Girolamo Savonarola: Beck’s Old World counterpart (Image source: Wikicommons)
Without intending to do so, this is my belated response to the 9/11 anniversary. Even though what follows doesn’t address the event explicitly, no doubt it is the background of the current rise in rightwing fanaticism. Anyhow…
Alternet has a great thought piece about the Glenn Beck phenomena. In particular the author does an excellent job of comparing Beck’s popularity with the shenanigans of the film Network‘s Howard Beale (based on Beck’s own claim that his role model is indeed Beale). Granted, I’m far more sympathetic to Beale’s character than I am with Beck. But the parallels between Network‘s uncanny prediction of the future of news (it was made in 1976), in particular its prescient vision of what would become Fox News, makes the comparison necessary and appropriate. It has certainly become on odd time when the fake news is real (Daily Show, Colbert Report) and the real news is fake (Fox and other cable news).
Admittedly, it has been hard for me to grasp how a completely nonsensical character like Beck could come across to his fans as a serious journalist. In a way, he’s a perfect empty signifier for television. He can use the professorial signs of serious research through his deployment of a blackboard and sophisticated-looking diagrams, and he commands all the tricks that TV offers as a medium of emotional engagement. Whereas in the past you’d find such rants in conspiracy laden books, like Gary Allen’s None Dare Call It Conspiracy, or on radio (which remains a popular medium for right wing anger), TV is a “cool” medium (to put it in McLuhan’s terms) that engages more senses and therefor has a far more powerful effect. What Fox is doing is mainstreaming John Birch Society antics for its own cynical business interests, but might find itself in trouble when their clown-lead movement takes over government and starts outlawing the kind of liberal lifestyle enjoyed by the rich New Yorkers who staff and operate conservative corporate media. For a hint of what this kind of world might look like, I suggest reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
All this points to something that I have found troubling. How is it that satirical depictions of corporate lunacy (such as Network) become embraced and co-opted by the right? I first noticed this when the brilliant parody of warmongering wingnuts in Team America was celebrated by so-called patriots. The film’s theme song, “Team America Fuck Yeah,” became a popular anthem for the right. Any sane being who watches this film must know that it is an ugly mirror of all the untruths and idiocy associated with fanatical patriotism. But then the reality sinks in that there is a psychological mechanism that makes it impossible for crazy people to see their craziness. I don’t want to patronize and argue that these people are stupid. But insane? Perhaps. Even rational and well-educated people can get caught-up in a wave or irrationality (such as Germans in the Nazi era) when a kind of groupthink charges the larger social field. Under such conditions, people seem to be enraptured as if under a kind of spell. Indeed, anthropologists have noted that when people participate in group rituals their normal behavior can be altered. Leftists can succumb to the same kind of behavioral modification. I have seen it in action during riots. Not fun.
The Beck scenario highlights a few trends. For one, Beck and his appeal will not go away in the near future (nor will his ilk like Sara Palin (unfortunately not related to Monty Python’s Michael Palin)). As long as it makes money and serves the interests of far right business interests, it will be amplified and well-funded.
Secondly, rational facts will not change this dynamic. We have to consider that we are dealing with people who are medieval in worldview, but have the tools of the Renaissance at their disposal. This is a kind of contradiction that usually does not end well. Consider the cultural wars between the Florentine intellectuals, artists and cosmologists (i.e. the Bohemians of the Old World) and the Vatican. While the Pope and his inner circle was as hedonistic as the neo-Platonists at their employ (Michelangelo wasn’t the only homosexual to rome the halls of the Vatican), the Church’s lower ranking minions were the shock troops to keep the power matrix intact. In particular there was the arch enemy of Florence’s Medaci family, fanatical monk Girolamo Savonarola, whose mad rants and book burnings (“Bonfire of the Vanities”) fired up enough unrest to keep the liberal values of the Renaissance in check (and eventually squashed by the Counter Reformation). Eventually the tables were turned and Savonarola was tortured and burned at the stake. Network‘s Beale ended just as badly when his ratings and public appeal dropped, and was gunned down in a staged assassination by the network bosses. I don’t predict either outcome for Beck or Palin (nor do I wish it upon them), but as a Tai Chi master pointed out, life is a roller coaster: what goes up, goes down. Simple analogy, I know, but it’s good to remember. Even Hitler’s lunacy wasn’t sustainable, but he was around long enough to cause a lot of damage and heartache.
