I wrote this nearly five years ago. I was mad then; now I’m more or less just resigned. The intellectual commons is being fenced off, now more than ever. I think we’re losing more than outlets for creativity or profit; we’re losing the shared language to remember who we were, who we are.
Recently I’ve come to feel under assault. Not in my person but in my past.
One of the guilty pleasures of my childhood was a TV show called The Greatest American Hero, which I adored when I was twelve. For those not fully up on their Reagan-era television trivia, the show involved an ordinary guy — a school teacher, in fact — who was given a “supersuit” by friendly aliens in a Close Encounters-type flying saucer. The suit, a ridiculous set of red long underwear, empowered Ralph the teacher with powers reminiscent of Superman: flying, strength, immunity to bullets. But unlike cool and collected Clark Kent, Ralph Hinckley has all the usual foibles of humanity: he can be frightened, angered, made jealous. Moreover, he loses the instruction book and has to figure out the suit on his own.
In my memory there has always stuck out one particular episode, called “Operation: Spoilsport“. (I have since learned the title; at the time, I was not the type who appreciated the importance of titles to works.) It marks the return of the “little green guys“, who warn Ralph and his FBI partner Bill about the impending destruction of the Earth. Probably to make the aliens seem mysterious and transcendent, the writers decided that they could speak to Ralph only by adjusting the car radio so as to catch little snippets of regular broadcasts that, put together, made up the message. Even at the time this struck me as a clever trick to make the aliens sound, well, alien.
Here’s where the assault comes in. To bring home their point — to underscore the stakes — the aliens keep sending Ralph the same song over and over. From 1982 until recently, I had thought that the song was “Eve of Destruction“, a song by P.F. Sloan that Barry McGuire took to a place on the Billboard charts in 1965. I was 12. I hadn’t even paid attention to 1960s music. The Viet Nam War was, at best, the source for action movies like First Blood. I knew about Red China but I almost certainly didn’t know why Sloan would compare it to Selma, Alabama. In short, the song should have been, to me, a jumble of confused rage directed at outdated cultural references that had no meaning for me.
I was only 12. But it was 1982, two years into the Reagan presidency. Six months earlier the President had nakedly called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and made undiluted opposition the cornerstone of his foreign policy. The New York Daily News had published its periodic map of the city, showing the hypothetical effect of the latest Soviet warhead if it were to be detonated above the Empire State Building — cryptic squiggles and broadly-drawn circles whose radii indicated just how far away you had to be to escape each of the various killing zones: the immediate blast region and the flash-immolation zone and the merely concussive damage area. Everyone simply knew that World War III was on its way, that it would start with a Soviet invasion of West Germany, and that it would end with, well, The End, capital “T”, capital “E”.
Small wonder, then, that I found myself morbidly drawn to this song with its rough-hewn, unworkable, unrelenting refrain: “Tell me, over and over and over again, my friend, how you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction”. Small wonder, perhaps, that I found comfort in the thought that maybe, out there somewhere, was an ordinary high school teacher in a ridiculous suit of red long underwear who could step in and save the world.
Time passed. The Soviets never came over the North Pole, or from Cuba, or even from East Germany. Reagan went Reykjavik and then to Berlin (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!“). I went to high school and then to college and then to grad school. The Greatest American Hero went to reruns and then to syndication hell and then to oblivion. Everybody forgot that at one time everybody had known that World War III was imminent. There was peace, for a time, and there was prosperity, for a time, and there was security … for a time.
Then they were gone, and everyone — whether they knew it or not — was humming the refrain from Barry McGuire. I found myself doing it consciously from time to time. I took some obscure hope in remembering how eerily prophetic it had seemed in 1982 and in how its prophecy had utterly failed to come to pass. From my more nuanced vantage I knew now that McGuire was singing more of the raging undercurrents of hate and mistrust that spawned the violence of the Sixties, and I even recognized that that river still ran strong and deep in human affairs. But it was a piece of my youth, one of those signposts along the way toward maturity. “Eve of Destruction” had been, through the medium of The Greatest American Hero, part of the soundtrack of my growth from the simplicity of childhood toward the complexity and shades of adulthood.
Or so I had thought, for two decades and more.
