Against Yakkery

Against Yakkery


When did we become a nation of yakkers? Maybe it’s because I’m in Chicago, a more laconic city than New York, but the noise blasting from the East Coast, already amped by the primaries, seemed intolerable this week.

The Spitzer sex scandal turned the din of in-the-know chatter of the New York Times into a roar of blather. The Times started off the week with a cultural studies smear (Orlando Patterson’s silly op-ed expose of the supposedly hidden racist codes of Clinton’s ‘3 a.m.’ ad), then at mid-week, the Times scooped People magazine by interviewing ‘Kristen,’ the prostitute whom Spitzer paid, and rounded out the news cycle with inconsequential gossip parading as news about genocide scholar and former Barack Obama advisor Samantha Power’s love life (actually detailing the breakup of Power’s new companion with his previous partner).

This isn’t even to mention the ginned-up Ferraro story (Ferraro pilloried for making the same point about Obama’s appeal as an African-American male candidate that Gloria Steinem made on the Times op-ed page several months ago) and the usual stream of slanted coverage and inane conjecture about the Democratic candidates.

Beside this din, the Chicago Tribune seemed a model of circumspection and balance. This week it published a long interview with Obama on his ties with Tony Rezko (virtually uncovered in the Times, which recently referred to Rezoko as a “local contractor”), editorialized reasonably on its continuing disappointment with Obama’s lack of candor and habit of story-morphing, and dismissed the hoopla over Ferraro with the mild observation that if you’re from Cook County, you know that every candidate gets ahead using identity group appeal. Aha! You might say, Clinton supporters. Except that the Trib has endorsed Obama, which makes its composure all the more admirable—although there was a time when this was known simply as basic journalism.

What seems worse about this year’s talk? Is there more yakking because of the Internet? Are the numbers of know-it-alls out of control with the advent of blogs? Is the presidential campaign simply driving people mad? Are we that much more out of touch?

Once in a while, you drop out of the yakking. You notice there are other things happening. But they seem to be happening with the sound turned off, out of range of the yakkery.

One dispatch from the land of silence is last fall’s Iraq war film, In the Valley of Elah, which stars Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon. The studio counted on Jones to draw audiences, but the film fizzled. Watching it now on DVD, you can see why: it’s too slow and too long, visually dull, and doesn’t pretty up its mournfulness.

The plot itself is nothing special: the career Army son of a career Army father comes home on leave and goes AWOL. Jones, who plays the father, goes to the base to see what he can find about his son’s disappearance. Soon the soldier is found brutally murdered. The Army brass tries to cover up, but Jones is too stubborn to leave and stays to investigate. In the end, it turns out it was his buddies who killed him late one night when they were out on the town. Jacked up on too many drugs and too much booze and too many things that happened in Iraq, they were irritated by Jones’s son because he objected to their refusal to stop when they ran down a kid by mistake.

The movie inches along. Yet it is gripping in its depiction of the war as it laps up on the shores of American life. A returned veteran on the base drowns the family dog in the bathtub in front of his son; a few weeks later, he drowns his wife. The soldiers seem fine—cheerful, glad to be home, deferential to the grieving father—except they’re not fine at all, they’re psychotic. There’s no Hollywood set-dressing to please the eye, Jones is a budget traveler, sleeping in his truck on the way to the base and living out of a cheap motel while he’s there. He has none of his usual raffish panache; he moves slowly and uncertainly; Sarandon, his equally plain wife, falls apart in her grief and turns on her husband. There was no sound track, as far as I noticed, and it’s a quiet film, very quiet. And a bit of a slog. Which makes you realize: so is the war.

You can’t yak and slog at the same time, and you can’t blather and slog. Away from the chattering class, many Americans live without a soundtrack and right now—as the film reminds us—they slog. They slog through the war, or their kids’ tours of duty in the war; they slog through bills and the last-ditch meetings with loan officers and bad jobs—along with the times of no jobs at all. They make their kids slog through crummy schools. True, there’s no absolute dichotomy here: the sloggers read the yakkers, and some of them morph into bloggers and yak themselves, down toward the bottom of the Internet. It’s America, and sex scandals and charges of electoral perfidy make us happy and voluble, sloggers and non-sloggers alike.

But underneath all the talk there is also a country that exists on the far side of yakkery. You can find it, for example, in the paintings of Edward Hopper—many gathered in a new show at the Art Institute of Chicago. Last week in a lecture at the Art Institute, the poet Peter Sacks spoke of Hopper as the great painter of American silence. His apartments, motels, highways, gas stations and diners are places where people land with no place else to go. It’s an America of arrested motion, of mournful stasis. And it’s the same landscape, I realized, in which the characters of Elah move: motels and diners that exist on the far side of speech.

Two images of the American flag frame the story. At the beginning, Jones stops his car to fix a flag that’s been hoisted upside down by mistake, and explains, all kindly soldierly authority, to the clueless groundskeeper that an upside down flag is the gravest signal of all, meaning a nation in distress. At the end, Jones goes down to city hall and grimly, silently, hoists his own flag upside down. It’s a nation in distress.

Christine Stansell is Stein-Freiler Disinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. She is finishing a book on the history of feminism from 1792-2002. Painting: “Room in New York,” Edward Hopper (Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago).

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