Thursday, March 24, 2005

Class, Part IX: Facts and Teddy Bears

I said below that I have two major complaints: That entertainment now "serves not as entertainment for its own sake, or as a mechanism to provoke thought or feeling, or even as decoration; it serves as a means to distract us from more urgent issues," which is my first complaint, and, second, that entertainment serves as a profit center for the companies who produce the entertainment. Thanks to a post by Ann, I've added a third major complaint, that the relentless commodification of every event, every emotion, generally through entertainment media, has further distanced us from the reality-based world Let me detail these complaints separately.

The first complaint is that the press is neglecting to provide us with facts that are relevant to our participation in the political, economic, and social spheres of our lives. Both Avedon Carol and Fred at slacktivist have laid it out quite well; go read those pieces first.

It's true that facts always can be--indeed, are--interpreted: opinion and analysis pieces, for example, as well as extensive news stories, can provide a list of relevant facts and then offer an interpretative framework for them. That's the very essence of reasoned argument that is vital to an open society. I make a an argument, based on a set of facts. Someone else should be able to check the facts on which the argument is based, assess whether the claim based on those facts is a reasonable interpretation, and assess whether I have included all relevant facts in my analysis. That no longer takes place, insofar as much reporting simply tells you what's been said, not whether what's been said is (a) an accurate accounting of the facts of a matter or (b) a reasonable interpretation or analysis. Stephen Colbert of The Daily Show got it right--I can't find the link, but will add it if someone else has it--in the piece where he said that, as a journalist, his job isn't to sift through the evidence and present facts, his job is just to present what each side claims is true.

The right-wing Wurlitzer learned that they can simply pump up the volume on whatever talking points they choose, disperse the message through a variety of right-wing front groups masquerading as research or policy organizations, and fill the airwaves with the spin they want. Simultaneously, the Wurlitzer denigrates fact-finding as "partisan," or as "just their opinion," particularly when the facts challenge the view of the world the Wurlitzer presents. And, as David Neiwert documents, the Wurlitzer has little competition out in the more rural areas of the country--it's all Rush, all the time. They can simply make shit up. If they are called on it, if an actual fact threatens the world view, it's ignored or spun further.

Compare three cases, in two of which The People have a lot of facts about or experienced with a situation already and one case where they depend upon the news media to gather and report facts. The first example is Social Security. Nearly everyone has experience with Social Security. (I think that Josh Marshall may have made this argument, too, and his extensive coverage of the issue is well worth reading.) They get it or they know someone who does, either because of age or disability. That is, people already have a fair number of facts in hand about the institution. The administration's plan, such as it is, (a) won't fix what they say is wrong, (b) will add trillions to the federal deficit to cover the costs, (c) is likely to reduce future benefits, and (d) is likely to result in the end of real Social Security. There's more, but those are the highlights. The administration has been trying to sell the plan, and they've operated under the assumption that their spinning and lying will work as it usually does, that is, people will believe the administration's presentation of the world. Except, in this case, people have an awful lot of experience that runs directly counter to that presentation. Is it any wonder, then, that the more people find out about the plan the less they support it? (I'm particularly amused by the contention that the "Democrats haven't offered a plan." Umm, yes, they have: it's called Social Security, and it works pretty well.)

A second example is the political grandstanding over Terri Schiavo. Most people have been involved in an end-of-life decision for someone close and/or have thought about their own wishes in this regard (inquiries about living wills are apparently way up). Though you'd be hard-pressed to find it in the news stories about this, Digby, citing several other sources, points out that a strong majority of people would choose to remove the feeding tube, were they Ms. Schaivo's guardian, and an even larger majority would want that tube removed were they in her situation. Most news coverage that I've seen--though I've been avoiding it--does not mention this. Again, people have a fair amount of first-hand information at hand, and their opinions provide a stark contrast to the politician-generated spin.

