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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

Let the finger pointing begin…

The News Media’s Responsibility for 2016

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Some things that rational people have suspected for many years have been confirmed over the last year and a half of the US presidential campaign.

Those of us who watch the United States from outside of its borders have long suspected colorblind-thoughtthat racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny were alive and well in the US; they were bubbling and seething just below the surface, ready to explode into the mainstream, if societal pressure was released for a moment. The Donald J Trump candidacy did exactly that. It made hatred and intolerance legitimate and exposed the depth and intensity of the hatred that, until Trump gave it his blessing, couldn’t be expressed in polite company. Trump’s campaign even managed to do away with the notion of polite company.

Prior to Donald Trump’s announcement of his intention to seek the highest office in the land and the position of most powerful person in the world, many political observers, including me, have remarked upon the dumbing down of public discourse; some, also including me, have even tried to focus attention on the very real decrease in the average IQ of Americans, as stupidity is being selected for in the patterns of human reproduction in the country. Of course, as intelligence wanes, an understanding of evolution tends to fade away too; there is a correlated disappearance of worry about the increasing stupidity that defines the US.

But even more than those suspicions, which the presidential campaign has confirmed, newsthe frequently noted degeneration of the American news media has become patently evident. Whatever happens on November 8 and in the immediate aftermath, it’s important that we be very aware of the fact that the entire debacle of the 2016 election campaign was largely the result of a news industry that has completely lost its way. The clusterfuck that we have been force-fed for one and a half years is the result of a news media that no longer deserves to be called anything but entertainment.

When television networks looked at their programming lineups decades ago, and50s-tv noticed that their most reliable and consistent viewership was during the time set aside for the news, the powers of capitalism and free enterprise couldn’t be restrained. For years, the news had been broadcast as a public service. It was not intended that news be a profit centre. Back in the days before everyone controlled their television viewing with a remote control, people had to stand up, walk to the TV, and physically change the dial to the network they wanted to watch. Network loyalty was an important factor in programming. So, the only reason ratings were important to news broadcasts was for the bragging rights and the rather nebulous assumption that people would be inclined to leave the dial on whatever channel they were watching when the news broadcast ended and prime-time viewing started.

networksocialmediachart_6But when the big money people realised that they could sell advertising on news broadcasts, it became a race for the bottom. News was only as important as it was likely to increase viewership. If it bleeds, it leads, was always a cynical dictum of news editing; with the race for ratings, blood became only one of the leads. Celebrity gossip, pathos, sex; all of those were sure to bring in the viewers, so they became the standard fare of broadcast ‘journalism’. Politics made the editorial cut if it involved the White House, because the president could be sold as a celebrity. Other politicians were only interesting if they could be reported on as celebrities, too. Salacious stories involving the sexual misadventures of legislators became newsworthy; actual political news didn’t grab the lowest common denominator, the hypothetical viewer for whom the news is edited.

Newsworthiness is judged simply by the ratings. The desperate battle for attention spilled over to other media; print media started to die when it tried to compete for internet-newssalaciousness and titillation; the Internet spawned thousands of sites that cater to every perverted taste. The result was a vast, nearly infinite forum in which genuine professional journalism is given equal time with rabidly fanatic partisan propaganda; with clickbait sites devoid of content but displaying outrageous headlines; with joke sites that parody the news; with hate sites; with sites claiming to be journalism, but lacking any understanding of basics like sourcing, independent confirmation, or fact-checking.

And the bastard child of the media’s infatuation with ratings is the dismissal and rejection of reporting on anything of substance. Only the sexy, the violent, or the outrageous draws enough attention to make it into the mainstream news. And the mainstream news fell for the ploy of one of the world’s greatest media whores and media-whorecheesiest hucksters. They let him define the terms of the election coverage and they played into his tacky, tasteless, deeply offensive strategy.

Donald Trump is not smart enough to have planned this campaign and then followed through on a pre-existing strategy. But he does have a low animal cunning and some sort of instinct for manipulating the media. Modern media manipulation isn’t all that complicated. All it takes is a willingness to wallow in sewage and have no regard whatsoever for human decency or civilised behaviour.

