Ezra Klein published an interesting piece in Vox today arguing, among other things, that Aldous Huxley’s dystopia resembles our current state more than Orwell’s did. Klein cites Neil Postman, whose “Amusing Ourselves to Death” came out in 1985:
In his classic 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote of the difference between George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s visions of fascism.
“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information,” wrote Postman. “Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
Postman’s warning rang out in a different era. He worried over the rise of television, not Twitter; he was reacting to Ronald Reagan, not Donald Trump. And yet the facts of our age are more absurd and insulting than anything Postman prophesied.
The truth IS out there — it’s just a small, shiny pebble that is obscured by a river of bullshit. Klein says what many of us have argued for a couple of years now: the mainstream media’s approach to covering Trump is a failure, and unless they consciously make better choices not only about how they cover things but what to cover, democracy is in serious peril.
Klein acknowledges the complexity of the problem, including the click-driven media of which Klein himself is a part:
That’s particularly true in the hypercompetitive enclaves of cable news and social media, where only the most attention-grabbing, conflict-rich content thrives. The media has no problem ignoring the president when what he says is boring or predictable. It’s when he’s outrageous or absurd that the “breaking” banners light up. That’s an awful incentive structure, as Trump’s gleeful manipulation of our attention has shown.
And yet, it’s damn hard to resist. It’s damn hard to resist because Trump’s behavior really is so outlandish, and because if everyone else is covering Trump’s latest comments you feel like you’re missing the story if you focus elsewhere, and because there really is audience demand, and because Trump rallies make for damn good TV segments and Facebook posts. And I say this as someone whose coverage is just as driven by these incentives as anyone else’s.
Trump knows all this, he is a genius at understanding the dynamics of press coverage, and it’s allowed him to hack the media brilliantly, to even make critical coverage part of his strategy and storyline. He controls our attention more effectively than any president in memory, perhaps than any president in history. But at what cost?
At the cost of our democracy, perhaps. The sensational content Trump produces via Twitter and his big fat mouth daily obscure more important stories, such as the fact that hundreds of immigrant children have been effectively orphaned by government agencies enacting a pointless and evil policy, the exponentially worse-than-Watergate Russia scandal, the administration’s historic levels of corruption and Trump’s manifest incompetence. I’m not 100% in agreement with Klein that Trump is a media genius whose actions, like saying outrageous shit at rallies, are deliberate tactics to hijack the narrative away from events like the Scott Pruitt public corruption flame-out.
IMO, it’s just as possible that events like the Pruitt flame-out, the Manafort trial, etc., trigger insecurity and a hunger for adulation in the brittle narcissist Trump, and his rallies are a way to feed that fragile ego. But in the end, I’m not sure the motivation really matters. The bottom line is, the fire-hose volume of outrages from Trump DOES obscure stories that would have buried a normal administration. Klein cites Postman again to identify the source of the problem:
“To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple,” Postman warned.
So, what to do? If we have to count on a click-driven media to reform itself by refraining from covering politics as entertainment, we’re obviously doomed. But we can work the refs, and working the refs sometimes works. For example, Alex Jones and InfoWars were kicked off YouTube, Facebook and Apple today. That’s a victory.
The very absurdities of the present age may serve as levers to effect change on the margins, or at least inspire more people to fire up their woefully disused bullshit detectors. For example, Buzzfeed is reporting that there’s a lot of evidence to suggest this QAnonsense that made headlines last week originated as a prank to make Trump supporters look stupid. Mission accomplished!
Now, no amount of debunking will unstupid people who think Alex Jones is credible source. No amount of coverage will knock sense into the empty heads people who believe Trump is on a secret mission to bust a global pedophile ring and reclaim U.S. democracy from a degenerate Democratic cabal. Those folks took the bus to crazy town on a one-way ticket long ago.
But there’s a chance that exposing the subterranean madness that is bubbling below the surface of what passes for mainstream conservative politics will be clarifying for people who don’t normally pay attention. And exposing how trolls manipulated Democrats and left-leaning unaffiliateds in 2016 can help us prevent a repeat in upcoming elections. Robby Mook has a piece in USA Today that speaks to that:
The Russians know there’s no better way to help Trump win re-election than divide Democrats and disrupt our primary. They will choose sides. They will seek to inflate divisions on race, gender and geography. They will trump up “scandals” and suspicions of “rigging.” They will infiltrate conversations in our Facebook groups and Twitter threads, and pollute our feeds with manufactured content. There’s no question it will happen. The question is: What will we do about it?
To be clear, I look forward to a sprawling, highly competitive presidential primary next year. A wide variety of choices and a spirited debate about the direction of our country is healthy and will produce the best candidate possible. We should welcome the differences in opinion and passions it will evoke. We just don’t want the Russians manufacturing ways to make it unnecessarily nasty or divisive.
Every Democrat considering a run for president needs to carefully consider where she or he will stand when Russian rumor mongering seeks to divide Democrats. If Russia attacks your opponent or promotes you, will you let it slide? Or will you speak out? Will you commit to ignoring stolen and leaked material? Will you be willing to call on supporters to shut down Facebook groups infected with agents posing as supporters?
Maybe Democratic candidates and leaders need to get together and come up with a pledge to that effect. What do you think?