Monday, November 08, 2010

More Politics: The old and wealthy right: Media outrage and resistance

I know I've been a little over-active in the political writing, but these thoughts need an outlet, or they'll vanish into my cognitive history. I'm connecting various dots from the media and from my previous speculation, and suddenly, I'm understanding how conspiracy theorists are born: they like this feeling too much, the feeling of synthesizing disparate information, and they get addicted to it, and start to do it in excess.

As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, it seems that the effectiveness of John Stewart's rally, at least in the short term, maybe be tragically limited by economic conditions. As Fenzel from Overthinking It points out, it's far more profitable for the media conglomerates to promote outrage, as it tends to draw more viewers, whether in fearful agreement or disgusted skepticism. Somebody else wrote about this just recently, as well: The New Republic's Jonathan Chait suggests that a lot of the misconceptions about policies stem from the disparate amount of influence of the wealthy over the media. The wealthy scream that taxes are going up because they ARE going up, for the wealthy... even when they're going down for the middle class. So everybody thinks Obama is raising taxes, when he's actually just weighing them toward wealth to flatten out the bell curve of privilege.

These points, recalling the theory of the Frankfurt School, explain some aspects of the short-term political environment. The media (whether consciously or unconsciously) milks the outrage of the right, the political party most sympathetic to free-market business interests and most dismissive of social concerns.

There's another line of thinking going on, as well, dovetailing with the first. This is the theory that the older generation has been galvanized against the left, again offered on Jonathan Chait's feed. It might be argued that the older generations are more susceptible to the kind of outrage and sensationalism that the media outlets are selling. They haven't developed enough immunity to the influence of the once-credible traditional media.

To be honest, I've even felt this myself. As I get older, I get more mentally involved in politics and media, and it becomes hard to withstand the bombardment of information. Whether there's necessarily a right-wing bias, I can't tell, because I still mostly exist in the liberal echo-chamber (though I do take occasional excursions to the conservative outlets). However, I can tell you without a doubt that there's a bias toward discontent, alarmism, and cynicism, especially in the mainstream media that fills in the cracks between Salon and FiveThirtyEight. It's hard not to be taken up in the tidal wave of hand-wringing: is the world really going straight to hell, RIGHT NOW, in front of my eyes?

I'm still pretty sure that it's not the real world, but rather the raw, chafed, twitchy sensory organs of the media, which profit from our fear and oversensitivity. After all, it's built on advertising, which works best when we're off-balance, vulnerable, distracted, and hyper-perceptive.

With all that said... even that thing about me feeling mentally vulnerable myself... I can find a lot of hope under the surface onslaught. If this conservative surge is being driven by the older, richer, cynical generation, then it means that the future isn't necessarily in the hands of the conservatives. In fact, there are signs that this populist upswell is being locked out of party leadership now that it's fulfilled its electoral purpose. And if this is all the result of a malignant, outrage-prone media environment, then we see in John Stewart and Stephen Colbert the seeds of a media resistance. That's why I feel their rally was a significant event: it was a manifesto against the infrastructure that profits from our paralysis.

The younger generation won't always be apolitical; we all get more civic-minded when we step out of the bubbles of our childhood homes. And with luck, they'll be totally indifferent to the inane rantings of the media outlets, and much more prone to get their information from alternate sources -- and to know how to filter and synthesize that information in useful ways. Obama's big win was the first glimmer of consciousness from that generation, and recent progress on gay rights is a continuation of its positive influence.

If you came here looking for hope, it's above. If you came looking for some ideas, they're below.

First, we have to stay progressive, even when the real world seems frustrating, and multiculturalism seems to be swimming upstream against poverty and hostility, and social welfare seems like a futile gesture. If every generation really does turn conservative when it gets old, there will always be a culture war between the old and the young.

Second, we need to be vigilant enemies of cynicism and doomsday prophecy. The outrage and sensationalism always seems to turn people into fearful conservatives. As Bill Maher says, there is no equivalence (and he's got a good goddamn point there), but what he doesn't realize is that all irrational, self-righteous discourse will become political capital for the conservative cause. Fire and brimstone are not the liberals' strong suits... discursive agility and broad perspective are the weapons that fall on our side of political asymmetry.

Third, we need to listen to the youth, and groom our leaders from the emerging generation of activists and media personalities. These people will know how to manage the insane, super-complex media environment, and by defining the media environment for the next political age, they'll also be writing its policies. And they're smart and compassionate and hard-working.

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