Friday, September 25, 2009

LOSING THE NEWS AND A USEFUL PRESS

There’s been a spate of concern about the decline of newspapers and also of critical thinking (I’ll link to those articles below).

I see these dots as connected.

Alex S. Jones has written a book about the decline of newspapers, in a world that “is fast becoming a wild, manipulative clamor of information, without reliable filters, trustworthy actors, or agreed-upon rules”.

He seems to be going for the point that the problem is that folks are too distracted by the huge moosh of internet ‘information’ and that they should get back to newspapers – which is where the serious and professional reporting is done, by seasoned press veterans who dig for a story and give you their best shot at what’s going on, so that you as the Citizenry can make up your own minds.

Well, yes – and no – but mostly no.

Yes. The internet is a distracting cornucopia of facts, factoids, spin masquerading as facts, opinion along a spectrum from spontaneous bar-room bluster to serious and acute cogitation. The problem facing the average reader (to the extent that there are readers at this point) is in many ways the same as that which faces military intelligence officers: how to wade into the flood of stuff and select the ‘alpha stream’ – the most important and relevant material that will give you information, or at least clues, as to what is going on ‘over there’ and ‘out there’ and ‘up there’.

But the media aren’t really in that business any longer. The economics of ‘business’ in journalism has resulted in professional reporting being gutted by owners looking at the bottom line, unwilling to alienate ‘paying customers’. ‘Balance’ thus has become a code word for the paper not taking a position that will cost it readers (and thus advertising income); easier to hire inexperienced desk-hounds who won’t tread on any toes, but instead will accept faxes from this or that interested party’s PR folks and – with some input from above – snip and clip the faxes into a ‘story’ that corresponds to the paper’s alliances and interests at the moment.

And all ‘players’ and all ‘parties’ now have PR flaks – the Right’s ‘patriots’, the Left’s ‘advocates’, the corporations and the ‘complexes’ and ‘iron triangles’ of corporate interests, the government itself, and all the competing branches and agencies of the government (not excluding the Supreme Court). And none of them are paid to put ‘truth’ above their employers’ interests. But then, according to the insidiously useful postmodern insight (lifted whole from Pontius Pilate, though without attribution) there really is no ‘truth’, no Truth, no objective fact – so since Life itself is basically mushy clay, then what’s the problem with trying to shape the stuff the way your bosses want it shaped?

“And what is Truth?” asked the Roman bureaucrat, back in the days when that empire held sway over a hefty chunk of the known world. Human affairs, the affairs of this dimension, cannot allow themselves to be bounded, limited, hedged in, or – the outrage! – judged, by any larger criterion. Surely not be great States and Great Powers.

And nowadays, thanks to postmodernism, not by individuals either.

Power is all. Political power is the only arbiter – and the coercive force to enforce it. This has been true in this country as in all others. And in the past forty-plus years, it has become accepted, ‘normalized’, with a dismayingly increasing intensity and scope. The Left – self-indentured to the revolutionary content and methods of post-1965 Identity ideology – invited this vampire in the national front door, rather than keep it skulking around in the yard as the Framers had hoped their Constitutional ethos would ensure.

And then the Right – seeing that all the old constraints had been discarded as ‘quaint’ and ‘oppressive’ – joined in the dark welcome.

But ‘maturity’ – personal and civic – had to go as the condition of the vampiric welcome.
And the manner of it, I would say, is on this wise:

“Polarizing political talk, overwrought in the extreme, is making big headlines these days” observes a ‘New York Times’ writer. Correctness – ‘political’ mostly on the Left, ‘patriotic’ mostly on the Right. It is a symptom even more than it is a problem.

A symptom of something much worse, much more insidious, much more lethal.

Diane Ravitch recently noted this: she decries “the latest fad to sweep K-12 education [which] is called “21st Century Skills”. She wants “knowledge” to come back – some common knowledge that is and must be the basis for a shared cultural heritage – as Americans – that is indispensable for a national culture and – can anyone be surprised? – a national political ethos. Which in Our case would be not only the ‘American’ ethos but the Constitutional ethos (which you may have noticed has been slip-sliding away at a sickeningly increasing rate these past few decades).

