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april 2004

Media realities


by Hans Durrer
Next Right: During the siege of Sarajevo in 1993, writer Susan Sontag went to the city to set the stage for Becket's "Waiting for Godot"

One rarely happens to be where world news, and sometimes history, is made. Yet, in such a situation I found myself in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. I was sitting with a friend in a pizzeria when our waiter, an Italian, all of a sudden and totally excited, shouted: "Mauer auf, Mauer auf" — "Wall open, wall open." Being Swiss, and therefore not given to a spontaneous overflow of feelings, I calmly explained to my German friend that such a thing was not possible and that we should better stay and finish our meal. Only later, when the place was deserted and we were the only ones left, did my friend and I decide that maybe the waiter, despite being Italian and thus, most likely, given to wild exaggerations, might have been right and the wall had indeed been opened.

  When we eventually arrived at one of the border crossings, it was four o'clock in the morning and, except for an occasional Easterner heading across, not much was going on anymore. In the nearby bars, however, emotions were running high — I remember men trembling and shaking, and with tears in their eyes. Impossible, not to be moved. The next day, the Easterners queued to get their 100 German mark "welcome money," they queued for bananas — quite obviously a rarity in the East — and the queued to get into the sex shops.
  Such was, roughly, my experience of the wall coming down. I did, however, see one more wall coming down: this time on television. It was recorded live and, therefore, difficult to control — a young man from East-Berlin, strolling down the Kurfürstendamm in the Western part of town, was asked how he liked being in the free world? "It's the same as in the East," he replied, "West-German marks will buy you everything." Watching it happen on television, I had a feeling of excitement and fun, like being at a really good party. It certainly was very different from what I had felt the night before — then it had seemed somewhat incomprehensibly unreal whereas now, on television, I had the strange sensation that this was more real than what I myself had experienced.
Next What do we actually know about what is presently going on in, say, Afghanistan, or in Iraq? I've asked myself that question the other day while comparing the news of three different TV-channels that all reported the same occurrence differently — I hadn't the least clue which version, if any, was right. Worse, I did not even know which one I should trust. I still don't. During the war in Bosnia, Susan Sontag went to Sarajevo to experience for herself what war is like. "We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is — and how normal it becomes. Can't understand, can't imagine. That's what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire and had the luck to elude the death that struck others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right."
  Of course, she's right. And it is hard to imagine somebody disagreeing with her, except for some — French, according to Sontag — intellectuals who — like Jean Baudrillard — claim "that images, simulated realities, are all that exists now," as she wrote in her essay "Looking at war." One surely wishes Monsieur Baudrillard a healthy toothache. Not all of us want to experience for ourselves what war is all about. I, for instance, have no desire at all to go to Baghdad and see for myself what is going on there.
  Which leaves me dependent on the media. It is not a feeling that I like. There are, after all, some journalists I know from my school days — hard to think of anyone who would like to depend his views of the world on the judgements of a former classmate. Most of what we know about the world, we know from the media. And despite us not having terrible confidence in these media, we nevertheless build our views of the world on them, the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann wrote.
Next What I know of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I know from various TV-stations, and from some online-magazines. This is what I remember: he hails from a village near Graz, Austria, where people are proud of him; when he visits Austria, he regularly asks after a former love called Maria; he was Mister Universe; he is a multi-millionaire; he married into the Kennedy-family; he gropes woman; he took a degree in economics; he surrounds himself with knowledgeable professionals; he should not be underestimated.
  So I have heard, and do in part believe it. Nevertheless, I'm amazed how largely unaffected by this media bombardment my views on Mister Schwarzenegger have remained — I continue to see in him what I used to see in him all along: an unusually ambitious man who has spent considerable time of his life in front of a mirror admiring his muscles. But, hold on, I almost forgot: Arnold Schwarzenegger is a movie-star, a Hollywood-star, and famous the world over for solving problems in no time at all. And that is, of course, what we all want our politicians to do.
  I know, I know, life is not a movie —too bad, isn't it? — and I do know that politics and Hollywood have not much in common either — I'm not so sure about that, though. Yet, given the choice between Hollywood and every day politics, the majority of Californians obviously prefer their movie-version to the real-politik from Sacramento — it is likely that even Governor Schwarzenegger won't change that.
  2004 © Hans Durrer / 2004 © Soundscapes