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The surreal life

Editorial by Bruce Wark


On March 6, the day the round-faced French philoso-pher Jean Baudrillard stopped breathing, the US lottery Mega Millions got set to hand out the world’s biggest-ever jackpot. Baudrillard, who argued that illusion and emptiness lie at the heart of consumer society, would surely have hooted at the thought of that $390 million prize. “Americans may have no identity,” he once quipped, “but they do have wonderful teeth.”

In the days following his death, as TV screens glowed with images of our glamorous Governor General parading around Canadian military bases in Kandahar, I unearthed Baudrillard’s famous quote about the hollowness of everything on TV. That hollowness stems, he argued, from television’s inability to remain silent. Its screen must be filled with a steady stream of noisy commercials, crappy game shows, sitcoms, movies and news to hide “an irremediable void,” he wrote. “That’s why the slightest technical hitch, the slightest slip on the part of the presenter becomes so exciting, for it reveals the depth of the emptiness squinting out at us through this little window.”

True, Michaelle Jean’s televised visit seemed flawless and full, at least on the surface. TV’s “embedded” journalists supplied rivers of tightly edited clips showing her visiting a sick Afghan boy in a Canadian military hospital, clambering aboard an armoured vehicle, posing for a photo-op with female soldiers on International Women’s Day and yakking about the need to put “a human face” on our doings in Afghanistan. But when the GG inspected bullet-ridden trucks, light tanks with their wheels blown off and the twisted wreckage of an armoured vehicle, the military ordered the “embeds” to turn their cameras off. Those details would provide a bit too much reality for the people whose tax dollars are funding this dirty little war. What we see on TV, as Baudrillard noted, is not real war, but a simulated, video game version.

Which reminds me of our own, local Seven Years War against the brown spruce longhorn beetle. The media have depicted the tiny creature as a voracious monster bent on pillaging valuable forests and gobbling up the red spruce, our provincial tree. Video game title: “BSLB Devours NS!” The Canadian Food Inspection Agency claims that the foreign flying insect has spread from Point Pleasant Park to an area the size of Prince Edward Island. TV screens show shots of dying spruce weeping resin from beetle bore holes as worried officials announce ever-larger quarantine zones. But the real question is: How much of a threat does the beetle actually pose?

Everyone agrees that in Europe, it attacks dying trees. But government scientists like Jon Sweeney of the Canadian Forest Service worry that here, the beetle may be dining on healthier ones too. Sweeney says red spruce are in decline in eastern forests and are therefore vulnerable to attack. But Chris Majka, a beetle expert who’s a member of the group Friends of Point Pleasant Park, says there’s almost no scientific evidence to back up that claim. He’s calling for an independent review of the existing data as well as a full scientific study. “It’s time to ask if the emperor has any clothes,” Majka says. “If the BSLB is a problem, let’s find out. If it’s not, let’s stop worrying about it and redeploy the funding to fight the mountain pine beetle out West.”

Maybe if Majka gets his way, we’ll discover that the brown spruce longhorn beetle will turn out to have been what Baudrillard would call a “hyper-real” threat — one that mainly exists on TV. Like, for example, Iraq’s famous weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein’s fearsome chemical and biological weapons and his awesome nuclear program were, as Baudrillard would put it, “more real than the real.” Too bad that 650,000 Iraqis had to die so we could finally discover that the smoking gun and the mushroom cloud were hyper-real PR products manufactured to sell an illegal war.

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