Fire catches up with everything in time—Herakleitos
…Yet it is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history…
—Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide, 1966
No matter how much we would like to wish them away, conspiranoid Q-Anon crackpotism, antivaxism, election-result denialism, Covid denialism, climate skepticism and other general insanity have fully burrowed their way into the American discourse. The above quote, taken from a history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, holds much truth for our current moment. The dismissal of the “half-educated” reeks of elitism—this website for instance represents the toil of underground thinkers. There is much familiar, though about “pathological fantasies disguised as ideas,” which are “churned out,” and embraced at the expense of sound thought. The Q-Anon theory, in many ways is a rehash of the Protocols—in both form and substance, a plagiarized forgery concocted of ludicrous conspiracy theories. (The major crackpot theories circulating today have all been amplified and spread by Trump associates, if not by the president himself.)
The Internet is rife with debates about free speech. What’s less discussed is quality of speech, and quality of information. While free speech, and access to information is something to defend, it’s worth asking, what happens when the quality of information available has no basis in reality? Sure, there is the question of who gets to decide what constitutes quality information, but as a starting point, we can work from a definition of things that are factually true and things that are blatantly false.
When trying to make sense of this mess, it helps to go back to the writings of the late media critic Herbert Schiller. This was someone who devoted much of his life to a critique of the impact of government-aided corporate consolidation of the media. He repeatedly documented how giving away a public resource (the airwaves) shaped the limited content available. Schiller saw the few independent voices allowed into the mainstream eclipsed by apologists for corporate power. In the introduction to his 1996 book Information Inequality, he warned: “As independent voices in the national political theater are eliminated or ignored, unabashed antidemocratic views and practices proliferate” (p. xiv).
A perpetual degradation machine
Schiller wasn’t naively calling for a return to some nostalgic golden age. He was fully aware of the media’s history and its inherent limitations. The scholar did witness a shift from information that helped inform democratic decision-making to a different type of cynical content. “Increasingly the voices that reach national audiences are those that secure the support and the financing of the moneyed crowd. Not surprisingly, therefore, a growing number of radio and television broadcasters. reviewers and writers for the most influential newspapers and magazines, novels selected for the big promotions, films given the blockbuster production budgets, and social theories popularized in the media exhibit a marked preference for detailing the flaws, imperfections, and antisocial behavior of human beings” (p. xiv).
“A mean and dark view of human nature,” he continues: “one that emphasizes its rigidity and inherent defects, underpins a current unwillingness to entertain even minimally the prospects of social cooperation and human solidarity. Crime, delinquency, broken families, political and economic corruption—whatever the social ailment—are explained by pointing to individual weakness and inadequacy. Such a diagnosis conveniently removes malfunctioning institutions from scrutiny and discussion” (p. xiv). Informative media programming gave way, first to endless television shows about cops and criminals, and later, reality TV, a perpetual degradation machine, several steps below pornography in terms of quality. (The type of content prevalent on YouTube or popular websites like World Star Hip Hop take the debasement to new levels still.) In this context, the outgoing reality TV star president is less an abomination than a culmination of decades of these destructive forces.
To get a sense of the toxic cynicism at play here, you only need to tune in to your average conservative AM radio host during a natural disaster. When the California wildfires hit last fall, AM radio hosts near-unanimously blamed the fires on anything other than climate change or poorly regulated land-use policies. It was an Antifa plot. It was Black Lives Matter. It was whichever convenient enemy that would prevent listeners from taking a nuanced view of the situation. These same radio hosts have been as deliberately irresponsible throughout the entire pandemic, often telling their overwhelmingly high-risk (retirement age) listenership that Covid is a hoax.
“A sheer lack of common reasoning”
There’s this feeling of disbelief we sometimes encounter, knowing the right thing to do, and watching the national response. The great American cultural observer Luc Sante discussed his own take on the situation last summer: “I feel shamefully naïve. I guess my version of ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’ was ‘when the flood comes, everybody helps pile the sandbags.’ It’s true that the whole course of the Republican Party since Reagan has led to this moment, and the last four years have been non-stop catastrophe. Even so, I didn’t expect quite that combination of ideological rigidity, radical selfishness, and sheer lack of common reasoning—lack of a sense of cause and effect. I thought that the instinct for self-preservation would win out over the delusion of ‘individual rights’ in a pandemic, that the right would be forced to see that we are all connected.”
It hardly takes someone as smart as Luc Sante to see that something’s wrong here. The problem is more easily identified than articulated, that’s where these philosophers and poets can provide some illumination for the rest of us. And the problem doesn’t just lie with the wretched Republicans. None of our political establishment has any real solution to the current crisis. The religious hypocrites are all the more loathsome for their inability to comprehend such communistic doctrines as “I am my brother’s keeper,” and whatever other nice-sounding shit so many of us had drilled into our heads in Sunday school. And the Republican mainstream has abetted fascism right up to the storming of the Capitol. Yet the status-quo worshipping corporate Democrats provide little alternative to these cynical zealots.
Herb Schiller noticed this problem decades ago. In an earlier book, Information and the Crisis Economy (1986) he laid out his observations on the transition to an information-based economy. He provides a prescient quote from the then-rector of the UN University in Tokyo: “Today, the whole international system itself is in a state of crisis and the cohesions—political, economic, social and otherwise—which have held it together, are coming unstuck at an alarming rate” (p. xii). Shiller also shared a quote from Indira Gandhi that now seems both obvious and prophetic: “I entirely agree that we can’t solve our economic and financial crisis within existing international structures. I go further and say that none of the present structures or even thought-processes are capable of providing satisfactory answers to the large crisis of our civilization” (p. xii). Ghandi wasn’t exempt from her own critique, as her legacy shows. Still, the message was valid then and more valid with each day as the two major political parties have shown an absolute inability to provide a worthwhile relief package for a country with 20 million unemployed.
Call it “capitalist realism.” Call it what you will, the message pushed on down from the elites and echoed so loudly on the airwaves is “You’re on your own.” It’s rugged individualism for most of us, juicy bailouts for a cynical smidgeon of elites.
When Herbert Schiller was writing, there was no serious organized opposition. There are currently several competing tendencies, though few have had any serious impact or have exhibited any ability to slow the economic and environmental free fall. As Schiller wrote in the 90s, without this opposition, “…the belief is cultivated that there can be no alternative to what exists….National governors, experiencing no apparent need to improve the quality of life and lessen the glaring economic and social inequalities that are increasing across the nation allow the already existing social fissures to deepen.” Deepening inequality has risen coevally with the prevalence of junk information. The airwaves are still, to some extent a public good—with the exception of the large chunks auctioned off to private interests for a pittance. The corporate elites and their political handmaiden who sold the spectrum don’t believe in the notion of “public good.” Or as Schiller warned: “Instead, in a myopic pursuit of still greater private return the corporate-directed economy, methodically is eliminating the institutions, structures, and the very idea of the common good…The larger purpose, and its supporting practices, which hold the social enterprise together, are being down-sized. In the drive for private gain, functions that require and enlist the support of the full community are being privatized and stripped of their social characteristics. Activities once community-based and identified as public are being detached from their social moorings and either turned into “profit centers,” left without adequate maintenance, or eliminated” (p. xv).
Schiller saw some of the uglier aspects of the “gig economy” two decades early: “In the United States of the 1990s, the notion of community has become mostly nostalgic. Every facet of living is being, or has been, transformed into a separate, paid-for transaction. The development is especially observable in the media/informational sphere…”
In the above-referenced interview, Luc Sante was asked about a possible worst-case scenario. His replied: “What we have now—a police state, a corporate economy, a ruling class indifferent to the fate of the rest of us, systemic racism, gun culture, galloping idiocy—further exacerbated by the climate emergency moving toward its end-stage, as low-lying cities are abandoned and hundreds of millions of displaced people search for safety. That we will enter a state of continual daily street-level war.”
