I just got back from the East Coast where I spent a week visiting my elderly mother. She’s 82 years old and has Parkinson’s disease, and as the things she used to enjoy doing become more difficult for her, she tends to watch more TV. She’s very liberal, and quite politically active. You will occasionally still find her behind the table, at public events, encouraging her fellow Virginians to vote Democratic, so of course, she loves The Daily Show, Late Nite with Steven Colbert, and Samantha Bee.
She watches plenty of news, and she also enjoys several British mystery and drama series. She especially likes the Big Bang Theory, a sit-com that revolves around the fictitious lives of four very brainy, but socially awkward young professionals. The show is very popular, has been on for a long time and now runs in syndication. I got the impression that if you have enough channels, you can find an episode of the Big Bang Theory to watch any time of day or night, and in the week I spent with my mother, I saw so many episodes of that show that the theme song, and it’s bizarre, objectified, reductionist myth about the history of the universe is still ringing in my head days after I’ve returned home.
I haven’t seen that much TV in a long time, and I noticed something interesting about TV programming in general, that lies at the root of what’s wrong with political discourse in America. It comes down to the difference between facts and ideas. You can learn a lot of facts by watching television. TV will give you historical facts and up to the minute facts. You’ll get scientific facts, medical facts, and even the facts of life. Not only will TV give you the facts, but TV rehashes the facts, debates the factuality of the facts and quibbles about the details of the facts.
Besides that, TV glorifies facts in fictional programs. Clues turn into facts that solve mysteries. In dramatic series, the hero pulls some obscure fact out of his deep memory and applies it to his current dire predicament to save the day, and in sit-coms, like the Big Bang Theory where four science geeks bludgeon each other with scientific facts as ridiculously as the Three Stooges did with face-slaps, head-bonks and eye-pokes. Even the commercials tell you to “get the facts,” because “facts matter,” and “that’s a fact.”
On the other hand, I saw very few ideas on TV. For all of the facts TV spews, they all came at me from within a very narrow perspective, divorced from context. TV does not present nearly enough ideas to make sense of the facts they bombard us with. We get the Republican perspective and the Democratic perspective, neither of which contain enough ideas to make sense of the world, both of which share the same fundamental belief system, which is always assumed, and never questioned.
You will see lots of programs on TV about the latest scientific breakthroughs, and we marvel at the new products they hope to create with them. Why do we never see programs about alternative economic systems or alternative political ideas, and marvel at the potential improvements in society? Why don’t we see programs about Social Ecology, or even biological ecology for that matter? TV buries this paucity of ideas beneath an avalanche of facts. As a result, instead of debating ideas in our public dialogue, we bicker about facts.
That’s why I don’t believe that journalists help us much. The facts don’t matter if you don’t have enough ideas to make sense of them. Without context or perspective, this parade of facts becomes a blinding snowstorm of distraction.
Meanwhile, this is what people have come to expect from political discussion, a rehash of recent facts, and two, superficially different knee-jerk reactions to them. While TV may have expanded our horizons, by showing us images from around the world, this constant barrage of information warps our perception of reality, narrows our perspective and diminishes our ability to think.
They say that American society is becoming more “polarized.” Many blame the media. They say The News doesn’t delve deep enough into the issues, and that media pundits have degraded political rhetoric down to name-calling and wedge issue litmus tests. Of course, both of these things are true, but I think that what’s really happening in American politics runs much deeper than that.
First, I don’t think it makes sense to call it “polarization,” because “polar” implies a pair of equal but opposite extremes. Democrats and Republicans are not opposites. They are remarkably similar, with a few modest, but notable, differences. Democrat and Republican are competing brands of essentially the same product, and neither brand is nearly extreme enough for the American people. In reality, we have dozens of brands of extremism here in the US, that both oppose and attract each other, to varying degrees, and often exchange wing-nuts. Some of them work in coalition with the major parties, and some don’t.
Second, the parties and candidates manufacture their so called “ideals” out of pure hypocrisy and gall, specifically to attract campaign contributions, but also to encourage self-motivated zealots to volunteer for their campaign. How many of the people who answered calls and knocked on doors for Trump in 2016 do you suppose would identify as white supremacists, believe the Earth is flat, or think the universe is only six or seven thousand years old. By the same token, how many black block anarchists, Occupy Movement radicals, and EarthFirster’s got behind Bernie Sanders? The boots on the ground in both parties are just as wacky as rest of America’s lunatic fringe. The only difference is that the wackos in the major parties are managed by professionals, well paid professionals who think they deserve to make even more money than they already do. That’s the real problem in American politics.
