It’s War!

I have a second email address that I tend to ignore for the most part until I realize that it is collecting over one hundred emails — mostly spam, of course. When I was emptying the trash from that site yesterday I came to realize that there were dozens of urgent requests from some group that calls itself “DCCC” wanting me to donate money to Donald Trump’s campaign. Oh yeah! You bet. Right away: I’ll get out  my checkbook. . . .

But as I gave some of the frantic notices some attention I came to realize an odd and somewhat disturbing fact: these people don’t see this election as a campaign; they see it as war! It’s Us against Them! It’s the little guy against the giant Establishment. They sprinkle their appeals with quotations from various sources on the “enemy’s” side that prove (to them) that the enemy is on the run. They are panicking! We are winning!

For example, one recent appeal quotes Barack Obama (their favorite hate target: he is the source of all evil, together with Hillary Clinton, of course) to this effect: “All the progress we’ve made is at stake in this election.” The DCCC see this as a sign that the “other side” is weakening and is in panic mode. Every time Fact Check is quoted to show that their leader has told bald-faced lies it is dismissed as a pure fabrication, a Lie to end all Lies. They lie, we don’t. They won’t listen to criticism of their leader because they know before time that whatever that criticism might be it is pure fiction. Their man can do no wrong.

Ironically, of course, the appeals are full of lies and distortions about how their leader is winning the war, though their minions cannot possibly recognize them as such because they see only black and white: US against THEM. They lie, we don’t. The thought that they are winning the war and that they have the enemy on the run keeps them energized and (I suspect) keeps the dollars coming in. Promises of doubling and tripling donations are sprinkled throughout the appeals that include the aforementioned lies and distortions about their leader’s winning ways. And the appeals have a frantic tone to them, designed to evoke emotional reaction, not thought.

The whole thing would be funny except for the fact that it is deeply disturbing. When, for example brilliant people like Stephen Hawking convince a couple of hundred reputable scientists to sign a letter to the American people urging them not to vote for Trump this is not seen as a weakening of their own lines; it is seen as a sure sign that the “other side” is on the run. “They,” one quickly realizes, is anyone who disagrees with them. And it doesn’t matter if “they” are reputable scientists, former Republicans, Pulitzer Prized winners, or even the Pope: they all lie when they dare to say anything critical of their leader.

This is not merely the refusal of someone to hear or read anything that might sully their leader, because they have determined that their leader defines the Truth — though this is certainly the case. This is not a matter of any attempt to draw rational conclusions from scattered, legitimate evidence. It is pure, unadulterated, visceral, hatred-driven determination to beat the opposition at any cost. And this is deeply disturbing because it suggests that these folks will stop at nothing to see their man win. And if he doesn’t win there will be Hell to pay, because it means that they have lost as well.

So much for the democratic ideal of open and honest debate among different political ideologies in an attempt to persuade voters to back their man or woman. This is the darkest form of warfare disguised as a political race — which Trump himself describes as a “movement.” He’s right. It is a movement, much like a cult. And reason and logic have no place at the table. It’s all about gut feelings, rage, hatred, and fear bundled up against the Establishment that has always been out to get those who are ready and able to do battle for their man.

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Dumbing Down America II

In light of the “Trump phenomenon,” which has even Stephen Hawking bewildered, I thought I would reblog a post from 2011 that tries to figure out what went wrong. A large part of our problem is the fact that Trump gets headlines every time he farts and Bernie Sanders gathers thousands to his rallies and gets no notice whatever. Other than the fact that the corporations pretty much own the media these days — and they do NOT want Sanders to be the nominee of the Democratic Party — the media have fumbled the ball. But, as planned, Hillary has recovered the fumble and is running with it. 

During the middle of the last century when Walter Cronkite was at the height of his popularity — “the most trusted man in America” — he spoke out against the growing tendency of journalists, especially TV journalists, to confuse news with entertainment. He noted that “television is too focused on entertaining its audience,” insisting instead that the job of the journalist is to present the news as objectively as possible — both sides of complex issues, with the broadcaster keeping his bias to himself or herself. “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine,” he quipped. In order to make news hold the viewer’s attention, he thought it was sufficient that the journalist simply make it more “interesting,” focusing on “good writing, good reporting, and good editing.” Even though his words were widely anthologized and incorporated into the curricula of numerous schools of journalism, they pretty much fell on deaf ears. It is clear that not only television, but also print journalism, has gone the route of entertainment, big time. It’s all about competition among the dozens of news programs that demand our attention and attracting the viewers to your news program in order to sell your sponsor’s products. And entertainment sells the product.

So, what’s wrong with news as entertainment? It has to do with what entertainment is: it is essentially fluff. It is designed to grab the attention of a passive spectator, demanding nothing of him or her in the way of intelligent or imaginative response. It doesn’t seek to engage the mind. It is less concerned with informing than it is with holding the viewer’s attention long enough to deliver the sponsor’s message by way of thought bites — which is what TV news has become, for the most part. And as attention spans shrink, the entertainment must get more and more sensational and more graphic in order to keep the viewer’s mind from wandering. The same phenomenon takes place in the movies. [And has recently occurred in the political arena.]

Hollywood has never really understood the difference between film as art and film as entertainment. With the exception of people like Woody Allen and Orson Wells, directors and producers in Hollywood for the most part opt for the blockbuster, with the latest technical gimmick demanding nothing of the spectator whatever, except that she pay for a seat and then sit glued to it with eyes on the screen. The movies that seek only to entertain, again, do not engage the imagination of the spectator: they require no mental effort whatever. Films that seek to rise to the level of art, films made by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini, insist that the spectator make an effort to follow the plot and connect pieces, and think about what went before and how it connects with what is happening now — and what the implications are for human experience outside the movie theater. In a word, they teach.

And that brings us to the final point I want to make: thanks to TV shows like “Sesame Street,” teaching has also become an entertainment medium. The teacher is now supposed to engage the pupil’s shrunken attention span long enough to get bits and pieces of information into a mind that is frequently engaged elsewhere. The content is less important than the way it is delivered. Students are often asked to evaluate teachers and much of the evaluation has to do with “performance.” The popular teachers are the ones who put on the best show. The worst thing that can happen in the classroom is that it be deemed “boring” by a group of disinterested students who are surrounded by media that inundate them with noise and rapid-fire visual and aural sensations that overwhelm the mind and leave it spent and confused.

This is what people are used to and what they expect on a daily basis. What could be worse for such a mind than to be asked to sit and listen to a lecture that consists of nothing more than a man or a woman standing there reading from a text — or even speaking extemporaneously, without visual aids? Can we imagine an audience of thousands standing for hours in the hot Illinois sun to listen to a debate between two politicians on the pros and cons of slavery, as the folks did to listen to Lincoln debate Douglas? On the contrary, we demand thought bites, snatches and slogans. The quick 30 second news bite or political ad that tosses out a couple of bromides that are designed to fix themselves in the memory and guide the finger that pulls the lever in the voting booth. The point is not to inform, it is to entertain. And it’s not just Fox News, which is simply the reductio ad absurdam of the whole process.

That’s what bothered Cronkite years ago: news that lowers itself to the level of mere entertainment demeans the audience, and renders it a passive vehicle for any message that can be delivered quickly and effectively in order to somehow alter behavior — buy the product, pass the test, vote for this candidate. It lowers us all to the level of idiots who are waiting to be told what to do. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the mind by expanding its powers of imagination, thought, and memory. It is all about the dumbing down of America.