has escalated so rapidly that the computer mode of communication now often seems more like a curse than a marvel.
As for television, the critique of TV as mostly junk is nothing new. Mad Magazine was making that point quite acutely back in the 1950s. Now we have a lot more channels — and, we assure ourselves, a great deal more sophistication. Oh, and did I mention the enhanced color and depth-of-field that High Definition television will soon confer on our great nation?
Despite the bright spots, TV viewing generally depletes much more than it gives. People want to feel connected and certainly want to be entertained. But having a large number of channels to choose from doesn't prevent the choices from remaining severely limited. And when imaginations can stretch no wider than what's been green-lighted by corporate sponsors, underwriters, and network executives, it's time to look elsewhere for the news reporting and creative artistry that can challenge and sustain us.
The numbing effects of corporatized media, it seems to me, fit in comfortably with the kind of militarism that runs through American society and gets unleashed periodically with yet another war blessed by the man in the bully pulpit at the White House. A culture accustomed to finding substantial meaning in TV commercials and an array of phony prime-time shows is unlikely to rouse itself to human connection and moral action when the nation's powers-that-be decide on yet another war. While a grisly reality prevails elsewhere, courtesy of the Pentagon, an air of unreality dominates countless living rooms. "Since no one seems to live on television," media critic Mark Crispin Miller has observed, "no one seems to die there."
It would be preferable to end the year on an upbeat note. But I don't know if I can do better than to recall the graffiti that the great Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano tells of seeing written on a wall: "Let's save pessimism for better times."
When journalists and artists take risks to do their work with integrity, the results can be energizing and inspiring. In contrast, the ultimate triumph of routine media is to make us feel anesthetized and encourage us to be passive (other than going out and buying things). Yet in the face of personal, political and social adversity, the habit of passivity is apt to be our frequent undoing.
As calendars cannot stop reminding us, change is constant. Sometimes it seems that only our awareness is static. But our perceptions, however unspoken, are also evolving. What we do with them remains to be seen.