He started garnering media coverage by targeting those who share his racist views. In his very first speech as a candidate, he fired up anti-immigrant sentiment and described Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers. He followed that up with an absurd promise topoorly-educated build an enormous wall along the US/Mexican border to eliminate illegal migration, despite the fact (barely mentioned in the media) that net migration is southward, as Hispanics overall are leaving the US to return to Mexico. The press, true to its mission of whoring for ratings (or clicks), reported the outrageous promise as though it deserved to be taken seriously. And Trump, true to the B.F. Skinner model of human behaviour, was gratified by the positive reinforcement he received from an uncritical press. He quickly realised that he could press the buttons that result in adulation from his fellow bigots, and they found themselves able to express their long suppressed bigotry without condemnation in the media. Hatred was not only okay again; it was a courageous refusal to kowtow to ‘political correctness’. And the mainstream media kept reporting the increasingly delusional statements, pledges, and promises of a clearly mentally disturbed candidate as though he was making sense.

Trump was a goldmine. He was ignorant enough to appeal (“I love the poorly educated”) to the ignorant. And, as we have seen, the ignorant were forming an increasingly word-saladsignificant block of the electorate. But because Trump could be depended upon to do or say something over-the-top and outrageously offensive, the news media gave him so much airtime that he spent zero on television campaign ads in the primaries. It didn’t matter if it made the slightest bit of sense; Trump meant ratings. Media analysts have estimated the advertising value of the unwarranted coverage he got, for simply being a loudmouthed asshole, in the billions of dollars.

The media was enjoying a windfall and they didn’t want it ever to end. They handed him the nomination and no one was more surprised than Trump insiders that he was now the candidate of one of the two major political parties in the US. Trump, who had started the idiotic campaign with no more of an agenda than increasing his brand’s value through media manipulation, soon started to believe his own press; he began to believe that he is the future of America. And as we watch Americans go to the polls, we can all be afraid that he is.

I'm a defense attorney and this clown is our consultant in the event the case becomes a media circus.

But starting now, whatever happens on the 8th, the news industry is going to have to take a long hard look at themselves. Trump is a refection of every ignoble aspect of the American psyche and is an embarrassment to the nation. He was created by the systemic bigotry and ignorance espoused by the party that nominated him, and he is a logical outgrowth of their platform and policies. But he was elevated to importance and to a level of significance that makes him an existential threat to democracy in the United States by the media. It is time that the news industry does some real soul searching and rethinks the very paradigms that have dominated the news media for several decades.

ENDITEM…

 

The Further Adventures of Snake Plisskin

The Cave

Pagun

 VANCOUVER ISLAND CANADA – In TheRepublic, Plato recounts a dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon, that has become known as the Allegory of the Cave. The allegory is crucial to Plato’s philosophy as it outlines the basic metaphor from which the seminal theory of the Platonic forms is drawn. It is also critical because it explains the underpinnings of Socrates’ understanding of the baffling (to Socrates, at any rate) statement of the Oracle of Delphi that the wisest of mortals was, in fact, Socrates. Socrates spent the better part of his career as a philosopher trying to disprove the Oracle’s declaration because, in his own judgment, he was utterly ignorant; he knew that he knew nothing. 

Briefly, the story that forms the allegory goes like this: Imagine prisoners who have been kept chained in a cave their entire lives. They face the wall of the cave and all they can see are the shadows cast on the cave’s wall by objects that pass behind them and in front of a fire. They come to believe that the shadows they see are, in fact, the whole of reality. Socrates then compares a philosopher to a prisoner who breaks out of his confinement and sees the world beyond the cave, and experiences the wonder and vastness of the world. 

This, Socrates eventually concludes in Apology when he explains his life to the people of Athens before he is put to death, is what the oracle meant when she said that he was the wisest mortal; that he, unlike the prisoners, was aware that he knew nothing. 

This came to mind recently when I was asked to chair and moderate a discussion on Canada’s military’s role nationally and internationally. The subject of the discussion is irrelevant, but what is relevant is that I when did this little gig, it was an increasingly rare venture outside of the cave. 

For months now, I have been living inside that cave Plato described. My work consists of caring for a small boy who spends three mornings a week at preschool and the rest of the time under my direct observation. During that time, I write and read and research as much as I can, and other than the occasional speaking engagement, a brief conversation with a neighbour or delivery person forms my entire interaction with society; genuine conversation begins and ends with my wife…and Internet forums. Yolanda is at work (she is employed by a charitable organisation) for the bulk of the day, so I have recently spent more time than is entirely healthy exchanging thoughts and ideas with other denizens of the ‘Net. This, I felt, was useful because it would keep me in touch with the world, help me stay abreast of social trends, and maintain a finger on the pulse of the world of which I still assumed I was a part. 

My assumption was wrong. I was not staying in touch; I was retreating into the cave and chaining myself up with the other prisoners. I was not seeing the world anymore; I was watching the flickering shadows on the cave’s wall and mistaking them for reality. I was actually losing touch with what defines us as a civilised society. Stepping back, I start to get a glimmer of how people in constant communication with thousands of people all over the world and with total access to news, as it happens anywhere on the planet, can be utterly alienated. I even start to get a sense of how that isolation and alienation can breed and nurture damaged people like Adam Lanza. I get that sense because so many of the keyboard warriors that spend their days lurking behind fictional registered personas are clearly disturbed and, being utterly unfettered by society’s direct disapprobation of truly offensive behaviour, feel free to express ideas and thoughts that ought to have them committed to at least thirty days of court ordered psychiatric observation.

 

When I was a university teacher; when I worked in newspaper, magazine, or even business offices; when I hung out in hotel bars with colleagues; when I routinely attended conferences and conventions; I had ample…perhaps even too ample….opportunity to exchange views, to explore ideas, to determine how others saw things. There was open, social, and informed discussion of news, of politics, religion, education, business, society in general; I was outside of the cave and I was seeing and participating in the wonder and vastness of the world. 

But inside the cave, seeing nothing but the flickering shadows on the computer screen, we can become deluded into believing that we are experiencing, even participating, in the real world; we’re not. We can participate fully and robustly in news discussion forums and we can contribute to dedicated chat rooms, even serious minded ones, but if we think that is anything more than a pale analogue of full, genuine human interaction we are as deluded as the chained prisoners who believe that shadows are the whole of reality. 

I suspect that is largely because of the anonymity that the Internet can offer. In the real world; in the cocktail bar and the coffee room and the faculty lounge, society imposes a degree of accountability on people for what they say, how they say it, and to whom they say it. That is entirely missing on the Web. Certainly the virtual world is developing its own protocols and rules of acceptable social behaviour; nevertheless, the Internet, compared to human society as an historical reality, is very young. It has the social strictures of a daycare centre without any supervision. 

The result of this is a kind of Lord of the Flies existence in the cyberworld.  It has broken up into factions and there are pockets of refinement, decency, and intelligent discussion. These are hard to find, however, and they are generally either moderated, which slows down and inhibits the free flow conversation or they require one to jump through hoops to register and this tends to encourage groupthink and its resulting reinforcement of preconceptions. By and large, the easy-to-use news forums are inhabited by the scrapings of the barrel`s bottom. There are thoughtful, intelligent users, but they tend to get shouted down, ganged up on, bullied, and derided by the keyboard warriors for whom calling people names passes for an exchange of ideas. If the people who dominate these forums had – in the real world – the courage and bellicosity they affect online, the outside world would be reminiscent of Manhattan in John Carpenter`s Escape from New York. 

These general consumption forums (Yahoo News forums are perhaps the most obvious example) are trolled by ignorant, illiterate buffoons who love to trash any post that doesn`t express a political viewpoint to the right of Genghis Khan. The most prolific posters are passionate subscribers to every crackpot conspiracy theory; they are racist; they are astonishingly ignorant of history, science, and current events that aren`t reported by Fox “News”; the height of their wit is to refer to the US president as “O`Bammy”; they take it as an established fact that he is a Muslim communist Kenyan who conned all the “liberidiots”, as they refer to anyone who sees things differently from, say, Adolph Hitler. 

Because I, and anyone for whom I hold any real respect, don’t take cheap shots and hide behind anonymity, I make it possible, even fairly easy for people on forums I frequent to identify me. It helps me avoid the temptation to sink to the level of the common denominator and it maintains a faint shadow of the kind of constraint imposed by normal societal interaction. But given the level of ignorance and pugnacity of those posters, combined with my inclination toward hardcore liberalism, perhaps that is a mistake. 

