Friday, December 9, 2016

Rendezvous with Uncertainty: On Post-Modern Politics

IN THE SO-CALLED MODERN ERA, things basically made sense. Despite frequent setbacks, technical dangers and brutal dictators most people believed in the possibility of a better future, in the idea of changing the world that was also changing us. But now we live in a post-modern world. And although that need not be a pejorative label, it does tend to emphasize uncertainty, spectacle, and even the chaotic.
    The term “post-modern” first came into use after World War II, referring to literature and art that took modern forms to their extremes. Since then, it has evolved into a general attitude toward society. Characterized by skepticism, it forces “authorities” and “their” institutions to defend themselves against charges that they are no longer relevant – or just ignorant. Does this sound familiar so far? On the plus side, that attitude helped bring down the Berlin Wall and sometimes puts experts and leaders in the hot seat. However, it also tends to challenge any strongly held belief.

Self-conscious and often self-contradictory, post-modernists tend to believe that truth is merely a perspective and nothing should be taken too seriously. The characteristic approach is ironic, emphasizing the doubleness in whatever is being expressed. One favorite grammatical device is quotation marks, either written or "air," reinforcing the idea that the words don’t mean what they seem. This expresses the defensive cultural logic of late-capitalism, and plays well into the schemes of media and political demagogues.
     Faced with machines that have made life more complicated and less secure, a vast amount of unsettling information, and an overwhelming variety of ephemeral “choices,” it is hardly surprising that people, especially the young, are no longer very impressed with much of anything. Their favorite media often revel in this sensibility and abandon the grand narrative approach once standard in novels. Although most commercial films continue to rely on the old linear formula – a hero overcoming obstacles to reach some obvious goal – few people actually believe in that scenario. Real life is so much more ambiguous and complex.
     At its extreme such an awareness can lead to disillusionment, nihilism, and a disabling narcissism that favors fads and raw power over ethics and any ideology. And these days narcissism no longer applies solely to “beautiful people” who can relate only to their own images. Narcissists can also be pseudo-intellectuals, calculating promoters, or self-absorbed rebels. Even more unsettling, they are ideally suited for success and power – callous climbers all too willing to sell themselves.
     In post-modern society, self-promotion is the ultimate form of work. It’s a state of affairs that, as we have just witnessed, can catapult a celebrity into power.
     In post-modern society the electronic media promote both chronic tension and cynical detachment. Most advertising implicitly suggests that appearances are what matter, while many of the programs reinforce an ironic distance, often winking that it’s just a put-on. And the news? An endless stream of largely trivial “facts.”
     What about truth? That’s the last thing we expect anymore.
     The technology of journalism has advanced more in the last decade than in the century before. Yet more and more, print, electronic and digital media fill time and space with self-serving advertorials and questionable news – increasingly fake –  often produced by hackers, PR firms and even governments. The race for circulation, clicks and audience shares has meanwhile placed a premium on titillation and superficiality, producing an ill-informed electorate.
     Journalistic professionalism and credibility are in free fall. Compounding the problem, corporate ownership and bottom line thinking mean that fewer responsible and trained journalists are available, especially to cover developments in foreign countries and remote locations. US television networks employ at least a third fewer correspondents than they did 25 years ago. Radio newsroom staffs shrank by 44 percent between 1994 and 2001, and foreign coverage by broadcast and cable networks has declined at least 70 percent since the 1980s.
     Newsroom staffs have also been slashed, unions have been forced to accept cuts, and the coverage has been dumbed down. More than 50,000 news industry employees, most of them newspaper journalists, lost their jobs in the first decade of the 21st Century. The result is that major stories go untold, and dire problems in many communities are ignored. It's sad to admit, but professionalism in reporting may be going the way of shortwave radios, fax machines, and the single-lens reflex camera.
     The inconvenient truth here is that there is no Constitutional guarantee that democracy will be fair, that people will be well or truthfully informed, or that the press will be competent.
     In fact, US society is currently experiencing a crisis of fact, leaving people with little to trust or believe. More and more they consume only information that reinforces their opinions. It's a vicious cycle, and many journalists aren’t helping. The first law of the profession today, as Alex Cockburn put it, is to "confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.”
     Thus far, the post-modern age has been characterized largely by fraud and scandal – questionable elections, corrupt leaders, fabricated accounting that devastates the savings of thousands, doped-up athletes, and plagiarized or phony news. Even scholars have been caught plagiarizing parts of their books. It became so common by 2007 that a peer-reviewed academic journal called Plagiary was launched. Its subtitle announced: Cross Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. One early investigation of whether student terms papers had been faked found that at least 30 percent of the papers submitted online had been plagiarized, at least in part.
     Another troubling development has been “photo illustration,” frequently involving fabrication of images using digital tools. It sounds like harmless fun, but given the power of images it has the potential to warp public perception in the service of biased or inaccurate stories.
