Wednesday, April 18, 2018

It's Not Even Past #18 - The Crisis of What is Art - Part 2 - Propaganda - At Least 75%

Roger Cohen clip, up to 21:53)

That was Roger Cohen of the New York Times speaking, I needn't clarify about what except to say that it was a lecture on Isaiah Berlin in the Age of Trump, our age, potentially defined by a thinker whose thoughts apply to every age. If this podcast keeps going indefinitely, then Isaiah Berlin will be mentioned again and again and again.

We ended the last broadcast at an arbitrary point, simply because the subject of this series of podcasts is too large to be summed up in any one half-hour. Then I got horribly sick and had to skip a week, but the arbitrary point on which we ended was with my mentioning of mediocre distractions, and in case you hadn't noticed, mediocre distractions are the nub of where we are today, the spoke around which it all turns, the essence of what makes the Age of Trump the Age of Trump, when our attention spans have so atrophied that we can't put together coherent thoughts that connect one day of our lives to the next and we therefore move from whatever captures our attention one day to whatever captures it the next (the irony of basing this podcast on almost exactly that idea is duly noted...).

Any meaningful achievement in the world that gives true satisfaction can't be a fleeting success that is bestowed from one day's work... to say an obvious truth that should not have to bare repeating but obviously needs to in this day and age. Meaningful, lasting satisfaction requires a span greater than we can focus on at any given moment, the ability to be frustrated by it, the ability to fall back in love with it, the ability for the dimensions of the relationship to broaden, deepen, widen, and also sometimes contract. It requires the ability to delay gratification and to focus on greater goals than can be achieved in any one given day, or perhaps any thirty given years. This is what it means to have a career, to be in a marriage, to raise a family, to build an organization. These are the things of which lasting satisfaction is made, and it doesn't seem as though the majority of Americans have enough ability these days to see those satisfactions through. There is sadly never a guarantee of joy at the end of an agonizing journey, but there is an unfair guarantee of joy's absence if we never embark on such a journey.

And it's for that reason that propaganda, like cant itself, like newspeak or bullshit or whatever else you want to call that megaphone of political indifference to truth and lies, is self-perpetuating. Propaganda, like advertising, depends on the lie that happiness is just over the next hill. It's message is not unlike advertising, but the materialism of advertising is relatively benign. Advertising is made to seem so evil by socialism, and tells you the obvious lie that you can fill the eternal hole in your life with a new soap or soft drink or car, but nobody ever truly believes the lie, and everybody knows that they can only be satiated by the product for five minutes before a mix of salt and sugar makes us crave another soft drink. But the materialism of advertising is pretty benign next to propaganda.

The lies of propaganda are so dangerous because their truth seems so plausible. Perhaps there is an invisible mechanism that keeps the poor poor, the oppressed oppressed, and perhaps the choices of individual human beings within the existing system have so little power that there is no recourse except to overthrow it.  Or perhaps the choices of human beings have so much power that only people who succeed are those who are deserving of success, and therefore, any change to create a more equitable system only serves to reward people who are undeserving. In both cases, once you view the world through that structure, everything becomes filtered through its worldview. Who's to say which worldview, if either, is right? But whether either worldview is correct, there are two gigantic apparatus at either end of the political spectrum designed to make sure that at least a hundred million politically active people on either side see nothing in the world except through the worldview that people want you to see who stand to benefit enormously from your myopia.

On the Right, does one really need to say what's there? Fox News, Drudge Report, Breitbart..., they're all facts of our lives. They're infotainment designed to give their viewers just enough correct information to make them righteously angry about the state of the world without the proper context as to why it's true - and those are on the days when the information they distribute is correct.  It is not socialism to point out that a free society depends on the news being distributed as a public good, not a business. These are propaganda outlets that also double as money generators for vulture capitalists. Just watch Fox News for ten minutes sometime. Are you watching news? Are you watching editorials? Or are you watching commercials? Fox News is statistically measured to be the highest network in all cable television for commercial clutter - 16 minutes 52 seconds per hour. And what are those ads? - which sells loans at interest rates that can go up to 335%. Ads for reverse mortgages that are supposed to save money yet lead to rates of required payment 25% higher than a conventional mortgage. Ads for, Gold investment that tells prospective investors the price of gold only ever goes up. Surely, you might reason, the viewers are not dumb enough to fall for these schemes. Well, they're certainly dumb enough to fall for Fox News. Furthermore, by airing so many of these commercials on Fox News, Fox lends its prestige and credibility, such as it is, to these shysters. The presence of shysters is not incidental to Fox News, the shysters are the fabric of the Fox News business model, which depends on a self-perpetuating cycle of viewers conditioned to be credulous enough to believe false political statements, and therefore willing to be consumers credulous enough to buy bad products, and therefore attracting advertisers to the network with as few moral scruples as the network executives and talent themselves.

