Two weeks of silence and now a random posting. Obviously, this blog has been on an unannounced leave of absence and will likely remain that way for the time being. But on to the post. Last Sunday, my friend Jamie came over and we threw on some Bill Hicks. Jamie hadn't seen/heard Bill before, was clearly inspired, and sent me this the next day. I don't necessarily subscribe to a bulk of his argument, but I still think it's interesting stuff. Onward...
I believe one of the greatest problems in our media landscape today is the curious coming together of democracy and deconstruction. While media used to follow a more metaphysical program of cramming the absolute beliefs of the rich and powerful down our collective throat, this heavy handed treatment of the populous inevitably lost favor. The traditional power structures of the “old world” were the industrialists, politicians and religious groups that held a symbolic importance so great they presented themselves as earth-bound elements of God’s eternal plan. These institutions, however, could not easily maintain their grip on power in a democratic country while maintaining that power through such obvious disregard for democracy’s underlying principles of equality and participation. So in time the media outlets knew their style would have to change, to become more egalitarian, or they would become increasingly perceived as out of touch with their own target audiences. Luckily for them, this change was to come about with the proliferation of alternative media outlets. The number of alternative sources of information grew as the means to disseminate information became less expensive and more easy to obtain. While the evolving technology of television, computers, printers and copy machines moved this process along, the most fundamental shift certainly came with the birth of the internet and the mouthpiece it provided to anyone with access to the world wide web. Now the mainstream media no longer had a monopoly on the outlet for mass-produced information, and to a more optimistic mind that may have seemed like a good thing (I for one thought it was great at first). Here we have the dramatic upheaval of the traditional seats of power who could no longer present their points of view as fact. This is postmodern philosophy at it’s best: applying an adolescent energy of rebellion and deep socratic questioning to the traditional sources of power, so comfortable in their untouched ivory towers and secure corporate boardrooms that they no longer know how to properly defend their own lies. Due to the greater dissemination of information and the greater willingness to ask questions that this carries with it, the symbols of the elite’s power could no longer be passed off as signposts of truth, and their claim to be one with the absolute was deconstructed (and Derrida did a jig on Kant’s grave...or something).
But there’s a dark side. And I'm afraid the fallout of this dark side may haunt America for generations to come. Let me start my explanation with an anecdote. Last night I was introduced to the comedy of Bill Hicks. Here is a man speaking in 1993 about the powers that be with such righteous indignation that even my own sympathetic beliefs were somewhat challenged. He questioned the status quo with no regard for how others might react to his beliefs; in fact, he criticized the very notion that one’s public presentation of themselves be in any way affected by the focus-group mentality of corporate marketers and political strategists. Now this sort of “devil may care” mentality may be common today amongst individuals with no presence in the public eye; it may even be an honest aspect of the bush administration’s arrogant disregard for others (although I'm not convinced that this isn’t some thoroughly poll-tested strategy of karl rove’s either). But what struck me was just how shockingly different his points seemed simply because he spoke them with conviction, logic, and honesty. One thing that we absolutely lack in today’s mass-media landscape is intellectual honesty and personal responsibility to one’s ideas expressed in a public forum. Politicians and corporate leaders don’t so much as wipe their fat asses without first finding out who they will offend and how that might offset their status in the public eye. And while corporate and political giants hide their ideals in the name of financial and political success, the personal beliefs of the individual are elevated to the realm of absolute reality. The peaks and valley’s of education and information have been leveled to a plateau on which every person is equally right in their point of view, equally enraptured with the truth. This may seem like democracy, but in actuality it is nothing more than the philosophical breaking-apart of anything resembling a collective into many smaller, easy to control interests. Does it really matter what politicians claim to believe if they are willing to change those claims based solely on the ups and downs of opinion polls? No. But people are so saturated by these claims, thanks to the media of course, that they don’t bother looking at the reality of what these politicians actually do, and that is an extremely dangerous situation.
Okay, but what’s really wrong with such superficialities? Why is it so dangerous when politicians and corporations lie? Can’t people just dig a little bit deeper and see for themselves what’s really going on? Unfortunately, this is becoming increasingly difficult to do, for what we see happening today could be described as the opinionization of truth. According to our democratic ideas, every entity is entitled to their own opinion, and thanks to deconstruction’s leveling of the truth, every entity’s opinion is equally true. That means that when the president claims that things are getting better in Iraq, despite a whole bevy of information that says otherwise, he’s not outright lying or even express-ing his flawed opinion, but broadcasting a statement that has equal claim to the truth as any other report from any other point of view. When national security organizations published a report that stated the war in Iraq has actually increased the power and influence of groups like Al Queda, the president simply continues to claim that the war in iraq is for our benefit and protection (to keep the terrorists from following us home). And before someone reading this starts to disagree because these examples are of a man who is sticking to his guns in the face of massive anger over the war, lets keep in mind that the war has never been honestly justified by the administration, and that right there is probably the biggest example of our leaders disregard for intellectual honesty. The same goes for corporations. British Petroleum can claim to be environmentally friendly because this is a democracy after all, and every entity is entitled to it’s point of view, right? And for every study that shows the opposite is true, BP simply runs another ad insisting that they are god’s anointed solution to global warming. They can even use the ambiguous “truth” of their commercials to make people think that they have changed their name to “Beyond Petroleum”. Why is that okay? Because this is a democracy and every entity is entitled to their point of view. are you starting to see a pattern here?