     And how do the young get their news? Actually, many don’t bother, and those who do want to know what's happening don’t use print, or even radio and TV. They prefer handheld devices to surf online sources – many actually operated by think tanks and special interest groups that have figured out how to appeal to a mass audience.
     The emergence of “citizen journalism” and “new media” has reinforced the notion that professionalism is no longer essential, and maybe even part of the problem. The post-modern idea is that everyone can be a journalist, promoting "conversations" among equals as citizen reporters aggregate, edit and sometimes create their own news. The more options we have, goes the idea, the less control traditional media have over what is relevant – and the better offer we will be.
    But this presumes that professionalism no longer matters, and standards aren’t important. "New media” acknowledge few rules, but reliable reporting isn’t really so simple. For example, recognizing the difference between news, opinion, commentary and rumor can be a challenge. Serious journalists also try to cultivate skills like how to conduct fair and constructive interviews, how to find relevant and complete – not merely convenient – information, how to see various aspects of an issue, and how to convey what they find out clearly, efficiently and accurately. Without such skills, the public is vulnerable to distortions, biased reports, and blatant falsehoods.
     For all its benefits, the “blogosphere” has accelerated social fragmentation. Many blogs and Websites attract only like-minded people, creating a self-segregated news and information environment that serves the interests of extremists. It’s not so different from the partisanship that characterized the press in the early 19th Century. But this version is far more pervasive. As a result, truth and facts have become debatable and more difficult to define.
     Conflict drives the news cycle, with partisan sources and obsessive bloggers often shaping the narrative. This makes it more difficult for people to reach agreement or even have a civil discussion, and easier for opportunists to ignore or distort reality for the sake of pushing narratives and initiatives based on convenience or private interests.
     The result has been a loss of faith in almost everything, and an escapist mentality rooted in the belief that no meaningful change is possible. Popular culture feeds on this attitude, encouraging excess and striking poses while confusing commitment with fanaticism and "straight talk" with hate speech.
     Yet it's not all bad news. Along with skepticism comes re-awakened concern about the human condition and the planet’s health. The idea that “rational planning” provides all the answers is no longer so convincing, gone with notions such as “bigger is better” and nature is merely a resource to be conquered and exploited.
     In economics, the rigid approach to production known as Fordism, named for the man who brought us the assembly line and mass production using interchangeable parts, has given way to a more flexible, eclectic system emphasizing innovation and a post-industrial compression of time and space. The view that corporations and the global economy are only parts of a whole planetary system is slowly gaining traction.  
     As with most post-modern developments, however, there is a double edge. Re-engineering economics and work could lead to more worker-owned businesses, a renewed sense of community and environmental responsibility, and a groundswell against corporation domination. But it may simultaneously increase instability, turning even more people into contingent workers.
     Commenting on the implications, once presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy warned that post-modernism favors “fuzzy logic” and subjective impressions over rational arguments and clear thinking. It recognizes no absolutes, just degrees and disposable attitudes.
    “This predicament is not altogether reassuring,” McCarthy concluded, “as it may lead us to a state of ‘entropy,’ i.e., of randomness, chaos and disorder, with little basis for optimism as to what may result.”
     It has already given the US its first post-modern president. And that in turn opens the door for a right-wing cultural counterrevolution. Speaking on his own TV network years ago, Pat Robertson made the goal perfectly clear: “to mobilize Christians, one precinct at a time, one community at a time, one state at a time, until once again we are the head and not the tail, and at the top rather than at the bottom of our political system.”
     In a country founded on the principle of church-state separation, this may sound unlikely. But we should not be surprised that opportunists have seized the current chance to distort public debate and promote themselves as national saviors. Demagogues and evangelists have been doing this for generations. Not much has changed since the time of Father Coughlin or Joe McCarthy except the targets. Today it’s everything associated with multiculturalism, progressive politics and social justice. Fueled by Fox News and conservative powerhouses like the Koch brothers, they have mass marketed an extreme and paranoid ideology while immersing viewers in a false reality. Specious arguments and patent falsehoods are presented as history, biblical truth or scientific fact. Too often mainstream media let the avalanche of misinformation slide.
     An elaborate right-wing echo chamber has helped to create a distorted picture of contemporary reality that appeals to millions who feel insecure and hungry for clear and simple answers. In contrast, progressives have tended to put their faith in exposure. When enough people understand the extreme and illogical views of the Right, says this argument, their candidates will be rejected. Until recently, that felt like a good bet.
     But too many Americans, alienated and uncertain about their futures and the safety of their families and friends, are vulnerable to the politics of paranoia and blame. Bombarded with disinformation they have placed their faith and the planet's future in the hands of a gold-plated huckster who offers them slogans as answers and the illusive hope of a return to "greatness."
     Not very post-modern, and a recipe for even deeper disillusionment.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Land of the Blind: Everything is Connected

A Carlo Kostner Mystery
: Chapter Three :

