Sunday, October 03, 2004

Peel Me a Grape

Debates about the bias of the media universally misidentify the problem, which is not whether a range of opinions and ideas are available but whether one side has a decisive advantage in promoting its own interest by propagandistic means. If voters were intelligent agents who made reasonable efforts to figure things out, there would be no problem. Books and magazines of all persuasions are far more readily available now than in the past, and the Internet makes it possible to read most of the world’s newspapers. For the most part, however, the public is neither intelligent nor active. They don’t read and they certainly don’t think. One can make utopian suggestions about how to lift them out of their normal condition of sloth and ignorance—an excellent idea if you can do it and have lots and lots of time—but in the meanwhile, an objective observer has to be realistic about the boundary conditions of political life that guarantee that emotional appeals and sheer repetition are vastly more important than logic or accurate information.

As thoughtful rightists know very well, political rhetoric is about training, not education. The Neocons are quite correct in this, and it behooves anybody who cares about the preservation a free society to recognize the fact and prevent one group from seizing control of the means of propaganda. Thousands of hours of chest thumping chauvinism are not counteracted by a couple of sound bytes from the editor of Nation.

In my more curmudgeonly moments I grumble about the stupidity of people of normal intelligence as if it were part of the natural history of the human species, but the susceptibility of the public to propaganda is less a function of intellect than sheer inertia. The big political issues are not rocket science, after all. Recent studies show that the population is divided between a minority who draw their own conclusions and a majority who do not. The former are politically active, the later reactive. To move them, it is not enough to present the premises of an argument. No matter how simple the inference, they will not make it. It follows that the political operators who supply the answers will always beat out those who provide the evidence because the evidence only matters to a tiny group. The public, let us remember, is overwhelmingly made up of the kids who only cared about what was going to be on the test.

No comments: