In this age of narrative wars, the 1976 Sidney Lumet classic film Network is still worth the price of streaming.
From memorable scenes and power-packed Oscar-winning performances that still play today (“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”) to an incisive script with insights only more poignant 45 years later, Network has matured into an icon. The mad prophet archetype is all the rage these days. Content creators big and small have discovered behaving just like Howard Beale will juice your ratings.
So, how was the original Howard Beale sold to the masses, anyway?
Enter Faye Dunaway, as TV executive, Diana:
“Diana: Howard Beale said what every American feels - that he’s tired of all the bull****. He’s articulating the popular rage. I want that show, Frank. I can turn it into the biggest smash on TV.
Frank: What? It’s a news show. It’s not your department.
Diana: I see Howard Beale as a latter-day prophet, a messianic figure, inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times.”
While Americans still remain glued to their now even bigger and better TV screens at home, the network linking together the small screens we carry with us everywhere every day has become much more powerful than any given TV network. Asked in 1999 if the Internet was “just a tool,” David Bowie remarked, “No it’s not. No. It’s an alien life form. Is there Life on Mars? Yes, it’s just landed here … it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”
Two decades more into this alien invasion, our traditional mediums have indeed been smashed dramatically, and though it may smack of Eastern mysticism (sorry, Tim James,) Howard Beale seems to have been reincarnated a thousand-fold.
From cable news hosts to bluecheck activists to Presidents to your disgruntled Uncle at the family Christmas party, “inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times” not only makes people feel powerful as they rage and mock the insanity of our changing world, it also sells!
I must admit I’ve played this mad prophet role. I didn’t do it for money (well, at least, not much money.) I did it for something much worse — misplaced ideals. My hope was to inspire some degree of integrity in politicians. You know, keep them accountable by appealing to their better angels.
What a damned fool I was. Not only has this approach failed, I seem to have made the problem worse, forgetting my own house while trying to correct the nation’s house. Why did I ever think calling out the speck in my brother’s eye would make the world a better place? I wonder now if I should be playing the political game at all.
Here’s the problem: the wellspring of human hypocrisy and sin never dries up. We’re all prone to the stuff, and politics only seems to encourage such vice. Hypocrisy might as well be a virtue for people whose practical goal is political power and distinction.
After all, politics is fundamentally force and fraud. The force need not be violent and the fraud need not be conscious, but they are elemental to political struggle. Just ask a politician about it the next time you have a private word with them.
But only in private.
Privately, they’ll be able to speak freely. Privately, they’re quite candid and charming. In fact, politicians are some of the most good-natured, trustworthy, and principled people I’ve ever met privately. And, I must say, it’s quite a sight to see politicians' private glee when they share their most creative fib or artful dodge, especially when they unironically believe their frauds serve some higher cause.
Of course, in the public eye, the vast majority of these politicians will avoid any discussion of dabbling in the political dark arts. That’s half the game — to publicly deny, deflect, and project what you’re actually up to privately. It’s a competitive game no doubt, but also cooperative, like table tennis. Imagine Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell standing at opposite sides of a tiny net but instead of slapping ping pong balls, they smack around scandals, slights, and all manner of accusations at one another.
In this game of political table tennis, you don’t have to prove yourself a saint to win the match. You need only convince enough people the other guy is a worse sinner. Prove he deserves a deeper circle of hell than you, and you’re that much closer to heaven. But here’s the catch — and how “inveighing against the hypocrisies” so often serves this corrupt game — the players must remember they’re all still sinners dining together in hell. Political ping pong wouldn’t have a ball to hit if the players didn’t have a shared hypocrisy. So here’s the rule: hate the players, not the game, and never get too close to heaven. The system needs a steady stream of hypocrisy and sin to work.
No surprise then that saints usually end up dead when they run up against politics. Public displays of integrity in service of a higher calling (rather than added accusations of hypocrisy in service of power) throw the whole political ping pong game out of whack. So, all the rulers of hell join together to fight back to save their hypocritical game, and the saints are martyred for their trouble — whether with a cup of hemlock, a swift blade of the executioner, or nails to a cross. At best, these saints’ sacrifices allow them to be born again and cast a tall shadow over the history of man’s corrupt nature.
Speaking of tall shadows, let us not forget that last and rarest class of politicians: great men. Great men are great because they learn to share their private glee publicly with a wink and a smile at their own political hypocrisy. They don’t upset the game like saints because they don’t claim to be saints. They wear their sins strategically on their sleeve as a sign of humility to the people all while using the same sins as in-group signaling to their fellow political players.
Accordingly, great men either build political games from the ground up, reset the board, or at least, set long-run trends of how the game is to be played. It is easy to admire such men for their skill and accomplishments, no doubt, but I suspect Lord Acton had it right when he wrote, “Great men are almost always bad men.”
Given this tour of the political game, let us now return back to the mad prophet pundits, to our thousand-fold Howard Beale’s writ large in this digital age.
What purpose does it serve for them to inveigh against the hypocrisies of our times given that hypocrisy is the mother’s milk of the political game? Do these madmen actually hold politicians accountable or are they simply adding fuel to an everlasting fire?
Though seemingly a worthwhile endeavor, calling out politicians for betraying principles they never held in the first place is twisting a rope of sand. Not only is this strategy ineffective, you also run the risk of being co-opted unwittingly into supporting a corrupt game and hurting yourself. Remember, Howard Beale was never really a messianic prophet but a man having a mental breakdown, one that was wickedly used to boost the ratings and bottom line of institutions he loathed. Similarly, your noble crusade can easily become just another ping pong ball batted about by elites in the latest manufactured news hubbub of the month.
Hypocrisy will either be a given politician’s undoing or his golden ticket to winning his own fallen kingdom. Sooner or later, some other hypocrite will beat him at his own game. It’s a never-ending cycle. Though it may seem tragic and self-defeating, this circulation of the elites will keep winning the day. Even if we all lose, I suppose somebody has to end up in first place.
Yet, have hope, my fellow Americans! As tragic as the world may seem, this is not a meaningless world. Far from it! There is much work for us to do. There are many other roles for us to play than that of the mad prophet, the political player, the saint, or the great man. Everyday people need not take part in this corrupt political game. The salt of the earth need not lose its taste. This is good news.
After all, is the political game one most of us want to play in the first place? When did power struggles over this profane world become a replacement for the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful? A replacement for the pursuit of our individual happiness? For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?
My suggestion — and I say this looking in the mirror at the plank in my own eye — turn off the screens big and small enough to remember what’s real and enduring. These screens are not windows to the world, but filters full of sound and fury meant to distract you from the world to support or damn certain narratives. Steer clear of the banal struggle for power on this side of Eden. Do not believe the lie that your happiness must be a function of these hypocrites’ political games. The elites need you more than you need them.
Instead of damning their lies, speak the truth you know. Instead of tearing down their halls of power, build a faith and love over your own household’s door. Instead of skewering their hypocrisy, embody the virtues and integrity you wish to see.
And as a wise local pastor once told me, “If you want to change the world for the better, invite your neighbor over for dinner, share a meal, and bear witness to their life.”
And if you must keep the TV screen on, may I suggest watching a movie together? I hear Network is worth your time.
Joey Clark is a native Alabamian and currently the host of the radio program News and Views on News Talk 93.1 FM WACV out of Montgomery, AL M-F 9am-12noon. To contact Joey for media or speaking appearances as well as any feedback please email email@example.com . The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].