The professionals always want more money, because they hate their jobs, and they know that if they had more money, they could make money off of their money, by investing it, and then they wouldn’t have to work. At the same time, the professionals also want investors to make money off of their investments, because the professionals want to live off of their own investments one day, too. That means that investors and professionals, including the ones who run both parties, are constantly looking for new ways to suck more money out of the rest of us.
The more the professionals and the investment class press their game, the more ridiculous the story they have to tell us, to justify the extortion. The more far-fetched and unhinged from reality those stories become, the less difference there is between the major parties and anyone on the lunatic fringe. How stupid do you have to be to believe in trickle-down economics? …or democracy for that matter? Why should it be any harder to believe that the Earth is flat, or that the Moon is made of cream cheese, or that aliens are coming to take us away to a distant galaxy?
Honestly, we’ve all been force-fed a diet of aggressively misleading bullshit since the day we were born, and if you bought into any of it, by now bullshit slingers have built skyscrapers of bullshit on top of it. When it comes down to it, scientists can be just as misleading, and wrong, as religious leaders and politicians, and all they really want is your money. By now, everyone knows this. So, if you really want to believe in something, you might as well believe in something you really want to believe in.
Today, thanks to the fire-hose of bullshit we call the internet, it becomes easier for people to eschew facts and logic just as effectively as both major political parties, all major religions, and most corporations. Why should working people have to face reality when no one else does? Who can blame people for concocting their own mythology and gravitating towards others with similar fantasies?
Americans have become radicalized, not by fundamentalism or religion, but by the non-stop assault on their credulity, and a political system that designed to pull the rug out from under them. American radicalism is a lot more individualistic than the kind of religious fanaticism or populist political movements we’ve seen in the past. Right now American radicalism is a wide open field. Whether it’s a queer antifa motorcycle gang, freegan vagabonds, or militant anti-abortion activists, increasingly, Americans are thinking outside the box, outside the system, and can no longer even agree on basic facts of reality.
This shattered reality will not be remedied by better reporters and more civil debate in the media, nor will it be fixed by a populist politician with a unifying message. The disagreements run too deep. The system has failed, and the lies that we told about it have taken on lives of their own. “Polarization” is definitely not the word to use for what is happening to the American body politic. “Polarization” implies some great mass in the middle, holding it all together. Instead, we should call it the “disintegration” of American politics. What’s more, we should recognize that fact, face it, and figure out where to go from here.
Facts don’t make writing good, and facts don’t make a story true. Mostly, facts provide an excuse for bad writing, and distract us from the truth about our own lives. Media outlets like to hype the factuality of their news reports, as incentive for you to ingest their bland, decontextualized descriptions of the day’s most violent events, but facts, by themselves, mean nothing. Divorced from perspective, facts have no power.
We tend to overemphasize the importance of facts in our culture, in the same way we over-value material objects. In reality, facts don’t lead to the truth any more than buying a Bowflex machine leads to the perfect physique. Nothing prevented you from exercising your muscles before you bought the machine. The machine just offers you a specific way to do something that you obviously prefer to avoid. Similarly, nothing prevented you from thinking deeply about your existential condition before The News started feeding you “the facts you need to understand your world.” Watching the News feels like you are doing something edifying, but really, it takes up way too much space for something we’re just not that involved with.
Journalists meticulously strip perspective out of their stories, leaving nothing but impotent rubbish to take up all of the space between the ads. “Unbiased and impartial” really means “disinterested and uncaring.” That’s how corporate advertisers like it, and that’s how corporate domination becomes the predominant perspective of all media. Advertisers pay for the right to present their perspective in their own words, against a neutral background of disconnected, irrelevant and objectified facts. That’s why “fact based journalism” is so popular in modern media.
For some reason, we believe in this myth about facts. We believe that exposing them and broadcasting them to every corner of the world will somehow make things better. We say: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” but today we see how the worst kind of scum thrives in bright light, so long as nothing taller or stronger can take root. Scum thrives because The News scorches the Earth with irrelevant, disembodied facts.
The News fills your head with irrelevancies that distract, subvert and belittle your own thought process, while it consumes all of the space where you might actually talk to your peers. Watching The News is not how you become an informed citizen; watching The News is how you become a brainwashed drone, and that’s not what anyone really aspires to become.
