A Plague of Outrage

A while back, I referred to this book: The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility” by Jeffrey M. Barry and Sarah Sobieraj.  An interesting rumination on how political disagreements unfold in American media can be found in Salon Online: How Right-wing Media Spiraled out of control, excerpted from the bookSkim past a lengthy and somewhat tendentious introduction about Michelle Bachman, and head to the meat, where the authors suggest that our current Era of Outrage is rather unprecedented and driven by deliberate incitement in media that are out of all proportion or control.

Especially interesting is a historical survey of how TV news used to be a forum for consensus and how shows like William F. Buckley’s Firing Line encouraged debate that was constructive and mostly civil:

plague-outrage“Firing Line emerged in the context of these dramatic and often divisive events. The program was a one-hour debate-style public affairs show hosted by conservative William F. Buckley, during which Buckley posed challenging questions of the day to high-profile guests ranging from Hugh Hefner to Noam Chomsky. The interviews were interesting, with a more adversarial tone than found in network news and yet markedly more civilized than today’s cable news analysis shows. Questions were thoughtful, answers tended to be substantive, and those involved treated one another respectfully. Disagreement was ever present, but disparagement was rare.

“Firing Line” is noteworthy not only because it created space for extended exchange of political opinion on television, but also because it aired for over 30 years. “Agronsky and Company,” which debuted a few years later, but had less durability, also began to offer opinion-laden public affairs programming on television with a recurring slate of combatants who would reliably disagree with more personality than was typical of other news-based content of the time, though still in a far more respectful manner than is characteristic in similar formats in the outrage era.”

Outrage-industryIt is an interesting essay by Berry and Sobieraj — a chapter from their book — though I might demur from some of its assertions… e.g. that there was not an Outrage Industry in earlier eras.  One has only to look at the almost uniformly noxious press that fomented treason in the South before the Civil War. (Newspapers that drifted from the Slave-o-crats’ party line were burned.  Indeed, the principal complaint and grievance mentioned in nearly all documents declaring secession was fury over the stubborn refusal of Northern states to quell freedom of press and close down abolitionist papers.)

Other periods saw the swell and fume of “yellow journalism”  that stoked bitter rage and stymied sober debate. Indeed, one of these intervals encompassed the first two decades of the American Republic.

Still, the authors’ point is well-made. We boomers grew up in a golden age of journalism that, ironically, was undermined by the generally wondrous advances in electronic media that have freed us to wander out of the paternalistic firelight of journalist-professionals.  Inevitably, along with the good aspects (e.g. being able to research any topic independently and gather points of view from all over the globe) we have also seen wretched things like the consolidation of millions of rivetted followers, stoked on monochrome opinion and hate, via subsidized cable and radio “news.” Systems that create, in effect diatribe-based  “nuremberg rallies”. Given the addictive allure of indignation — and freed from any Fairness Doctrine requirement to show all sides — we had all the ingredients for a genuine plague of outrage.

Have a look and then grasp that this destruction of adult discourse in the United States was almost entirely deliberate, sabotaging the political negotiation and problem-solving systems that had served the republic for two centuries.  There is no clearer case of treason.

== A case in point ==

NeoConservativeDavid Frum is far from the cleverest of the high-IQ-but-dingbat students of Leo Strauss who came to be known as “neo-cons” in the late 1990s and early 2000s,  members of an arrogant-triumphalist wing of conservatism who thought they ruled the roost, amid the dawning years of the George W. Bush presidency. In those heady times, especially right after the events of 9/11 filled them with a bracing sense of mission and empowerment, men like Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Nitze, Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman concocted grand rationalizations for why America should rush to do what it had sworn never to do again, after Vietnam — plunging into vast, decadal, land-wars of insurgency in Asia. Two such wars, pouring arterial gushers of national wealth, prestige, honor and lives into distant desert sands. Wars that left the battlefield s owned by bitter foes of the U.S.

It was the coterie of neocons who provided grand, Straussian incantations, proclaiming for America a sense of imperial mission — not the mild-consensus Pax Americana designed by Marshall, Acheson, Truman and Eisenhower, but an aggressively-resolute, romanesque imperium, unashamedly applying Manichaean power to transform the world any way their dear leader – George Bush – desired.

And if those lunges into middle-eastern quicksand happened to be exactly what Osama bin Laden and every enemy of the U.S. wanted us to do? Especially a certain petro-kingdom whose influence over the Dear Leader was near-total, and who also provided most of the 9/11 attackers?  No matter.  It is a tragedy of human existence that (as we also saw among the communists) high IQs and the ability to craft polysyllabic conjurations offer no protection against irony.

neoconservatives-steinfelIt can be hard to look back a whole ten years or more to the heyday and then sudden collapse of neoconservatism, but in retrospect we can see it as a shining era for the last intellectuals of the American Right. At last, they had their revenge upon those Che-tee-shirt-wearing leftist students who had trashed their offices and driven them away from real universities, into the welcoming arms of faux-academies like Heritage… where they willingly crafted whatever rationalizations that were asked of them.  In those heady times, they could ignore the grave spinning of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, as every principle of true, erudite conservatism was handily reversed.

