Our Media Problem is Deeper than We Admit
The roots of our media dysfunction are deeply embedded in the ethos of the country, and always have been. We are -- in our dominant value system, our historical behavior, and even to some extent in our very genes – pirates: We are the ideological and biological descendants of Vikings, robber barons, slave runners, and the stereotypical mad scientist villains who populate James Bond fantasies. By contrast, relatively balanced, peace-loving, community-building citizens are, by definition and since the very beginning, outside the dominant culture. This is, for example, a place where, last week in D.C., it is necessary for scientists to march in the rain to make the obvious point that it is dangerous to ignore facts. The dominant culture makes up its own facts, because it can. And it celebrates war, and violence generally, (a) because, hey, doesn’t anyone who matters want to be king of the mountain? And (b) because even those who don’t matter will pay more attention – and money and votes -- to war and violence than to the dreary mundane stuff of actual civilization. There are huge professions devoted to analyzing human psychology, specifically for the purpose of pressing our buttons. They're often talented at what they do, outrageously well-compensated, and their purposes are evil and socially destructive.
As with other major challenges, we cannot successfully attack this problem until we admit what it is: Not just a superficial or passing symptom, but a fundamental ideological cancer. All of the so-called Enlightenment “values” that you and I were taught by well-meaning professors at first class universities serve – and have always been intended to serve – the interests of a set of piratical elites, which were happy to be free of the British monarchy and determined not to allow the creation of societal or governmental obstacles to their ambitions on this continent and beyond. That, of course, was not the way said “values” were presented to us then, or are portrayed in schools and media today. On the contrary, we have, on purpose, turned the Constitution into a sacred screed, among other things elevating the 1stamendment into an unfettered right of whoever owns the communications technology to do whatever they think is politically or financially profitable. Thus, for example, when it turns out that Facebook and Twitter have in a very few years so corrupted and divided our sense of reality that people don’t know “news” from “fake news,” or that rogue billionaire investors like Murdoch can create highly successful media networks devoted to disseminating hated and lies, or that the Supreme Court can hold that corporations are “people” and as such uncontrollable for the purposes of political speech, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the permissive regime we’ve created.
I hold no brief for George III, or his rotten parliament, or his established Church, or any of the parallel institutions that once prevailed in every other country in Europe, and against which the Enlightenment generations revolted. Historical change happens, and some of it is both necessary and good. In our case, however, we went severely overboard, surrendering to a fundamentalist piratical version of “liberty” for the powerful – not surprising given our leadership then and since, but sadly lacking in balance. We skewed Enlightenment ideology into a hypocritical and largely negative creed focused on the absence of restraint, without much if any positive element of public responsibility and common purpose. That imbalance has cost us dearly over the last two centuries, but it is not something we are prepared to admit publicly – or perhaps even to ourselves privately, because to do so would require a fundamental rethinking of received institutions and values.
A successful society cannot simply surrender to the whims of its elites. It needs to be more sophisticated in the way it deals with, integrates, and builds upon competing interests and forces, both throughout the society and over time. Certainly today, with the pace of technological change in media and many other areas, we need to think not just of celebrating “disruption” but also and simultaneously of building long-term continuity and inclusion. That sounds like a contradiction, and as a society we seem psychologically and philosophically averse to contradiction. We crave black and white simplicity. But there is no way to get the balance we need, unless we are prepared to understand and live with contradictions, unless we are prepared to build a more than rhetorical understanding of public responsibility for the future, and unless we become willing to recognize that truth in complex issues cannot be simplistic or unilateral. Getting there, however, would be an enormous challenge, very significantly revamping our cultural and educational systems. I see little chance of that happening any time soon.