So, then, the $10 million question becomes, What to do about it?
I’m reminded of an anecdote from the oral history of the Mexica concerning the time of Cortez’ colonial conquest of Mexico. As the story goes, Moctezuma sent his priests to confront Cortez and his growing indigenous allies who were sick of Aztec rule and were willing to help rid their oppressors. Moctezuma’s priests tried their usual tricks, including dazzling people in a kind of magic ritual that would scare them into submission. But this time it didn’t work. In the words of Moctezuma’s enemies,
You cannot deceive us; you cannot make fools of us.
You cannot frighten us; you cannot blind our eyes.
You cannot stare us down; we will not look away.
You cannot bewitch our eyes and turn them side.
You cannot dim our eyes or make them swoon.
You cannot fill them with dust or shut them with slime.
Why did the priests’ magic fail? Because the context changed. I don’t mean to sympathize with Cortez in this particular story, but only use it to illustrate how the social field can be altered through a kind of dis-illusioning. As Cesar Chavez said,
“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”
Consider the fall of the Soviet Empire and Eastern Europe. It’s not that suddenly everyone became a revolutionary (or reformer as the case may be), but that the control mechanism was altered, enabling people to see new possibilities. Or put differently, suddenly they understood an alternative mode of existence.
What this tells me is that social change comes about not only because of information inputs, but also as a result of changing contexts. No doubt information is helpful, but it will not be useful when a mentality is incapable of utilizing it for its own good. The experience of Orson Well’s War of the Worlds broadcast on Halloween, 1938 makes this point. Recall that Wells, perhaps an early postmodernist who understood mass media as a useful artistic medium, repurposed HG Well’s chilling tale of alien invasion as a radio newscast. Some in the Northeast took the broadcast to be real and panicked. Later sociologists researched to study why people reacted in such a way. What they found was that in general those who believed the hoax tended to be very religious, whereas those who doubted it tended to be educated. In other words, those who weren’t fooled were critical thinkers. They knew how to find a phone and to call their neighbors to see if this event depicted on the radio was actually taking place.
To this end, I believe education is the real antidote to right wing fanaticism. Of course, we then need to consider what kind of education. No doubt, many on the right are products of contemporary American education, which has been thoroughly redesigned by the neoliberals, the very same kinds of people bankrolling the likes of Beck and Palin. As I discuss more thoroughly in my book, Mediacology, No Child Left Behind is a conspiracy to destroy creative and independent thinking in schools. Unfortunately, I think Obama is doing no better, and is furthering the goals of corporate interests who want to shape education so that it churns out technocrats who are good at implementing the worse aspects of the global information society. Unfortunately, I have little faith that my particular solution to the education problem–media literacy–will succeed in the public school environment, because its goals are contrary to the testable rubrics promoted by so-called education reform.
Nonetheless, It is my hope that critical thinking skills taught through media literacy will become more widespread. Indeed, as the good work of media educators and activists has shown, media literacy has become a formidable movement. But it has done so mostly in unofficial settings, such as in after school programs and nonprofit-funded arts programs. This doesn’t bother me so much because working inside much of the school system is a nightmare (I’m not using hyperbole here–I’ve been inside some of the US’ worse schools, and no child should ever be placed in such environments, let alone be tolerated as acceptable by the adults who run them). The question remains how to fund and support these semi-formal networks of alternative education. Certainly the economy and budget cuts aren’t helping the non-profit sector either (again, not to be conspiracy minded, but in A Brief History of Neoliberalism David Harvey reminds us that the financial sector periodically engineers crashes to re-appropriate wealth. He shows how depressions and recessions have historically enabled privatization and transfer of middle class resources to the rich).
I admit that I don’t have the answer for how to help spread media literacy, in particular in the communities where fear is more amplified and “foreign” ideas are rejected. I’m fairly certain that underlying most fear at the moment is a loss of power and control that historically belonged to whites. The world is getting darker (not in the ominous sense), and American power is on the wane. The crazy white people who are grasping and clinging to myths of the past will ironically exacerbate all the trends they rail against, in particular if they insist on military solutions and Christian militancy as their balm of choice. For things to shift into a new dynamic, no doubt the current cultural environment will have to change, and one place to start is to work towards a more democratic and critical media that will not elevate the claims of the insane Qu’ran-burners into national stardom. We need to isolate these orchestrated hysterias within their larger project of fear-mongering by the far right, and to somehow counter it with the power of love and creativity.