In his 1995 book “The Next American Nation” Michael Lind acutely observed that Multiculturalism – now the Beltway’s conceptual framework of indenture to the mutant ‘liberalism’ of the post-1965 era – directly rejects the concept of any ‘American’ culture and ethos whatsoever, and any ‘melting pot’ approach to assimilation – that ‘melting pot’ approach which took all the immigrant cultures of the American past and molded them into a remarkable alloy called ‘American’. *

Instead the Multicultural approach demands that no ‘assimilation’ can be or should be continued. It’s all ‘oppressive’. Instead, American society is to be a ‘salad’ of distinct cultures, all of them ‘equal’ and retaining in common only the political clout – assisted by a preferential government – that protects each sub-culture’s distinctness and suppresses any thoughts or discussion, any public and civic deliberation, as to whether each sub-culture’s folkways and folk-thoughts are compatible with the national ethos. There IS no national ethos, intone the Multiculturalists.

And did We expect that any nation “so conceived and so dedicated” can long endure?

Fifteen years ago Lind called the post-1965 era the “Second Radical Reconstruction” (the first being the North’s efforts – laudable in their intention, not so much in their implementation – to ‘reconstruct’ the post-Civil War South). A century later Washington tried it again – against the whole country, its culture and its ethos. But you couldn’t say that either. Such assessments could not be publicly and civicly spoken out loud. It wasn’t Correct.

How did We get here?

I’ll go back to 1896 here. In that year Gustav Le Bon, a (now-) dead white European male, wrote a book entitled “A Study of the Popular Mind”. The text is here.

He was looking at the phenomenon of ‘crowds’ and the ‘mass mentality’ developing in the urbanized nations of Europe in the maturing Industrial Age.

Something happens to people when they are in the presence of a ‘crowd’, when they are compressed into a ‘mass’. They don’t think well. They seem to regress into a more emotional** mode of processing information.

Developmentally, human beings don’t have biological access to their full human capacities – their best capacities – until early adulthood. The prefrontal cortex – seat of all those abilities to reflect, postpone emotional responses in order to assess and deliberate in the brain – takes that long to develop. It is for this reason that children and teens are so unpredictable and inconsistent yet also so easily ‘worked up’: they are relying on the more primitive brainparts – especially the amygdala – to process information and experiences. And the amygdala – seat of the fight-or-flight response, among other things – is that part of the brain that relies on immediate ‘judgments’ based on visceral emotions. *** Delaying gratification, postponing action in favor of deliberation, thinking things through – all these things are the fruits of the prefrontal cortex, and precisely opposed to the amygdala’s insistent demand that something be done RIGHT NOW.

The current and perceptive commentator Henry Giroux notes that “language loses any viable sense of referentiality, while lying, misrepresentation and the deliberate denial of truth [have] become acceptable practices firmly entrenched in the Wild West of talk-radio, cable television, and the dominant media”. Yes, it has.

Le Bon’s insights – and they are numerous and densely interconnected – were not lost on one Edward Bernays, a Swiss countryman of Le Bon, who realized that such emotionality could be tapped in order to advertise the Industrial Age’s developing cornucopia of products available for sale to those now-employed urban working masses and the rising middle-classes, the ‘bourgeois’ bugbears of the Boomer Age.

Within that same timeframe the American Progressives – well-intentioned all – saw that the emotional masses of citizens would need to be guided even more than educated. They were – to use Walter Lippman’s ominous phrase – “a blundering herd”, which took Jesus’s insight about “sheep without a shepherd” in a wholly ominous direction – especially in terms of the Constitutional Republic and the American ethos.

And this ‘elite guidance’ would be manifested not only in do-good domestic reforms of the Age, but also in Teddy Roosevelt’s and Woodrow Wilson’s approach to foreign policy. And even before Teddy (R, not K) his predecessor McKinley – having taken to his knees in the White House one night – decided that God himself wanted America to ‘Christianize’ the benighted peoples of Cuba and – much more importantly – the Phillippines (who had been in great part Catholic for centuries).

