Saturday, October 17, 2009

Emerson for the Day

"The riddle of the age has for each a private solution."

The Evolution of Ignorance: Getting Started

You might think that ignorance doesn't have to evolve: it's the default setting. In a way, that's true. To produce knowledge and increase intelligence, there's a lot of inertia to overcome, it seems: old ways, some animal instincts, status nervousness, etc. Except that the evolution of knowledge and intelligence are much more natural for animals as well as humans, since they enhance survival and generally enhance the quality of life. Probably the best survival mechanism ever to exist is curiosity. That's not as obvious as, say, wings, or opposable thumbs. But it probably precedes a lot of physical changes.

Anyway, human social systems encourage intelligence and knowledge, a little bit more than they discourage them. Some human social systems encourage them more than others. Those closest to nature--and closest to the edge of survival--may well encourage them more than societies that are pleased with themselves and how things are. Or those that are afraid of the changes around them, and those they see coming.

I don't mean entire societies as such. It's a matter of emphasis, but it can be pervasive in terms of what people feel they can do or be. The character of a society can be dominated by powerful groups. The rich in positions of power are the most obvious. Those who control the dominant dialogue through whatever communications media exist: the pulpit, newspapers, television.

Oppressed groups know that the powerful maintain control by keeping them ignorant. That's one reason that literacy was so important to African American slaves, and to be educated and well-spoken was to be admired. But that cultural value seems weaker now in all groups, in the society as a whole.

Our society has been systematically evolving ignorance more than it has been encouraging intelligence. While not always deliberate, it is often intentional--though often it's a step towards another ultimate purpose.

In this post, I'm just going to suggest some ways this is done. I hope to flesh them out later.

Societies, cultures, and their social systems can encourage or discourage behaviors based on what they value, reward and honor, and what they don't value but dismiss, ignore, discourage and penalize. Our society has a love/fear relationship with science and scientists, and to other kinds of knowledge, as well as the intelligence of art. That's a dynamic, and the love or the fear gets emphasized in different circumstances, different cases, at different times.

But the balance gets thrown off in various ways. We're seeing it happen now in the political dialogue, where ignorance in the form of no respect for truthfulness or knowledge is common. We're seeing it happen in education, with schools starved for support, cutting back on content and rigor. We're seeing it in the global culture, which is most influenced by American commercial culture.

Here's one example that may seem trivial, but I believe it has been powerful, especially in combination with other cultural and political forces. Our society is saturated with advertising. Billboards, store window displays, newspaper ads and giveaways go back a couple of centuries. But with radio and television--with hundreds of channels of television--advertising became pervasive. Advertising information--words, images, texts and especially subtexts--comprise a major proportion of the information we take in every day.

In the past generation or two, the coordinated advertising campaign--often led by TV commercials but including other forms using the same theme and key images--has used various psychological devices to entice buying, and above all to define the public to itself. Thousands of hours of beer commercials for example have defined men as fundamentally stupid, interested only in drinking beer, and proud of it. In fact, that's become the definition of masculinity.

Commercials in general portray both males and females as dull-minded, incurious, stupid people interested only in fashionable products and images. I believe this came about partly because advertisers realized that only idiots could believe their claims, so why not make idiocy the cultural ideal? Advertising only works on people who can be easily swayed, by personal and fashion anxiety, and identification with those happy sappy idiots they see in the commercials. For what advertising is about is mostly getting people to switch from one brand to another.

A super-heated consumer society needs to define itself through what it buys, not what it knows. People are smart enough to know this is pretty stupid, but commercials make them feel really comfortable with being stupid.

The most interesting example I've seen lately is the evolving campaign for SuddenLink, the cable TV company that operates mostly in smaller markets across the country. Depending on where you are, you may or may not have seen these commercials. We started getting them here when SuddenLink bought our cable franchise.

The first set of commercials we saw featured a young man, late twenties perhaps. Verging on overweight, he had a friendly smile and a vapid face. He didn't look very smart, and he didn't act it. But he was seen to convince friends and relatives that cable (rather than satellite) was better, even as he did dumb things, like playing touch football in his mother's living room.

The next set of SuddenLink commercials contrasted things that are hard ("Indoor cattle herding is hard") and things that are easy when you have cable (telephone ID shown on your TV screen.) These were also humorous ads, and made the conceptual jump to say that simple (like their simple-minded former spokesman) is actually smarter. The latest group of ads has pushed this into more dangerous territory, showing these "smarter" jocks bullying a nerdish satellite dish installer. It's the cable jock as Tea Party bully.

