Just five years ago in January 2005, the Orange Revolution was raging in Ukraine. (And has now come full circle, but that's another story.) This was a series of protests that followed in the aftermath of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election. Viktor Yanukovych had just been elected president, but Ukrainians know how to smell a rat. After a corrupt election followed by a rigged run-off vote, massive protests hit the streets. Yushchenko was poisoned, nearly killed, and people were threatening the breakup of the country. Revolution ensued. The crisis resolved peacefully with the inauguration of Viktor Yushchenko on January 23, 2005, after he was declared winner of a second run-off.
But what do poisoned politicians and a country on the brink of civil war have over Team Coco vs Team Leno?
You’d have to be living under the proverbial rock to not have noticed the commotion over NBC’s late-night television lineup that began Monday and continued through the week. As one blog cried with glee, “The great late night war has begun!” The thing reached fever-pitch midweek when an “I’m With Coco” Facebook fan page began popping up left and right in my Facebook feed. It’s creator, 27-year old Mike Mitchell of Los Angeles, has organized protest rallies for tomorrow in L.A., New York, and Seattle. Reminiscent of the Yushchenko-led revolution, Mitchell has asked protestors to show up wearing orange.
Why is it that groups polarize as they do? What makes Conan O’Brien the character some want to root for, while for others Conan is nemesis to their hero Leno? On a normal day, the late-night talk shows arouse about as much passion as does the day’s lunch menu. Late-night TV is a stable presence in our lives, always there, and usually taken for granted. People do not muster much excitement over it. Here in Boston, those emotions are best reserved for Red Sox games.
So why the commotion? For one thing, we live in a time where individuality is not merely expressed but is cultivated. Commercial brands provide the raw material, and social media sites like Facebook provide the platform in its most amplified form. Where people once gathered in halls or inns to drink mead or ale, we now have “I’m a Bud man”. We don’t just use computers, we "are" Macs or PCs. When generic products began to speciate into all the brands we know today, nobody could have imagined that a deodorizing product was anything more than the sum of its parts. But here in the 21st century we know better, or at least are made to think so. There are men who use Axe and there are men who use Tom’s of Maine, and there are separate species of women to go with each.
This is why Newport-smoking Republicans who listen to The Postal Service confuse us.
Commercial items have so infiltrated our lives that we have adapted to recognize each other socially through the brands that we choose. There is a feedback loop: people seek self-expression through display of garments, products, and preferences, and corporations exploit this. But I am not writing to echo a long-dusty complaint against corporate America. You see, in the history of human evolution, not so much has changed. Archaeologists have found evidence of body adornment in archaic humans who lived 80,000 years ago. Going back further, the mating dance of the Paradisaea apoda, or the male display of peacock feathers betray an instinct that seems to be hard-wired into the behavioral patterns of most animal species on earth. The human male pays for his Tom Ford cologne with Visa and the peacock male pays for his feathers with his biology, but this might be best called a formality. Not so much has changed. It is just that for Neanderthals we speak of “body adornment” and for Generation X we speak of skinny jeans or Chuck All-Stars.The Conan-Leno war is to some degree an extension of the same impulse. People polarize around a figure with whom they self-identify. If our inner sense of justice was truly straining inside us, we’d be out researching the cases of falsely-accused convicts, we’d be fundraising for refugee organizations. The polarization around NBC’s late-night schedule has not so much to do with justice, nor our personal taste in comedy. People who like Conan O’Brien identify with his quirky and witty comedy and see Jay Leno as nothing more than a glorified goof. People who prefer Jay Leno see Conan O’Brien as a trendy weirdo. But in each case, it is not actual preference that matters but social signaling of that preference.
I'm a Letterman girl myself.