When the word came to Shabu that his father’s powerful friends had convinced him that Shabu’s governance had been so terrible, and that his advocacy for the tribe had been so inept that Shabu could no longer rule the great city, Shabu was very angry. He called a great council of his advisers to find out what action to take.
“In the first place, there is no hope of defying your father. He is a god to the most powerful families in both military and commerce. Most of the men loyal to you owe their places in your government to your father; and they are, therefore, more loyal to him than to you. But you can stall for time. Tell him you need four years to prepare the new prince to rule the Great City. “ This was the first item of unanimous consent.
“In the second place,it is imperative that we reward our friends for their support. So we must write IOU’s from the public coffers to those who supported us. These must be such great sums of money that there is no hope that all the people of the great city now living will be able to pay them off in their lifetimes. And so their children will be forced to work as slaves to fulfil the promises we made to our friends.”
And so the arms merchants and the prayermakers and the owners of great estates were given heaps of gold and promises for more gold than was in the whole kingdom.
“In the third place, there is no question of your leaving the Great City in a condition that can be easily governed. You must divide its inhabitants into factions. The rich vs the poor. The north vs. the south. The uplanders vs the valley dwellers. The worshipers of Vall against the heathen. The old against the young. The men against the women. Even the blind must be turned against those who might help them navigate the world in blindness.” Shabu’s men hired prayermakers to shout from the towers of the minarets. In the rich neighborhoods the prayermakers heaped scorn on the poor for being stupid, uneducated, dirty, shifty, lazy, untrustworthy, and poor. In the poor neighborhoods prayermakers heaped scorn on the rich for being greedy, insensitive, lazy, criminal, and abusive of public trust. The educated were turned from issues of policy to issues of personal well-being. The underclasses were taught to trust only the prayermakers. The heathen were taught to despise the simplicity of the faithful. The faithful were taught to dispise the waywardness of the heathen.
“Finally, we must present the new prince with a problem so big that no other problem seems important and so difficult that there exists no acceptable solution. Then, when he takes power we can mock him from every corner of the Great City both for what he does and for what he does not do. And we can mock him regardless of the choices he makes.”
Shabu’s advisers were at a loss to know what sort of problem would be big enough, serious enough to satisfy these criteria. But Shabu had a quiet adviser with a bald head and a gravelly voice named Ynech. “Suppose the great city were on fire.”
“But we have well trained men. We have equipment. We have procedures. We have firebreaks. We have water in great vessels.”
“So, we need to move the trained men into another country to fight a war. We need to hire mercenaries who are actively hostile to procedures and training and who love nothing better than to get drunk while on duty. We need to sell the equipment. We need to store cooking oil in great open pottery vessels all along the firebreaks so that a single rider on a horse with a torch and a great hammer can ride from vessel to vessel at night, lighting the oil and breaking the pots. And in this way he can set light to the whole of the Great City in an hour’s time. Have the prayermakers invent reasons for each of these new policies.”
So it was ordered. So it was done.
Even before the day of that Shabu was to hand governance of the Great City over to young prince Ambao who would replace him, citizens of the city were nervous about the pots of oil lining the great fire-breaks. A few of those pots had already been set alight “to light the darkness and make the city safe at night.” But it was evident there were cracks in many of the pots, especially the ones that were lit. Where were the firemen? The firemen had been sent away. What about their untrained replacements? They were lying in a stupor in the brothels.
What about the idea of men taking up their own fight against the threat? The pots of oil had their own guards whose public purpose was to keep the pots safe. These guards would let no man near the fire breaks. But little known to the citizenry, each guard had hidden a hammer nearby. And on the agreed signal, they would break the pots. It would not take an hour to set the whole of the Great City alight. It would take twenty seconds. Ynech’s plans were always technically brilliant.
Finally the day arrived. Shabu and his small council left the Great City. As soon as they were outside the city walls, the signal was given. And in twenty seconds the whole of the Great City was in flames.