To make the point that cable is simple (and not complicated scary technology) and that choosing something simple that works is smarter, these commercials use the imagery that suggests the longstanding tradition of making fun of smart people. But the real power of it is in the saturation of this cultural ideal: the happily ignorant.

I've seen this evolve in my lifetime, but it became a more obvious change across the culture in the Reagan 80s. That realization is in books written in the decade, like Martin Amis' The Moronic Inferno, and in songs by the likes of Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, Jackson Browne as "The Pretender":

"I'll be a happy idiot
and struggle for the legal tender..."

This is the Social Darwinism imposed by the commercial culture, resulting in the continuing evolution of ignorance.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Elsewhere in the News...

For some reason, the updating of my other blogs in the left column--My Little Blogosphere--isn't working. There's a new healthcare post at American Dash.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

This is Not the Borg

As explained in the post below, another non-progress report on the blogosphere.

This is Not A Blog Continued

Another little non-progress report. There are more changes in the blogosphere, that mythical land between Time Magazine and Twitter. I'm not sure, however, that I can completely separate my analysis from my own changing feelings and tastes. So I won't try.

The 2008 election campaign changed things a lot. For example, it brought in a whole new generation to Daily Kos, and changed that place pretty decisively. It's become younger, the diaries shorter and less substantive, and the recommended list reflects more than ever a combination of ideological bullying, social networking swapping and above all, trigger happy readers losing their minds over the topic of the hour. Perhaps as compensation, the front page (and presumably paid) posters are getting longer and more wonkish.

I'd describe Kos now as a political social networking site, and more than one regular there has referred to it as the Borg. I find myself spending very little time there on each visit. Part of that is also the predictability, and the emphasis on political opposition--on in fact highlighting every stupid ugly thing a Republican or right winger says or does. It's also why I watch less of Keith and Rachel, and less cable in general.

I became obsessed by every scrap of political news and addicted to a dozen or more political sites and blogs, as well as the cable political shows, during the campaign. But once Obama won, I got more interested in the governing--in the doing the stuff we fought to get done--than the daily mudwrestling of politics.

I realize that progressive blogs perform an important service (a matter of a little blogospheric controversy yesterday actually), and I've always maintained that a progressive President needs activists to the left, as well as just plain intelligence and moral clarity from other perspectives. And of course politics has to be played in order to get legislation passed and so on. But the landscape looks so basically ugly--and if I may quote myself (of course I may, who's gonna stop me): " our media-fueled self-renewing cyclones of distraction, our 24/7 locust plagues of pettiness, our twittering fits of trivial obsessions, our instant acting out, and the dead slogans nailed to our identities and shouting matches."

I felt a little justified in what I've been doing on this blog when President Obama unexpectedly won the Nobel Prize. You'd be hard pressed to find another site that contained in detail the evidence that the Nobel Prize committee used in deciding to give him the award. But here it all is. It's one of the few times that my concentration on the Big Picture, at least as I see it, seemed to find some justification in the news.

I still go to the Political Wire, to TPM and Think Progress for the political news of the day--they're quick and good. For some months I have indulged in a nightly dip into the Huffington Post, but I doubt I will anymore. The cross between National Inquirer and the Nation, plus Ariana's ego, has gotten old. She's trying to invent an online magazine form that will dominate the niche it creates, while she campaigns against other models. I'm not interested. It's a lot of flash and much too careless. More than anything I'm bored. I find myself clicking to a couple of sites for sports news afterwards much more quickly than I used to.

The Internet is full of wonderful things, but I like most of them as an adjunct to other things, like books and movies and life. For looking things up on Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database. I'm trying to get in the habit of scanning more specialized aggregators and sites, but my heart isn't entirely in it. I yearn for someplace to go to read somebody good. But that's not what the Internet does. And so I wind up writing some pale version of what I'd like to read. Which is another reason why this is not a blog.

I suppose I could brush up on the technological ways of increasing potential readership here and in my little blogosphere, by making it easier to "subscribe" (whatever that means), or to get this on your cell phone. Maybe I should. But it's unlikely.

I am not a blog. I am not the Borg.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Signs of Getting Serious

In advance of the Copenhagen negotiations, there are signs that the nations of the world are ready to get serious about the Climate Crisis. And for once, the U.S. is deeply involved.

