It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Sunday, May 16, 2010

What Story Is He Going To Tell?

Yes, there is absurd polarization on both sides. Yes, there is paranoia on both sides. Yes, there is "epistemic closure" on both sides. Maybe one side is "worse" than the other, but nobody has a monopoly on confusion or rudeness. (Blaming actual scientists is crazy, though.)

But you cannot understand any of the disastrous situation we are in (with America leading the way and the rest of the world following passively behind, as ever) without taking account of the failure of the press.

I devoured most of a book by Matt Taibbi (another mt!) last night called The Great Derangement, which I highly recommend. I will quote from what I consider to be the central point of the whole brilliantly sorry story, on pages 187-189 in the paperback edition, the closing section of the chapter "9/11 and the Derangement of Truth":
"They hate our freedoms" was only one of a number of preposterous lies mainstream society was expected to embrace after 9/11. The Iraq invasion and the reasons for it were only the most obvious. By 2003 or 2004 any American with even half a brain could only assess the performance of his government via a careful weighing of various lies and contradictions. An educated person understood that the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) business was a canard and that there had to be some other reason for the invasion of Iraq...
It's not a good sign when even your supporters don't even bother to take your cover story seriously...
When the administration submitted its "Clear Skies" plan to Congress, who among us didn't automatically know that it was a giveaway to polluters? Or that "Healthy Forests" was somehow going to result in more trees being cut down? America by the early years of this century was a confusing kaleidoscope of transparent, invidious bullshit, a place where politicians hired consultants to teach them to "straight talk", where debates were decided by inadvertent coughs and smiles, and elections were resolved via competing smear campaigns...
The message of all this was that Americans were now supposed to make their own sense of the world. There was no dependable authority left to turn to, no life raft in the increasingly perilous information sea. This coincided with an age when Americans now needed to understand more of the world than ever before...
Now broke, or under severe financial pressure, with no community leaders, no community, no news he can trust, Joe American has to turn on the internet and tell himself a story that makes sense to him.
What story is he going to tell?
Emphasis added.

Maybe the idea of "saving" journalism is wrong-headed.

Many of the information streams we need have never existed, and many others are moribund.

Journalism must be reinvented.

It may be too late, but if there's any hope for sustained democracy, that is for both dignity and freedom into the future, it requires a population that is informed, skeptical and responsible. We need to be slow to claim rights and quick to grant them, slow to cast blame and quick to accept responsibility.

Reading the other mt's book doesn't leave one feeling optimistic about these matters. It's very sad; in my childhood in the 1960's, for all the not-entirely-baseless fear of Stalinist Russia, it seemed a given that civilization would continue to progress.

mt

3 comments:

skanky said...

If you really want to get depressed by the media, read "Flat Earth News" by Nick Davies

I do strongly recommend it though.

Moth Incarnate said...

I've been on the Journalist bit every now and then. With many people making the point that enough information exists and is easy to access and that a more informed person often is better at being critical of new statements thrown at them, it becomes a question of why they follow such absurdities.
I feel that it's faith based on the idea that, "I'm a good person, how could this be my fault?" or "Scientists will find an answer (and all the while we'll blame them until they fix it)..." etc etc..
The only way to counter that, in my view, is to bring the reality to their living room - like people like Pilger et al. did on foreign wars and forest destruction. If they are forced to see the reality, they cannot help but make a stand for something. In countries like ours, pollies are forced to follow suit to some respects to chase the votes.
As it is, with much of the destruction and landscape changes far off in agricultural land, remnant patches as well as a whole host of impacts largely ignored happening to oceanic systems, we sit more or less happily blind watching some blasted sitcom of to the latest spin doctor.

Hank Roberts said...

Yup. Here's something similar from someone who recently tried to explain something about finance to people:

http://www.creditwritedowns.com/2010/05/spinoza-descartes-and-suspension-of-disbelief-in-the-ivory-tower-of-economics.html

"I have presented some MMT-based ideas from a neutral frame in order to demonstrate their applicability to the present financial crisis. Invariably, I run into a lot of spurious arguments by people who sound like they don’t understand the accounting.

Or maybe they just feel threatened on some strange existential level – as if what I am writing threatens their core belief system. I think that is a lot of what is going on. So I am writing this post to explain how the human brain processes information. And then I will make a few remarks about how this applies to the present day situation.

Suspension of disbelief

The core of my argument will come from James Montier, now at the fund manager GMO. As a strategist at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson in 2005, he wrote a timeless piece on the debate between two 17th century philosophers René Descartes of France and Baruch de Spinoza of the Netherlands. Descartes was of the view that people process information for accuracy before filing it away in memory. Spinoza made the opposite claim, that people must suspend disbelief in order to process information. The two competing ideas were put to the test; and it appears that Spinoza was right about the need for naïve belief, something that has grave implications for investing, the subject of Montier’s essay...."

And there's this:

http://www.unc.edu/~sanna/ljs07aesp.pdf
Metacognitive Experiences And The Intricacies Of Setting People Straight: Implications For Debiasing And Public Information Campaigns