I have had a thoughtful interlocutor call my four-year-old son JJ a “nigger”; I have had the same lowlife refer to my wife Yolanda as a “nigger whore”. This for no other reason than that he disagreed with my views on gun control and  took the time to look me up online, research me and discover that my wife and child are insufficiently white to suit him. 

It shames me to say that this scum is a Canadian. I have been similarly disparaged by people from other countries, but this one affected me because since we have been in Canada, my family has never, not once, been subjected to overt racism. But without societal constraint, this filth gets an airing and, worse, gets equal or greater play than those who abhor bigotry. It becomes seen by the dwellers of the Internet cave as a legitimate and widespread viewpoint. 

So, when I recently stepped into the real world for a gig that involved listening to average people’s views and guiding a discussion of them, I dreaded the prospect and was concerned that they couldn’t pay me enough to have to listen to the garbage to which I would undoubtedly be subjected. And that was my surprise. The average people at the discussion were reasonably well informed; they were respectful; they listened and disagreed without derision. Some were smarter than others, and some had views that I couldn’t possibly share, but they were expressed rationally, if passionately. I was outside of the Cave. 

The real world is a better place in some ways than the virtual world, because people have to live together. As long as it means only that one doesn’t gratuitously ridicule others or deliberately hurt people, political correctness apparently has its place. Society imposes a requirement that we don’t callously and deliberately abuse one another, because we can’t simply step away from our keyboard to avoid the repercussions. 

People aren’t as stupid and venal as one would believe if one were to make an analysis based solely on what one could glean from the Internet. Outside of the cave there is a world of people of all sorts, there is wisdom, there is kindness, there is courtesy. The bad things are certainly there as well, but unlike inside the cave, or Carpenter’s New York, they don’t predominate. 

I have to get out more.

 

…enditem…

 

 

 

 

The Pagun Principle and the Internet

A meditation on the Internet and crap

Pagun

 VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – My recent foray into the heart of darkness of the Internet news forums has left me with a lingering depression. As I have already described, what passes for news commentary and discussion among the general public is, by and large, nothing more than a cringe-worthy collection of childish name calling and venomous exchanges of insults. What is even more worrisome is the inclination to unbridled bigotry, expressed as racism, ageism, sexism, and pretty much any other “ism” you can name or coin. In an effort to come to terms with the malaise with which this observation has left me, I have done some meditating on the subject. 

The first thing that comes to mind is that I’m inclined to dismiss the notion that the cause of the ignorance and low intellectual standards is the Internet itself. Although many social critics spend an inordinate amount of bandwidth bemoaning the negative influence of digital technology and the virtual universe that is nearly universally accessible, I can’t subscribe to their view. The Internet is just too vast, too broad, and too varied to make generalisations about what can be gleaned by exploring it. It is a repository of virtually unlimited knowledge and opinion with intrinsic value that ranges from the sublime to the repugnant, from the enlightened to the astonishingly stupid. All of it is, to all intents and purposes, equally and instantly available and which nuggets the digital prospector chooses to extract is up to the individual. 

The Church was actively opposed to the explosion of literacy that was precipitated by my distant ancestor Johannes Gutenberg when he introduced printing to Europe, because it was thought that the average person shouldn’t be exposed to ideas that should be the exclusive purview of the clergy and the aristocracy. Nevertheless, there was only a period of about 150 years between the time Gutenberg printed his first book for a Europe, in which virtually everyone was illiterate and the time of Shakespeare, when even the lowliest trades and craftspeople read for pleasure. 

The Internet has had and will continue to have a similarly profound effect on today’s society; moreover in Shakespeare’s time as in the current era, the Pagun Principle[1] applied as universally as it does to the Internet and everything else today. Nevertheless very few of us would choose to go back to the general illiteracy that was the pre-Renaissance world. And ask anyone who bemoans the vacuity of the worldwide web whether they would like to do without email, Wikipedia, Google, or Facebook. 