Young Ambao had seen it coming. But he was not in a strong position. If he accused Shabu of orchestrating the fire, he would lose his place to a prince less able and less principled than he. All he could do was to fight the fire. This would not be easy. Not only were the firefighters gone, but a year back Shabu had imported slaves who, bucket by bucket had drained the lake to irrigate a crop of indigo that his minions had processed into dye and sold to Distant City. There was only enough water for drinking and bathing until the next seasonal rains. The only other resource was a huge heap of heavy twill fabric.
So Ambao organized the people of the city into brigades. Their goal was not to put out the fire where it burned out of control - these areas were lost - but to keep the fire from spreading to new places by beating out young flames with the heavy twill cloth. A tiny amount of water was applied to the cloth until it was just damp. Then the cloth would be swung at tongues of flame as they moved into new territory. This effort would save great swathes of the city, even as others were lost.
It was a great gamble since the twill cloth had some value on the open market but there were few out-of-town buyers for Great City real estate. He was destroying a thing of commercial value to save something that was not. So maybe from a purely commercial standpoint it was not a sound decision. But before the rainy season would come winter. And people of the Great City would die of freezing weather if too many of the homes were destroyed. Furthermore, Great City did much business with entities from far places. And if the whole city burned, all of this would be lost. Much more than the value of the buildings would be destroyed by fire. And hundreds of time the value of the cloth would be lost.
Still, it was a gamble. It might not work. Groups of untrained men, women, and children swatting flames with wet twill was not a pretty site. People did not know how to wield the twill well. Some tried to take on flames that could never be put out this way. Others simply folded up the twill and planned to sell it at a profit when the stocks ran out. But many of the citizens fought the flames well and bravely. Many homes were saved. And many places of business with their stocks of goods survived, too.
This did not, however, cause the prayermakers and the other friends of Shabu to issue utterances of praise. Instead, they mocked the efforts.
“Ha! Ambao has undertaken to fight fire with combustable materials! He is a fool. And those who follow him are slaves and idiots.”
“Ha! Look how Ambao is wasting water. All that water is going to be needed for spring planting of indigo, if the rains are late.”
“Great City never burned like this while Shabu was prince of the city. What kind of ineptitude on the part of Ambao caused this conflagration?”
These kinds of questions and comments were yelled from the minarets by the prayermakers. They were shouted from the high windows in the quarters where men of commerce lived. There were even men in the poor neighborhoods who earned their meager livelihoods by whispering these same doubts to whom might listen.
Even as we speak, the Great City is burning. Even as we speak, Ambao is fighting the fire. Even as we speak Shabu’s friends are mocking his efforts.
What must prince Ambao do next?
It’s broken. Not just a little. The media in America is fundamentally broken. The most essential social purpose of media is open public policy discourse. Open public discourse is vital to a democratic way of life. Yet the US has repeatedly failed to attain and maintain a high level of public discourse in most of its media. A few magazines prove an excption. And there are some minor bright spots in TV and radio. What started out being not particularly good has lurched from mediochre to insipid and then veered toward destructive. It is not uniformly so, but to a remarkable extent main stream media is a wasteland. Too many of its offerings actively gnaw at the fragile fabric that holds society together.
The Shallowness Problem
In 1832 Alexis de Tocqueville noted that American newspapers were principally commercial rags. He noted that Continental newspapers were full of thoughtful commentary, political analysis, and generally good writing but that American newspapers had only stripped down stories about trivial events, and ads. He did note that, at least east of the Hudson, people tended to live in vital communities that assembled regularly and engaged in political discourse orally. He admired the vitality and inclusiveness of such a system, even if he imagined the level of discourse to lack sophistication. In some ways, we might suppose it worked just a little like the internet of today, except that common interests tended to be geographically shared then, whereas today they are based more on interests, competencies, and political inclinations.
Much has not changed in America. In all but the most specialized media, trivia trumps thoughtful analysis, commerce trumps all. There is one nationwide newspaper that gets delivered free to a lot of hotel rooms whose level of discourse is so shallow I have never been able to make it through the first paragraph of any story. But I am not a patient reader; maybe the good stuff starts in paragraph 13. We must imagine that this free newspaper meets the needs of its advertizers, else the paper would fail. Yet does’t a newpaper by virtue of its mode of circulation have some obligation to inform?
