America The Radical

America The Radical

One of the most striking features of the post-Trump media landscape in America is the extent to which it (the media) apparently learned nothing from the whole sordid ordeal that was Donald Trump’s presidency. Or maybe it learned quite a bit.

For years, Trump insisted that outlets like the “failing” New York Times should be singing his praises, if not in print, then certainly in the boardroom, because were it not for his unrivaled capacity to conjure “news” out of thin air (usually by courting controversy), the “lamestream” media would be out of business.

From inception, Fox played the demagoguery card as a matter of course, creating a safe space for disgruntled white Americans nostalgic for a bygone era that never actually existed. We stitch together an idealized version of the mid-20th century using what we’ve convinced ourselves are “memories.” In fact, we’ve created a kind of mental propaganda patchwork using reruns from classic sitcoms, the recollections of our grandparents and cherry-picked Americana. I touched on this tendency in “Little League,” albeit tangentially.

A more accurate representation of reality (in many locales, anyway) can be had by watching the first hour of “The Deer Hunter.” And even in that dreary, foreboding setting, there’s something oddly nostalgic — the joyous camaraderie offsets the charred, rainy reality of factory work.

Fox perpetuates an absurdly idealized version of a “wholesome” society built around semi-prosperous, white nuclear families, a vision which, irony of ironies, isn’t entirely disparate from Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity.” Atop that foundation: A nationalistic, us-versus-them frame, plastered over by tacky jingoism and obligatory nods to Christianity and capitalism, the country’s two religions.

But demagoguery isn’t the sole purview of Fox or “the right.” Demagoguery is, after all, just the practice of playing on people’s fears and prejudices in the quest for political or monetary gain. Increasingly, it’s become synonymous with the radicalization of Americans on both sides of the political spectrum.

CNN, for example, is now mostly unwatchable. As afternoon fades into evening and then prime time, the network’s coverage descends into overwrought farce. Chris Cuomo’s shtick is now wholly unbearable. Nearly everyone is excoriated (besides his brother, of course) and sometimes on the flimsiest of excuses. His only goal seems to be riling up viewers. His tagline (“Let’s get after it”) ostensibly conveys an impassioned pursuit of the truth, but more and more, it seems like an incitement. The idea that “sticking to the facts” somehow exonerates Cuomo from his role in polarizing the masses doesn’t hold much water. Once Cuomo is finished regaling viewers with everything that’s wrong in America and assigning blame for it, he hands the baton to Don Lemon, whose job it is to be newly incredulous at the same list of injustices that have plagued the country for 200 years. The more melodramatic, the better.

All of that is demagoguery. That CNN’s coverage is based (mostly) on facts as opposed to Tucker Carlson’s demonstrable falsehoods and Sean Hannity’s cartoon fantasy world, is no longer exculpatory. How many times, for example, can you air the same video of mask proponents being harassed and threatened by anti-maskers, before you risk radicalizing some formerly sane Democrat? It’s obviously important to expose just how irrationally dangerous “the other side” has become, but the risk of trying to outfox Fox is that you end up perpetuating the very same us-versus-them mentality that Fox thrives on, while simultaneously driving the wedge between left and right even further into the ground — or the stake even further into the country’s heart.

At the same time, the “respectable” media has no qualms whatsoever in 2021 about employing the most visceral, damning, accusatory language imaginable to describe various goings-on. In some cases, that’s an appropriate (indeed, it’s the only) way to approach a story. For example, if eyewitness accounts of Sunday’s drone strike in Kabul are accurate, then any media outlet would be derelict not to emphasize the tragedy inherent in the incineration of civilians, including small children, while targeting suicide bombers. Of course, the suicide bombers (assuming there were any there, which in this case is debatable) were themselves intent on incinerating civilians, just maybe not those civilians.

But these are the same media outlets who spent last week speculating on every conceivable point of failure in the lead up to the airport bombing. Imagine a parallel universe in which that suicide bomber had his curtains closed by a Reaper drone at the cost of a dozen civilians, thereby preventing the attack that killed 170 Afghans and 13 Americans. If we could somehow avail ourselves of the omnipotence required to weigh the two scenarios side by side, which is “better”? The utilitarian outcome in which 12 lives are lost to save 200 or the alternative in which a dozen innocents look on, unbeknownst and unharmed, as a vehicle pulls away from the house next door, the driver on his way to murder 200 people?

