Tuesday, May 1, 2007

What We Don't Know Can Hurt Us


In 1933, H.G. Wells published his prophetic novel and coined the title phrase, The Shape of Things to Come. In it, with uncanny accuracy, Wells predicted that Germany would begin the next great war by invading Poland in 1940. So, fine, the guy was a year off, but this remains only one of a multitude of his nearly exact predictions. Wells understood the mechanisms that drove mankind, that motivated leaders and that spawned technological innovations. And yet at the close of a lifetime of sagacious predictions and commentary, Wells was overwhelmed by the futility of his predictions, for WWII and nuclear weaponry and devastating air assaults (all of which he predicted) came to be; the future was and is inevitable and prosaic and damn demoralizing.

Today, with a bill passed by Congress headed towards a certain Bush veto, the debate on our current war continues, and it's beginning to feel as though despite the veil that has been lifted since the early years of our occupation nothing much has changed -- the administration still mired in the dialectic of prowar/American/support troops vs. stopwar/un-America/get the troops out. It feels as though we the people are ready for change, yet those other institutions, our government and press, remain in a slo-mo stupor.

For those of you who haven't watched Bill Moyers' "Buying the War", then please just take the time. It is a fascinating retrospective on the role the media played in beating the drums to war. If the invasion of Iraq were prosecuted as a war crime then the media would be willing accomplices. My viewing of this documentary happen to coincide with my too-late discovery of Noam Chomsky, who, in this context, could easily be equated with H. G. Wells as a prophetic sage. Like Wells, Chomsky understands with staggering clarity the mechanisms that influence the unfurling of world events and those that are used to cover some of them up. One of his main theses is that in a democratic society, one that cannot openly be controled with force (such as with a dictotorship), the powers that be must, instead, control the minds and opinions of the public. And their greatest tool is the media. The word itself, "media", denotes their role as intermediaries between power and the people. The press provides a lens, however warped or opaque, and only through it can we see turn the gears of power. The effect of this mediated information, for us, appears in the form of general inattention or complancency. As Chomsky said in 1969:

"A terrifying aspect of our society and other societies is the equanimity oand the detachment with which sane, reasonable, sensible people can observe such events, as in Veitnam. I think that's more terrifying than the occasional Hitler, LeMay, or other that crops up. These people would not be able to operate were it not for this apathy and equanimity."

In this regard, we, too, are compliant in this war, but we are relieved of some guilt for it remains the media's duty to provide us with the fruits of their investigative labor. When they cease to offer such insight, we are, in effect, the unwitting dupes of governmental propoganda. The Moyers' study, like Farenheit 9/11 did more subjectively, candidly investigates the perverse relationship that our government and our media share. (side note: What, for me, was the most revelatory aspect of our media's compliance with the government was how wide-spread this phenomenon was -- not just Fox News, but CBS, NBC, and in arguably the most chilling moment, Oprah helped to convince us into war.) The Moyers' documentary is a seminal piece of our current journalistic lamentation for their own shortcomings. Along with this comes the passing of an icon of honest and admirable journalism, David Halberstam, whose legacy has been invoked in many recent Op-Ed piece in further confession by the media for a job not well done.


If there's anything more than the press love than "making news out of nothing at all", it's turning their cobwebbed critical gaze back on themselves. If you look around you'll notice that newspapers are inundated with either self-flaggelation or self-defense for the press's handling of the past 6 years. Personally, I'm thankful for journalists like Bill Moyers, David Halberstam, and if you'll forgive the loose definition of "journalist" Jon Stewart (watch his recent interview with Bill Moyers). Their honesty and watchful eye, however, should not be the pinnacle of skeptical inquiry and reporting, but the standard. The fourth estate is for many our only means to discover who is pulling what levers.

This is not the time, however, for such self-assessment. We need you, media -- reporters, journalists, talking heads -- to cease with the lamentation and intra-office nonsense and get out there and let us know what's going on. Stop licking your wounds and start to poke holes in the talking points from both sides. Do it for Halberstam; do it for the memory of H.G. Wells whose predictions were never heeded; and do it for the legacy of Noam Chomsky whose deserves more than a little attention during his lifetime.

3 comments:

LPB said...

Well done, sir. Great Stewart interview too. Can I nominate you for president?

CapeTownDissentator said...

Indeed you may. I'm not old enough says the Constitution, but I should still have some fake ID's lying around.

Sarah Hall said...

Let me start by saying that your blog entry is well-written and contains a lot of educational recommendations and tips. I am working on a college paper and have no time for no purpose talking.