The obituaries for John B. Keane, the Irish novelist and playwright, cited a piece of advice about the writing life that he passed on to his nephew. “Don’t mind the big fellows,” Keane said. “They can look out for themselves. Listen out for the small man. He’ll tell you the truth.”
Fine words there, and presumably his nephew, a reporter for the British Broadcasting Corporation, has taken them to heart. Of course, had Keane been born and reared on an island 3,000 miles to the west of his home in County Kerry, he might have been inclined to tell his nephew: “Pay great heed to the big fellows, regardless of their gender. They look out for themselves and themselves alone-a quality you will learn to celebrate if you are to become a big writing person on this island. Write books and television shows and slick magazine articles about them, and tell the world how great it is to be great. And whatever you do, don’t bother with the small man, particularly if he is a man. He’ll tell you things that will be of no use to you on the cocktail-and-benefit circuit. So don’t be a putz.”
On Sept. 11, we supposedly came to our senses and realized that the great people celebrated in our entertainment and media culture are, in fact, astonishingly shallow folks who have nothing to say and no shortage of spare time in which to say it. As this is being written, there is chatter in some newspapers (pause here for throat clearing) about an upcoming television show featuring the cretins of the Hamptons. It’s scheduled to air sometime between my deadline and the time you read this, but I think I can safely predict that due to scheduling conflicts (appointment with proctologist, weekend dental-flossing, half-off sale at local beer distributor, and role as the designated mourner at a local politician’s wake), I will be unable to see it.
There is one reason, and one reason only, why a major broadcasting network would devote formerly precious air time to a film about a vacation resort inhabited by vapid New York celebrities. That reason has nothing to do with popular demand and everything to do with the self-absorption of those odious few who lose their well-developed sense of irony when discussion turns to their power and sense of entitlement. They are few indeed, but they decide what gets on television, which is why you see television shows about television shows, and television shows about nothing, and television shows that spoof other television shows. This is the sort of fare that amuses the vaunted power elite.
“Listen out for the small man. He’ll tell you the truth.” That, of course, is the problem. Who wants to hear the truth when there are parties to commemorate and access to be gained? Besides, what is truth, anyway?
It was pretty dumb, I suppose, to believe-as I did-that the real-life heroism of Sept. 11 had opened a few celebrated minds, small though they may be, and would inspire a change in the media and entertainment cultures. The famous and the frivolous would find the world a more skeptical place, while society’s genuine heroes would be accorded something other than disdain. Perhaps the images that invade my living room from time to time -of apparently well-off adults sitting around a television studio and analyzing the lives, loves and clothing of alleged celebrities-would disappear, if only out of a renewed and welcome sense of shame.
Very little of this has happened, which shows only how naïve I was and how wise most of my firefighter friends are. They didn’t buy their new status as America’s heroes. They knew, and told me over and again, that their cultural moment would last only until the media discovered the next hot actress or celebrity divorce, after which the television crews would abandon the firehouse kitchen for more familiar haunts.
“Listen out for the small man.” Maybe out in County Kerry, but not in the counties of Suffolk or New York. The small man and the diminutive woman are to be seen at the tables of consumption, where they are expected to do the right thing to keep the rich rich, but they are never to be heard. They have these really bad accents, you see, and they’re very scary-looking. And they have this annoying habit of telling the truth.
No, it’s a good thing John B. Keane didn’t live in New York. He’d have spent his life writing plays and novels about the small man, and nobody on the island would have listened to him. Plays and novels about the small man who tells the truth? Really, John. Get in the game.