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Bad Attitude

NPR Radio host sees 'Trigger Effect' as sign of widespread rise in rudeness

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in a quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he takes notoriously civilized NPR Radio guru Sedge Thomson to see the pessimistic disaster flick The Trigger Effect.

The clock on the restaurant wall shows that it is nearing midnight. The pizza dishes have long since been cleared away, yet we remain ensconced at our table, unwilling after nearly two hours of discussion to leave without having uncovered some little shred of meaning or importance in The Trigger Effect, a film about a massive power failure that transforms peaceful suburbanites into nasty, gun-wielding maniacs after three long days of no television or cold beer. It is a film that fairly reeks with serious intentions but ultimately says almost nothing at all.

"One thing we can say about it," offers my guest, Sedge Thomson, host of National Public Radio's West Coast Live, a quirky and ultra-civilized variety show that is broadcast live from San Francisco every Saturday morning (10 to noon; KCRB 91.1-FM). "It gives the lie to the saying that 'an armed society is a polite society.' If anything it shows that an armed society is a society primed and ready to panic."

"The veneer of civilization portrayed in the movie was pretty thin," I reply, glancing about for someone to refill our water glasses. "Even without all the gunplay."

"I would submit that the veneer of civilization is thin everywhere we look," Thomson laughs. "I was driving down a private city street last week. The traffic was very slow. A guy in a flashy new 4X4 decided he wanted to muscle his way into traffic, which included sort of insinuating his way in front of me. Driving right up on the sidewalk and then cutting in. I slammed on my brakes, and then he started yelling at me. When he ran out of things to say about me, he started attacking my car. 'Why don't you get a new car! What an ugly car you're driving!' It became very funny and all I could do was laugh.

"What prompted him to suddenly drive on the sidewalk and then call my car names, unless it was some sort of total breakdown of any sense of social structure and order? How else to account for such unprovoked rudeness?"

Thomson, known to thousands of listeners as the laid-back, deep-throated, even-keeled force of nature who holds weekly court over a variety of well-mannered, civilized group of writers, musicians, scientists, and comics, seems the kind of man who would have little patience for such phenomena as unprovoked rudeness and impolite sidewalk procedure. In fact, with an on-air persona that often seems a cross between Ed Sullivan and Mahatma Gandhi, Thomson surprises me tonight when he segues into something of a rant (though a polite one) against the phone company.

"Social structure isn't all that's breaking down," he asserts. "I think the phone company is breaking down. The phones, I predict, are going to stop working in either March or April of 1997. I've noticed entropy encroaching on the system. I deal with all kinds of different phone services. Business lines. ITNS lines and so forth. And PacBell is constantly mixing up orders. Cutting things off when they shouldn't be cut off. Mixing up lines. I've reached people after long waits on voice mail who can't help you and can't transfer you to the proper department.

"When the phone company starts breaking down," he asks, "can the rest of civilization be far behind?"

"I was somewhat struck by what somebody once described as 'the tyranny of neighbors,' as it was represented in this movie," Thomson says a bit later. "None of the neighbors seemed at all cooperative or interested in who their neighbors were."

"I found their behavior believable if it were in a time of no catastrophe," he goes on. "But in times of catastrophe or a major blackout or something, I believe people would be more helpful than they were in this.

"I remember the aftermath of the earthquake of 1989, here in San Francisco. Power was out for a very long time. There was some fear of looting, but as I recall, most people tried to work together.

"It's the little things, rather--the tiny courtesies--that are being removed one by one from our interactions, that ultimately do the most harm.

"One of the classic stories is Pacific Bell dropping the "please" from their information lines. They used to say, 'What city, please?' and now it's 'What city?' By cutting the "please," they've saved themselves a half a second per call that comes in multiplied by several millions of calls they get per day. They save a lot of money.

"Meanwhile, aren't we trying to teach our children to be polite? To say "please" and "thank you"? Good manners and the ability to articulate are the lubricants of our society that make it possible for different people to brush up against one another and not get caught on each other's rough edges. And here, for the sake of expediency, these corporations will barely even talk to you.

"That," he laughs, "is the breakdown in civilization that I'm most concerned about."

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