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Charlottesville in the Mediated Public Sphere

How our mediated experiences bring us together and keep us apart

As the New Year begins, we at Public Seminar are busily following up on our work from last year, as I explained in my last post. We are continuing our day to day work with no let up, but marshaling all our extra resources to publish ASAP #Charlottesville: Before and Beyond. I’ve been thinking about the volume as it relates to my explorations of the bifurcated mediated public sphere, specifically how our mediated experiences bring us together and keep us apart, presenting a political crisis. I believe that addressing the enduring problems of white supremacy is pressing upon us more directly, as we are having great difficulties in addressing the problems democratically.

Bringing us together: We are all in Charlottesville. We have been there before, and during, and will be there after the events of August 2017. And there is no exit. The white supremacy and racism, supported by state power, monumentalized in words and stone, and resisted through all imaginable means, started with colonial settlement, (before Charlottesville there was Jamestown) and there are no signs that this is ending soon. The struggles for alternatives to the reprehensible persists, as does the project of squelching alternatives, demonstrated by the response to Charlottesville by the president of the United States.

My theoretically informed observation: we are actually there much more than we realize. My political concern: we are not there together. We are there isolated in our mediated silos, and this has significant political consequences.

We present ourselves to each other and define the situation of our daily life through mediated interactions. We find out about events such as those in Charlottesville on Twitter and Facebook, as we keep up to date on the latest developments and commentaries, and exchange information and commentary. We see them on “TV.” We hear them on “radio.” We turn to our phones as things are happening, and return on YouTube and podcasts, and in reading books and articles. In a very real way, we are there as we pay attention, and continue being there through paying attention, observing the images of those young clean cut men, carrying firearms, chanting their despicable chants, along with the outraged response of the good citizens of the town and of our global village, and the provocative responses of the president. We experience all this directly, in the same way that those of us of a certain age were there in Dallas when the president was shot and at “ground zero” on 9/11. We are in the middle of it.

But there is a big difference between then and now. Media events of the recent past, in the age of television, often fostered solidarity and supported a common public experience that in turn supported democracy, as I have explained here. In an earlier media era, when television was king, the overwhelming majority of the population was tuned in and took part in ritualized media events, focused on the assassination, the inauguration, the Olympic games and the like. The daily flow of media broadcasting was disrupted, all channels focused on the event and the mass audience experienced it together, in the same way. The united experience constituted through interactions, including those anticipating and recalling the event, brought together dispersed publics with common interactive experience, and was the sociological grounding of a common public life, despite many differences. Such experience is no longer.

Keeping us apart: This very much applies to Charlottesville. In that city, as racism and white supremacy were asserted, the ways of understanding and opposing these assertions were also publicly performed. There was broad public recognition and response, including shared interactions, but they were fragmented, as much directed between mediated fragments as responding to agreed upon developments. The situation was defined differently depending on how the experience was mediated and with whom, and the understanding of the relationship between the self and the defined situation thus radically differed. In a sense, the situation was not even the same. From right to left there were distinct accounts presented and received. The fragments depended upon their trusted sources of information, as this information was shared by friends on social media.

On the extreme right, there is white supremacy pure and simple, sometimes masked as the defense of heritage and history. There are those who use the mask to tolerate or even support racism and anti-Semitism, including the president of the United States, and those who would distinguish the mask from the issue of heritage. According to Breitbart, the violence in Charlottesville is of extremists on the left and the right, and largely a consequence of the police not doing their job. Those who condemn the president’s response and Steve Bannon’s commentary were dismissed as “ deplorable conservatives.” It is essential The Federalist emphasized, that “white supremacists were not the only thugs tearing up Charlottesville.” On these media platforms, the situation is defined, shared and responded to, creating a public set apart from other publics.

On the center right, there is an understanding that conservative principles and the Republican agenda should be distinguished from the extremism of the alt-right. It is divided between those who forcefully condemn the Unite the Right demonstration and Trump’s response to it, and those who remain relatively silent. This is the zone of established conservatism, taking more or less responsibility for the presence of undisguised blatant racism in American public life. This public fragment does not only depend on Fox and its media friends, though it has important connections to it.

It is notable that you, the readers of Public Seminar, have not been presented any of these positions. Though we have a broad range of opinion and judgment as a matter of our founding principles, we have not actually engaging those on the right. Our debates have been left of center.

I am ambivalent about this. On the one hand, principled conservative judgment should be part of any democratic discussion, but on the other, it is even more important to recognize critically the problem of the enduring legacies of slavery and racism. This is not simply an editorial dilemma, but the result of a fissure in public life, what I have called a bifurcated public sphere as it applies to the global structural transformation of public life.

Left of center, there is a direct rejection of the blatant racism of the Unite the Right demonstration, and all who apologize for it, or remain silent about it. This is revealed in all the pieces published here. There is an understanding that white supremacy is knitted into the fabric of American life, and that a concerted effort needs to be made to oppose raw racism as it appeared in Charlottesville, as well as the racism that is institutionalized into normal social practices. One example is the presence of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park, a public park that was once named after the Confederate general. There are differences of opinion about how tight the knitting is how the pattern includes the founders, and about how to unravel it. There is disagreement concerning the link between the foundations of American polity, and the racism that was present at the founding and ever since. We act and interact in public with these disagreements in mind.

Further left, the link between the foundations of the republic and racism is more commonly recognized, as is the importance of institutionalized racism, and further, how both developed along with capitalism is a major theme.While for those of the center left, generally speaking, Charlottesville was a scandal, a stain on the meaning of the ideals of American democracy, those further to the left see Charlottesville as an instantiation of the racism that American democracy is, as it is linked to capitalism. Nothing less than revolutionary change is thus called for. Those who do not recognize this are sometimes seen as even more of the problem than those of the alt-right, as was suggested in Jacobin.

There is a full range of opinion, but the configuration of the exchange of opinion is divided. That those who took part in the Unite the Right demonstration are now included in the general public discussion is the success of the Unite the Right social forces. That this has not been decisively pushed back presents a major crisis, and it is not just about a shifting balance of power.

After Charlottesville, this is the profound problem: neo-Fascists, Nazis and the K.K.K. are now part of the public debate, as their opponents hardly see and hear each other. Political persuasion is not possible when those with different judgments and positions have little or no contact, and when we pay attention to only those with whom we agree. A significant segment of the population knows about the world through dubious sources. What we expect from news is up for grabs. There is “fake news” as an epithet for serious news reporting, and then there is really fake news.

We are all still in Charlottesville, as we do not share a common definition of our situation, and white supremacy endures. #Charlottesville:Before and Beyond is our attempt to address the enduring problem. I add here and in the volume the additional problems posed by the present media environment.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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