Cerebral Fodder

October 2003



Media Conspiracies

The media is a thorn in many sides. Yet for millions it is a habitual—even trusted—companion, a daily fix. One that distracts, and keeps us occupied, hungering for more. A drug so addictive that it blinds us to the lies often being told at our expense, and exposes our gullible side.

This is what pundits had begun to warn us about in the early days of television: the pernicious effects of a medium that is regulated by government and paid for by the advertisers. I even remember reading essays on this theme in high school in the 60s, prescribed by no less than our English teacher. Education wasn't bad in those days, in spite of all the social upheavals brought on by the counterculture!

Yes indeed, we, the audience, are being sold to the advertisers, so in effect they become the audience. TV and other media are simply the vehicles for bringing that about. Noam Chomsky made these and other points in a Corporate Watch interview: (read Excerpts—my comments follow).

One thing comes to mind, though. Advertisers may well be the 'real' consumers, but does the way in which we're being manufactured as consumers of certain products determine the programming 'in between', or do they cook up a certain kind of program to pull in the desired consumer of the products in the ads that intervene? To me it seems to work both ways, and the boundary is often blurred. The programming may provide some useful information and analysis in spite of the manipulation. But I suspect that the democratic nature of the internet gets around the problem of having one's soul usurped by TV advertisers who treat their viewers like pawns or assets to be utilized for the benefit of a few. Unless, of course, we point at those who advertise on the web, with their irritating banners, pop-ups and photo links to ads. So we're back to square one; it's a vicious circle. McLuhan's mantra, "the medium is the message" may well be stretched to the limit, to the point where substance is eschewed altogether. The internet is fine as a tool, but dangerous as a toy, used for its own sake. Still, I think the web at least mitigates the pernicious effects we see in all those couch potatoes. It is surely the most democratic medium we have, corporate control notwithstanding, since there is relatively little control over content, and virtually no restriction on choice. Private ownership of property takes on a new dimension.

That is the philosophy of the media, and those are the ethics of the consumer culture. Enjoy while engaged, then conveniently forget—that’s the motto. Closure is important, as though the whole thing was put on just to waste your time so money could be made on the sly. So viewers become hip and cynically scoff at what’s on offer; yet they watch the proceedings anyway. They’re hooked and the TV moguls hold them hostage, capitalizing on the hypocrisy of those armchair pundits and know-it-alls. It’s a seduction, pure and simple, before which our defenses crumble. The media, after all, is predicated on being user-friendly, but insincere. Its mere presence is everything; the viewer need not think for himself. The idea is to always appear to be cheerful and friendly when engaged with the consumer, and then feel free to be insincere once disengaged. This duplicity is a guarded secret, though obviously there are leaks, chinks in the armor. This is also part and parcel of the patronizing attitude of the powers: stay addicted to the bromides offered. Keep feeding—there’ll be more on the way. Entire nations become consumer brands to be peddled in the global marketplace; we keep manufacturing ourselves to become saleable, ignoring the sanctity of individuals and communities.

I'd like to steer the reader towards an insightful piece on television by Bill McKibben that appeared in The New Yorker back in March 1992. It was titled, simply, "What's On?". He methodically dismantles and takes a careful look at the varied content presented non-stop on television. A breathtaking perspective that runs to some forty pages. As for Chomsky, one can trust that a brilliant mind like his has looked at the larger issues raised by television from virtually every angle, and opened out the discourse. (He has been, and still is, an indefatigable but rather lonely critic of American foreign policy, brutally exposing its hypocrisy—what America respects, first and foremost, is money and power, however it is secured; democracy is just a bonus: great if you have it, but no impediment if you don’t, and in itself is practically worthless).

What Freud said about the modern world is true as ever: money, power and sex are the three principal values that prevail and more or less run the world we call 'free'. Free to do what? To consume, consume some more and keep consuming. Freedom of choice can also mean an embarassment of riches, and thus induce a paralysis of action. But the consumer society locks one into certain choices by the powers that be, who fix the range of choices by the subtle manipulation of public taste. I quote Emerson: "You shall have joy or you shall have power, said God; you shall not have both."

Here’s a sweeping pronouncement from antiquity by Horace, or Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 B.C.):

"We’re just statistics, born to consume resources."

How prophetic he was—two millennia ago!

The problem with the consumer society is that creative works become products or commodities to be bought and sold at will. We are duped and become incapable of discovering for ourselves the inner needs or compulsions that led to the evolution of these works. We automatically consume more and create less. As an analogy I’m reminded here of an opinion expressed by one of my favorite writers, John Updike, who said that as a writer, "I become less and transmit more."
J.G. Ballard, who has written a great deal of science fiction, has conjured up strange and terrifying scenarios of ordinary citizens whose lives have been so hijacked by consumerism that they've become empty—they resort to violence or indulge in other forms of weird behavior: the residents of a housing estate in West London abandon their homes en masse, giving the whole place an eerie atmosphere; a visitor might think he's on another planet. Ballard makes us aware of what could happen to us, and to imagine the eerie worlds that may result. In a sense he's acting as a guide to what lies in store ahead, to a probable future.

