Posted on 02 August 2012
This humble correspondent has just had the opportunity to make a Power-Point presentation to a hundred or so ‘progressive’ senior citizens. The topic, Understanding the Origins of the Internet, and the questions that it engendered, led to a recognition that folks generally might benefit from some orientation in thinking about the problems and prospects of creating a democratic media from the ground up.
“How can we ferret out what is true and accurate?”
“How can we overrule such powerful institutions as the Supreme Court?”
“If both parties offer nothing but doom and gloom for us, what are we supposed to do?”
These were a few of the questions posed by audience members.
The words of Thomas Jefferson resonate two hundred years later in response to these inquiries.
“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
Even old James Madison, whose Federalist Paper Number Ten envisioned the two-party system as a way of keeping majority-rule at bay, proffers inspiring thoughts in this regard. “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
The deduction to which these ideas logically lead is that we have no choice but to educate ourselves nor any choice but to follow up our learning with action that is ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ Paulo Freire sums up, generally, the tasks at hand. “Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men transform the world.”
He goes on:
“To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world, in its turn, reappears to the namers as a different problem that requires of them a new naming. Men are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.“
The ‘words and work and action-reflection’ that common citizens need is not happening. One reason for this is that even the most ‘progressive’ mediated communication is failing to engage people in such a way as to impart actual knowledge, which is only possible to obtain through historical, political-economic, and social assessments that begin at the beginning, deal with paradox-and-complexity, and follow the money.
The natural result of such real, ‘popular education’ can only be radical, meaningful critiques that in turn facilitate something like a ‘revolt of the commons.’ This essay begins a process of examining the failings of so-called ‘liberal media.’ A year-and-a-half ago, a purported champion of people’s reporting joined forces with one of the largest and most reactionary media powerhouses. A correct comprehension of this merger has yet to emerge, even after more than eighteen months. As this humble correspondent’s grandmother was wont to say, “It’s never too late: where there’s life there’s hope.”
In this first of a multi-part series—today’s intro, a final component many weeks hence, plus at least four or five segments in between that examine the ‘meat-and-potatoes’ of the Huff-Po/AOL conjunction–giving credit where credit is due is a good way to start. Arianna Huffington‘s How to Overthrow the Government performs a valuable service for anybody who both believes in popular empowerment and has an inkling that the rule-of-the-rich has gone too far. The book offers at least a modicum of clear and apt guidance to those who would foment or fuel an uprising from below.
The likes of this humble correspondent would vociferously suggest that ‘the book doesn’t go nearly far enough.’ Less charitable, and equally historically and socio-economically aware, critics have argued that, analytically and conceptually, the volume is at best irritatingly cautious and generally vapid. Nevertheless, the work offers some useful advice to those who want to return socially democratic political action to the grassroots. At least it conceives of public engagement as a necessary predecessor of political change.
That said, last year’s merger of Huffington Post and America Online is an entirely different kettle of fish. Many honestly and erstwhile ‘progressive’ and ‘leftist’ commentators celebrated this joining, or at least, gave it a ‘wait-and-see’ nod.
The only certain thing is that the writers and participants who built Huffington Post won’t see a slender cent from among the thirty billion pennies, or billion and a half pennies in stock, that changed hands in that bargain. Several already wealthy people, whose political and ‘strategic’ leadership had, for better or worse, guided the site, have, on the other hand made out like proverbial bandits.
The idea that this $315 million wedding, much to the benefit of Ms. Huffington’s coffers, might also represent ‘progress’ or be in the best interest of the ‘left’ arguably has much more to say about the deficiencies that attend the language of political description in the United States than it does with any rationally defensible consideration about promoting the needs of common people. The notion that this is in the popular interest also speaks volumes about the lack of class leadership among working people, who prove willing all too often to rely on the likes of a rich globe-trotting fashion moll with the opportunistic instincts of a coyote.
‘Liberals’ also cozy up to hyper-imperialists such as Hilary Clinton, or so some would say; ‘progressives‘ commonly make common cause with Barack-the-Magnificent, whose wars will soon eclipse those of his predecessor; the ‘left’ is a hodgepodge collection of folks who a lot of times are trying to avoid the label that is at least honestly descriptive, that of socialist, or social-democrat.
This humble correspondent considers himself ‘progressive,’ and he’ll only squirm and grit his teeth at the nearly meaningless moniker of ‘leftist.’ However, he is avowedly and unabashedly socialistic in his approach and his analytical proclivities. He has no problem noticing an obvious fact: without some sort of struggle for social and economic democracy, the worlds working people face further devastation and possible annihilation.