Thus, with Cuba as the pretext for the Spanish-American war, McKinley immediately sent America’s first big overseas military expedition – ten thousand troops – to the Phillippines to convert Admiral Dewey’s victory over the puny Spanish squadron in Manila Bay into a full-scale American imperium, not liberating the Filipinos but rather replacing the doddering, centuries-old Spanish imperium with a more modern imperial master, who would be that much closer to the vast markets of China and the ‘Open Door’ – as the newly Westernizing Japanese nation noted acutely if quietly. (We were not, you may recall, greeted as liberators, and had to fight a nasty jungle war to bring Our blessings to natives who had the temerity to resist.)

Nor was all this lost a couple-three decades later when a certain little madman with a moustache came to power in Germany, ably assisted by his brilliant propaganda genius, Josef Goebbels. The citizenry was not needed to deliberate and govern the government – not at all. The citizenry’s role was to be whipped up, its opinion shaped by government propaganda into the proper support of whatever it was that the government thought was good for them and for their nation (Ger: Reich).

It should come as a surprise to nobody that this approach to the government’s shaping of public opinion was profoundly inimical to any genuinely democratic politics, and to any possibility of a Constitutional Republic. Hitler, you recall, destroyed one – the Weimar Republic – in an act of ‘creative destruction’ in order to make room for his Third Reich, that marvelous engine of progress and brute force that would last a thousand years and bring a New Order to Europe and the world. Well, except for that part of the world ably administered by the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. And that part – ludicrously – administered rather less ably by Mussolini’s reincarnation of the Roman Empire.

But at the end of World War Two, with the Soviets invited over the front door into the heart of Europe – ably directed by that vampire of all vampires, the one with the even bigger moustache, the American ‘elite’ realized that they would have to “scare hell out of the American people” in order to continue the marvelous hegemony of which Washington now found itself the master.
And once the Beltway got used to the whole idea of riding herd on that “blundering herd”, then after 1965, with the Boomers in the saddle and so much ‘good’ to be done – and done right now – they didn’t approach the American Citizenry with proposals for public deliberation, but rather borrowed from the Le Bon-Bernays-Goebbels Playbook .

Of course, with all the ‘revolutionary’ excitements of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its ‘hundred flowers blooming’, and postmodernism’s assertion that there is no Power on earth except that which flows from the barrel of a gun or the voting booth (if the votes are cast by a suitably Correct citizenry or else imposed upon them by suitably enlightened elites) … well, you can see where things have gone.

And then factor in that humans are very similar to tuning forks and cattle: in large bunches, when functioning at the lower end of our range, it only takes one to set everybody else off. That’s why Our politics in the past few decades have come to resemble something between a mob-scene from the old movies and a series of stampedes. Come to think of it, that’s probably why now Our elected representatives, tax-paid hired ‘experts’, and variously credentialed elites walk by Us as if We were the herd in the background of a John Wayne ranch scene.

It was ominous – as Alexander Cockburn notes recently on Counterpunch – that the 1970s saw the decline of genuinely reportorial journalism and the growth of ‘personality journalism’ and ‘soft news’. This was a perfectly logical development – in the guidelines of that Playbook – because it would be quicker to distract folks from the ‘hard news’ of public Reality and sink them into the more confined prisons of their own emotionality and their personal, private ‘worlds’.

So public discourse sank into emotionalism. And – as many note today – such emotions soon took an ugly turn. As they had to – since Goebbels himself had a rather ugly vision of ‘citizens’ and their relationship to government. Let them sink into their lesser potentials, wrestle with their own personal pillows, rather than have them trying to have a say in what their governmental elites have already determined was good for them.

But before the Republicans under Atwater and the Reagan-era American ‘morning’, there was the Politically Correct civic thuggery of squashing ‘backlash’ to what clearly had to be accepted as the Coming Thing of this or that post-1965 imposition. And ‘1968’ simply erected the whole thing into a Good Thing and the only acceptable Good Thing – no dissent to be tolerated, no debate necessary.