One sign is this speculation that the U.S. is looking to make bilateral deals on greenhouse gas emissions with other two most crucial players on the planet, China and India. According to the Guardian:

The Obama administration is hoping to win new commitments to fight global warming from China and India in back-to-back summits next month, the Guardian has learned, including the first Indian emissions trading scheme.

Another hopeful sign is this preview of Brazil's offer to be made at Copenhagen to reduce deforestation of the rainforest by 80%. For all kinds of reasons--including the Climate Crisis--that's a big deal, and a happy prospect.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"He had to choose. But it was not a choice
Between excluding things. It was not a choice
Between, but of. He chose to include the things
That in each other are included, the whole,
The complicate, the amassing harmony."
--Wallace Stevens
Notes Towards A Supreme Fiction

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What Obama's Nobel Really Means

President Obama speaking in Prague. How everyone seems to be missing the point of President Obama's Nobel Prize, suggested in the post below.

The Fierce Urgency of Now

The awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace to President Barack Obama on Friday shocked some, and inspired the usual if still ugly and disappointing vituperation of the Rabid Right. It also surprised many, including the President, and so in the first blush some called it "ridiculous" and emphasized how early it was in his presidency. Many voices have since justified it, partly on the basis of the tradition of the Peace Prize (as Rachel Maddow so ably did in the clip embedded below) and on the change that President Obama brought in such a short time to the international dialogue and especially, America's role in the world. But I think everyone is still slightly missing the point.

Yes, it was a surprise--which the Nobel Committee obviously knew it would be. So why? Why did the Nobel Committee take this surprising step? Why did they choose to single out the American President after only nine months in office? Why did that recent survey suggest that America has become more admired internationally because of Barack Obama?

The answer that everyone is missing is urgency. The Nobel Committee didn't just hand out an award---it stood up and screamed, pay attention to this man! Many European leaders in politics, sciences, professions, etc. and many leaders around the world, all understand that the future survival of the planet hangs by a thin thread. That progress must be made quickly on controlling and ending nuclear weapons, negotiating agreements that are just to all sides in areas of the world where conflict could be imminent and would be catastrophic, and especially that the world's great nations must band together to lead a rapid response to the Climate Crisis before it is too late for the future of human civilization.

This award is the diplomatic, international community equivalent of standing on the table, jumping up and down and shouting: this is our last best hope! This is the fierce urgency of now!

They know what American leadership still can mean. They know what President Obama is up against in this country. Political leaders told him at the G20 in Pittsburgh that they couldn't understand the attacks on him as one kind of radical or another, when he would be comfortably centrist in any other western democracy. They don't understand that the wealthiest nation on earth is undermining its own economy while failing to meet its responsibilities, when it remains alone in not supporting universal health care. They are afraid of a nation with such a powerful military machine and yet so careless about violence that citizens wear guns to a political rally, and that children gun down other children in the streets, while apparent adults oppose the most rudimentary controls on deadly firearms. They saw the same gunslinger attitude rend the world for eight dangerous years.

The Prize is an official anguished cry on the Climate Crisis. They awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore, and America still didn't get the point. In the UK, our closest cultural and political ally in Europe, conservatives compete with liberals and Labourites on devising and implementing the most effective and most urgent measures to address the Climate Crisis. Now China is beginning to move its massive state machinery to address it--and to corner the market on the renewable energy technology of the near future. Now India seems to see the light.

But they need and want America to be part of this, and they see President Obama as the key to American leadership and American cooperation, and the return to American responsibility in the world. They know these problems are urgent, most of them made far worse by American actions in the past eight years, and they are telling us how important it is that President Obama be successful.

They look at this country and our media-fueled self-renewing cyclones of distraction, our 24/7 locust plagues of pettiness, our twittering fits of trivial obsessions, our instant acting out and the dead slogans nailed to our identities and shouting matches, and they're crying out: we value this man, the world desperately needs him as your leader, we hear him, why can't you listen to what he's saying? Can't we please focus?

The Nobel Peace Prize was exactly as President Obama said: a call to action. And what we're missing is that it was a decorously desperate, very loud, very urgent call. Maybe we should listen.

Rachel Maddow's summary of why it was appropriate for President Obama to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, versus the Obama Derangement Syndrome of the Rabid Right. I found this embed along with other approving quotes in this blackwaterdog diary at Kos, including one from the director general of the International Atomic Agency Commission, who said "I cannot think of anyone today more deserving of this honor."