Monday, February 15, 2010

Navigating Post-Modern Uncertainty

Part 2 of
Media, Democracy & the Post-Modern Age

Every year, Project Censored issues a list of the top stories that have been downplayed by most of the media. In 2000, some of the underreported news that made their Top Ten included how pharmaceutical companies put profits before health needs (still true), the destruction of Kurdish villages with US weapons (now we’re doing damage in Pakistan), environmental racism in Louisiana (that was five years before Katrina), and US plans to militarize space in defiance on international law (a story still being missed). But despite the success of many alternative outlets in breaking news the “big” media ignore, nagging questions remain.

Peter Arnett, a former CNN reporter being honored that year for an article on reduced foreign media coverage, posed it this way: “We’ve had what might constitute new revelations today,” he said. “But even if the alternative press as a whole took on these stories, would it be enough?”

It’s a disquieting question. And the same one could be asked about progressive movements in general. If various coalitions and alliances actually joined forces to challenge corporate power and capitalism itself, would it be enough to usher in some “real change?”

In the past, progressive attempts to control concentrated wealth and widen democratic participation through national action have met with limited success. During the early 20th Century, reforms addressed workers’ rights, monopoly excesses, political corruption, uncontrolled development, and the devastating impacts of the early industrial era. But most of the efforts quelled popular discontent rather than producing basic changes. The resulting reforms were largely co-opted by business groups to serve their long-range interests. Rather than leading the country toward a form of social transformation, progressivism may have helped head it off.

One of the underlying conundrums is how to make powerful institutions accountable – and to whom. Following progressive logic, real change involves, at the very least, stronger government intervention. But if the goal is to control mega-corporations that transcend national boundaries, competing with some national governments and dominating others, in the end even national level reform won’t cut it.

Progressives obviously don’t want corporate-dominated institutions running the world. But what’s the alternative? Will job creation, stronger enforcement and more accountability be enough, or does the current international order need to be completely overhauled and replaced? And if so, with what?

The United Nations could be made stronger, but this Cold War creation was flawed from the start, and has been marginalized and manipulated for more than half a century. The times cry out for more radical ideas, something like a global parliament, which is somehow linked to communities. This sounds utopian – or frightening, depending on your level of paranoia. But if the Corporate World Order inflicts much more damage it may start to look attractive. And if social and economic justice is truly the driving force of progressive politics, how far is it to an agenda for change that fundamentally challenges market control and links the global with the local? After all, one of the movement’s slogans is “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

The trouble is, there is no magical formula for effective democracy, and even if there was, most people are no longer optimistic, or even very hopeful about where the world is heading to put their faith in such grand plans.

In the so-called “modern era,” things basically made sense. Despite any temporary setbacks, technical dangers or threatening dictators most people believed in the possibility of a better future, changing the world that was changing us. But now we live in a “post-modern” world. And although it’s not a totally negative place, it emphasizes uncertainty, spectacle, and even the chaotic.

The term “post-modern” first came into use after World War II, referring to literature and art that took modern forms to their extremes. Since then, it has evolved into a general attitude toward society. Characterized by skepticism, it forces “authorities” and “their” institutions to defend themselves against charges that they are no longer relevant – or are just plain ignorant. On the plus side, that attitude helped bring down the Berlin Wall and has sometimes put experts and leaders in the hot seat. However, it also tends to challenge any strongly held belief.

Self-conscious and often self-contradictory, post-modernists believe that truth is merely a perspective and nothing should be taken too seriously. The characteristic expression is irony, emphasizing the doubleness in whatever is expressed. A favorite grammatical device is quotation marks, reinforcing the idea that the words don’t mean what they seem. This expresses the defensive cultural logic of late-capitalism, and plays well into the schemes of media and political demagogues.

Faced with machines that have made life more complicated, a vast amount of unsettling information, and an overwhelming variety of “choices,” it’s hardly surprising that people, especially the young, are no longer impressed with much of anything. Their favorite books often revel in this sensibility and abandon the grand narrative approach once standard in novels. Although most movies still rely on the old linear formula – the hero overcoming obstacles to reach an obvious goal – few people really believe in that. Real life is so much more ambiguous and complex.

At its extreme this new awareness leads to disillusionment, nihilism, and a disabling narcissism that favors fads and power over ethics and any ideology. These days narcissism no longer applies to “beautiful people” who relate only to their own images. They may also be pseudo-intellectuals, calculating promoters, or self-absorbed rebels. Even more unsettling, narcissists are ideally suited for success and power – callous and superficial climbers all too willing to sell themselves. In post-modern society, self-promotion is the ultimate form of work. It’s a state of affairs that could catapult someone like Sarah Palin into power.

The central institutions of post-modern civilization are, of course, the electronic media, which promote both chronic tension and cynical detachment. Most advertising suggests that appearances are what matter, while the shows wedged between them reinforce ironic distance, often winking at us that it’s all a put-on. And the news? Endless, ephemeral facts. But enduring truth? That’s the last thing we expect.

Meanwhile, for all its benefits, the “blogosphere” is largely accelerating social fragmentation. Many blogs and Websites attract only like-minded people, creating a self-segregated news and information environment that serves the interests of extremists. It’s not so different from the partisanship that characterized the press in the early 19th Century. Truth and facts are becoming debatable notions. This makes it far more difficult for people to reach agreement or even have a civil discussion, and easier for opportunists to ignore or distort reality for the sake of pushing initiatives based on convenience or special interests.

The result has been a loss of faith in almost everything, and an escapist mentality rooted in the belief that no meaningful change is possible. Popular culture feeds on this attitude, encouraging excess and striking poses while confusing commitment with fanaticism.

That said, the news isn’t all bad. Along with skepticism comes a re-awakened concern about the human spiritual condition and the planet’s health. The idea that “rational planning” provides all the answers is no longer convincing, gone with notions such as “bigger is better” and nature is merely a resource to be conquered and exploited.

In economics, the rigid approach to production known as Fordism, named for the man who brought us the assembly line and mass production using interchangeable parts, has given way to a more flexible, eclectic system emphasizing innovation and a post-industrial compression of time and space. The view that corporations and the global economy are only parts of a whole planetary system is gaining traction. As with most post-modern developments, however, there is a double edge. Re-engineering economics and work could lead to more worker-owned businesses, a renewed sense of community and environmental responsibility, and a groundswell against corporation domination. But it may simultaneously increase instability, turning even more people into contingent workers.

Commenting on the implications, former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy once noted that post-modernism favors “fuzzy logic” and subjective impressions over rational arguments and clear thinking. It recognizes no absolutes, just degrees and disposable attitudes. “This predicament is not altogether reassuring,” he concluded, “as it may lead us to a state of ‘entropy,’ i.e., of randomness, chaos and disorder, with little basis for optimism as to what may result.”

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