If presented with this information, many Fox News watchers would simply shrug and say that CNN and MSNBC simply have an unspoken liberal bias while Fox News is implicitly more honest because it wears its conservative bias on its sleeve. There are two problems with that logic. The first, easier to fight, problem with that is that CNN and MSNBC are statistically demonstrative to be more factual in their reporting. They're not particularly impressive in their reporting, and when Fox News watchers point out that CNN and MSNBC are not particularly good at reporting the news, they're absolutely right. CNN and MSNBC are sadly not particularly impressive news outlets, but Fox News is much worse. Politifact, a non-partisan organization for accuracy in news unimpressively lists CNN, the best of the three major news networks, with 27% of their reporting being either mostly false, false, or their lowest rating: pants on fire. Believe it or not, that's the best reporting we get on the big three cable news networks. On MSNBC, it's much worse, a full 44% being at least mostly false. But on Fox News, 60% of their reporting is, at very least, mostly false, and 40% of their reporting is, at very least, completely false. Whatever news is, Fox News is demonstrably the opposite, it is a news organization specifically designed to spread false news, and to make lots of money for their investors from how they spread false news.

And that's only the smaller problem. The larger problem with Fox News and the like is this. I could tell Fox News watchers that the organization from which they get their news is designed to be a cocktail of outrage generated by a factory of misinformation, and they would tell me that, because it came from a place that wishes ill on views like those spread by Fox News, the source is biased, and therefore false. In the sense that people who believe Fox News is fake news are biased against it, people who watch Fox News are absolutely right about those who hate the network - they are biased against Fox News and all the reactionary political views associated with Fox. If a person is against falsehood, that person is, by definition, biased against falsehood, and that in itself is a bias. Therefore, if you only accept opinions as true which are unbiased against your worldview, you have become biased against the truth. There is very little need to talk about the bias of someone else's views unless you're trying to reorient the bias. To allege, as conservatives have for my entire lifetime, that the mainstream media has a liberal bias, is not a way of saying that they want to change the way the mainstream media reports news. It is, rather, a way of delegitimizing the mainstream media and making it seem as though factual reporting that comes to people without conservative editorializing is in itself liberal. Perhaps the reason for that is that, as Colbert famously said at the 2006 White House Press Correspondents Dinner, reality has a well-known liberal bias. But even if reality does not have such a terrible liberal slant, it would still be in the interests of Fox News and the Drudge Report and Breitbart and Town Hall and a hundred other sister sites and all of their financial and political backers to tell us that any news site that does not report you the news with a giant right-wing editorial filter is liberally biased. This is why the right wing noise machine is self-perpetuating, and is the most blatant, dangerous breed of mass propaganda America has seen since the era of Father Coughlin.

But don't be too quick to look down on Fox News watchers, and don't be too quick to think that the Left is not capable of mounting an editorial machine not too far down the road that wouldn't be just as or still more dangerous and duplicitous.  The other side of the political spectrum has just as large a share of suckers that are lied to and cheated every day of their lives.  There is an emerging movement of the Left that is becoming no less dangerous, no less stupid, and has grown precisely because the right managed to demonize everything to its left - with moderation wreaking of liberals which wreak of progressivism which wreaks of socialism which wreaks of communism which wreaks of Stalinism. - and therefore since Conservatives have portrayed liberals so effectively as demons for so long, many people of a liberal disposition now see nothing wrong with even those qualities which conservatives rightly demonized. If condemning the most predatory practices of big business is equated with socialism, as so many conservatives have, socialism begins to seem much more appealing. If censure for the bloodiest practices of urban police forces is equated with allowance for mob rule, as so many conservatives do, violent uprisings against the police seem much more justified. And most importantly, if denunciation of US alliances with dictatorships is equated with foreign policy disasters, as so many millions of conservatives always have, then many liberal-minded people will feel justified in thinking that the United States deserves to have disaster befall it.

It's important not to get sidetracked and not to go down the byways of how these syllogisms may seem to people both right and left like straw man arguments. I'm sure that any conservatives or socialists listening to this podcast would point out that the last few sentences don't do even a semblance of justice to the points of view they've thought about seriously for their entire adult lives, only to come to conclusions that are as simple-minded as they would have been had they only thought about the problem for two minutes.

The point, rather, is precisely that these are straw man arguments, and these are precisely the kind of uncharitable bad faith to which both sides of worldwide discourse generally attribute to the other. But there was, once upon a time at least, a method of American discourse that insisted on something quite a bit more nuanced, and it's precisely this kind of nuance which has become the enemy of so much discourse.

