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On Media Mess and Its Alternatives

Islands of Totalitarianism and Democracy continued

Media are not the only cause of the mess we are in, nor do they present the only way out. I fear that I may have been implied this in my last Gray Friday post, as I reflected on my discussions with Daniel Dayan last month:

“Daniel and I share a sense that we are in the midst of a fundamentally disordered global situation. I am convinced that this is the consequence of our present media environment, but also that it can only be addressed through the new media that are now available.”

I should have written “a consequence” and not “the consequence.” I know that rapidly rising inequalities, new forms of authoritarianism and pernicious populism, climate change and the inability to address it, xenophobia, racism, sexism and homophobia, and the injustices of globalization, and the marketization of everything and anything, are not simply caused by the media. And they certainly can’t magically provide the simple way out. Yet, media are both an important part of the problem and the solution, helping to create, as I put it, both islands of totalitarianism and islands of democracy.

When people meet in their differences, as equals, develop a capacity to meet and talk in the presence of each other, and develop a capacity to act together in concert, they constitute political power, an island of democracy. For Hannah Arendt, in fact, this is political power in contrast to coercion. I think of it more as a kind of political power, a distinctive democratic and under-appreciated form. As I reported in my reflections on Arendt, her understanding of politics provided me a way to understand the enduring significance of the developing opposition to totalitarianism in communist Central Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, which ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. After “9/11”, I observed how this same form of power could develop through the internet, in the constitution of the anti-war movement and in the run of Howard Dean for the Democratic Party’s nomination to be President of the United States in 2004. Note also how this sort of power, of “the politics of small things” in my terms, was a key to the social movements of 2010-11, from the Arab Uprisings to Occupy Wall Street. There are many other moments when such movements have met success, and also when their limitations have been revealed. As an American I note with deep appreciation how this worked in the long civil rights movement.

What I noted in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 has now become common place. With the development of social media, especially with Facebook and Twitter, the capacity of people to meet each other and come to an agreement and act together has radically increased. Mobilizing pubic concern, discussion and action has become both easier, and quickly effective, so that broadly and deeply people act together in unprecedented numbers. Think #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, the Women’s Movement, but also the Tea Party, MAGA and Unite the Right.

I am neither enthusiastic nor pessimistic about this. I note a new way of doing politics and observe promise and perils. Obviously, it heartens me to see that those struggling for social justice have developed a capacity to act together to pursue ends I support. But I note with concern when xenophobic movements are empowered. The media facilitated capacity for the hitherto isolated and often pathological misogynists and racists of the world to unite is a matter of deep concern.

At first, I thought the new mediated form of politics advantaged those on the left side of the political spectrum, as they were more open to difference, debate and establishing common ground. Partisan that I am, I thought that talk radio advantaged dogmatic authoritarians, while democrats were advantaged by the new emerging media. Given bots, the dynamics of surveillance, the developing repressive capacities, as acted upon in such countries as Turkey, I am less hopeful.

But even without repression, a significant problem is that the radically increased capacity to come together based on common concerns has led to the creation of communities that pay attention to those who view the world similarly, and to ignore those with whom they have fundamental differences. The way new media giants, Facebook and Google, operate, the way their algorithms function, no doubt contribute to this, but I don’t think they are the evil forces that cause this. More general individual and collective self selection is involved.

I just find it too painful to watch Fox News, even though I know I should to inform myself about how the world looks outside my bubble. Facebook doesn’t make me do this, rather it builds upon it to make a profit. The end result, nonetheless, is the atomization and bifurcation of public life, which is a fruitful grounds for new authoritarians.

I think there is another problem that hasn’t been fully considered. When I thought about effectiveness of the anti-war campaigns and the Dean campaign, it was clear to me it was the combination of “the politics of small things” and institutionalized party politics that empowered them, which ultimately led to the successful political campaigns and Presidency of Barack Obama. I am far from the first to observe that it is the combination of movement and conventional politics that is essential. How to combine them is a pressing political question, as, for example, Jeffrey C. Isaac observed in his reflections on Martin Luther King Jr. I worry about the breakdown of the connection, and how this is not only a matter of choice, but a direct result of the form of mediated politics.

The task of organizing alternative politics used to be difficult. Getting a broad social movement together was hard work. It involved building trust among people who didn’t know each other and often were suspicious of each other. Union organizers had to work with groups of immigrant workers who spoke a multitude of different languages in the early years of the twentieth century, and who didn’t know the rules of the game in America. Religious and secular civil rights workers, from the North and the South, relatively well off and impoverished, highly and poorly educated, had to forge common ground in a deeply hostile racist society, north and south. Getting people to act together required careful development.

With the new media, it’s much easier, but we are suffering as a consequence. We have a kind of organization deficit.

What comes with ease may not endure. This is notable as we observe the evaporation and the failures of social movements: think again of Occupy and the Arab Uprising. Yet, this is not my primary concern. I know even if a movement lives and dies, its cultural impact, the way it informs common sense, can still be lasting. It can significantly contribute to “the reinvention of political culture,” even if the movement fades away. In the case of the Occupy, clearly the ascendant broad common concern with inequality, the renewed interest in socialism, the growing consensus that medical care is a civil right and much more are a fruit of the movement.

On the darker side, the disconnect between movements and more established social and cultural organizations and practices is deeply concerning. Popular discontent is expressed, but the capacity to affirm positive principles and programs is not developed. At a distance, this is what I note in the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vest) movement in France and what I see in the Brexit vote in Britain. I think this explains the support of authoritarians who provide easy answers to complex problems often at the expense of the truth and the marginalized, exciting deep historical resentments and suspicions around the world. The discontent is expressed, but not channeled into rational means to address social concerns, and the charlatans step in.

Close to home, this is how I have understood the Tea Party movement and the election of Donald Trump. The Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement, and its demagogic leader, with his illiterate ignorant tweets, with his reality TV rendering of politics and the profound problems of our times, are supported. Democracy is negated with the certainty that anyone who doesn’t buy the demagogues story is an enemy of the people. I am pretty sure that this will not prevail in the United States, but the danger is clear and present.

The media didn’t create this situation, by any means. But they facilitate it. Yet, I know the media is like the air we breath. We cannot do without it. We cannot achieve our ends by ignoring the challenges. In our own modest way, this is what we are doing at Public Seminar. I will explain more fully in my next post.

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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