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The XX Files 11.09.05

Picture this


Laughter pours from the studio audience at the comic actors' antics. A moment later, the studio audience is silent and here at home; we're the ones who are laughing. That's because here at home, we can see things neither the actors nor the studio audience can. We're watching Drew Carey's Green Screen Show, which marries Whose Line Is It Anyway-style improvisation with loose, outrageous animation that is added later. So when, in a skit, the studio audience sees a squatting man pretending to milk a bull, we at home also see a three-legged stool under him and a cartoony bull standing nearby. The studio audience watches actors miming a jungle safari, but we see the drawn-in pith helmets, dense foliage, and weird animals.

A recent skit had two audience members providing sound effects for a scene in a shooting gallery. The actors, pretending to hold weapons, were discussing how loud and powerful the guns were. Instead of making big bangs with each shot, however, the audience member in charge of gunshot sounds was driving the actors crazy with his wind-blowing noises and cuckoo-clock imitation. Every time this happened, the "gun" --- animated to appear in the actor's hand --- morphed from a massive weapon into a water pistol or an ornate wooden cuckoo clock.

Although this scene would have been funny without the animation --- and, in fact, the studio audience was laughing throughout --- the addition of the animated props added to and underscored the hilarity. The animation enriched the action, adding context and, because the animators are as sick as the actors, another layer of humor that only we could see. Part of the pleasure of watching The Green Screen Showis knowing that we're seeing something the actors can't. We know they are being acted upon by a much larger force and are just small players in the bigger scheme of things.

Lately it's felt a lot like that here in America, and not in a good way. Outside the entertaining confines of a television show, the green-screen concept is not so hilarious. For example, a small troupe of actors performing for an isolated studio audience is running the country, even as we, the citizen viewers at home, watch the green screen of reality. That is, the Bush White House contains both the actors and the studio audience --- a small group of isolates who listen and respond only to each other. They can't or don't want to see the reality we are living: the truth about the economy, the hurricane victims (many of whom are still struggling), and the importance of joining the world community in legislating against global warming and the torture of prisoners.

While the desperation wrought by Katrina raged on the green screen, Michael Brown, hired as an actor to play FEMA director, saw not the nation's worst natural disaster, but an audience for his vanity. In emails from that time, he strutted his recent Nordstrom purchases and wondered if he should wear a tie or not. (No shit. Look it up.) Here at home we watched the bigger picture, which threw into stark relief the difference between the people dithering on stage and reality. People were dying.

If you think about it, you can almost sympathize when you consider some of the outrageous stances Bush and his advisors have taken on topics like global warming and torture. Poor things are so cut off from reality that they don't share America's horror about the documented abuses at Abu Ghraib and the suspected ones at GuantanamoBay. In the echo chamber of the administration's isolated soundstage, idle talk about what the terrorists really deserve becomes policy and the Constitution goes out the window. Most recently, Bush vowed to veto any bill that contains the provision, passed by the Senate (90-9) last month, requiring troops to bar "cruel, inhumane, and degrading" treatment of prisoners in US custody.

And now, with new revelations about "Soviet-era compounds in Eastern Europe," where top al Qaeda suspects are being held, we have new concerns. How long will they be held? How are they being treated? National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley reassures us that US agents will treat the prisoners "in a way that is consistent with our values and principles." We have to wonder: whose values and principles?

It's no secret that at times the government has tried to co-opt the green screen and use it toward its own ends. Sometimes it didn't work --- the staged visits to the storm-struck South were quickly decried as photo ops. And sometimes it did --- the Mission Accomplished speech and the panicky terror alerts in the buildup to the 2004 election struck a national chord. As much as I love to blame Bush for everything, I realize he's on the way out and I have to find fault elsewhere.

In this case, we all share some of the blame. Magical thinking has caused the green-screenification of America. We bought into the Mission Accomplished hooey even as the number of war dead rose, because we all believe in happy endings. We bought into the multiple terror alerts and reelected Bush, because it's easier to be scared than to be smart.

Don't deny it: you have a pretty backdrop that you put behind anything you don't know or care about. We all do it. In order to visit New Orleans back in the day and drink ourselves silly, we had to green-screen the whole damn place. Anyone who bothered to look out the limo window on the way in from the airport knew it was brimming with desperately poor people. After 9/11 and then again after Katrina we cried, "How could this happen in America?" As long as we keep looking inward and screen out the truths, it can and will happen again.