Whether your ‘treason’ was to the Left’s ‘Dream’ or to the Right’s ‘patriotism’ was purely secondary. The entire deliberative civic process was squashed. And new generations of youth and masses of immigrants would be so formed.

And here We are.

Le Bon was right, and possibly more so than he realized.

Nor is such a destiny in Our ‘stars’. It’s in Our brains – human maturity is a fragile if dynamic thing, nor is it guaranteed. It takes a society, a culture, an ethos to support the biological development of the brain with a healthy and indispensable encouragement of all the best potentials in the human repertoire. A Citizenry raised on nothing but the noxious brew of Goebbelsian manipulation and postmodernism’s brutalizing developmental Flatness and regression, the stultification of the growth of the genuine potential of the human spirit, is not simply going to ‘plateau’ at some regressed level of development. No, it is going to descend into the maelstrom of its own lesser – and worst – potentials.

Nor is any sort of collective tribalism – rather than a support for genuine individual development – going to work for Us. Identity Politics reduces the human individual to mere membership in a collective – one’s Identity – and then Multiculturalism goes further and insists that there is no American ethos to which any new members of the national community must adapt themselves (there is, after all, no national community at all in the Multicultural view of things).

We are becoming worse than a Volk. We are becoming a hodgepodge of several Volks, united only by Our common occupation of the same geographic national territory, and bound only by the iron hoops which this or that Identity’s political clout can manage to forge – with the help of a Beltway that sees the American citizenry merely as a gaggle of tax-paying donkeys sunk in their own internecine squabbles and personal excitements.

We need to stand up on the only two hind legs We have and remind the Beltway – and the world – of just what an American Citizenry can be.

It is in that sense – and that sense only – that We can rise and prevail. Or else We shall surely fall together – into a night from which, once upon a time, in what now seems a galaxy long ago and far away, We were delivered in that bright shining Moment two-hundred and thirty-three years ago.

This is the fierce urgency of Now.

NOTES

*I’ll be Posting on this remarkable book shortly.

**I don’t agree with Le Bon’s analogy that this very real emotionalism equates with ‘feminine’ processing – and he veers into referring to it as “hysterical”, opposing it to a more “masculine rationality”. There is indeed a ‘hysterical’ potential in human beings, but it is not a ‘feminine’ as opposed to a ‘masculine’ potential. Males are equally as liable to ‘hysteria’ and I’ll explain that above in the text of the Post. Freud, somewhat a contemporary of Le Bon, was getting around to that insight – although it was not widely accepted and has never received the wide discussion it deserves.

But that being said, Le Bon’s insights as to the dynamics and consequences of this ‘hysterical’ or overly emotional human mode of processing information are hugely valuable, and historically came to play a huge role in subsequent political developments in the early 20th century and beyond. And those dynamics bethump Us even unto now.

***Which gets you to wondering if a ‘youth-determined’ society is such a good idea. The Boomers in their salad days were not in full possession of their highest brain capacities – which is par for the course with late-teens. But then, of course, they erected their deficits into an operating philosophy that came to insist that ‘maturity’ and ‘adulthood’ were ‘oppressive’ and ‘up tight’, un-creative and altogether fuddy-duddy. And so, under the auspices of the youth-addled and vote-addled Democrats, ‘maturity’ and ‘adulthood’ and a whole host of related concepts went out the window and overboard.

But such a ‘youthful’ ethos proved hugely useful to consumerist corporations seeking to entice immediately gratifying purchases for the latest fads and governments – oy gevalt! – seeking to manipulate the ‘public opinion’ of their citizenries and drive – or stampede – the herd in the direction thought best for it.

Clearly, a Party – and later a Beltway – eager to forget its screw-ups and mismanagement of national affairs, and eager to impose a new ethos that would ‘forget’ the Past and embrace not the Reality of what was happening but rather the ‘Dream’ of what will most surely come about if everybody kept their mouth shut and went along … clearly, such a youthy descent into emotionalism would be of no small use. And so it is today, as the Boomers are now followed by generations of children who have been raised without the opportunity to genuinely mature as full human beings (and Citizens).

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