Thursday, August 12, 2004

Confessions of a Test Particle

When people worry about the increasing concentration of ownership in the major media, they are usually afraid that the monopolist will have too much power. To judge from the coverage of the Second Iraq War, however, the more immediate danger is just the reverse. The larger and more profitable these outfits become, the more they have to lose and the more cowardly they behave as when Disney caved about Fahrenheit 911 or the Washington Post decided it just had to play cheerleader to the Bush administration. The giant media combinations depend on government favors for their continued prosperity and aren’t about to speak truth to power even in the cases when they don’t completely agree with the emerging semi-fascist corporatist consensus. These outfits are big as in big targets.

A somewhat similar logic explains the consistent venality of individual media stars. It’s one thing to risk your job when you only make a hundred thousand a year and quite another to forgo millions and millions just for the sake of principle, especially since whistleblowing has become a meaningless gesture—in the absence of a free press, the whistleblowers will be personally destroyed as Scott Ritter knows and Joe Wilson is learning. Anyhow, at least for the present, the public despises people who rock the boat at the risk of oodles of money—it’s un-American.

To be fair, it is all too easy for somebody without responsibility or vulnerability to say what they think without a lot of preliminary calculations of profit and loss. If you live in a barrel in the dump, you can afford to tell Alexander the Great to get out of your light. Appearances to the contrary, however, I’m not playing the cynic here and making a moral criticism of the managers of big media or of the talking heads. The ethical dimension of the problem is secondary. Even in a rational world decent behavior requires courage and integrity, but the point is we don’t have a rational world. At this point, honestly reporting the news would land you in Butler’s Lives of the Saints; and that wouldn’t help anybody since sainthood is itself a media scam.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Boundary Conditions

Of the two engines of economic growth, the demographic dynamic is notably flagging these days, especially in Europe and Japan. Meanwhile, nobody really knows what opportunities or disappointments will emerge from technology, the other motor. Promoters of nanotechnology, the most recent Caucasian cargo cult, await the arrival of artificial paradise with more impatience than anxiety while others are worried precisely because the hype may pan out. I’m told that science fiction writers speculate about a point in history they call the Vingian Singularity in honor of Vernor Vinge, a writer who proposed that we were rapidly approaching the moment when “technological change speeds up to such a degree that society becomes incomprehensible even to the people living in it.” But maybe the Vingian Singularity, like the Second Coming, is destined to an interminable postponement; and whether we desire or fear its advent, we’ll eventually have to deal with the failure of prophecy.

It is commonly pointed out that Marx never fully realized how productive industry could become. It doesn’t matter very much if labor is exploited if the exploited masses are living high on the hog. But we may be falling into the reverse error of assuming that the projected triumphant advance of science will make the social and political structure of society irrelevant. If technology isn’t quite so miraculous as advertised and fails to generate economic growth, it becomes very important indeed who gets the biggest share of the pie. To judge by the renewed fervor of their defense of privilege, the conservatives seem to have recognized this possibility ahead of the rest of us.

Monday, August 09, 2004

More Excuses

Marx famously said that the obsession of the Germans with religion testified to their political and economic backwardness. But maybe it would be simpler to point out that people who are interested in ideas but have no connection to power naturally gravitate to subjects that sound important. The vanity of these earnest small timers calculated that the loftiness of the topic would compensate for their own insignificance. Hey, works for me. But there are perhaps better excuses for thinking about religion now if not in 1848. I don’t refer only or especially to the power of religious pressure groups in the U.S. or the salience of religious language in expressing cultural dissatisfaction. To use, not without premeditation, a Levi-Straussian expression, religion is good to think.

One can learn a lot about mankind from a consideration of the history of science or mathematics, but those cognitive enterprises are contaminated with authentic, non-human content. The errors of science may teach us about ourselves, but its truths teach us about triangles, moths, or neutrinos. For the philosophical anthropologist, theology is a much better object of study because its development has not been deformed by non-human input. In the absence of real gods, spirits, and devils, theology’s elaborate doctrines have been prepared in a vacuum like the especially pure chemicals they crystallize on the space shuttle.

I’m aware that this take on religions sounds rather like a well-known thesis of Feuerbach. In part it is, which is rather inconvenient granted Feuerbach’s dubious reputation. On the other hand, Auguste Comte was also right about several very important issues; and he’s even duller than Feuerbach. If they’re right, they’re right. But I draw more modest conclusions from all this than Feuerbach did. In studying the sociology of religion I don’t expect to discover a grand, though alienated human essence because I don’t see much evidence that there is such a thing. I expect that the realities that underlie the fictive rationality of religion comprise a pretty irregular collection headlined by the immutable laws of marketing.