If you were prepared, over the coming weeks, to immerse yourself in all the hours of video footage and all the acres of media/social media outpourings (from both left and right) on the story of the Covington schoolboys incident, you could eventually prove to yourself two things beyond all reasonable doubt.
First, you could prove that the boys were the hapless – and essentially innocent – victims of a ham-fisted publicity stunt by a slightly deranged, self-pitying and attention-seeking old man. Second, you could prove that a hugely larger public took away from it all a false picture than took away an accurate picture. But where exactly would that get you? Exactly nowhere: no one would really be listening by then; not even your own philosophical allies. Because with the advent, first of the internet itself and then its social media screeching baby offspring, information/disinformation overload has now reached such a cacophonous level of noise that traditional public discourse – dialectical tennis: the case for; the case against – is no longer viable. This new intellectual barbarism though has actually been a long time coming; really it has been gestating ever since the dawn of big television media in the mid-twentieth century.
The range of ‘information’ and opinion in which we are almost completely reliant on it is frightening. And yet notice how whenever the media machine touches on something about which you have direct personal experience, how wide of the mark it invariably proves to be. Also frightening is the paucity of intellectual effort (or even intellectual curiosity) required before you can delude yourself that you are an informed individual. The sheer quantity of ‘information’ coming at you in the modern world would take a great deal of intellectual effort to process properly. It is easier to just let it wash over you. Eventually, it becomes a quicksand and it sucks you in.
The mass media age may have increased our freedom of speech but our mass-mediated perception of reality has stifled our freedom of thought. In times past people may have known only what was going on in their own neck of the woods but at least they knew it intimately, which provided some reality check. Also, one community was relatively free from the influence of another. Not anymore.
Now, thanks to your chosen media you ‘know’ so much more – and have an opinion on so much more. Now you know that some brutal murders merit grief on a national scale whilst others deserve barely a passing mention. You know that jumping up and down at rock concerts will help to save the world from poverty. You know that man-made global warming is threatening to destroy the planet and it’s all the fault of capitalism. Just like you once knew that capitalism was virtually brought down on the stroke of midnight in 2000 by the Millennium Bug. Older people know that the world was very nearly overwhelmed in the 1970s by The Next Ice Age. You know that if you have ever stood next to someone smoking a cigarette it might one day kill you. You know about every instance where a black person is killed by a white person while being blissfully unaware of the hundredfold greater instances of black (and white) people killed by other black people. The list of things that – in the words of Mark Twain – you ‘know’ but that ain’t so goes on and on. Best of all you know what the most important thing going on in the world at any one time is because it is the thing that headlines ‘The News’. Thus has the mass media deluged people’s consciousness with trashy certainties at a huge cost to their freedom of spirit. Killing off The Age of Reason and replacing it with the Age of Feeling.
It is not even – for the most part – that people are deliberately trying to present a distorted perspective. It is worse than that; the distortion is so embedded in media culture that it collectively fails to comprehend that there are other perspectives. The giant media corporations like CNN, BBC et al, plus their massive hinterland of favoured contributors, teem with champagne lefties, celebrity poseurs and assorted other have-your-cake-and-eat-it fellow travellers of the liberal establishment elite. And they are a veritable honey pot for the not-so-big-wide-world of the arts and academia.
President Eisenhower once railed against the power of the ‘military-industrial complex’ but even more powerful now is the media-academia complex. Fringe social justice warrior fads spawned on campus inexorably leech into the mainstream media. The joke is that they all think of themselves as radicals. Funny business radicalism; the word suggests boldness, independent mindedness, freethinking. The reality is the opposite. It is a me-too mentality of fitting in with the prevailing ethos, invariably first absorbed during student days.
I remember when I was at university in the 1970s, one or two lonely guys in tweeds and sports jackets flitting furtively across the psychedelic bead-strewn quadrangle clutching their briefcases. I remember thinking ‘those guys are the real radicals here’. The thoroughly predictable ‘radical’ offerings from the TV, Hollywood, Netflix in-crowd are invariably dripping with liberal establishment mythology and the fact that they are, even now, accepted by millions as bastions of intellectual integrity merely demonstrates the overwhelming brainwashing power that the little box in the corner – and the tiny little box in front of your nose – now has on our intellectual horizons.
The last half-century was so dominated by the spectre of the totalitarian state that no one foresaw what was really coming down the line. George Orwell partly saw the future that we now inhabit – but with one crucial difference. In his nightmare 1984, a political elite controlled the television in the corner of the room and used it to brainwash the citizenry. Whereas in the real post-1984 nightmare, a pervasive mass media – a cancerous organism out of the control of anyone, even its own media elite – brainwashes everyone, politicians included. And this has been going on irrespective of which political party has been supposedly in power. All Western mainstream political parties have, for many decades now, been running scared of media power.
A few years ago, I remember listening to a very telling discussion on some high-brow talking-heads radio show. The ‘panel’ were all media presenters of one sort or another. One of them – a well-known ex-politician turned media figure – was asked whether he missed having his hands on the levers of power. He laughed and said ‘Don’t be silly now; we all know that we have far more power than any ordinary politician’. They all chuckled knowingly and quickly changed the subject. When finally a deplorable ‘populist’ like Donald Trump comes along and bites back at them, the hysterical establishment outrage has been quite something to behold.
The Mediocracy is the least accountable institution in our society by far. And yet, for many decades now this enormous power has gone unchallenged – almost unnoticed. They have schooled us in the ways of attacking everyone else – everyone but themselves. We have become schooled into the idea that the media does the challenging on our behalf. Surely the media is our defender against the power of politicians and big business etc; isn’t it? After several decades of unchallengeable media orthodoxy, much of the population has only ever known a soft-left, world-view right from the cradle. So for them, it is axiomatic that politicians like Donald Trump are just idiots, that ‘protesting’ about industry and commerce makes you a more caring person, that ‘racism’ is something peculiar to white people and so on.
But the most insidious brainwashing happens at a more subtle level than this; it lies in the power of storytelling. It is at this subliminal level that the great soft-left crusades – moral relativism and the cult of victimhood have been won. It is in film, TV drama, comedy and soap opera. Try these tests next time you are watching your favourite TV drama or Hollywood movie: If the characters happen to include – say – a white middle-class guy and a non-white working class guy, who is going to turn out to have surprising hidden qualities and who is going to turn out to have a surprising hidden dark side? Or compare the proportion homosexual characters on your TV screen with that in your own real life. Try and find the drama where the ‘right wing’ character turns out to be full of compassion and the ‘left wing’ character full of bile or where the successful business executive turns out to be rather a nice guy. This sort of myth-making has underpinned so much of Western storytelling for at least fifty years now and has been more corrosive of freedom than any political regime.
The great media trump card has always been the widespread perception that it is the essential guarantor of a free society. This is true only in one very limited sense; that is in a free society it would be unthinkable to try to control it. But that is a far cry from the mass media actually being an engine of freedom. It may be that the biggest threat to Western freedom today comes from geopolitical forces like Islamic fanaticism. Or, if you are a conservative, you might think it is the big brother nanny state.
Personally, I feel like Winston Smith in 1984 and the biggest threat I see is the PC group-think that pours daily from Western media. Even more than the salivating, hate-crazed zealots, because the nice liberal journalists, scriptwriters and celebrities, in spite of their laid back and chummy manner are slowly choking people’s ability to think straight.
Graham Cunningham is a British writer of occasional essays for various conservative-leaning journals.
Illustration: 6abc.com screenshot.
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