Norma Rae: The Sequel
A lot of commenters got upset with me over my last post, in which I made the case that Conan O’Brien has become the nation’s most unlikely poster boy for the disillusioned and dispossessed, a modern day Norma Rae. At the end of the post, I took people to task for going to rallies in support of Conan, and suggested that if they want to expend their political energies on something, there are probably better causes. People made the valid point, albeit usually amended with the word “douchebag,” that just because they support Conan doesn’t mean they don’t also do worthwhile things with their time, like donate kidneys or adopt other people.
Fair enough, and they’re right. Of course the two things aren’t mutually exclusive, and I could have chosen my words more carefully. But I was attempting to express a general frustration I’ve had with the situation that I couldn’t quite articulate; after many people made the point that the rallies were meant to be satirical, though, I kind of clarified for myself the reason I’ve been feeling so frustrated.
For satire to be effective it has to be parodying something. In the case of these rallies, ultimately what they were protesting was futility. Of course they didn’t expect the rallies to change NBC’s mind, didn’t expect them to result in Conan retaining “The Tonight Show” because most people feel like protest never changes anything. Instead the end result was exactly what they expected: absurdity. It was silly street theater for the sake of silliness, which as somebody who has spent his whole career making stupid shit, I am all in favor of. But to me it spoke to something much deeper and much sadder. Consciously or not, to me what these rallies were really about was the very real powerlessness many people feel about creating change in anything. Consequently, I think what I feel frustrated about is cynicism masquerading as activism.
My argument isn’t with Conan. I said in my last post I think he’s great. Nor is it with the sincere appreciation his fans have for him. My problem is with hopelessness, of which there seems to be an abundance of lately, and which manifested itself as a rallying cry for a late night talk show host. What’s frustrating is that Conan came to represent this hopelessness when he’s somebody who is as far from hopeless as could be imagined.
Many of you said I was over-thinking this. I probably am. But it’s because I’ve been trying to figure out why people are so up in arms about something so trivial as “The Tonight Show.” Thirty years ago people could rally behind a fictional figure like Norma Rae because she represented a situation in which millions of people found themselves. Who does Conan really represent besides Conan? To me he’s an odd hero, a strangely poignant cultural figure at a time when the culture is so profoundly fucked up.
And yes, I’ll shut up now.