When conservatives demonized those elite liberals in the mass media like the Kennedys and Clintons and Cuomos and Browns, whose staffers insisted on nuances that make big businesses practice their trade ethically, or policing that exhausts options before immediately resorting to violence, or insisting on diplomatic negotiations rather than escalations that inevitably risk war, by saying that Kennedys and Clintons and Cuomos and Browns are no different than socialists, and anarchists, and pacifists, they have birthed a modern left wing Frankenstein for which socialism, and anarchism, and pacifism, don't seem impossibly naive - and surely much more effective options than any option offered by those spineless liberals, who are really just privileged conservatives who don't have enough vested interest in getting America to change, or else they wouldn't have let themselves get steamrolled again and again by authoritarian reactionaries like the Republican party. It's the ultimate tribute to the Republican party, they've birthed an enemy to the left of the Democratic party who hates them so much that they want to imitate Republicans far more than they do Democrats.

Bernie Sanders 'only' got twelve-million voters, and let's be generous and take it on faith that at very least a few million Bernie voters do not dream of a world without capitalism the way Christians once dreamt of a world without Jews; there are still millions of Bernie supporters who see capitalism as the problem and not the billions of flawed human beings who work within it yet still haven't come up with an economic system that works any better. The most intellectually active of them probably comprise the 1.2 million individual hits Jacobin magazine got last month, and at very least 2.7 million monthly pageviews.

But those who take Jacobin particularly seriously are, usually at least, a very specific type of person who's been through the ringer of the the modern humanities education, such as it is. Light on primary texts and heavy indeed on the critical theory that tells them why such texts are a waste of time.

(university pseudoscience propaganda in humanities departments disguised as intellectual discourse. Something here about Zizek, Derrida, Foucault, Butler, and all their followers who can't get a job in academia but find a home on the internet. "The reason that the critical commentary can be so complex is because the essential premises are so simple and unchanging. Therefore the doubting Thomases can always be silenced with cries of 'You don't understand it.')

Much more importantly, there are also still the 40 million worldwide viewers of al-Jezeera, who get their news from a station that conditions them to reflexively view America as a monolithic imperial power incapable of acting ethically precisely because of its disproportionate power, a caricatured view of America as obviously simplistic of as Fox News conditions Americans to think of Arabs.

We live an era when truth is no longer considered objective and measurable, and therefore even facts are considered relative to the eye of the beholder. For reasons many and various, this has been a long time coming, and in an era when truth has been considered relative for all kinds of mediocre philosophical reasons, we can't be surprised that this is where we've arrived.I fear the world has quite a bit more spinning out of control, and spinning much more lethally, before it comes anywhere close to landing on its feet again.

Somehow, at the exact same time that college students learn that the truth is relative, the graduates who take their educations most seriously behave in such a way that makes the truths they believe so absolute as to be fanatical. When beliefs go too far to one side, they unwittingly embrace elements of the other side as compensation.

Here's just a small example. Lately I've seen a series of internet memes, saying that only a white male could have friends who disagree with them politically, because the political issues at stake today are so important that only white males could never be personally affected by this. In the name of liberalism, we're encouraged to be illiberal on the deepest, most fundamentally personal level, right down to which friends and family we associate with. There's a little truth to this, who could deny it? But as Fox News proves: a little truth is the most dangerous thing in the world, because it uses its appearance of veracity to cover up the deeper truths, and therefore, this is very nearly most poisonous propaganda there is. It's not just toxic, it's very, very dangerous. The toxicity is in how it peer pressures everyone to give up those friends and family who are insufficiently radical, lest their more political friends give them up for not doing so. But it's precisely because so many people, people with so much more power than the marginalized, have poisonous beliefs that so personally affect so many others in ways they don't realize that they have to be watched very carefully at a very personal level; that they have to be evangelized to, shown courtesy and warmth, so that their bubble of abstractions becomes the very real problems of very real people. The only other option is to let their hatreds fester unchanged and unwatched, which will only grow over time, until the marginalized become such a threat in their imaginations to their way of life that they have to be eliminated. It amazes me that people can live in 2018 America and not already see how far we are into that process.

Go ahead and judge conservatives poorly. I certainly do, I'm not ashamed of it, and in spite of any protests to the contrary, the way they judge liberals like me and people well to my left, whom they usually perceive as indistinguishable from me, thunders so loudly that nobody with liberal beliefs could possibly hear anything else. There is no doubt in my mind that being a conservative in today's political climate says something deeply unflattering about a person's moral character, and I have no doubt that the vast majority of them believe the same about anybody who isn't a conservative. But to say that the moral depravity of their beliefs is anything even close to as egregious as committing acts of moral depravity: thievery, abuse, fraud, is ridiculous. There are so many variables that constitute the makeup of a person's moral character, so many mitigating reasons everybody behaves the way they do, so many potential paths to redemption and so many ways to morally fail, that the flaws of a person's beliefs have to be the most forgivable of mortal sins. Poisonous beliefs may be a gateway of entitlement that allows people to commit egregious acts, but until any person him or herself crosses the line into committing acts so egregious, nobody should be considered as culpable as the offender. Let he or she who is without sin cast the first stone, we have all, in our various ways, been guilty of excusing people who poison the well of human behavior.