Eventually, Anchor Bay Entertainment released, after many delays, the DVD set of the second season of The Greatest American Hero. Episode #2 was “Operation: Spoilsport”. I opened the box and jumped to that episode immediately. I reveled in the guilty pleasure of being a twelve-year-old proto-geek again. It was everything I remembered — until the end of the second act. The little green guys returned, they futzed with Ralph’s radio, and out came… some random manufactured pop hit. Where was Barry McGuire’s gravelly rage? I rationalized that I had misremembered. After all, there were several instances in this episode when they sent Ralph a song. Probably the writers had built up to “Eve of Destruction” and then I, struck by its power, had expanded it to fill the episode in retrospect.
Three more acts came and went. Three more quasi-pop songs too upbeat for their faux angst. No Barry McGuire. No “Eve of Destruction”. It was the final act and there was only one more opportunity for the green guys, and now it wouldn’t even make sense — the crisis was past. Suddenly, the end credits rolled. I wondered if I was crazy. Before playing the disc, I would have sworn in a court of law on a stack of Bibles that the key song from “Operation: Spoilsport” was “Eve of Destruction”. Had I gotten my wires crossed? Perhaps somewhere in the past twenty years I had come across “Eve of Destruction” and subconsciously recognized its appropriateness, then pasted it retroactively into my memory of “Operation: Spoilsport”. If the human mind was so malleable, if I could unknowingly alter my memories so thoroughly — well, the world was suddenly a much scarier place, and not just because of Soviet nukes.
Before checking myself into a mental hospital, I did a little bit of research. Only a few minutes online brought me some confirmation of my sanity. If I had invented the insertion of “Eve of Destruction”, at least I was not alone in my delusion, because several different message boards were aflame with people indignant over its removal. The true story was simple and, a propos for the times, more base: money.
The Greatest American Hero, it turns out, was ahead of its time a little in that it incorporated “regular” music deeply into the storylines — a tactic used to more lasting impact on Miami Vice a few years later. Because it was a pioneer, the show’s creators never thought to secure reproduction rights for home collections. In 1982, nobody could buy an entire season of a TV show and certainly nobody thought anybody would if offered the chance. Everybody “knew” that when a series ended, its appeal vanished and its money-making chances went as well. Just like everybody “knew” that World War III was just around the corner. Today of course the home market represents the lion’s share of revenue for a project and no one would forget to purchase those rights.
Anchor Bay faced two options: Pay for all the songs again and raise the price (and cut their profit margin). Or splice in generic songs to which they had the rights, and hope nobody would notice. Judging from the vitriol flowing online, they made the wrong call. And I have to admit, I share the anger. Quite some time has past since I discovered the substitution, and it still rankles me. I’ve been trying to figure out why. After all, it’s just a TV show and — I have to admit — not really the best one, either. It’s campy and goofy; the situations ludicrous and the characters cardboard. While I’ve always had a soft spot for The Greatest American Hero, I’ve never considered it my favorite show nor even among the best. Why would it inspire a slow-burning anger at its modification.
But of course it’s not the modification of the show that inspires the anger. It’s the mutilation of my memory. Precisely because the writers had woven the music into their story, it couldn’t be simply spliced out. A purpose of art is to evoke change and response, and clearly, that episode had attained that purpose, at least for me. “Eve of Destruction”, learned by me in that particular context, had played a part in the formation of the adult me, of who I became, of who I am. Now it had been callously and carelessly removed, edited out in a creepily Soviet fashion. My memories, my past, were not out of bounds, it would seem.
The whole affair has given me a better insight into a different work of literature. Without any intention by Anchor Bay, they gave me just a taste of Winston’s life in 1984. Big Brother wasn’t out to rule the world, here, but Big Brother Incorporated didn’t mind trashing the past to make a quick buck. What’s more, there seems to be a growing use of and a growing acceptance of this sort of media revisionism. We are losing any idea of a shared cultural base. The cultural commons are being carved up and fenced in. But a person’s identity is myriad and shared, and cutting up the commons means carving up ourselves. Soon we could just be atomistic stubs bouncing off the walls we erect between us.
Think on that and then tell me again, my friend, if you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.