Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading has risen!

All of your favorite shows are ratings dogs. Breaking BadGirlsMad Men—each struggles to get a Nielsen score higher than 3, representing about 8.7 million viewers. And it’s not just cable. NBC’s 30 Rock struggled to top a score of 2.5, and Parks and Recreation rarely cracks Nielsen’s top 25. There are two possible conclusions to draw from these facts: (1) All these shows should be canceled, or (2) maybe the ratings are measuring the wrong thing. Since the 1970s, television has been ruled by the Nielsen Family—25,000 households whose TV habits collectively provide a statistical snapshot of a nation’s viewing behavior. Over the years, the Nielsen rating has been tweaked, but it still serves one fundamental purpose: to gauge how many people are watching a given show on a conventional television set. But that’s not how we watch any more. Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Roku, iTunes, smartphone, tablet—none of these platforms or devices are reflected in the Nielsen rating.

In the entirely new lexicon we acquired for talking about security and suspicion and safety, ‘September 11’ saturated the space of being American. Not because you knew someone who died, or even because you knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, but because you probably didn’t. It was just by virtue of being called ‘American’, or living in space called American, that ‘everything changed’ on that day.

Moreover, it wasn’t that September 11 really changed everything; rather, the event brought us back to the familiar terror of the Cold War. September 11 meant that the end of the Cold War was finally over and things could now get back to normal; history had ‘returned from vacation’, as George Will wrote. The US could go back to fighting wars in Iraq, targeting failed states with cruise missiles and quietly working with authoritarian dictators to keep the global economy in its place. The mantra ‘September 11 changed everything’ signalled an end to the interregnum of the 1990s, a confusing time in which the United States was either the hegemonic world power or was at the mercy of ‘globalisation’, a time in which Francis Fukuyama’s apparently triumphant ‘End of History’ essay turned out to be a depressed lament for how boring life was going to be, forever. (‘The end of history will be a very sad time,’ he wrote. ‘In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.’)

After all, you could not remake the movie Red Dawn after the Berlin Wall had fallen; you had to wait until after the fall of the Twin Towers and the rise of China and the ‘Axis of Evil’ made an attack on America thinkable again. Not plausible, of course, but Red Dawn was never actually plausible. However, September 11 made it conceptually possible – and pleasurable. In the boom years of the 1990s – a period when the world was changing, walls were falling and we seemed to have entered a permanent digital revolution – it didn’t make any sense to have a guerilla war fought on American soil; after September 11, it could all make sense again, and we could all sit back and enjoy the show.

China Standard Time is where the Party’s easy way with time is on full display. Daylight savings, observed from 1986 to 1991, was quickly abandoned, as elsewhere in Asia. Strictly geographic, the five time zones of the Nationalist era (1912-1949) are now a vanishing memory, their purged names suffused with nostalgia: the Kunlun Time Zone, the Sinkiang-Tibet Time Zone, Kansu-Szechuan, Chungyuan, Changpai. Today, in a country just about the size of the United States, both north-south and east-west, national unity dictates a single time zone: Beijing’s. And the world’s most populous time zone will soon get a lot bigger if the Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopts “ASEAN Common Time,” bringing a region four time zones wide fully onto Chinese time.

Along with the other hundred million people of far Western China, I lived a few years under the mild inconvenience of someone else’s clock. Not at all north, we saw the sun creep over the horizon at 8 a.m., while midwinter in Xinjiang, in the extreme northwest, it might not come till 10. Informal “Xinjiang time,” two hours behind Beijing, flourishes under wraps, the guerrilla time zone a mild reminder of the Uighur independence struggle. Cross the land border from Xinjiang to Pakistan on the stunning Karakoram Highway and you’ve gained three hours in an instant (you’ll need it for the customs formalities). Now that feels like travel.


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