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Binary Man: Stay Home Or Brave The Crowds?

Here's the first in a weekly series starring Binary Man, who has come to our struggling planet to settle disputes, solve problems and make life a whole lot better. Each week, generally on Fridays, Binary Man will confront some issue, large or small, that bedevils us; he will weigh the arguments for either side and present his verdict, thereby bringing us that much closer to utopia. No need to send Binary Man your riches or your offspring, but he's happy to entertain your questions and ideas. Post them here on the comment boards, or email him at BinaryMan@washpost.com

In most sports, especially football and politics, the plain if unfortunate truth is that television has improved upon reality. The strategy, brutality and beauty of the game is more detailed and better understood on the homescreen than in person.

Yet we still pack the stadiums and wait for hours at rallies where we know the politicians will deliver precisely the same speech they've given in countless previous appearances.

Tomorrow on the Mall, on Pennsylvania Avenue and splayed out before the west portico of the Capitol, an ocean of Americans will gather to see something they cannot see, to hear something that may well be inaudible, to be a part of something we will remember forever.

The scare stories have been omnipresent for months now. Millions of people will come here. All means of transportation will offer conditions ranging from nightmarish to ghastly. You won't be able to eat, pee, move or breathe.

And still we ask: Should we watch it on TV or brave the elements and the masses and head down to the gridlock?

That we are even asking the question is a tribute to the power of the crowd, the allure of others, our innate fascination with bearing witness.

What should you do? Binary Man, as is his mission, sees merit in both positions.

You'd have to be nuts to go downtown. If you're a Virginian, you've basically been told your options are to somehow velcro yourself to the side of an overstuffed Metro car or to swim across the Potomac. A mindbending army of law enforcement officers has tuned the District into Inauguration Island, cut off by bridge closings. Even if you make it down there, you have barely better than zero chance of getting close enough to see or hear the new president or anyone of any official importance.

Whereas on television, you will be the recipient of the blessings of technology, as nearly every media outlet in the nation puts aside financial woes and existential doubts to put on a glorious show, a collective commemoration of a day when we can legitimately claim to be opening Volume II of America: The Experiment.

On TV, you'll see the speech, the gestures, the tears, the majesty and the silliness. You'll see everything.

And you'll be a part of nothing. Unless you go.

Think about 9/11: If you live in Washington or New York, you know. Even if you weren't at Ground Zero or the Pentagon, you lived it. You saw. You reacted. And ever since, you have told the stories in a way that no one who watched it on TV ever can.

"Those of us who were in New York or D.C. have something to talk about that makes other people just shush," says Toby Miller, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside. "You've always got the trump card in any conversation if you can say, 'I was there.' You mightn't be able to say 'Obama's tie was this color' or 'Michelle was wearing this dress,' but you can say there was this crazy dude next to me or this guy in the crowd told me this amazing story. It's a quasi-holy moment, and what makes it is the people around you."

Binary Man gets itchy in gridlock just like the rest of you, but on this one, he sees no real choice. TV will be just dandy, especially if you immediately switch channels anytime the professional bloviators try to speak on top of the events. But if you go, even if you just make the effort and then give up in frustration, you will see, feel and absorb into the marrow of your soul what Miller calls "the multitude of the U.S. population paying tribute to the personification of the nation at this solemn moment."

An Australian by birth, Miller became fascinated with the American sports event and our enduring physical, personal connection to the stadium, even in this time of flat-screen, HD, multi-camera TV splendor. And just as popcorn, beer and the seventh inning stretch forge a real unity in the crowd at the ballpark, the inauguration is a uniquely American coming together. The Brits have their coronations (though their last one took place at the moment of television's birth), but only we have this curious business of electing not only our head of government, but our head of state, our ceremonial leader, and then crowning him not in a palace but out there on the street, before anyone and everyone.

"That's the populism of everyday life in America," Miller says, "and that's the difference between having an elected king and an inherited one. So you get this immense solemnity and the joy of the circus, and I don't mean that negatively. It's this remarkably American blend of hallowed moment and laughter and gaiety."

Hear the bands, smell the horses, eavesdrop like there's no tomorrow, stare at the faces. Way over there, history is happening. And however far back in the crowd you may be, you are living it, but only if you go.

"The primary identification of the sports spectator in the stadium is not with his team but with the crowd itself, the physical presence of the community which the team's local identity represents. The density of the crowd furthers mass identification through physical contact; the goal and ultimate release of density is the roar of the crowd, a discharge with one voice--Dionysian pleasures which the isolated television viewer must relinquish."--Toby Miller, in "Television: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies."

By Marc Fisher |  January 19, 2009; 7:39 AM ET
Previous: Along The Beltway, An Instant Obamaville | Next: Party Like It's 1865 (& Eat Before You Go)

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