Information can be inspiring, relevant and powerful, but rarely is it so. Mostly, especially today, information distracts us, saps our energy, and wastes our time. The News becomes addictive, not because it provides an essential nutrient to intellectual and civic life, but because it masks the angst, confusion and general unease of alienation. Facts, as they come from to us from the media, amount to little more than an endless trail of breadcrumbs leading us nowhere except toward obesity, malnutrition and death.
To find the very worst fact-based writing, however, you have to read science. Science, as a whole, amounts to an immense edifice of the worst published writing in the history of human language, which unscrupulous men use in their quest to dominate the Earth. In that way, modern science is very much like the medieval Catholic Church.
Few of us read much real science. Mostly, this indecipherable gobbledygook gets filed away in back rooms of libraries or in ungoogleable internet servers, where no one ever reads it, but it becomes part of this enormous edifice of sacred texts into which all learned people have invested large portions of their lives, with the promise that if they did, they would earn more money than the rest of us.
In reality, nothing in that edifice of so-called knowledge helps us, or them, understand the world we live in. Instead, it amounts to an encyclopedia of violence and a compendium of oppression. The edifice we call “Science” contains the formula for every toxic chemical on Earth. It tells you everything you need to know to build a thermonuclear weapon, and it contains every study ever conducted for the purpose of learning how to influence consumer behavior and effectively brainwash a population. The truth of the matter is that the only thing educated people really learn, in all their years of study, is the dynamics of civilized political power, and by the time they understand that, they’re already too deeply invested in it to quit.
Scientists further deny the basic truth of our lived experience by telling us that the only facts that matter, have to be carefully chosen according to complex statistical algorithms that only scientists understand, or they have to be gathered in a laboratory setting. Scientists will be the first to dismiss the facts of your life as irrelevant, anecdotal and statistically insignificant. They’ll tell you to base your decisions on the proven probabilities of verifiable science, and to calculate, rather than feel your way through life. That’s how scientists tell you that they think they should make your decisions for you, and that’s another way that modern science resembles the Catholic Church.
All of the facts in the world don’t make bad writing worth reading. Facts are just a sleazy tool to sell empty words, and too many empty words can bury you. On the other hand, writing that speaks to you, has truth in it, and you will find the facts that support it because there is more truth in the facts of your life, than you will ever find in all of the news media and science writing on Earth.
When I take someone’s picture in public, I always ask permission. Legally, I have no obligation to do so, but I ask, because I know that when I take that picture, I have taken something from them that is probably more precious than they realize, especially considering all of the terrible things I could do with it. It’s an odd wrinkle in our laws that allows this. When someone takes your picture, it becomes their art, not yours, even though it is a picture of you. You, as an individual, have no control over who can take your picture when you are in public, or what they can do with it.
Of course, if we respected every individual’s right to control how their image was used, it would severely restrict the field of photojournalism, because nobody wants to have their mugshot published in the paper, and no one wants to be seen in a perp-walk or other embarrassing circumstances. Journalists would be confined to shooting landscapes, animals, and flattering, licensed, pictures of proud people to illustrate their stories. Instead, we give journalists broad latitude to take our pictures, and use them for their own purposes, because, presumably, we value journalism, and feel it has an important role to serve in our society.
We expect journalists to show us pictures of the accused. We expect them to cover the parade, and to show the spectators as well as the marchers, but we also expect journalists to uncover wrongdoing, and to expose the perpetrators. We expect them ask difficult questions of politicians, and to let us watch those politicians squirm, or at least we used to expect that, and we pretend to expect that today. We give journalists broad latitude to photograph us in public, not because we recognize their God given right to do so, but because we expect something from them in terms of service to the community.
Unfortunately, the economics of the media lead to something else entirely. It is expensive to investigate corporate malfeasance. It takes time and money to penetrate private firms with private offices, and it just might alienate possible advertisers or underwriters. The media has very little motivation, and lots of reasons to move cautiously, or not at all, into the field of investigative reporting. On the other hand, the law allows journalists to take unlimited numbers of pictures of poor people who cannot afford any private space from which to escape their prying eyes.
Misery, hardship, poverty, drug abuse, all leave their traces on the faces of the people who have endured them. Many photographers have made their livings from their ability to capture someone else’s misery and convey it in a photographic frame, but others take pictures of the poor and destitute, not to sensitively convey their pain, but to ridicule and humiliate them, and turn them into objects of public scorn. We see this all the time here in our local media.
We see pictures of poor and homeless people next to articles designed, not to draw attention to the suffering of our neighbors, but to ridicule them for their poverty, or to complain about the trash they create, or whine about how much they impact local businesses. The press uses the broad legal permission we give them to take pictures of us in public, to humiliate and dehumanize our poor neighbors for profit, while they suck up to the corrupt businesses and politicians we want them to expose. In other words, this legal loophole allows the media to treat people, especially poor people, like vermin, while economic forces encourage them to treat every single money making venture in town as immaculately conceived and without sin.
Instead of holding politicians’ feet to the fire, our media looks for helpless poor people to humiliate. You can see it everywhere, from reality TV to our local TV news, newspapers and websites, and it doesn’t stop there. We allow mass surveillance. We let merchants videotape us, governments spy on us and online companies track our every keystroke. We allow them to monitor our behavior and use the information they collect to uncover our psychological weaknesses and exploit them. You have the right to remain at home, if you have one, and off-line, but everything you say and do in public or online will be used against you.
In the same way that we should not conflate what is illegal with what is wrong, we should be equally careful not to conflate what is legal with what is right. I used to make a lot of video documentaries. I understand the power of images, and how context can change how they are perceived. I also know that being on TV can be empowering and helpful, but it can also be cruel and humiliating, sometimes all at the same time. Turning pictures of people into a piece of media, any media, is a kind of magic, and it is never undertaken in complete innocence. The producer always has a perspective, if not an agenda, and for everything an image shows, it hides a thousand other things.
Some friends of mine, who also make documentaries, told me that they wanted to name their film company, “Potlatch Pictures” after the famous gifting feast. I told them that I found it hard to see any of what we do, as media producers, as generous or benevolent, especially if we somehow manage to get paid for it, because we’re always taking, and we’re always intruding. I think that’s true of all media. None of it is generous or benevolent. The media is always taking, and always intruding, and it always hides more than it shows. No one in this field is innocent. This is a war, and the battlefield is your mind.
I’ve been taking a break from “the News” lately, pretty much since the election. It just got too embarrassing to watch. Trump turned US politics into a reality TV show, and I’m only willing to dumb down so far. I figure that if anything important happens, someone will tell me. I have that trust because people tell me about it even when nothing important happens. It really surprises me how much people talk about national politics around here.
I mean, my dope yuppie friends have no respect for the law, and don’t pay income tax, but somehow feel invested in American democracy, and talk about it all the time. My homeless friends, on the other hand, suffer human and civil rights violations every day, get treated like second-class citizens, and endure daily harassment from law enforcement, but they are outraged that Russian hackers compromised the legitimacy of “our elections.” “The News” does this to people.
“The News” is the one thing that truly unites us as a nation. We learn to ignore our own reality in order to digest, internalize and regurgitate this unified national narrative we call “the News.” We have news 24/7/365 so that you never have to think about your own life. “The News” is always there for you, telling you what’s important, what you should think about, and how you should think about it, and because we follow “the News” so faithfully, “the News” defines our national debate, and sets our national agenda. By paying such close attention to “the News,” instead of what’s going on around us, we allow the media, corporate interests and lawmakers to ignore our reality as well.
Doesn’t it seem strange that “the News” gives you updates on all of the major stock indices, every half-hour at least, even though most of us don’t own stocks, and if we do, they are managed by someone else, in a 401K, mutual fund, or retirement account, so the information is not that relevant to that many people. On the other hand, why don’t we have up-to-date stats that tell us about our general well-being as a community. Why don’t they tell us, at 8:00am every morning, how many people slept outside that night? Tell us how many people had nothing to eat yesterday. Show us how people make ends meet. Why would anyone care whether the stock market was going up, if these indices keep sliding?
Instead, we let “the News” tell us how many people we have to throw overboard to buoy the economy, as gauged by the stock market. “The News” tells us why we should expect to lose our home if we get sick, and “the News” tells us why we should sacrifice our children to protect the investments of billionaires, but now “the News” has gone too far.
Today, “The News” is telling us to pay attention to Donald Trump. This goes beyond selling the American people on ridiculous ideas that work against their own interests. Paying attention to Trump amounts to stupidity for stupidity’s sake. Paying attention to Trump is like reading The Enquirer. You know that it is a waste of time, and that you are not learning anything, and that it won’t do any good to point out the inconsistencies in their stories, because telling the truth has never mattered to either of them. Why waste your life that way?
From my perspective, as a writer, “the News” helps me gauge what I can assume my readers know, and what rhetoric they are familiar with, but I don’t want to think about that anymore. I don’t want to know how dumb people have gotten these days, and listening to Trump isn’t going to make them any smarter. I thought a Trump presidency would be a goldmine for political satire, at least, but I don’t find Trump very funny at all. Satirizing Trump is like trying to satirize pro-wrestling. How do you make fun of someone who already makes a mockery of the office?
In many ways, Trump is already the perfect satirical president. He’s got the ego, the chauvinism, the poor taste and the obnoxiousness that everyone despises about America and Americans. He treats other people the way the US treats other countries, and he’s fat, ugly and vain, just like most Americans.
He’s really the perfect president because he so completely embodies what the United States stands for. When you realize that, you begin to understand that our problems are much deeper than our current president, and you won’t find the answers to them on “the News.”
Besides, we’ve got plenty of corrupt, greedy fascists right here in Humboldt County. Here, we talk about the Fascist in Chief, in Mara Lago, chiefly because we don’t want to talk about all of the sleazy shit that goes on around here. In that sense, talking about Trump is kind of like talking about the weather. Trump is what you talk about when you don’t want to talk about anything. Mostly, people don’t want to talk about anything, because that would require them to think about something, formulate an opinion about it, and invest enough of themselves in that opinion to state it out loud. I’m not sure that people have it in them anymore.
Nobody wants to talk about the housing crisis. Nobody wants to talk about the dead bodies and the missing people, the violent crime, the opiate crisis, the Hep-C epidemic, the human rights abuses and institutional violence going on right here in Humboldt County, stuff we could actually do something about Nobody wants to talk about those things because nobody wants to think about those things, because mostly, they’re too busy scheming their own next crime against humanity. Instead, they tell me what Trump did, because they saw it on “the News.”
I hear a lot of talk these days about “fake news.” Fake news, especially on the internet, has become the latest scapegoat for our national dysfunction. Personally, I don’t see fake news on the internet as a problem at all. I don’t expect information on the internet to, in any way, reflect reality. The internet is where lost souls go to watch their lives evaporate. It is a crass and ugly place built on a foundation of deception, exploitation and surveillance. Only a fool would expect to find the truth on the internet.
Besides, any good storyteller knows that the truth of a story is not in its factuality, but in how deeply it resonates with the listener. In this way, fake news can be instructive. Fake news tells us what people want to hear, and what they are inclined to believe. That’s more than we will learn from any factual news story.
Objective journalism is a myth, and even factual news stories conceal much more than they reveal. There is always more to know, than you can possibly know, about anything. Journalists focus on bringing you accurate details of current events, as they unfold, but the significance of the events lies mainly in the larger context in which they unfold, which is far beyond the scope of a news story. I really don’t think “the News” is the problem at all. The real problem is that we pay way too much attention to “the News”, and not nearly enough attention to what is happening to us, our friends, and the world around us.
The problem is not a shortage of facts. Everyone has access to plenty of verifiable facts, too many, in fact. Increasingly, we use the media to hide from the facts of life, rather than learn about them. We spend more time absorbed in factual, but irrelevant, information, than we do living in, and learning about, the real world. The more we replace reality with “the News”, the more addictive “the News” becomes, and the more it bestows a comforting, but illusory, feeling that we understand how the world works, despite its dysfunction.
We watch “the News” as though some new fact will come into existence that changes our lives forever, when in reality, we just need our daily fix. We act as though we could make sense of the latest terrorist bombing, or school shooting, if we just had more reliable information. The more an event upsets us, the more we stay glued to the screen. We want to know more. We look it up online. We read the back-story. We become absorbed in sensationalized stories of senseless violence that have no bearing on our daily lives at all.
At the same time, “The News” reminds us that we are governed. “The News” reminds us that we are expendable. “The News” reminds us that the interests of capital trump all other interests. “The News” reminds us of who is in charge and how the system works. “The News” convinces us to sacrifice our own health, security, and quality of life, for the sake of “the economy.” “The News” crushes our spirit and steals our soul. That’s what factual news does. Compared to that, fake news seems almost beneficent.
We expect too much from “the News.” “The News” won’t save us. We’ve let mass media replace our own thoughts, with their programming, for far too long already. We don’t need more facts; we need new ways to think about them. Journalists really don’t have much to offer in that regard, except distraction.
That’s why I don’t bother you with the facts. You know the facts. I just tell you what I think of them. When you see the truth in what I have to say, it doesn’t change the facts, it changes the way you see the facts. We don’t need more facts, we need more perspectives, and we won’t get that from “The News,” fake or otherwise.