Quid Pro Quo
It seems to me there is a quid pro quo here. America is a democratic republic. The only way that it can hope to be governed well is if its citizens - the ones who choose the political leaders - make good choices. They do not choose once and then stop. They keep on choosing. This choosing process offers a chance of sweeping corruption, bad behavior, and bad policy out of office. The process only works to the extent that most of the people are both effectively educated and well informed. Montesquieu would point out that they must also be truly virtuous - knowing what is good for society and striving to get that. It’s a crucial point, but part of another discussion. In order for Americans to be well informed, the press is policed almost not at all by the government. This is both good and necessary. But it implies a return obligation. It requires that media operate in a way that does not sabotage good public discourse. It is not a very odious requirement. But it is a strict one.
Substitute Products for Good Discourse
It is a categorical mistake to imagine that the sole purpose of media is to inform the political process. In fact, this may rightly be just the tiniest bit of what it does. But in the grand scheme of things, one can judge all media content the basis of whether it is particularly helpful to a society, innocuous, or harmful. And a society that fails to make this judgment risks self destruction.
There are several sorts of media content that stand in the way of good discourse. One is pablum. It is soporific to good sense and sensibility. Its mode of operation is to lull people to sleep. It is not a physical sleep, but a moral one. It is a kind of secular “opiate of the masses.” In a society full of the pains of inequality and injustice, a modest consumption of such opiates may be a necessary part of the cost of living in a socially cohesive society. I Love Lucy was mindless; but it was fun. But it has the same side effect as an opiate. It makes us want more of the same stuff. And it draws us away from doing harder but more necessary thinking.
In small doses pablum is pretty innocuos. One person’s drivel is another person’s fun, sometimes. There is a scene in a recent indy film that illustrates the point. The main character has a crazy brother whom we find mischievous, bright, fun. He is very quirky, and very lovable. In the middle of the film he commits suicide while watching “Everybody Loves Raymond” because he cannot figure out why anybody would. I understand his quandry. The observation both helps us understand a bit about what pablum is and what it is not. If I am not mistaken, the television show ran for a number of seasons and was considered a commercial success. It may still be running. And judging from the twenty eight seconds I endured of one episode long ago, it seemed about as harmless as it was vacuous. There is no reason to place any sort of sanction on this stuff. We imagine that good editors and program managers know it when they see it. And we must hope that they prevent their particular media channel from being completely overcome by it.
Another form of media product is shill fill. Shill fill is content that masquerades as news or information but whose purpose is primarily commercial. The purest and most open example is the infomercial. But at least the infomercial has the decency to inform us of the provenance of the material, so we may judge it accordingly. There are more subtle forms. If one picked up a newspaper in the mid 1980s and for five years running could find a new story about how high cholesterol was a ticking time bomb and a silent killer, one might reasonably ask whether the story had any connecton to a new family of patented pharmaceuticals designed to lower blood cholesterol. I remember the cholesterol scare of the mid 1980’s. I still have a cookbook or two written by then prominent nutrition writers at prominent newspapers advocating low cholesterol or low fat diets. One writer fumes at how the egg industry stood in the way of progress. Today we find informed writers telling us to eat eggs to lower cholesterol.
There is no question that commercial interests sponsor media that support political points of view most consonant with their interests. Consider rags like “National Review” and “Weekly Standard.” It’s hard to go a week without seeing a number of new articles in each advocating for making our military “Bigger” or “Harder.” I get emails about the same thing every day. But I would not mistake them for good journalism. And these “papers” are very generously supported by a passel of military contractors.
Shill fill can actually serve a public good. But for it to do so properly, it must be written in a way that informs the reader of the special point of view of the writer. And it must be edited with more than a modicum of skepticism. Cholesterol-lowering drugs proved a success in lowering cholesterol. There is more question about whether they saved lives or cured heart disease. The hype generated to make room for the drugs shifted us from eating meat to eating fried potatoes and corn meal. This made us fat. It may or may not have changed our risk of heart disease on account of cholesterol, but it raised the risk of heart disease and on account of obesity and triglyceride levels. The drugs that started this conversation were a raging commercial success. But society has paid a high cost for it.