And in this vein, the marriage of the modern defense and imperial establishment, in the form of America Online, with a fetishized, paltry, petty-bourgeois liberalism, in the form of Huffington Post, accomplishes a perfect union from the perspective of ‘free-market’, ‘free-enterprise’ fraud-mongers. As such, the following prediction makes sense: it will continue to turn out as it already has—at best a lukewarm hodgepodge. Thus, for working people, for those who care about more than political labels and actually worry about substance, it will be at best a disastrous misallocation of allegiance and resources.
One way or another, the lack of class leadership, and the explicit embrace of both imperial ideation and bourgeois marketing and markets, will mean at best ‘friendly’ misleadership for the average people of the planet, who are suffering one body-blow after another to any hope that a ‘middle-class’ life will be even a credible fantasy. One would have to acknowledge, at least as a possibility, that the time for a media of the people, by the people, and for the people is long overdue.
Such an admission ought then to portend a serious effort in such a direction. Whether folks are, even now, ready to admit the obvious–’But mommy, the king has nothing on!!’–and whether, even now, such an acknowledgment will yield the radical, populist upsurge that recognition ought to call forth, remains to be seen.
For this humble correspondent, the remainder of the present introduction merely contextualizes, all too quickly, the historical and conceptual undergirding of the media marriage that transpired at the start of 2011. A four-piece unit on AOL’s background follows over the next few weeks, more or less. Then, a three-chapter unit appears about Arianna Huffington and her love-child at Huff-Po. A long single take on the merger itself will appear at that juncture, to complete the substantive units of this series. Finally, a conclusion will then show up that, in the light of the insights and ideation of the intervening reporting and analysis, returns to some of the issues raised in today’s introductory paragraphs
BACKGROUND SYNOPSIS: the News-Media-Context From Which this ‘New-Media’-Deal Devolved
People who fancy themselves media-literate, or even who believe that following the news is important, have a duty to understand how in the world the media that we take for granted has transmogrified to become the apparent digital phantasmagoria that it is today. This is neither the time nor the place to go into copious detail. On the other hand, readers may rest assured that more detail will be forthcoming.
For now, this humble correspondent proposes that people consider one simple fact: media springs from the rich dirt of politics like magic mushrooms pop up from cow dung. Ever since the creation of the secret, and sacred, codes that underlay the first written forms, publication has been a battlefield; the priestly and royal control–extended imperiously–always met a challenge from below, in the form of vernacular articulations of one sort or another.
Need one consider such arcane interpretations of such facts as Derrida’s “The Mystical Foundations of Authority?” Or perhaps a more straightforward recollection, that law–the legitimation of force in favor of some stated ‘State,’ heretofore unheard of without social class divisions–is nothing without the capacity to record and annotate it, would serve as a ‘wake-up call’ about media’s social reality. No matter what, from the ‘dawn of history,’ or text, as it were, the connection between writing and rule is unbreakable.
In any event, much more recently, since Gutenberg, for instance, every communication medium’s technological development and social deployment has entailed this combative dialectic. The Bible may have been Johann’s first big project, but not too long afterward, the press itself helped Martin Luther affix his challenge to various posting places.
‘Martyrs-of-the-book’ died at fiery stakes, fueled in part by the materials that they created. The English crown disallowed all but ‘licensed’ printers in similar fashion as the F.C.C. only permits safely-establishment and oligopolistic voices to have their portion of the broadcast spectrum today. And even though the eviscerated First Amendment still exists, as a text, the quip is more apt than ever: “freedom of the press only applies if you own one.”
In essence, this all describes a pattern that has, quite plausibly, come to stand for a central trait of capitalist evolution. Put most simply, “ruling classes today ‘manage’ people through a combination of ‘public-relations,’ propaganda, distraction, and repression.”
A more nuanced statement of this point is possible. It might look something like this: “Key struggles over meaning, knowledge, and power all intersect with and emanate from controlling, first, the technologies and labor that compile recorded speech, and, second, the media for presenting those now extremely varied recordings; advantages in this contest, almost universally in the form of successful–or replicable–networks and paradigms that reach expanding ‘publics,’ serve to influence, and often to determine, social, political, and economic outcomes.”
For all of its frequent flaws of glaring bourgeois bias, Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications offers pupils of these matters a relatively elegant empirical bedrock for supporting the above conclusion. From the concomitant downfall of strict censorship and the censorious Stuarts; to the simultaneous libertine upsurge of colonial textuality—newsy, pugilistic, and both globally and locally aware; to the persistent rebellion that pamphleteering and ‘correspondence societies’ helped to launch and sustain; to the dialectically intertwined manifestation of knowledge, distribution, and publication forms that have seesawed their way through American history, this characterization of mediation seems, at least, reasonable.
The nearly universal initiation, co-optation, or capture of news-and-publishing outlets by the rising bourgeoisie took many forms. However, this humble correspondent would insist that folks apprehend the undeniable veracity of the proposition that we have not come to today’s seemingly unstoppable effusion of hyper-monopoly in any other fashion than step-by-step, following original inclinations to their logical and predictable ends.
This is corroborated whether one adopts a biographical approach–from Horace Greely’s faux-Horatio-Alger-garnering of capitalist backing, to Hearst’s gold-mining, and gold-digging, parentage, and beyond, to the Luces, the Paleys and so forth and so on–to ascertaining information networks, or whether one prefers to examine the way that business and regulatory structures favor particular organization forms over others, or whether one chooses different, more intellectual and ideational formulations. The history of media in America is, practically speaking–’Citizen-Kane’ gossipy details notwithstanding, indistinguishable from the history of capitalism in America.
Advertising and marketing and propaganda together confirm this. Power-politics and the specifics of character assassination and the sway of secrecy demonstrate this. The opportunistic inclusion or exclusion of access to ‘legitimate’ or ‘unacceptable’ publics combine with criminal and civil media law again and again to prove this.
Forthcoming investigation will delve more deeply into the political-economic and historical background that underpins the current media conundrums that afflict citizens. The point of both this explication and what is to come is simple: in the realm of AOL’s conjunction with Huff-Po, such a conceptual, historical, and political-economic framework is critical to any understanding that is richer and deeper than either a ‘follow-the-yellow-brick-road’ optimism or a ‘lions-and-tigers-and-bears’ sense of panic.
SOME FINAL WORDS: The Only Media-Coup That Can Promote Democracy
The Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” could easily serve as an anthem for the present pass. It’s threatening lilt and gutsy force match the sensibilities of the current moment as well as anything outside the realm of rap.
“Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack, if you’ve got nothing new to say.
If you’ll please stomp back up the track, this train’s got to run today. …
I don’t know but I been told,
It’s hard to run with the weight of gold.
On the other hand, I done heard it said,
It’s just as hard with the weight of lead.
Who can deny, who can deny, it’s not just a change in style.
One step’s done, and another’s begun.
And I wonder how many miles. …
You can’t overlook the lack, Jack, of any other highway to ride.
It’s got no signs or dividing lines, and very few rules to guide
Now I don’t know but I’ve been told,
If the horse don’t pull, you got to carry that load.
Now, I don’t know whose back’s that strong.
Maybe find out before too long.
One way or another, one way or another, one way or another
This darkness got to give.
One way or another, one way or another, one way or another,
This darkness got to give”
One way of responding to such energy is to flee in terror. Another approach, however, is to recognize that, in times of “one way or another,” “Which Side Are You On?” and so forth, coalition is a necessary response to the inevitability of schism and polarization.
But before anything akin to coalition can even become a faint possibility, people need to wake up. They need to turn off the TV’s that poison them with fear and loathing and fill their minds with misinformation or nonsense and their hearts with envy or despondency. Like the denizens of ‘Dead Prez,’ they need to admit that we’ve been “telling lies to our children” and begin to correct them and atone for them.
One way or another, the only salvation for a popular democracy is a media that actually remains under popular control. And that will never happen at Huffington Post, at Nation of Change, at Op-Ed News, or at most other ‘left-media’ outlets as currently constituted.
Formation Networks might serve as a conceptual model for actual progress in relation to gaining grassroots power in the information sphere. While future articles will further explore this idea, a few pointers now are apt to mention.
In this vein, this humble correspondent ends with some simple suggestions. Let’s get together and call for a People’s Media Congress. A People Power Congress shouldn’t be far behind. People Power Seminars need to begin as soon as readers finish this sentence.
What are all of these things, exactly? Well, let’s start talking about it. A grassroots, participatory, community-based uprising has to be better than what’s happening now.
As a Congressional candidate and acquaintance of this humble correspondent has stated the matter, “The time has come to take a stand.” Oblivion beckons otherwise.
Readers might want to stay tuned and remember the words of Bette Davis. “Fasten your seat-belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Friday, August 3, 2012
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