The media doesn’t grapple with these questions, and therefore the public isn’t forced to confront them. Instead, the polity exists in a continual state of hysteria, always mourning something, be it the senseless loss of life half a world away or the loss of a lifestyle half a century removed. (I should reiterate that when it comes to the drone strike mentioned above, there are competing accounts. The Times has the story.)

Everything is always someone’s fault, and even the sane among us are now expected to abandon our sanity and “fight,” because if we don’t, the “other side” will accidentally dynamite whatever’s left of the nation’s democracy, effectively sawing off the branch on which they sit because they don’t understand the principles they claim to be defending.

Virtually everyone is complicit in this, unfortunately. Myself included. I recently had the opportunity to reconnect with one of only a handful of living people who “know the real me,” so to speak. She’s a vaccine skeptic now. And that was that.


10 thoughts on “America The Radical

  1. The American public, and the media outlets that attempt to retain their limited interest, lack any intellectual discernment….so, we’re perfectly matched. In this moment, we deserve each other.

  2. There are two old sayings about the Internet that I try to remember:

    The first is from the old (1993) Peter Steiner/New Yorker cartoon, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

    The second is from a 2008 Brian Stelter piece in the New York Times in which he quotes Jane Buckingham: “If the news is that important, it will find me.”

    I stopped watching or reading current events news soon after Trump was elected, and for exactly the reasons you highlight in this post: it served no purpose that I could see other than to rile people up. Whether it was Rachel Maddow on the left, or Sean Hannity on the right, or anyone in between, the news through those channels was serving no useful purpose.

    And by useful purpose, I mean (a) does it affect me—either directly or indirectly, or is it something I care deeply about, and (b) can I do anything about it?

    So I read the financial/economic sections of Bloomberg, WSJ, CNBC, Reuters, AP, and maybe a few others. I have some blogs—like this one—that I follow. And I have a Reddit account with subreddits set to my items of interest. With those epistemic filters in place I’ve found that, for the most part, if the news is really important to me, it will filter through and I’ll hear about it. And I rarely get too riled up.

  3. I try to listen to The Economist because I usually only get worked up when they talk about the US National “Debt”, etc. I think the soothing British accents of the folks reading the stories helps keep me calm!

    It’s so nice to finish a news story and find yourself thinking critically instead of getting emotional. Makes you want to keep going.

  4. As always, thanks, H, for the post. I sympathize with you in regard to reconnecting with an old friend. I’ve had that experience too. Life’s a trip. We all follow different paths. And we’re all “free” Americans, many of us guided by the “wisdom” of individual perspective. In the end I do not begrudge such old friends either their freedom or their wisdom. Is this the more perfect union to which we collectively strive? Perhaps, in part. But by definition, the country still evolves. And the ongoing success of our country – or should I say, the outcome of the country’s ambition to be more perfect – depends upon character and tolerance. And having such a variety of characters as we do, the two must go hand in hand.

    I’ve never had patience for CNN. I try to watch them, but each time I find they seem to exploit story facts and amplify argument, rather than simply standing on facts to let them speak for themselves. The abundance of Americans, I believe (fingers crossed), do not like being told what to think.

  5. There’s no way to get back the 13 Americans who died in Kabul.

    However, there is pretty easy way to save 13,000 Americans over the next year who would otherwise die.

    Let’s get them all vaccinated.

    Vaccinations — real science and double blind clinical trials — versus Ivermectin which is great for worms and lice, but has no efficacy for any virus whatsoever.

    Yet somehow, on the right, Ivermectin is preferred. Senators Rand Paul and Ron Johnson have been pushing it for some time, claiming some kind of a grand conspiracy as to why the FDA won’t take it seriously.

    This country has never been crazier.

    1. Not enough 000s on the number of unvacinated Americans who will die in the next year. And you forget the people who will die because the hospitals are stuffed with anti-vax fools. Don’t have a heart attack, stroke or cancer for the next year or two until we can clear out the anti-vax holdouts. You won’t get a bed in your local hospital.

  6. Well said. Even Bill Maher agrees! I want to know the drone strike prevented hundreds of deaths. My wife watches the news mix of MSNBC, FOX, BBC, and CNN while I watch TWC in the basement. We’re losing our way.

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