Things don’t have to go this way, though it seems more likely than not. American history is filled with examples of segments of the population embracing nonsensical horseshit when facing a steep cliff. In the period following the Civil War, gold and silver currency theories became a substitute for the “great war-nurturing issues of racial and state-federal relations [such as]…the absorption of immigrants, the mushrooming of large businesses, the dissatisfaction of farmers, workers, and city-dwellers, the headlong growth of cities.” For a significant chunk of the population, “Convoluted states-rights arguments became a gigantic euphemism for slavery before the war; convoluted monetary rhetoric became a surrogate for social problems after the war” (Nugent, p 21). Less than ten years ago, such an analogy would have seemed fanciful—at the very least a bit of a stretch. Would anyone doubt the pertinence to our current moment, as we are all really, really glad the year 2020 is over, yet at the same time we are terrified at what each successive day could bring?
Your average ten-year-old has more access to information than could be found in the great libraries of previous eras. Yet, remedying a perpetual political/social/economic/climate crisis with junk facts is akin to treating a cancer patient with Twinkies and Big Macs. It’s not unusual for those of us who have spent much of our lives engaged in serious research and study to have our arguments dismissed by people who have “done the research” of watching a few unhinged YouTube videos. And while the absurdity of these types is stultifying, such people are no worse than political party hacks, or any others who uphold any of myriad ideologies, whether of the ossified Leninist cult variety or any of the tired know-nothingism so prevalent these days.
Instead of an ending
It’s easy to feel paralyzed by powerlessness. I write this from a worn table, listening to the slosh of traffic down below, the juncture between one of the major corridors for truck traffic from Flatbush Avenue to the Prospect Expressway in one direction, and the road that leads to JFK airport in the other. The truck route is terribly outdated, a narrow street with a propensity for gridlock every few hours. The street suffers from an outmoded design; the weight of the trucks causes the blacktop to buckle, with snaking berms up to two-feet tall appearing on the side of the road. The things have the appearance of something you might have seen in a cheap sci-fi flick, like the early stages of monster larvae that breaks the surface and eats the city whole. The real monster is the outdated design, so ingrained in the way things are that no politician would dare ever challenge the set-up. Every year or so, the city replaces the road, merely shaving the bizarre bumps under the surface, only to have the things reappear a few months later. They make cycling near-impossible and are the cause of regular traffic accidents. When the city most recently repaved the road, truck traffic was stalled for hours. A routine bit of infrastructural maintenance effectively crippled a good chunk of the supply chain that relies on that very infrastructure. From my perch, the disruption mostly manifested itself in prolonged horn blaring, a symbolic cacophony that continued long after its useless pleas were ignored by the work crews. The honking was, predictably, drowned out by the ubiquitous ambulance sirens, which soon gave way to police sirens. I did what anyone would do. I closed all the windows and turned up the radio. Much of what I heard was useless garbage, though some of it was good. In the end, it was a deafening racket. Sometimes that’s all we’ve got to work with.
To see our earlier discussion of similar themes, see our earlier dispatch on Radio and Survival in a Burning World
Sources consulted in this essay.
Norman Cohn, The Myth of the Jewish World-conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967.
Guy Davenport. Herekleitos and Diogenes translated from the Greek by Guy Davenport. Grey Fox Press, 1981.
Walter Nugent. The Money Question During Reconstruction. Norton, 1967.
Luc Sante, interviewed by Christopher Bollan. “Ask A Sane Person: Luc Sante: On the Unglamorous But Crucial Building Blocks of Democracy.” Interview magazine website, August 10, 2020. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/ask-a-sane-person-luc-sante-on-the-unglamorous-but-crucial-building-blocks-of-democracy
Herbert Schiller, Information and the Crisis Economy. Oxford University Press. 1986.
Herbert Schiller, Information Inequality: the Deepening Social Crisis in America. Routledge, 1996.
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