I can read a prominent city newspaper and find what appear to be shill fill articles several times a year. I may not pick up that paper as often as two days a week. I rarely read more than the front page of two or three sections. I wonder how many articles really are shill fill. Especially if we expand the definition to cover private interests of government officials.
A third category of media product that gets in the way of good public discourse is trash talk. This is typically a radio or television format designed to lampoon “people who are not like us.” It tends to have a more rural audience, although one could argue that at times SNL has wondered into this territory. Rush Limbaugh may be the early prototype. But Rush, at least in his early days, did try to be funny. And while the general thrust of his work I believe is mistaken, some of his points are worth considering. But what started out as lampooning morphed into attacks. And what once were subtle attacks now occasionally turn into open calls or incitations to do violence.
I spent perhaps a minute with Michelle Malkin once. Having stopped viewing television some years before, I had never seen her nor heard of her. I had no idea what I was in for. By forty five seconds I began feeling mounting nausea. By sixty my entire concentration was focussed on suppressing the impulse to put a chair through the televison. No idea what she said. And that’s the point.
It is one thing to lampoon the foibles of people. We all have them. And each group in a society will specialize in its own sort. Sometimes they need to be laughed at. This is probably both a desirable and necessary form of political discourse. Lampooning people simply to put down their behavior or qualities because “they are not like us,” however, has already stepped over the line. This is the stuff of racism and race baiting. And it is not the race part of it that makes it the problem. It is the way in which it destroys respect for ways of being that are different from “ours.”
Fundamentally it has nothing to do with race; it has rather to do with identity groups, tribes. Call it fundamentalism, provincialism, tribalism, ethnic intolerance, red-state wretchedness, wingnutism, whatever one calls it, the act is morally degrading. It degrades the person talking. It degrades the listener. It degrades the target of the trash talk. Each person or group in the equation turns out to be worse off as a result of it. Even the advertizers lose. Their markets are splintered in the process and their brands’ goodwill is defiled. The former raises the cost of advertizing by requiring more careful targeting. The latter simply tarnishes the luster of the brand with everyone. Being respectful breeds respect. Being disrespectful breed disrespect.
A good analyst might be able to produce seven, ten, or five hundred more categories descriptive of media practices that either actively or passively degrade the level of public discourse. But I am going to stop with three because I set out intending to talk about the third one.
Shredding the Fabric of Society
Bad media behavior has a number of insidious effects. First, there is the opportunity cost. Each time something meaningless fills pages, it diverts attention from real problems.
As interested as I am in good political discourse, I imagine my limit to be a few hours of it a week. I am fond of programming that gives me insights about society and my own humanity. I am tempted to reduce “good programming” to “BBC shows produced before commercial TV in Britain.” And good journalism to “the several Economist articles a year that are not obvious apologetics for completely unregulated lassez faire economics.” Sure, there is a lot of good information out there. But very little of it is soundly synthetic. When pieces are good at synthesizing lots of information, they too frequently ignore ideas and evidence that contradicts the point of view. It’s hard to get a really balanced view of an issue. Even most of the pieces in the Economist do a perfunctory job of presenting an opposing view.
But even such feeble pretenses passed out of media practice when the Reagan administration withdrew the “fairness doctrine” that required media outlets that used public airwaves to give multiple points of view on an issue. With the advent of FOX network, we get “all bias all the time.” It’s a network that actively promotes narrowmindedness, provincialism, bias, anger, bigotry, and hatred. And one of its products is trash talk. For example, characterizing people who have a differing point of view as Nazis. Or comparing moslems to fascists with the term “islamo-fascist.”
The real, monstrous cost of trash talk is that it destroys civil society. It tears down bridges that span gaps between groups in society and it builds walls between them. It fosters intolerance. It closes minds. It reinforces prejudices. It encourages ingorance and rewards closed-mindedness. It drives us to be as stupid, and intolerant as we feel naturally inclined to be. It nurtures fundamentalism. It cultivates ethnic hatred. This is the path we must follow if we wish our society to be reduced to the behavior of the Tutsis and Hutus of mid 1990’s Rwanda.
Ethnic hatred is seductive. Every group tends to think of itself as being superior. It is human nature. If there is any social or political area in which America has clearly outstripped the rest of the civilized world it is in its ability to amalgamate disparate cultures - suppressing the tendencies of groups to behave destructively and separately as political entities and economic entities, while encouraging ethnic groups to retain positive cultural practices and identities. It is not the primary reason for success, perhaps; but had America failed here, failure in other areas would have followed. Trash talk threatens failure. Hatred breeds repression. And repression strangles freedom. It’s not a many-stepped process to get from bad discourse to bad government. The latter sticks to the former like a shadow.
The moment we let this impulse toward fundamentalism, tribalism, parochialism be the singular impulse governing political discourse is the day we doom American history to follow the trajectory of the history of the Balkans. Or of Rwanda. In both of these cases ethnic hatred and tension is endemic. A recent book review in the Economist talks about the latest definitive history of Montenegro. It mentions how the book’s author, who was in the state in 1990 witnessed its occupants wantonly killing, pillaging and plundering with a kind of gusto that clearly communicated ” This is what we do. Our ancestors have done it forever; our descents will do it forever more. It is a time-honored and much loved tradition. It is our life; to kill and plunder” This is the end to which trash talk must lead us. Society splinters into tiny mobs whose reason for existence is killing the “other,” pillaging, plundering. It explains the perpetual strife in the Balkans going back 500 or 1000 years or more. And it explains “going Hutu.”
Trash talk will lead us to ends we can neither imagine nor endure. Democracy is not stable under a cascade of trash-talking media. It will come crashing down. And when it does, the government will put a whole new world of programming directors in charge. The irony will be that there is a good chance that they will lack imagination. Programming will become dull and utilitarian, but it may better serve the public interest to some extent than the programming of today that features the Limbaughs, the Colters, and the Malkins. Still, to those who view the media as a cash cow, such events would prove a catastrophic. Thus, it is in the media’s best long-term interest to act with at least a modicum concern for the public interest. If it fails to sustain democracy, it will lose its own franchise in the process. For society at large, the blow promises to be every bit as severe.
Rampant political and economic opression will probably be part of the mix. The nightmare scenario is that the rich upper class might manage to get the miserable lower class to hack the middle class right out of existence, either literally by “going Hutu” or figuratively by voting for disastrous public policies. Perhaps it could not happen today. But the trash talk we now hear has edged perilously close to driving precisely this scenario. What one is left with in this scenario is a banana republic like the worst Latin American countries of long ago where unstable governments swing perpetually between opressive Fascism and opressive Communism. There has been a thirty year economic trend in the US in this direction. And it has been driven by media chants of and ritual offerings to the greedy gods of laissez-affaire economics. Under Dubya the chants and drumming have grown louder. And the offerings of blood and treasure more costly.
This is all speculative. But the recent trend is worrysome. If things go in the same direction and at the same rate for thirty more years as they have done for the last thirty, democracy as we experience it is doomed. We may not have that long. There is no reason to believe that the trend must continue. If we are really lucky, long before that America will experience a series of shocks that will begin a process in which we re-examine the assumptions that set us on a destructive path. And we will begin to make course corrections. Iraq may be the first of them. It may also be the least. So some of the correction is likely to come about without media help.
Still, the media plays a vital role in shaping political discourse in America. And if it does not owe a duty to the democratic system to which it owes its very existence or to the people who make up its audience and buy its advertisers products, at least it owes a duty to its shareholders to preserve long-term equity. For one reason or another, the media must act responsibly. If it loses its soul completely, permanently, irrevokably its franchise must follow close behind.
For some years the people who staffed and oversaw the FCC viewed broadcasting as a use of a public resource - the electromagnetic spectrum - which required in return some augmentation of the public good. In this view of the world free speech reigned, but there was a civic obligation a broadcaster had to fulfil. A television or radio station would have to provide a certain amount of programming that met certain public needs to satisfy licensing provisions. This did not require much. It did not guarantee much. But it did require something. It amounted to much more than nothing.
