BOTH OUR HOUSES
The Demise of Anglo-American Democracy
It’s fashionable on the left to accuse Bush and Blair of single-handedly corrupting their respective countries, but we are faced with the embarrassing fact that their benighted electorates voted them into power—just like Hitler, as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us. I wrote the following in 1995 after five weeks spent touring America and have just reread it in the blowback of the 2006 British local council elections. I post it here virtually unaltered.
In the 1990s we have witnessed, as if in time-lapse photography, the inauguration of a new left-of-centre American president, followed almost immediately by his implosion. Clinton’s collapse has been blamed on his naive liberalism—in fact, every explanation is offered except the fundamental and unspeakable one: the selfishness, complacency, ignorance, arrogance, despair, and ultimate apathy of the mass of America’s voting (and non-voting) population.
It has been a truism for at least a couple of centuries that an effective democracy depends on an educated populace. But now the very process of public education is in terminal decline: the media set the agenda, and the message sold on television hundreds of times a day is that, if you’ve got the money, anything you want is available instantly and without effort. Teachers are admonished that poor reception (i.e. boredom) is always the fault of the transmitter, never of the receiver. The “apprentice” concept—the idea that you have to learn things over a long period, and that they will not become useful or enjoyable until you have mastered a skill or a body of knowledge—has virtually disappeared and, along with it, the belief that there are people who know more than you and whose opinions should be listened to. Only a few professions such as law, medicine and accountancy are still permitted to claim such expertise and authority, since their failures are expensively and/or fatally apparent.
Educators, attempting to speak a language their students will understand and attend to, use the latest technologies to offer “products” to “customers” for immediate selection. But calling up a mass of information on a screen in a neat and attractive format has little to do with the messy process whereby it is implanted in the human brain; you only create the illusion that because you have bought it, you therefore own it. With interactive TV, facts don’t just sit monumentally on a shelf; you are the ringmaster of your own media circus, marshaling and reordering names and dates without having to pass them through your synapses. Artists, philosophers, celebrities, statesmen—all are passive objects to be manipulated, as in the new interactive movies in which you can choose the ending and even participate as the leading character.
The whole system of education has been affected; Marshall McLuhan’s prescription for education as “civil defense against media fallout” is long forgotten. Teachers and professors, young and old, despair at the forest of gumps they are confronted with. The most influential voices the populace hears are those speaking in the background hour after hour, day after day, and they’re coming out of little square boxes. No child gets talked to as much even by his parents as by the TV brainsquashers. As McLuhan suggested, reading and writing—and thinking—could again become specialist skills performed on our behalf, as in the middle ages.
The media aren’t yet literally monolithic, but they’re getting there and America, as usual, leads the way. Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly, when it came out in 1983, was excoriated for claiming that fifty corporations controlled “what America sees, hears and reads”. By 1987 it was down to twenty-seven; the latest edition names six. [In the 2004 edition it would be reduced to five.] There is still a handful of newspapers worth a selective reading, but the great mass of local journals, as I recently observed in a five-week tour across the country, are parochial, reactionary, and devoid of content. A few columnists are allowed to expose graft and corruption, so long as they are not the sorts practiced by the owners of that particular newspaper. The so-called “media elite” are for the most part exactly that: a small group of East Coast journalists who expose the shady activities of upstart entrepreneurs and machine politicos, but not the massive frauds of the respectable financiers who own and control the papers. Says Bagdikian:
...while it is always open season on the public sector and we see masses of stories about federal or local politicians who cut corners, only the most melodramatic moments of capitalism’s misdoings are reported. There is no consistent scrutiny of this area of national life.
Even the elite papers are rapidly losing their serious character. John Leonard, former editor of The Sunday New York Times Book Review, told me of several friends who had left or been kicked out of the paper after attempting unsuccessfully to continue practicing journalism as they had known it. Such papers are devoting more and more space to “lifestyle” journalism at the expense of news, analysis and arts coverage (except for pop music, which brings in massive advertising).
A comparison of the newspapers in any major city reveals an amazing similarity in the people and events considered newsworthy on any given day. We have gone far beyond the simple “press release” and on to a complex network of highly paid agents who among themselves largely determine the subject matter, if not the content, of current events coverage, whether it be political, artistic, or merely ego-inflating. (Sir George Solti, not content with a knighthood, engaged a PR wizard to make him “as famous as Toscanini”.)