To me art is an inner-directed activity that has the power to transform each of us in a unique way. And if it comes about that way, it is the one truth that is transcendent, allowing us to live in realms that surpass our economic lot. You see, money changes a lot of hands and ends up in a few. Yet in essence it doesn’t change a lot.

The view that Marx lied to the people about the true consequences of Marxism, and told the truth about capitalism is intriguing. Intellectuals have been pointing out for years that in Marx's analysis capitalism contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. That it is but a phase all human societies must pass through before they arrive at socialism or communism. That true individual freedom and its connection with the wider aspects of humanity cannot really be attained in advanced capitalistic societies—the attempts at some form of social or democratic capitalism seem to testify to the essential problem of alienation.
As soon as we get into the 'evils' of capitalism we have to contend with nothing less than that incurable romantic realist, Ayn Rand, and her philosophy of Objectivism. And of course, Adam Smith and his disciples. Marx revealed only one aspect of the truth about individual or private enterprise; the aspect that no one now cares to hear, and which is dear to many hearts. Especially to those of the rapacious barons who control most of our assets. Will Durant was prompted to say: "The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality." How true is that today?

Economics is largely an empirical discipline. What kind of economy we should have is not engraved in stone, nor can it be arrived at a priori. It depends on the choices we make in life and the subjective perceptions we have about its quality. Combine this with the Darwinian law of ‘survival of the fittest’, and the reality becomes obvious.

The social institutions we associate with civilization are obviously of our own making—they’re linked to our cultural evolution, which is why we nurture visions of an ideal human society that not only ensures self-preservation, but also makes us dynamic and creative. Life can be transcendent; we sense that there’s more to it than mere survival.

This ends my reflection, prompted in part by the shenanigans of television, media conglomerates, corporate hawks and the like. There can be no last word: the topic is fluid, so the discussion is without end. Every bit, though, adds to our understanding.

—Jayant Deshpande


Excerpts from a 1992 Corporate Watch interview with NOAM CHOMSKY:

"Let's take the media in the United States. These are corporate media, overwhelmingly. Even the so-called public media are not very different. They are just huge corporations that sell audiences to advertisers in other businesses. And they're supposed to constitute the communications system. It's not complicated to figure out what's going to come out of this. That includes also the entertainment industries, so-called, the various modalities for diverting people from the public arena, and so on."………"If there are three major corporations controlling what is essentially public property and a public creation, namely the Internet, telecommunications, and so on, that's not a whole lot better than one corporation controlling, but it's maybe a minor difference."………"It's a form of tyranny. But, that's the whole point of corporatization: to try to remove the public from making decisions over their own fate, to limit the public arena, to control opinion, to make sure that the fundamental decisions that determine how the world is going to be run—which includes production, commerce, distribution, thought, social policy, foreign policy, everything—are not in the hands of the public, but rather in the hands of highly concentrated private power. In effect, tyranny unaccountable to the public."

So the question to ask, naturally, is how do we make and keep making tyranny—any form of it—accountable? The obvious answer is a greater exercise of democracy and hence more direct participation by the very public that is a victim of this tyranny. Is that so hard? History clearly shows that it is easier said than done. Yet Chomsky believes there's hope precisely because the climate of protest has been steadily building up since the moral outrage of the 1960s.

To echo Chomsky's concerns, I offer this passage from a recent essay by ALEXANDER STILLE, writing about the media—ironically—in the New York Times (Sept 13, 2003):

".... the sudden recourse to old, familiar terms may be less a result of inaccurate labeling than of the failure to find the proper language for problems and phenomena that are bafflingly novel in an age in which religion and politics, modern technology and seemingly archaic beliefs are mixed together, in which media control and money have sometimes replaced force as a means of maintaining consensus."

Chomsky long ago pointed out the hidden evil of 'manufactured consent' by the nexus of big business (of which the media are an important part) and government: a form of corporatization that in essence privatizes the power to make decisions that affect the public at large. This consent extends to the way the United States conducts its foreign policy, his chief bête noire. Chomsky has always harped on the lack of even "a minimum moral integrity" in the way the U.S. Government has responded to crises—if terrorists, rebels, guerillas or insurgents have resorted to barbaric methods to spread pain and panic, the U.S. government has been nothing but immorally asymmetric in the use of its overwhelming military power to trumpet its own norms. He even insists that what the U.S. did in Nicaragua was a greater disaster, on a far greater scale—in terms of what that tiny country could reasonably absorb—than what happened on Sept 11, 2001.

Chomsky goes further: US foreign policy even reserves for itself the moral right to strike anywhere anytime with impunity on the slightest perception of threat; any action that serves its own interests is just, even if it is military in nature. The broad implication: no other nation can really be safe from now on; the rest of the world will forever be put on the defensive. What kind of nation adopts such a posture?