Over the last decade or two, and especially under the Dubya administration, the view expressed publically by the FCC has changed. Today it more closely resmbles the notion that the broadcast system is a public resource to be exploited to maximize profit - like a vein of copper ore. And that any provision that the FCC imposes on broadcaster ought to be exclusively to that end. The result is higher media concentration, less programming variety, more homogenaity, and less local content. And a brand of political discourse that is clearly biased and destructive. Almost all of this may rightly be seen as harmful. Homogenaity, assuming innocuous programming, could actually serve to reverse forces of Balkanization. But most of the rest of the trends sacrifice public social goods for private ones. This defies the purpose of good governance.
The most insidious problem is media concentration. It creates a world in which a single entity or a small group of people controls all of public discourse. Under the best of conditions this is undesirable. Even the best and brightest people are either good and bright only in one tiny area of expertise, or they are less good and bright about lots of things. It takes a lot of experts and a lot of conversation to Most people are mostly wrong. To make matters worse, power corrupts. So if one starts out as a well meaning media mogul, the likelyhood of remaining one for a long time is infinitessimally small.
But the really big problem is that public discourse is made of a huge number of views. Our tendency in America is to think dualistically, giving to each question two possible answers. Our whole dualistic mindset is badly adapted to all political discourse. Real world issues never pose such questions. The hard part of getting hold of and mastering an issue is creating meaningful categories and relationships, then formulating questions based on these categories and relationships. A concentrated media is just barely able to do lip service to the second side of a dualistic problem. It has no hope of framing good questions in a many dimensional concept space.
The more parties there are working on a problem the more hope there is of getting real and effective answers to real social problems - not just faux answers that suit the needs of special interests. A highly concentrated media has no hope whatsoever of doing this well, even if they set out to do so. Especially not in a land where political discourse is already a characterized by tradition of dualistic, shallow and simplistic thought.
So the first part of the solution is to change the political philosophy of the FCC board so that it represents public interests over private ones. Once the FCC is properly constituted to represent public interests over private ones, it might be better at reconning the costs of media concentration and at requiring broadcasters to air programs that encourage broad ranging and vitally varied ideas and formats that either serve the public interest or do not blatantly undermine it.
The second part of the solution, and probably the most important, is for the media to view its mandate to deliver discourse on political subjects that is broad, deep, far ranging, multifaceted, thoughtful, penetrating, well informed, and concensus-building. It must do this because of its perpetual debt it has to a free and stable open society. And to its stockholders. It is a huge responsibilit. There are only a handful of publications that come close to meeting this high standard. And only a few programming channels who have, from time to time done so with certain programs.
Finally, government needs to do someting about trash talk. It is a touchy issue. There are a number of cases in which trash talk is clearly political and by virtue of that is presumed unconditionally protected. My guess is that Limbaugh, though he is mostly mean, his facts are frequently wrong, and he does encourage tribalism, does at least some good in making us aware of questions that are useful to contemplate. For the most part he is subtly divisive; not openly so. I neither like him nor agree with him; but what little I know of his work suggest that he is generally not over the line. There are others who would not agree. And they might be right.
But there are a number of cases in which trash talk is clearly incendiary: it openly provokes violent behavior or attitudes. Spocko’s Brain had a collection of such cases until a large media conglomerate shut down his site with a cease and desist order. Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter come to mind; but I may be confusing my own reaction with that of other people. My guess is that if I watched enough, I could find places where they clearly cross the line; but it is a prejudice, not an informed judgment. If there is no case in which Malkin or Coulter’s language is simply incendiary, herding people into tribes or provoking them to plunder, then there certainly are cases with other radio or television talk shows. And they need to be stopped.
Bad words offend. But they do no lasting damage to the fabric of society. The government has chosen to ban them on air. And this is a supportable position. I find the ban convenient to my own tastes but I am not sure I agree with it. Hate speech, trash talk, language that tribalizes America, however, needs to be banned because it shreds the fabric of society. A free society cannot endure it for long. And once it is shredded, only one thing can put it back together: a terrible, repressive regime. We might have learned this from the disintegration of Yugoslavia. But we didn’t. We might have learned it from the disintegration of Iraq. But it seems we haven’t yet. Let us hope we can learn it before their fates have become ours.