No, the Internet doesn’t make people stupid; it just gives stupid people more exposure. And if you give a large number of truly stupid people a stage, they’re going to fight for the microphone; part of the stupid syndrome is a compulsion to outdo one another. But when you give them that heady combination of a platform and a vast audience, and then you add anonymity, it’s a gnarly mix. You will have literally millions of people whose parents’ last words were, “Hey, guys! Watch this!” competing to see who can be more offensively stupid while still being able to hide their excesses behind plausible deniability. 

That plausible deniability is also protective colouration for people to embrace their inner bigot. Deep in many people’s id there seems to be a vicious hate-filled sociopath longing to have both an audience and anonymity. The Internet provides that unique combination. While historically it was possible to publish vicious hate literature anonymously, that required money and professional printers and distributors and booksellers willing to go out on a limb and be complicit in the subterfuge; there had to be some perceived merit or a strong consensus to gather those people and maintain secrecy. We don’t need to imagine how much of a stampede there would be if an inestimably large audience could be found by someone with no money, no supporters and nothing but deep-seated insecurity and hatred (and computer access to the ‘Net from his mother’s basement) with which to work; we can see it every time we log on to Yahoo News. 

And that insecurity and hatred of the world doesn’t just seep out, it bursts out like the pus from the pimples those pathetic losers pop on their screens between vicious posts. While the anger is real, the alienation genuine, and the bitterness authentic, I don’t – I can’t – believe that the venomous racism is anything more than a desperate expression of angst and a desire to instill a similar anger in others, a wish to outrage the world that they feel has rejected them.

One has to feel a certain sense of pity for the poor pathetic losers who troll the sites, disrupting and annoying so that they can finally feel as though they matter. As Willy Loman’s wife pointed out, attention must be paid. In their case, they demand it, and they get it. 

But it occurs to me, as I think more about the truly ignorant and distasteful trolls who spew their bizarre fantasies on the web, that some of them are just taking advantage of their anonymity to say things that really are in character for them, but that they know are just wrong. They know that saying that the president of the United States is a Kenyan Muslim in the real world would have them treated like gibbering idiots; but they don’t like him and to their minds that’s indistinguishable from any harebrained negative aspersion that pops into their mind. The Internet gives them a forum for expressing that idea – moreover there are enough others like them that they can find people to agree with them. Then the stupid gene kicks in, they

try to outdo each other in the passion with which they express the idea, and in the intricacy of the conspiracy they invent to explain it. 

My real concern is the democratic nature of the Internet. While democracy is the only theory and practice of governance I could support, the downside in the virtual world is that it gives the ridiculous as bully a pulpit as it does the sublime. Equal time is given to the thoughtful, perceptive commentary and to the viciously stupid and hopelessly ignorant. Even worse, because the Pagun Principle applies here, the second category of contributions more often than not garners greater support. 

But distasteful and depressing as the abysmal standards of discussion and even thinking are in the public forums of the Internet, it occurs to me that it’s time I started to look at the “net the same way I do the world outside my windows. That is, apply the Pagun principal fairly. I know that 90% of the people I will pass on the street, or who will share a subway car, or enter a shopping mall are, to put it reasonably, crap. They will be gullible, venal, narrow-minded, bigoted, unthinking, clueless trend followers. They always have been and that percentage is a universal constant. And yet somehow we all manage to get through the day without going postal. I think that’s because we are discriminating in the real world as to whom we chose to engage. (For example, I know for a fact that the people reading this are emphatically not among the 90%…if they were they would have given up in disgust long ago; in fact they wouldn’t have found their way to this site in the first place). We choose to associate on any real level with those who do not fall into that 90%. 

That we are less discriminating when it comes to the digital world can easily be seen when you compare what passes for friendship in the two realms. Most people can’t claim to have more than a dozen real friends. Oh, they might have dozens, even hundreds of acquaintances, people they know and like to spend time with, colleagues, teammates, etc. But real friends? On the other hand, it’s not uncommon to have 500 or more “friends” on Facebook. 

So maybe if we accept that we need to ignore the 90% and focus more on that 10% that we eventually run across, then nurture the relationships, return to the websites, discuss on those sites courteously and thoughtfully, we might become inured to the vast wasteland that is the virtual landscape.

That doesn’t make me feel much better somehow.

…enditem…


[1] The Pagun Principle:  90% of everything is crap

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