Sic transit gloria. By 2004, the neocons had been tossed aside like used tissue, as their nerdiness grew vexing to Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch. Verbose concoctions — even crazy ones — no longer fit the narrative that all smartypants types are enemies. From scientists to teachers, medical doctors, journalists, economists, civil servants, law professionals, skilled labor, professors… name one exception… the populist, know-nothing theme on Fox and Right-Radio became hate all elites except the rich.  And yes, that applied even to intellectual courtesans of the no-longer “neo” right. Most of whom slunk away into obscurity, once more —

— but not David Frum, who has spent recent years inveighing against the lobotomization of his movement.  Far from converting to liberalism, Frum has been among those on the American right with the guts to stand up to Rupert Murdoch, joining others at The American Conservative in appraising what went wrong, how it all got hijacked, and how to rescue something from the murdochian flames.

left-right-war-ideasFrum’s latest sally is interesting, an appeal for the reader to look back to the roots of the “left-right” axis and terms like “liberal” and “conservative. In particular, he points to the debates between English parliamentarian Edmund Burke and Anglo-American polemicist Thomas Paine. Frum argues that gradually (I would say recently, and in large part because of the neocons) the entire meaning of Conservatism has undergone a process of reversal, so that many of the virtues professed by Burke are now rejected utterly, in Tea Party America.

I do not endorse all… or even most … of the insights offered by Mr. Frum.  But I found them interesting and a welcome (if brief) look back to days when “conservative” and “intellect” weren’t antonyms.

== Conservative media in turmoil ==

Continuing on this… I oft remark that Arizona and New York are drawing copious electricity from coils arranged around the spinning in the graves of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley Jr., both of whom growled and denounced the trends that were hijacking their beloved — (and once-upon-a-time intellectual) — movement.  Now it seems that New York can crank up their power draw a bit…

“The National Review magazine, longstanding house news organ of the establishment right, is facing a lawsuit that could shutter the publication (originally founded by Buckley with money he inherited) permanently. According to The Week, a suit by a climate scientist threatens to bankrupt the already financially shaky publication and its website, the National Review Online (NRO).”

So are we stuck with Fox News to represent the undead, were-thing that has taken over the American right?

The_American_Conservative,_July_2012_issueAs I mentioned above, have a look at the manifesto of The American Conservative, a journal that appears to be trying hard to resurrect the notion of a US conservative movement that argues constructively with their liberal neighbors, without kowtowing to a far right that is controlled by plutocrats and worshippers of aristocracy.

TAC will not be a liberal’s cup of tea! Indeed, it still lapses often into rants that betray its roots in a co-founder… one Patrick Buchanon. I do not promise more than one article in ten will rise above baloney.  But even that ratio ‘be a blessing,’ nowadays… and some of you, propelled (as I am) by curiosity and a desire to hear all sides, will drop in, now and then.

There are embers and glimmers of sanity among our neighbors over there!  Don’t denigrate.  Help our “ostrich conservative” friends and neighbors to lift their heads and gradually move away from Fox-induced mania. Help fan the flames of a rebellion against the monsters who have hijacked the once intellectually cogent movement of Buckley and Goldwater.

== Some final political snippets ==

A fascinating discussion of how the rapidly changing Arctic will provoke a cascade of secondary effects, from conflicts over resources in the Arctic Shelf to shipping changes to the release of trillions of pounds of methane from melting permafrost.  There are no Naval officers who deny climate change. All are aware that conservatism no longer connects to our strategic needs at any points of overlap.

righteous-mind-haidtJonathan Haidt, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, best known for his “moral foundations” theory,  has applied science to  appraising why differences in personality and choice of moral foundations affect the more superficial political leanings of liberals, conservatives and libertarians.  It’s actually quite fascinating and sufficiently neutral that most liberals and conservatives nod and say “yeah, that’s me.”

Welcome to the future?  “Businesses and economic elites in developing countries left frustrated by incompetent police, clogged courts and hopelessly overburdened judges and prosecutors are increasingly circumventing these systems and buying their own protection. In India in late 2010 the private security industry already employed more than 5.5 million people — roughly four times the size of the entire Indian police force. A 2009 World Bank report showed roughly the same ratio in Kenya. The largest employer in all of Africa is a private security firm, Group4Securicor, and in Guatemala, private security forces outnumber public police 7 to 1.”

Do we want that for our world?


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