Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

A thought or two before jetting off

Flying is only slightly less unpleasant than being waterboarded, and I'm going to have to depart the east coast in the evening, to arrive in LA in what the people there think is the evening but is the middle of the night to me, and then find may way to a hotel 35 miles away. Should be a true test of character. Then I have to spend Monday in a meeting, presumably awake. So if I don't post tomorrow, you'll know why.

Today, I've been thinking -- inescapably -- about our corporate news media and the profound harm they do to our culture and our national interest. Lots of people in the blogosphere are on the case -- which is pretty much the only place we have to criticize them since they are incapable of insight or self-criticism, and do not allow substantial criticism from the outside to make it onto their letter pages, op-ed columns, or TV gab fests. Oh, you'll see some faux media criticism, but it's guaranteed to miss the target.

We all know many of their basic failings all too well -- from transcribing the he said/she said without bothering to point out that one of them is telling the truth and the other isn't, to unquestioning and uncritical transcription of military and government propaganda (often even ignoring the opposition's she said, which is usually timid anyway), to covering election campaigns as if they are high school popularity contests.

But what has struck me particularly lately is that by allowing the agenda to be driven by political actors rather than the real world, they completely fail to inform the public about the problems facing the nation. This isn't necessarily because of their own political biases -- it's really a function of laziness and ignorance. You don't actually have to know anything to be a reporter. And the politicians keep much of what matters off the agenda because it doesn't serve their own interests to talk about it.

In 1977 president Carter warned the nation, in a nationally televised address, of a "national catastrophe" if we didn't make a major effort to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. You know what all that negativism got him -- no second term and a presidency widely characterized as "failed." Of course Carter was right. We spent the next 30 years in denial and now we're in profound trouble. The problems facing the United States right now are so complex, so difficult, and so threatening that any politician who dared to tell the truth would be writing his or her political obituary -- the American people don't want to hear it, they want uplifting rhetoric about Hope, and Morning in America, and Shining Cities on a Hill. They don't want to face up to bad news and they don't want to be told they are going to have to sacrifice and take on responsibilities that are inconvenient or unpleasant.

True, the Cheney administration has relied heavily on fear as its main political currency, but the reason it worked for them, for a while anyway, is because they also claimed that they alone would keep us safe and that we didn't actually have to make any sacrifices or suffer any unpleasantness if we just surrendered power to them. They offered a false choice of safety, and told us to go shopping.

Fear is good, after all. It's because of fear that I'm typing these words and you are reading them, because without fear, our ancestors would have been extinguished. The problem is not that Karl Rove tried to scare us, it's that he was lying about the true dangers we face, and lying just as egregiously about the solutions.

A politician who tells the truth will not be as likely to succeed, because, in the first place, there is no guarantee that we can find solutions that won't entail real reductions in our standard of living and an honest acknowledgment of failure and loss. In the second place, there are no solutions that won't require real commitment by people at all levels, individually and community, and changes in our way of life. You can scare the people, but that alone does not motivate changes in behavior and thinking. It's just as likely to drive people into denial.

Given that politicians can't afford to tell us the truth, somebody else has to do it. That obviously isn't going to be Tim Russert or Chris Matthews or Katie Couric, who owes her very job to her perkinesss. I'm really at something of a loss about what to do about this.

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