Alms for The Love Of Gore

Russell Baker

August 21, 1991|By Russell Baker

New York -- We are watching wholesale butchery being committed by Grant and Lee on public television: corpses stacked like winter's woodpiles. Doctors sawing off shattered arms, legs. It is great television. It is the kind of television you get only on public television.

Abruptly, the slaughter halts so tireless beggars can tell us so -- "This is the kind of television you get only on public television" -- while browbeating us with demands for money until we sob for mercy.

"This is the kind of television you get only on public television, you deadbeats," they say, and say, and say, and say. "So make your pledge right now by --"

No, they never say "you deadbeats" aloud, but the accusation is thunderous in their warnings that we can easily be deprived of shows like this history of a nation's self-hatred. Their manner owes a lot to 1940s Hollywood evil-Nazi movies. "So you are surprised, eh, that the good folk of public television have ways of making you pay?"

Do we want to be left with nothing -- nothing at all! -- but Roseanne Barr, Bill Cosby and Nickelodeon reruns of "Mister Ed"?

"Well, that's what you're in for, you deadbeats, unless you pick up the phone this instant and make your pledge to send money pronto, so we can continue bringing you great television like these stacked corpses and piles of junked human legs."

In the viewing room we silently hate the tirelessness of these tireless beggars. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes -- still their smiles try to tell us they are our friends, even as they subject us to the death of the thousand cuts.

Just when we are taking air to scream, "This is terrible television!" they leave. The majestic flow of gore resumes. In the viewing room someone says, "This is great television."

"Great television," someone echoes. "Lorena" is heard on the sound track for the hundred-and-umpteenth time. Sweet, melodic, poignant "Lorena." They don't write 'em like that anymore. If the Civil War were held today "Lorena" would have to be a rap number, and nobody would be able to sing it, or even hum it, including probably the recording artist, who would probably have to lip-synch it on the USO tour.

"This is great television," someone murmurs while we are looking at a photograph of poor doomed Lincoln. They don't make 'em like Lincoln anymore. If Lincoln were president today he'd have his speeches ghostwritten, or at least edited by market analysts who know what the people want to hear.

"Come on now, Mr. Lincoln, you know you can't say 'the better angels of our nature' without offending every religious group in -- the Union that denies the existence of angels. As for 'mystic chords of memory,' it'll make you sound like those guys in sheets who panhandle people in airports."

There's Shelby Foote again! Everybody sits up alertly for Shelby Foote, even the woman on the sofa who falls asleep every time they play "Ashoken Farewell," which is practically all the time they are not playing "Lorena." People have chided her about this. "You're missing great television," they tell her.

She merely smiles the enigmatic Mona Lisa smile of a woman harboring the deliciously secret knowledge that she will never have to take another sleeping pill as long as "Ashoken Farewell" exists.

She awakes, though, for Shelby Foote. In the room you can feel a powerful impulse to call him "the great Shelby Foote," but nobody succumbs to this coarseness. Veteran televiewers all, we realize that Shelby Foote is such an elegant new ornament to the tube that it might destroy him to be branded with show business' favorite adjective for the ordinary: "great."

Another series of slaughters begins: Fredericksburg. Chancellorsville. Fields covered with putrid bodies. Is this really the kind of equality feminists want when they say it's sexist and discriminatory to deny women a crack at combat? A cowardly male sexist swine starts to frame the question for the feminist on the sofa, but "Ashoken Farewell" has started up again, bringing its blissful slumber. Until --

"Wake up, everybody! This is great television, the kind of television you get only on public television, so pick up your phone and pledge . . ."

Thus we struggled once; thus we struggle now.

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