Oct 6, 2009

Educated Self-government

I found McChensey's article disturbing, most likely because it's pessimistic and yet scarily accurate.

He starts with stating on page 189 that "in my opinion, the general thrust of the global commercial media system is quite negative- assuming one wishes to preserve and promote institutions and values that are conducive to meaningful self-government."

He takes this further by stating that this is not just pointed at non-Western countries, but at every country, including America. In fact, he says that America is proof of this fact, citing voter apathy and cynicism. This may be a hard case to make in Washington D.C., where politics dominates the social and economic environment, but I've lived elsewhere. I've experienced life in both liberal New York and conservative Indiana. In New York, politics were stigmatized and treated with cynicism. Cynicism is actually quite easy, it frees you to be critical without making any commitment to actually change what you're criticizing. In Indiana, there was more hope, I suppose I could say, but also a lot of apathy. Government is seen as such a big issue, the responsibility is lobbed off on someone who 'knows what they're doing' or 'is interested in that stuff.' (I must confess, I am guilty of this.) At my college, in a rural environment, keeping up on the news was a low priority and one of the reasons for the accusation of a college 'bubble.'

Some could say this is simply a product of the sophistication of our government, but for me it does spell a declining trend in democratic involvement. Politics are controversial so they're sidelined in conversation. Dialogue, where no one is expected to change their mind or even contemplate changing their opinion, leaves both sides with only common ground instead of addressing deep, divisional interests. By stifling debate, we run the risk of ending up with two parties that are actually far too similar to provide new or different approaches.

Going back to the 'bubble', we've come to value education so much in it's own right, that we neglect or trivialize the fact it is supposed to equip us for civic life. My graduating high school class was given a citizenship test. The number who could pass it was disturbing. The Founding Fathers were rather non-democratic on this point - many believed only the educated could be trusted to vote, thus why mandatory public education was so important, for both men and women. (Even though women couldn't vote, they were considered the carriers of civic values for children.)

Unfortunately, we have come to an age where parents and other institutions really feel like the global commercial market is more influential than they are. After all, how many hours of TV and other media do (particularly American) children take in a day, a week? And uncritically at that? This is what McChensey and other macro-view writers often overlook. Global media is not alone in influencing people's values, beliefs and ideas - and yet what we are now facing is a weakening of the traditional influences in modern society. Areas that still have strong families, strong social institutions and stable lifestyles are changing in far more shallow ways. They accept products without buying into all the baggage. But how far can you go, especially as stability is threatened world-wide?

In Thailand during my study abroad, the Thai king 'introduced' the idea of sufficiency: that everyone would be satisfied with what they have and only acquire what they need. It was hailed as 'revolutionary', but it's really as old as the philosophy of Buddhism itself. What was apparently the 'revolutionary' part was the application of 'old' philosophy to economics, in opposition to unfettered capitalism. This is just sad, considering monotheistic religions, which dominate the world today, would all agree with this economic advice.

But who would advertise his policy? Even though benign, it's still antimarket. McChensey states that commercial media implicitly marginalizes or denounces antimarket activities, as well as political activity and civic values. But here, I agree more with Prof. Hayden's idea that there is no back room with men and cigars plotting to take over the world. I think it's just the media following the trend of the simple and easy. It's easier to produce a slapstick comedy than a deep drama, simpler to have one-dimensional characters than to use shades of grey. Political activity, civic values can then be sidelined as too difficult, too complex, too confusing.

But here we hit a counter-trend. Despite the cycle of culture and media - the media producing the stereotype of the frat brother, exaggerating reality or using outliers as the norm, where it is reflected in reality (chicken & egg) - some tastes do run deeper. And some branding can be connected with complexity. For instance, some bemoan the set of crime shows such as Law & Order, that have spawned so many shows and episodes. Yet these shows regularly pick apart difficult issues and present various sides - SVU (special victims) regularly deals with sexual issues that probe cutting-edge technology and research. Inevitably tied with law, they can serve a rather bizarre educational function - intentionally leaving shows open-ended and unsettling, rather than giving the convenient half-hour closure.

The global media culture is more complex - and reflects both the values/considerations of those at the top as well as the consumer. For one, it's moving beyond 'American commercialism,' which McChensey points out limits culture to a static product and often equates American culture with corporate consumerism. America is richer than consumerism and so is the rest of the world - so the really question is, can this depth be maintained, replicated and stored by global media? (Going back to Carey's idea of ritual communication) In some part, this depends on the producers. How diverse are they themselves? How will they adjust to globalism - continue localizing or cultivating a simple 'global' culture? Will they take the steps need to go beyond cultivating simple tastes and satisfy deeper needs? (Diasporic media springs to mind.) Will niche markets maintain diversity in content? Will pluralistic views be articulated on a large scale? On the other hand, we the people need to make sure we maintain an interest in what we're not being served. Here, the Internet with its citizen 'journalism' empowers organization and advertising of unaddressed causes and criticisms of mass commercialism. We can make a difference - strengthening our values institutions, being counterculture, forcing global media to respond to our interests instead of relying on them to present uncritically.

I suppose, in the end, I have hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment