Here's a little story, written while tropical storm Lee promised to rejuvenate the drying carcasses of local television careers with the promise of another April 27—that “unprecedented development” that keeps developing unprecedentedly. It ends with how the meanest hick can grow up to wear bowties on television and how people named “Cleetus” employ him. It begins with Iowa peasants gaping at their televisions.
Midwesterners in the late '60s were enraptured by a recent technological wonder known as the Weller Method. You had to warm the television up to channel 13, darken the screen with the knob, then turn to channel 2 for a dazzling feat of human ingenuity: the screen would suddenly glow white, and there, in the mouth of an electromagnetic god in Cletus’ own kitchen where granny skinned marsupials on Sundays, a man could predict tornadoes by assuming one was within 20 miles of yonder. It was believed that channel 2, at 55 megacycles, was sensitive enough to detect lightning in tornadoes; this obviously made it Truth and was therefore superior to granny’s superstitious wallop of feeling “shooting corns, coming storms” in her bloated varices.
Weller’s method had circuitry. You could be modern using words like “frequency” and “megacycles” when referring to your share of That Scientific Method because your little piece of Industrial Progress had an antenna, F connectors, and aerial plugs with electrons zooming through a cathode tube.
Never mind that tornadoes don’t always yield lightning or that some televisions actually had filters weeding out signals. Never mind that granny could easily thwart the growing hysteria with a knuckle—no, the entire Cletus household had to run like chickens because the television said so.
This is why half a century later, with the Facebooks and the Twitters and all the little Birmingham articles praising the “most advanced communications web” in the world, you still found yourself caught in a storm because you thought it was “only raining” until that piece of insulation splattered on your windshield.
This is what happened to a lot of us on April 27, 2011.
We’re like Cletus drunk on Technology and the Cult of Personality— a dangerous hybrid ripe for doing stupid things because we believe people on television are actual people, and now that loveable but stupid weatherman has cried wolf on storms so long that a tornado has snuck up on your lawn.
Why? Because we love that fuzzy-wuzzy Mickey Ferguson, he who makes weather cute and user-friendly with his bowtie. We loved watching James Spann shrieking out tornado warnings—never mind that millions had no power. We loved the science of it all, with him on his MacBook juggling video from Skywatchers while, like a good housewife, simultaneously tending a million Tweets. But when Skycam zoomed in on the giant funnel eating Tuscaloosa, the light caught on spittle foaming on Spann’s lip. Cletus could never appreciate what this man actually said at that moment when the blackened wind loomed darkest on the screen: that this was a “once-in-a-career” phenomenon.
It was a moment plucked from Dickens, glossed with a mucus of subterfuge and clammy hands wringing in anticipation. While homes were being destroyed, this weatherman was frothing over its significance to his career. He’s like the yenta delighting in the transport of a little piece of gossip.
Christopher Lasch, an American historian, wrote of the “public men” that our society markets like cereal and deodorant: “Public men fret about their ability to rise to crisis, to project an image of decisiveness, to give a convincing performance of executive power . . . Public relations and propaganda have exalted the image and the pseudoevent”- Changing Modes and Making It
The token symbols for that pseudoevent are Crayola-coded “terror alerts” and sleeves rolled up to the elbows, like all the weatherboys wear after pulling 5 hours on a cut-in, and people like that need people like Cletus to keep them in sleeves.
If Cletus were alive today you’d find his little cowlick in the crowd of thousands stalking Ferguson on Twitter.
So keep in mind that these ‘scientists’ are performers, under-educated peons who in Spanish broadcasts actually report the weather in stilettos bracing a swollen décolletage of eye candy (in Russia it’s an actual striptease), actors pantomiming the ancient noise of commerce, malcontents unworthy of the hosannas scribbled out for them in local papers.
Man prides himself in not being the earth’s cuckold, delighting in his secular ability for words like ‘networking’, ‘megabyte’, and ‘tweet’; he will mutate the last quark in the universe if it meant putting that much distance between himself and a savage divining gods in excrement and that much moral height above granny’s corns, yet he’s still the peddler he’s always been selling beads in Rome.
Is it any wonder, then, that another one of American’s sweethearts, Mr. Lewis Black, states the definition of ‘meteorologist” in the English language means “liar”?