December 18th, 2009 21:45 EST
How Anti-Tax Politicians Get Away With Their Big Lie
One reason American culture is bitterly polarized is Big Media`s penchant for using categorical classifications. The subtleties of life get lost between the cracks of stickers, categories, genres and labels.
Hence, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman passed for many years as a progressive even though it has become apparent that he is in fact a reactionary and henchman for the insurance industry. Early in his career the media stuck a label on him and never revisited it.
Ron Paul, the Texas congressman, is cast as a conservative, even though some of his ideas are much harder to define. And that is just the problem "media, afflicted with pernicious attention deficit disorder, do not like to take the time to define anything; they prefer to stick with old labels and to stick the same labels on new developments no matter how ill-fitting. It`s like using a 19th Century tool box on electronics.
This is journalism of the received idea, the idea that we inherit and do not reevaluate. This world of inherited ideas gets us in trouble. We start chucking labels at each other like missiles. But a society that does not examine its ideas in the light of new developments becomes decrepit and polarized. Ideas are the Omega 3 of the body politic.
Since the creation of the state of Israel we have made unwavering support of Israel the most constant tenet of our foreign policy. Again and again we have missed opportunities to examine our position in the light of changing events. The Israelis are right, the Arabs have to prove themselves. That hardened position has earned widespread hatred for us in the Muslim world. But it has become a kind of state religion, largely because the media do not dare re-examine it. The media cover the Arab-Israeli conflict as they cover labor-management disputes, never raising the question of what is a moral profit margin in a just society "and never challenging Israeli fundamentalism.
Instances where we have become lost in a forest of labels are almost incalculable. For example, there are many issues on which survivalists, Libertarians and liberals agree, but Big Media finds it inconvenient to draw these distinctions. Another example is taxation. The media have let politicians get away with blaming Washington and federal encroachment with high taxes, whereas in fact too much local and regional government, coupled with patronage and gerrymandering, are often the causes of unbearable property taxation. But since we no longer have a viable local press, the lie takes on a life of its own.
In New York State the comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, has been a voice in the wilderness, calling for less local and regional government and more streamlining as a means of reducing the tax burden on property owners. Among those ignoring him are many politicians in both parties who have dined out on their anti-tax rhetoric.
The usual excuse is that sound-bite journalism doesn`t allow for nuance. But that is just that, an excuse. The fact is that when we had decent family-owned newspapers in our major and mid-sized cities the trend towards categorical journalism was already well entrenched. It`s simply easier to write a story using the old labels than it is to explain matters in all their elusive complexity. Story after story simply fills in the background with received ideas, some of them inherently bogus, others overtaken by events.
What distinguishes The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor from most other newspapers is their commitment to delving into gray areas, but increasingly they too are under pressure because of lack of revenues to present more simplistic pictures of the issues that shape our culture.
Thus, when conservatives ask rhetorically whether we want government bureaucrats to stand between us and our doctors, Big Media fails to point out that insurance industry bureaucrats now stand between us and our doctors "and the polls show that we don`t like it. This is not merely because it`s difficult to depict the complexities of an issue, to be sure; it is also because the insurance industry is a major advertiser.
Categorical journalism is rooted in a horse-race mentality where there must be winners and losers and life is a lottery. This mentality in turn is an aspect of a hyper-commercial society in which life is commodified. The result is that events are cast as segments of a race, the more breathlessly the better. In a certain ironic way this happens to reflect the sad truth that what happens comes down to money. It is a measure of our pervasive hypocrisy that while much has been said from the pulpit about family values, homosexuality and abortion, there is an eerie silence about greed and the impact on our lives of commercialization. This is perhaps the best time of year to meditate on our exaltation of greed.
Not only are nuance and complexity lost in this blinkered journalism: people are lost in a welter of labels " Republicans, Democrats, hawks, doves, liberals, conservatives, red-staters, blue-staters, and so on. Their humanity is lost and they become known by their stickers. Because they become lost to each other they also find themselves at each other`s throats as Big Media plays the role of gladiatorial umpire.
This let`s-you-and-him-fight approach to news is increasingly smarmy. The late unlamented Lou Dobbs hour on CNN was an example of just how sleazy it can get. Dobbs used CNN`s reporters as hand puppets and interviewees as punching bags. Over time the show moved from refreshing to disgusting as the indignant Dobbs rode his high horse off the charts.
A culture that has no time or patience for complexity, that treats nuance and subtlety as annoyances "such a society is ready for authoritarian rule. That is exactly what Dick Cheney and George W. Bush perceived when they rammed the Patriot Act down our throats, soiling a history of hard-won civil liberties. Big Media didn`t bother to explain the anomaly of survivalists and Libertarians and ultraconservatives of every stripe demanding less government and yet countenancing this massive government intrusion into our lives. Nor did Big Media bother to tell us that not everyone on the right was blind to this irony.
In time people behave according to their stickers, not least because they need Big Media exposure, and so they come to accommodate the very people who have attached stickers to them.
This kind of journalism could be described as pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey journalism. It`s not good for a culture, because it gives us the impression that once something or someone is categorized, labeled, we know everything we need to know, whereas in fact we know much less than we think we know. It`s the subliminal wish of Big Media that we should think we`re well informed.
Perhaps the darkest aspect of this kind of sticker journalism is that it encourages us to think violence is a justifiable solution, a sentiment recently and eloquently expressed by our president accepting the Nobel Peace Prize while paradoxically sending 30,000 Americans into harm`s way. When issues are seen categorically and discourse is conducted by attaching stickers, simpleminded solutions like violence seem inevitable.
Violence, of course, implies winners and losers: all the complex means are held hostage to the end. Indeed the means no longer matter. This was the argument used to impose the Patriot Act: the end was justified, so the means didn`t matter. In other words, democracy is too inconvenient to be tolerated in a society under external attack. One of the nuances lost in this adolescent argument is that historically external threat has always been used to justify internal repression. It`s as if Big Media thinks the example of Nazi Germany ancient and therefore unnecessary to consider.
The smart-ass nature of this culture glares in our faces. Thousands of books have been written about what happened in the 20th Century, but our journalistic establishment finds it unnecessary to magnify today`s events with the glass of recent historical experience. Hence, the Russian experience in Afghanistan means nothing to us. A report on CNN that many Muslims are making a distinction between expelling Westerners and attacking the West is uniformly overlooked, even though it represents a major development in the history of jihadism. It`s overlooked because it doesn`t fit the current paradigm; it`s inconvenient and difficult to explain.
A democracy can better survive external attack than it can this kind of polarizing and reductive journalism.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.