Sunday, June 04, 2006

"Another Beautiful Day on the Island"

This article on the alleged "clownification" of America appears on alternet, and is one of their "most e-mailed." It's really in a long tradition of seeing entertainment and news media (increasingly the same thing in a privatized media market) as ways of softening the masses for the real decisionmakers and rulers in the country. Horkheimer and Adorno's work is oft-cited by academics, and more recently you have the late Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. But there are signs that things are now really as bleak as these doomsayers precociously, perhaps, said.

The alternet "clownification" of America article is occasioned by its author reading front-page headlines about American Idol in his morning newspaper. It is not contained in the entertainment section but has crept onto the front page to compete for newsworthiness with scandals, natural disasters, and highly dramatic (they hope) political conflict--eg. a candidate who, in an attempt to perform his requisite masculinity, resorts to the playground challenge "Bring it on!" an alternate of "After School [you're dead!]!"

It's true. It's a claim somewhat different from the media are producing robots, though it often accompanies that claim. This claim is about the content of stories and the news market values that produce them. Scholars increasingly refer to these news content/values trends as "infotainment" or "tabloidization." And yes, you can assume that such trends do have some kind of an effect on the available information necessary for a democratic public life.
Just saying that anyone can go to the internet to be informed is a flawed response for many reasons (even less chance of accuracy for the undiscerning; and the unlikelihood that many will actively seek out such information). "If men were angels, no government would be necessary," wrote James Madison in the Federalist Papers. The idea here is that you can't trust everyone to behave and use their liberty in ways that will benefit the whole citizenry (one might also read into it an elite distrust about whether everyone is capable of acting in ways that are even self-beneficial--a worry about uneducated false consciousness). Might one say, following Madison today, "If men [sic] were angels, no media content and values guidelines would be necessary."? You can't trust the market to serve the democracy well by providing non-tabloidesque stories to citizens. You can't trust citizens to seek out information vital to citizenship, especially when powerful forces in a society have created a locally-controlled national education system highly inconsistent in quality combined with billions of advertising and public relations dollars going into celebrating the equation of leisure time with consumption, of objects and services, some media services, that are more about a break from the pressures of everyday life than something that is going to make you work hard intellectually, politically, morally.

Education systems and news values in journalism schools and news companies are all part of an invisible hand of government in our societies. They combine with other institutions, values, and structured behaviors to in fact shape human beings. People make choices/themselves to some degree within conditions they have only partly made themselves. Founders of the American republic knew this quite well when they debated education systems and the values important to a long-lived democracy. Founder Benjamin Rush was quite forthright in such comments about the relationship of culture to democratic life. Some excerpts from a website on Rush. (on Rush, see also here )
*Duty must be coupled with "republican principles"; with progressive
One of the basic beliefs of the new nation was that it was
established for the progress of mankind.. It would be a mistake to train
the youth of the nation in such a way that they would simply continue the
institutions that had been established. These institutions were meant to
function progressively, and so must be modified constantly. For these
reasons the pupil "must be taught that there can be no durable liberty in
a republic and that government, like all other sciences, is of a
progressive nature."

*Amusements may educate for democracy.
The reconstruction of education should not stop simply with a
reformation of the formal school procedure. It should also extend into
the amusements of youth, for there are "amusements that are proper for
young people in a republic." All activities that had the potential to
work against the spirit of democracy should be discouraged, and all others
should be encouraged.

* A new type of education required for new type of duties and new social
There was an assumption after the revolution that the form of
government that had been assumed had "created a new class of duties to
every American." Another assumption was that the force of former controls
had largely disappeared. Rush then concluded: "It becomes us, therefore,
to examine our former habits upon this subject, and in laying the
foundations for nurseries of wise and good men, to adapt our modes of
teaching to the peculiar form of our government." [...]
* Young men made by education into "republican machines"
An education should be present that would give a thorough
grounding in democratic principles, and at the same time would make for
modification of instruments of society that would be necessary for
progress toward greater freedom."
Like a lot of the founders, Rush had all sorts of ideas that today many of us would find ludicrous, if not entirely offensive (such as his ideas about race and role of women in society). But he was quite honest about the fact that social institutions, including education, will shape people in important ways. No one is entirely "self-made," despite what financial success they may have had. But in contemporary neo-liberalism, the idea is widespread that people simply demand what they want from the market, leaving aside the question of how people come to want certain things in the first place (because important social forces have been celebrating certain values and behavior for their entire lives). But more importantly, one might say, the question should not be what majorities of people believe or want at certain times, but what is consistent with a vision of democracy and its maintenance. Otherwise, let's call this polity something else--perhaps a freemarket plutocracy or something.

Just pointing the elitist finger and saying, "Let people decide what they want! Why should you tell them what they should have in their schools and newspapers!" is sociologically naive. No one escapes cultural and social government, the shaping of socical and private life through norms, values, institutionally produced ideas of what is proper and good and improper and bad. We are born into and shaped by such forces. We may be educated about them and then reflexively untangle ourselves from them in some ways and even reshape them. But we must first be aware of the complex ways we are shaped. And here we must ask what are the effects of such educational and news practices/values on ideals of democratic public life.

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