Contrast these examples with the invasion of Iraq. We were told, repeatedly, at great volume, by many people in or supportive of the administration, that there was an imminent threat to our safety and security from the many WMDs that Iraq had stockpiled, that the war would be self-supporting, with oil revenues, and that there was a link between Iraq and September 11. These claims turn out to have been a total fabrication, albeit often carefully phrased. But we had to depend on other people for facts about the situation. Public opinion was mixed and volatile, but, I suspect, would have been much less so if people knew then what they know now. That is, if people had known that there were no WMDs, that the cost of the war would be astronomical, in terms of dollars and human lives and world opinion, and that Iraq had nothing to do with September 11, I suspect the situation would have been analogous to the Social Security debate. The first and third facts were available at the time, and the second fact could have been (and was) surmised. But people did not get those facts, they were presented an argument that implied or said the opposite, and they did not have sufficient direct, personal experience to counter the lies being spread from every corner of the land.

The short version of this first point, then, is that the idle distractions and opinion-mongering that have replaced actual reporting of real facts aren't merely idle distractions: they are in place of the reporting of facts that we need to be an informed society. We cannot properly make decisions, we cannot properly participate in government of the people, by the people, and for the people if we are fed people shouting at each other and contests of people eating worms rather than information about what's at stake in our actions in the world. "But people WANT to watch worm-eating!" you cry; the companies are merely Giving People What They Want!

And that leads to the second point. Media companies are giving people what it is cheap and expedient to give people, and what will not piss off the people in power. They have become less concerned with news, per se, and more concerned with profit, and, therefore, with entertainment. Reporting facts requires that you hire smart, tenacious people and that you look for and report the facts of the matter, even if those facts are inconvenient for the powers that be. But news organizations have cut their news budgets over the past two decades. If I were truly a conspiracy theorist, or if I were a co-conspirator, worm-eating and bathos are precisely what I would supply instead of facts. Worm-eating is cheap, and opinons are like assholes--everybody's got one, making it relatively cheap to gather them. Gathering facts, interpreting them carefully, and reporting on them is not. Plus, you never know where facts will lead--you might piss off someone whose favor or vote you need. Yes, I know, media companies are in business to Make Money, not to serve the Public Good. Who, then will serve the public good? (And, yes, I know that we have varied ideas about what the public good is or can be or should be, but shouldn't that be part of the debate? Surely the public good includes something other than eating worms?) Frankly, the abundance of worm-eating and the lack of reporting is as good an argument against unfettered capitalism as you're likely to find.

As for my third complaint, Ann notes:
Something that has never ceased to amaze me: the way so many people know how to say just the right thing. Not necessarily what they're actually feeling or thinking, but what we've all learned to say from a culture in which therapy and confrontation are completely ordinary.

. . . When an opportunity arises, we must be prepared for it--"TV-ready," so to speak. So we learn how to most inoffensively offer our opinions; we learn the proper words with which to express grief or horror; we learn how to sound as if we're compassionate; we learn to admit to bad behavior even if we have no intentions of changing it, because it sounds good to confess.

Example: Minutes ago, I inadvertently overheard a coworker saying something along the lines of, "I'm sorry for acting that way. I know I have problems in social situations; it has to do with my fear of not being accepted." Once upon a time, that would have been considered an honest, if startling, confession. Now it's just a new way of shifting the blame.

Example: When my middle school burned down, a couple of my classmates were on TV. I remember one girl in particular was sobbing and talking about how horrible an experience it was, how scared she'd been. And I remember thinking, Aw, she just wants attention; she wasn't scared or sad or anything. But it was an effective and, to any stranger watching the news, appropriate response to...well, to the stereotype of the situation. School burns down; kids are upset.

Example: The Ashlee Simpson Show, several episodes of which I caught a couple months ago. For a while I was convinced she was a robot, or at least brainwashed to say all the right things at all the right times. I should've kept track of the number of times she said something like, "I feel this is a turning point in my career" and "I feel my career is really picking up." She was always super-excited about meeting people; she was bummed out when she broke up with her boyfriend, but understood that they were in different places and needed some time apart; she understood the ballet students were angry when she interrupted their class, but she only came to this realization after the interruption. Again, it's a way of absolving herself of blame for the way she acted, even though one would imagine that such insight would be more valuable before one does something stupid.

The problem isn't necessarily that we've learned the proper responses; it's that we use them as substitutes for real responses. You can't say you don't feel anything--not if you want others to sympathize or commiserate with you. In my class, one woman talked about seeing da Vinci's Mona Lisa for the first time. She was an intelligent, thoughtful person; she knew that standing in front of the Mona Lisa is A Big Deal, something to be Moved by, possibly even a Live-Changing Experience. Exciting. Awe-Inspiring. The problem was, she looked and looked and felt...Nothing. Apathy. Emptiness.

What do you do with that realization--especially when you can't muster the energy to feel bad about feeling nothing? Well, you pretend that you do feel something, and you pretend to feel something acceptable, because, again, it's the best way to get people to like you.
The relentless commodification of emotion results in piles of teddy bears and rotting bouquets of flowers at the scene of any well-publicized tragedy, particularly a death, particularly if the person(s) who died was young (or a British princess). Strangers leave tokens, and at least appear to be genuinely touched by the death, but what real meaning can it possibly have? Oh, wait: It Reminds Us All How Fragile Life Really Is.

Another part of this scene, of course, is the grieving family, a representative of whom must appear on television or at a news conference. When, in Lord of the Rings, Theoden says that no parent should have to bury his child, it is a moving moment, in some ways precisely because it is a theatrical presentation. That is, art--no matter whether it is popular culture, or opera, or whatever--is at its best when it provides us with an opportunity to think about what is important in our own lives, when it tells a compelling story, or even when it decorates our world or entertains us. The moment with Theoden is evocative, and it makes the story more honest because it reflects or portrays a truth about the world.

By contrast, when some poor parent or aunt or uncle appears on the news to talk about the murdered child in the family, I cringe. That is grotesque and intrusive, and I feel nothing but sympathy for them; no one should have to have their grief broadcast for the world to see. (And yet, I think some people have come to accept that as a part of the grieving process--their grief isn't real unless it's on television.) The worst part, however, is that if there is any contention at all--a custody battle, for example, or a particularly well-publicized murder--it forces the parties to a very private grief to reconceptualize and re-present their case in media-friendly terms. Facts become secondary to presentation. Real, messy, complicated emotion must be pared down to fit the maw of the entertainment-hungry media.

Those of us who are educated (either by schooling or autodidactically), and, especially, those of us who are liminal, are familiar with this in some ways, because we have the experience of learning a whole new language of behavior. What one can or should say in a working-class bar on a Friday night differs mightily from what one can or should say at the opera intermission. If you've had the experience of both situations (and I have), then you begin to realize how stark the differences can be, as well as the commonalities. The people at the opera and the people at the bar all laugh, cry, eat, shit, breathe; we have parents, spouses, kids, lovers; we work and sleep and socialize. And, as Joan Didion noted, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. We construct narratives that explain the facts of our lives.

Where do we learn how to do this? Or, more to the point of this post, what are the public examples available to us in constructing our own narratives? What can we mention and what must we leave out? And here's where class comes into it: What tools do we bring to bear, either to the situations in which we find ourselves or in the narratives we construct about those situations? Who are the critics and judges of the narratives we construct? And what happens when we learn all of this from people who want our money or our votes?

The focus on presentation rather than facts--this elimination of the necessity of facts--and the simultaneous commodification of all emotion do us all a disservice, but it is particularly harmful to people who do not have the resources available to recognize the disconnect. If we are sufficiently wealthy or delusional, we can dissociate ourselves from the reality-based community entirely. Alternatively, we can sit in front of our computers, with our high-speed connections, and zip all over the web, as Avedon Carol says, finding the facts that are left out of other presentations. But if neither of those options is available to us, if we don't know what options other than what we've always known exist, then we are beholden to what is presented to us. When the delusion is calculated, when it is part of an effort to grab political power and resources and capital, when it creates even larger gaps between the haves and the have-nots, then it is no longer merely a matter of entertainment.

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