29 March 2010

How did it come to this?

How did our nation end up in the mess it's in?

We are the world's wealthiest nation. Our education system, for all the criticism it takes, is fairly extensive and in many cases exceptional. Our institutes of higher education are magnets for international students, demonstrating global esteem and at least the perception of quality. A great many of us have instant access to information through the internet, and since nearly every American household has cable/satellite, we are subject to a barrage of news and information...oh.

Wait a minute. Maybe we have too much information, as that old band The Police once sang. Not too much information as in let's stifle it and censor things and close avenues of communication, but too much information as in we're not processing it properly and if we don't have the tools to process it properly, we're simply awash in information with little way to get our bearings as to which is good information and which is bad information.

Just as the advent of the newspaper allowed information -- and let's not forget, gossip -- to spread at exponential rates (see Balzac's Lost Illusions for an excellent commentary on the at-that-time state of the art lightning fast communication), and television did the same thing in the 1960's (bringing among other things the Vietnam War direct to the American public), so too has the internet and the spread of cable infotainment channels like CNN and Fox revolutionized information access and transmission.

You Tube allows the semi-intelligent to become celebrities for a short time by doing stupid things to their bodies (and for the stuff You Tube won't show, there's 4chan) or by filming their children in states of dental-sanctioned inebriation. Andy Warhol's prediction becomes absolutely prophetic.

Unfortunately, our ability to process the information seems not to have kept pace with the access to it. It's become even worse since Fredric Jameson talked about "total flow" back in the early 1990's in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

The success of poststructuralist attacks on the notion of objective presentations of truth were necessary interventions that dislodged the monolithic power of either myths of the state (see the Schoolhouse Rock videos of American history) or of media as a fundamentally objective pursuit. Unfortunately, the right-wing had by and large failed to understand these arguments and incorporated only the first part into their analysis both of poststructuralism and the media. Interestingly and paradoxically, the right wing is quite comfortable arguing that poststructuralism is morally bankrupt because it denies objective truth ("eternal, universal, and natural God-given truths"), while at the same time adopting poststructuralism's critique of that sort of truth as they condemn the "liberal media."

What's missing, of course, is the second part of the poststructuralist critique, one that Derrida for instance was at pains to return to again and again (see "Violence and Metaphysics," Of Grammatology, Spectres of Marx, or nearly any of his late works -- the quickest gloss may be "Violence and Metaphysics" contained in Writing and Difference -- see esp. pp. 128-29): that the absence of an unmediated access to universal truth does not mean that we can therefore throw out standards of judgement. It's quite simple, but easily forgotten in the easy soundbite of "moral relativism" that right wingers like to throw around.

I'll skip a bit here, but suffice to say that eventually we get around to the idea that it isn't so much knowledge that's power -- at least culturally -- but transmission of information, good or bad. Conspiracy theories, which used to be confined to small groups of isolated crackpots, are now given the power and reach afforded by globally linked communities. The speed of information and the format of information does not lend itself to extended critique or immersion in the object: instead we are immersed in an unending stream of information that doesn't separate the latest Disney-channel star's scandal from market news or political maneuvers -- other than the fact that the scandals are given higher billing and more air time.

So we have the advent of the Tea Party movement -- a gathering of malcontents (which isn't a bad thing in itself) whose numbers wouldn't qualify them for any sort of attention in the days when the supposedly evil mainstream media (and look, I have plenty of critiques of traditional media outlets, but I'm really tired of the idea that they can all be collapsed into some monolith -- the great media conspiracy theory) actually evaluated the newsworthiness of events and movements. However, in these latter days of news as entertainment, we have Fox in particular actively promoting the Teabaggers -- surely and odd position to be in if one is interested in notions of "objective journalism" (of course, I'm all for reportage, but there's a fundamental difference between activist-journalists filing reports for explicitly aligned outlets and a major news corporation pursuing a "news story" as though it's part of their new fall line-up).

Stupidity parades itself around on the basis that the "mainstream media" has silenced the "real story." Truth claims can't be evaluated because "liberals" (who are all at once progressives, communists, socialists, and fascists) won't let the truth be told. Conversely, mainstream television pundits, whose truth claims are eviscerated on a daily basis by, of all things, a comedian, are the heroes of the teabaggers, who apparently have no critical faculties for evaluating truth claims. Evidently having been served miserably in their varied educational histories, they are unable to distinguish between liberals, communists, and fascists. All are wrong, and all are one.

Stupidity is on tour, coming to a city near you, in the form of the Tea Bag Express.

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