Monday, May 05, 2003

Media in Transition 3: Television in Transition

I got back from New York and the Good Experience Live conference in time to make much of the Media in Transition 3 conference held by MIT's Comparative Media Studies department. I didn't make it to all of the sessions that interested me, but I did hit a couple.

Kurt Lancaster: "Babylon 5: Book of Quotations -- Parallels between USA Patriot Act and Babylon 5's Nightwatch"

Kurt Lancaster is an assistant professor at Fort Lewis College. He is the creator of the video-streaming Web narrative Letters from Orion and the co-author of Building a Home Movie Studio and Getting Your Films Online. Here is a rough transcript of the paper Lancaster presented at MiT3:

What I want to do is talk about the parallels between the USA Patriot Act and the how the Nightwatch developed in Babylon 5 to bridge nonfiction and fiction.

"The realization that one person can change the universe ... That if one man with a bullet can change the world in Dallas and Memphis and a hotel in Los Angeles, how much more can one person with a dream, with an idea, change the world?" -- 2003 interview with Bill Baker

What is Babylon 5? It's a television series that ran from 1993-1998 with a five-year story arc. J. Michael Stracyzinski wrote 90% of the scripts, so you can see the continuity running throughout. The series continues to run in syndication. And the space station is a parallel to the United Nations. There's a war without, and there's a war within.

Within the series, the Earth government, which Babylon 5 is an extension of, created this guard called the Nightwatch as a way to have citizens police each other. I want to look at how this is a parallel to the USA Patriot Act.

The parallels are frighteningly similar. This document was passed on Oct. 26, 2001, in reaction to the World Trade Center. The House and Senate voted in overwhelming favor of it. The language is written in it so that if you say the wrong thing, think the wrong thing, you can be arrested. Even in the Battle of Seattle, people could be arrested without any rights. The law allows the government to track who takes what books out of the library.

There was one dissenting vote in the Senate, Democrat Russ Feingold in Wisconsin. A man in Denver was arrested a couple of weeks ago for taking pictures of the hotel that Dick Cheney was staying at. He was arrested under the USA Patriot Act. Investigators called him a "raghead collaborator" and a "dirty pinko faggot." For his one telephone call, he called the Denver Post, and the police immediately hung up the phone. Now there are no records that this even happened.

It's interesting to see how this is playing out in the fan discussion boards. One fan takes an actual fact that happened in the real world and couches it in the plot line of Babylon 5. "Relating Babylon 5 to global five can be so much fun!" Stracyzinski intervenes and talks about how Nightwatch started as something little and built itself up from preying on people's fear.

What's interesting is the debate, One fan says fine, prove your point. Stracyzinski says that's it's about what happens after you speak up, not whether you're able to speak up. In America, we had freedom after speech. I conclude with the fact that what’s interesting about this whole thing is that you get a civil, real debate going on within the discussion board. If you look at the mainstream news, you don't get any kind of debate. You get the debate relating to this television show.

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