Taken together with the fact that the readership for serious news is an ageing minority, the prognosis is for an elderly remnant of writers and readers on both sides of the Atlantic who will become increasingly irrelevant. Chris Koch, a multiple prize-winning American radio and television producer, tells the same story:
I don’t call myself a journalist any more. I stopped calling myself a journalist five years ago, because I am so appalled by the craft of journalism [today]. I now call myself a film-maker. I think the press is in desperately bad shape. I think it’s worse than it was during the conformist period of the fifties—I really do. It’s not bad because it keeps out progressives, people who are considered to be beyond the pale; it’s bad because of its pandering to the lowest common denominator of making money.
Nor is the situation better on TV, where Americans supposedly get the news they used to read in the papers. Even Ted Turner, the unashamedly megalomaniac owner of world-wide CNN cable news, freely admits that his American ratings are very low, except during national crises or courtroom soaps such as O.J. and the Simpsons.
NONE of this will sound unfamiliar to the English reader. Those who attempt to slake their thirst for knowledge from a London broadsheet of either political wing find increasingly that they must be their own bartenders, scooping away great dollops of froth in order to reach the diminishing quantity of substantial brew at the bottom of the tankard.
Salesmen have always tried to sell the product and the buyer to each other, but imperfect communication necessitated a lot of guesswork as well as manipulation. Now that political propaganda has become much more interactive through increasingly sophisticated polling, anti-intellectual populism has become the most appealing and effective ideology. The use of the “proposition” in California is a dilute foretaste of what is to come: reactionary laws, backed by massive publicity campaigns, have reached the books without having to pass through the legislature. The next step will be the instant referendum of interactive television, in which the voters will be allowed to reverse their verdicts from time to time on a handful of spurious issues, as the nation’s statutes ebb and flow with the tides of public indignation and apathy.
American voters know somewhere in their marrow that they are being diddled, but few know how or why, so they live in a perpetual blind fury which the right-wing demagogues have easily harnessed. The latter don’t even have to understand it themselves; they need only smell the rot and declare themselves “agin' it”. They may or may not be the conscious agents of their real masters, but they will in either case serve them equally well. Their manipulative radio phone-ins, in which every caller has the right to be livid, have become the perfect parody of democracy. (The virus has already crossed the Atlantic.)
Thus the outcome of the last several American elections has been the inevitable result of an increasingly pervasive populism, in which the will of those who thought “somethin’ oughta be done about it” was both manipulated and made manifest. What it has revealed is how hopeless is the Sisyphean task facing the schools and what an effective job of brainwashing has been accomplished by the “media”, i.e. all the public means of entertaining and informing that are designed to maximize sales of products or ideologies. With Clinton, we may have witnessed the last blip of candidate intelligence and integrity, watered down and compromised to a level that would be momentarily acceptable at the polls.
BRITAIN is no better off. For years its voters have been conditioned and controlled by professional propagandists. Their political opinions, if any, are gleaned from mercenary hacks as ignorant as themselves. They are prepared, when so instructed, to vote against their own interests. Every intelligent politician knows this, but none will publicly disembowel himself by saying it. Those vestigial remnants of the old Left who urge Labour to present a reasoned defense of socialism would condemn the party to trailing somewhere behind the Monster Raving Loonies.
So Clinton and Blair may have been the closest approximations to statesmen their respective countries can now tolerate. No Adlai Stevenson or Nye Bevan could get past the spin doctors. In fact, it is difficult to believe that any revered politician of the past—Roosevelt, Churchill, Kennedy, Disraeli, Lincoln, take your pick—could arrive or survive today as a viable leader with any significant portion of his principles, let alone his dignity, still intact. The sheer steam-roller efficiency of media control would leave no serendipitous element free to allow him a fighting chance.
I WOULD like to end on a positive note, but C-major chords are in short supply except among minimalist composers. Today’s specious appeals to communitarianism from both left and right assume that our citizens have been prepared for it by their education. That was yesterday. For tomorrow, cultivate your own garden, fence it, take the tabloids with a dose of salts, and keep checking your E-mail for early warning signals.
©1995 John Whiting