This bleak but brilliant post by Billmon exemplifies why we bloggers are either the last, best hope of civilization, or the last, best chroniclers of the end of civilization. The post is so rich it’s hard to find any one part to quote. I guess I’ll start here:
There’s something deeper at work here than just conventional media bias or capitalist economics, although they’re certainly part of it. There’s always been a powerful current of anti-intellectualism in American politics, just as there is in American life. It’s the dark side of democracy: The pressure to accept what the majority, or the most vocal minority, thinks is true as truth – even when the evidence is entirely on the other side. When Henry Ford said history was bunk, he wasn’t taking about the past but about the present, and his ire wasn’t directed at historians per se but at the revisionist historians of the Progressive Era, who were telling him and his fellow know nothings inconvenient facts they didn’t want to hear. Pump Henry full of Hillbilly Heroin and put him on the radio, and you’ve got Rush Limbaugh, still making the same point.
The difference between Ford’s time and Limbaugh’s is that the political presumption against rationality is now shared, or at least pandered to, even at the top of the political and cultural pyramid. It’s curious that people who are paid to think and write for a living, and who, like Gore, attended the “best” schools, are now nearly as susceptible to the politics of ignorance as your average conservative talk show host, but then the elite media ain’t what it used to be. Like academia, it’s fighting a losing rear-guard action against the spirit of the times and the angry, irrational prejudices that go with it.
But even more than academia, the old journalistic bastions of enlightenment liberalism – the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek – are vulnerable to the growing institutional and commercial pressures to tell the customers what they want to hear. And since conservatives are by far the larger and more economically attractive audience, the gravitational pull is perpetually to the right, which these days means the authoritarian right and the artificial reality it prefers to live in.
In other words, even “serious” journalism – and by extension “serious” politics – is no longer a conversation between educated, largely secular elites, with the unwashed masses free to listen in as long as they don’t challenge the wisdom of their socio-economic superiors. The masses are now educated too, not to mention economically empowered. And while this hasn’t made much of a dent in the American tendency towards anti-intellectualism, it means the opinions and prejudices of the populist right can no longer be ignored or segregated in the fringe world of talk radio.
Sometimes we’ve talked about how to get people to understand the dangers we’re facing, assuming that’s possible. I don’t think people necessarily have to be re-programmed in order to “get it.” A glance at Bush’s approval ratings suggests that people are catching on. And “the top of the political and cultural pyramid” certainly has never been free of prejudices and biases. On the other hand, when culture — which includes mass media — explains the world in a certain way or expresses only a limited range of ideas and points of view, it’s a challenge for most people to imagine the world in another way, or to think outside that limited range. Even if their guts are telling them something is wrong with this picture, they are likely to stay stuck in the same ol’ cognitive ruts as long as culture doesn’t show them other options. And they will continue to respond to the same old spin and talking points they’ve been conditioned to accept as truth.
I think Billmon is right about “a conversation between educated, largely secular elites, with the unwashed masses free to listen in as long as they don’t challenge the wisdom of their socio-economic superiors” being the way things used to be, especially before mass media. When you consider that, once upon a time, U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures instead of by popular vote, and presidential candidacies were brokered in the old smoke-filled rooms, you’d think we are more democratic today than ever. But it doesn’t do much good to put decisions in the hands of the people when the people are being demagogued and lied to at every turn.