But how does the proliferation of media outlets affect this sort of behavior? Shouldn’t the existence of alternative media sources help to shed light on the indiscretions of the powerful? Well, they do, in a small, way help to educate and expose people to the machinations of the elite. But much more powerful has been their negative effect on mass-media consciousness and the way in which we experience information. It’s quite simple actually. With the democratization of mass-media, be it the five hundred channels on satellite TV, or the five million opinionated bloggers on the internet, there has developed a sense that not only is every person entitled to their own point of view, but that every opinion is equally correct. An unarmed person dies in some war-torn part of the world, let’s say...Iraq. One news program describes them as an “Islamo-Fascist” militant while another labels the same person a innocent civilian. This goes beyond a mere difference of opinion. This is outright propaganda disguised as “fair and balanced reporting” and guess what, we’re actually supposed to believe that both new outlets are equally right! Apparently the mainstream media was paying close attention to the Dude’s response to the Big Lebowski when he was criticized for not doing what he had agreed to do: “that’s just, like, your opinion man”. When “truth” is refuted as an outdated concept, and everyone’s opinion is considered equally valid, we begin to find ourselves in a ethical no-man’s-land in which reality no longer has any inherent value. Was the man killed today in Iraq actually an enemy combatant or simply a hard-working father on his way to a job? Apparently the news media has washed it’s hands of such tricky distinctions, preferring to describe what eye witnesses saw and what the pentagon (half way around the world, by the way) claims as equally valid points of view. Of course there are many alternative media sources trying to present a different side to the story, but for every blog claiming the man as a “victim” there’s another shouting “terrorist”, and we are left with the same ambiguous picture of reality that the mainstream news presents. They have seen the writing on the walls, they know that there will now be a multitude of opinions on every aspect of our world, and any overt attempts to quiet those opinions will only seem authoritarian and metaphysically outdated. But this proliferation of voices also means that those who are able to shout the loudest will inevitably be heard by the most people, and the more easily digested you make your vision of reality, the more people will come to hold your point of view.
This new relationship to truth is especially dangerous when applied to the commercialization of the political process. Today, whenever we hold elections we are bombarded by political ads supporting different candidates and points of view. In California, when a new law is proposed for the public to vote on, and it can described as literally enacting two completely different forms of legislation by different groups supporting and opposing it. In the recent california election, there were literally ads claiming that Prop. 87 would both cut our dependance on foreign oil, and increase our dependance on foreign oil, often running within minutes of each other. Now this is not a debate about the long-term outcome of something like high tariffs or massive public works spending; we’re talking about two sides, each armed with millions of dollars of their own commercials, telling us what the law is actually proposing to do. One side claimed that the law was created to find alternatives to foreign oil, while the other insisted that it’s sole objective was to increase oil prices and consumption. These differences go beyond mere opinion and have occupied what could be considered two mutually exclusive ideologies, each with their own metaphysically limited grounds for the truth of their point of view. And what did Prop. 87 propose to do in reality? Who cares? The only exposure that 99.9% of California's population ever have to the failed proposition was those mutually exclusive adds, each claiming that the law was literally written to have two completely opposing outcomes. So here we have an example of the democratization of truth being used for very undemocratic means.
Democracy can only flourish within an informed population. Each citizen must have equal access to the truth so that they may make the best possible decision when voting on national affairs or planning action in their local community. Yet we don’t have that equal access in this country. Sure we can all watch the same news programs and look at the same websites, hoping to find undigested information with which to form opinions and make decisions. But what you find there is a democratization of truth itself, in which every person’s opinion, no matter how ill-informed, is considered equally valid by the media. The highly polarized information war being waged across the internet has been adopted by the mainstream media as their own modus operandi as well. This doesn’t so much present two sides of one story as it creates two stories for the viewer to choose from, both equally prone to attack from the “claims” of the opposition. In this model there is no hard truth to be found, and therefore there is no accountability to the truth. Navigating through this ambiguous landscape, politicians and corporations use polls and surveys to find out what most people want to believe, and before you know it they’re shouting it to the hills that they believe the same thing (publicly at least). It’s time we took a close look at our systems of media and started asking ourselves some hard questions about the necessary foundations of a true democracy. We need to figure out just how committed we are as a nation to a government of the people for the people, and we need to decide what equality means, not just what it looks like.
Because what we see today is not so much the dissemination of information as the ex-plosion of opinion, like a X-rated cum-shot all over our nations face. And like a triple X cum-shot this wad of mass-media opinions is most certainly a sticky mess that only occasionally transcends the politics of capitalism to achieve something beautiful. It’s time we see things for what they are and give up our moralistic self-righteous denial of real-ity. Like Bill Hicks said, “I know it’s not a very popular idea, you don’t hear it that much anymore, but, it is the truth”.