I was very sick last week, so I spent it binge-watching an old favorite TV show, Parks and Recreation. The reason to bring it up is not to advocate for it as something immortal, though it was easily one of the best things on TV when it was on, but the true miracle of the show was that at the show's center was a friendship of mutual esteem and respect between Leslie Knope, a mid-century idealistic and optimistic American liberal who believes that government exists to solve problems, and her boss, Ron Swanson, a deeply pessimistic 90's libertarian who believes that his role is to minimize the damage government can do. The typical Parks and Rec plot involves Leslie coming up with a solution that is ridiculous, as Ron inevitably says it will be, which then results in a chastened Leslie incorporating Ron's realism into a solution that works. To see this on television in the early 2010s, when the country receded into unprecedentedly unbreakable party lines was a kind of miracle, and a kind of prayer that we all can cross these unbreakable lines in our own lives.

On both sides of the propaganda divide, there is a gigantic cottage industry of artisans who work twelve hours or more every day to convince us to step through a dimensional doorway that forces us to surrender our mental faculties to a worldview that explains everything to us. None of their explanations are particularly convincing, but they're all much more convenient than thinking for oneself, and allow us all to rest easy with the knowledge that there is the demon with a name and an address who prevents the world from becoming better than it is. The commercials don't film themselves, the journalistic infotainment doesn't report itself, the critical commentaries of academia don't write themselves, the political events don't stage themselves. But politics is no revealer of mystery. In spite of all the ministrations of all these people devoted to turning politics into a religion, the fundamental mysteries of existence maintain their infinite unknowability. And if all the propaganda-industrial complex divested itself - if it left politics to community servants and technocrats who kept politics mundane and the secondary concern of life that it is during historical periods when quality of life is generally a little bit better, these misplaced artists could do the really exciting work illuminating the universe's mysteries rather than providing false explanations of it. Illumination which somehow always seems to be at its brightest when societies are at their height. Ask yourself sometime why it is that a Shakespeare came out of Elizabethan England and not Carolinean or Restoration England. Or if there is a correlation between the fact that Beethoven and Metternich could arise from the same Austria. Or why the Leonardos and Michelangelos of the High Renaissance came out of the peace that Lorenzo Medici brought to Italy in the late 1400s, and that by the time Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, there could be no true successors to them. Or, for that matter, why America had a brief period in the '50s when they were in thrall to the so-called high artists, plays like Death of a Salesman and Streetcar Named Desire, literary novels that became bestsellers like Catcher in the Rye and Invisible Man and Lolita, music like Aaron Copland's and Leonard Bernstein's, jazz rather than dance music became an abstract intellectual pursuit in Miles Davis and Coltrane and Monk and Brubeck, and even foreign cinema became very nearly mainstream for a hot second before 1965. During prosperous periods when politics is too boring for people to focus on, the educated at least turn to art, and the result almost always seems to be the art that defines that civilization for all time. It's highly probable that those circumstances can't be recaptured in later, more complex periods, but it's not like too many people are trying, so how would we know?

(why art is political and why it isn't - the point of consuming art is precisely because politics will not give us what we want - )

I'm a personal believer that the key to the world being a livable place is to adjust your expectations accordingly, because the only place where it's relatively safe to demand infinite expectations is art, and there only for the audience, not the creator. We live in an era when the solutions to our problems are, in fact, the problems. When everyone's truth is equally valid, how then do we prove the truth? We could, of course, make alternative facts illegal to share, and set a government standard, but what then happens if a potential authoritarian comes along who realizes he can increase his power exponentially if he makes only alternative facts legal ones - some would say this is Trump's aim. Even if it is, I doubt he has the competence to do anything like that, but a smarter person reading Trump's playbook, say, an American Putin, could do so very well, and many people say that that's precisely what Putin has done in Russia.

It really is extraordinary that, on the one hand, we live in this incredibly science and data based era, and because everything now has to be scientifically backed by data, there are a lot of assumptions, important assumptions that used keep the world afloat, that people refuse to take for granted. A traditional news source is unbiased? Show me the proof. A vaccine doesn't cause a disease? Show me the proof. And yet, even when you show them the proof, they show you proof they think as as real as your proof. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Senator from New York and the intellectual incarnation of the American center, used to say that 'people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.' And yet, the more facts we have at our disposal, the more facts people fabricate.

No comments:

Post a Comment