IT MAY NOT be in the cards to finish this before moving on to a safer location. When I arrived – it feels like weeks ago but has actually been only days – Lucas said I could stay as long as necessary. But if someone wants to find me, it won’t take forever to figure out that I might call on an old friend, admittedly one with whom I had a very public falling out years ago.
     The association goes back even longer, more than thirty years, to when the three of us – Gene Montoya, Lucas Vega and yours truly – sometimes got stoned together, and, to a certain extent, shared an Aquarian dream. So did my first wife Miranda, a Native American princess and certified wacko, as well as the rest of the Coyote clan. But Gene was on a different road even then, a harder political track rather than our countercultural yellow brick road. 
      Lucas, being older and the one with real money, had the strongest sense of how he wanted to deal with the world. On his own terms.
     “We are at the center of the universe,” he proclaimed, then quickly stipulated, “Don’t laugh. What I mean is that our actions will spiral out and change everything.”
     In Lucas’ case the argument could be made that it wasn’t just bluster; his work was having a real world impact. The creator of a unique, organic architectural school that built on the philosophy of Louis Kahn – “to create a presence, consult nature,” he would say – Lucas Vega had fused design with ecology and attracted students to a remote sub-alpine workshop. By the time we met in the mid-seventies, just after I finished college, he was starting the next phase of his journey – visionary eccentric. Lucas was building an intentional community in the Southwest while promoting a radical agenda, a non-mechanistic vision of what it means to be part of a living whole. 
     “We are a body of humanity embedded in our living parent planet,” he said. I was always a sucker for great rhetoric and a Big Idea. Then again, he was right.
     The pitch was a bit abstract for Gene, even when he was high. Which wasn’t all that often. Speaking of drugs, it offended me, reading a GQ interview after the announcement of Gene’s presidential run, that he now claimed to be “the only person who didn’t get high during the hippie era.” It was an obvious attempt to erase his past and any association with the counterculture. 
     The remark was so Clintonesque that I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that he actually thought he could win the presidency. Very sad, considering how things worked out.
     The day we caught up at his campaign office I was feeling a bit nostalgic. Maybe it was because, on the way over, I had stopped at Lafayette Park to hear an anti-war presser and was somehow reminded of our original connection, the days when we were one for all and all for fighting elites. 
     Gene was getting closer by the day to the center of national power, and I was taking the reins of a media group with the potential to reach millions. So, maybe Lucas had it right, I thought. Our actions had spiraled out, and brought us here, and now presented the possibility of changing society. 
    Spokesmen for Veterans against the War, Grassroots America, and Act Now to End War and Racism – widely known as the Progressive Coalition – were talking about the failure of our latest imperial adventure, the domestic repression it had spawned, and, specifically, $40,000 in illegal postering fines. In the process, they decided to demonstrate the proper way to put up posters in a public place. Before they got far, the National Park Service sent in mounted police and a SWAT team to stop the demonstration and arrest the organizers. 
     As he was dragged away, the PC spokesperson shouted, “Now using wheat paste to put up posters is against the law. They’re criminalizing dissent!" 
     When I talked with Gene, the protest – and particularly the over-the-top response – was still on my mind. But Gene had no apparent interest in the travails of the anti-war movement. “It’s a sideshow,” he concluded dismissively. “Sure, I’m against the war. But you won’t change foreign policy or our role in the world with wheat paste.” 
     He looked like a candidate now – ramrod straight, perfect skin, immaculate suit, custom haircut – a very long way from his old self, a rumpled rebel with no fashion sense. Still, one of the first things I noticed on entering the office was his smile, broad yet not convincing, as if there was something going on just below the surface. Whatever it was, in our salad days he never would have bothered to hide it. Only the message was important then, that and The Movement. Any surrender to Form, any sort of slickness, was artificial, inherently bourgeois. 
     The first time we met we argued over precisely that point. My own view was that how you presented yourself, in other words the package, often determined whether people would even hear your message. Dark and defiant, with shaggy hair, worn out sneakers and torn jeans that road low on his hips, Gene dismissed the idea with a withering contempt.
     This was 1974, when Nixon was only months from resigning, and a group of us were invited to a meeting of students, campus leaders about to graduate from colleges and universities in California. The common thread was an interest in radically changing politics and the media. Of all the participants, convened by Wild Bill Masterson, a one-eyed independent filmmaker who had managed to sell most of us on his dream of establishing a new media empire in northern New Mexico, Gene seemed the least likely prospect. He was studying journalism but felt mostly contempt for its practitioners. His true obsession was monopoly control by huge corporations, a critique that sounded a bit too simple to me and hardly explained what to do about it. 
     But Wild Bill had something Gene wanted – people willing to buy into his vision, and Gene had something Bill needed – knowledge of the local terrain and plenty of contacts. He even had a site in mind for the project – a ghost town near Taos. 
     “You want to start an empire in a ghost town?” I was incredulous. “Does it even have electricity?”
     Gene didn’t hesitate to pounce. “That’s a racist statement. But what really bothers me is how uninformed you are for someone from one of the best schools in the country. It may be the boondocks for someone living in La-La Land, but there’s something going on there that isn’t happening in the rest of the country.”
     “What’s that?”
     “A people’s movement, amigo, a challenge to everything that’s wrong with the country.”
     “In a ghost town?”
     Bill tried to intercede. “Not there, Carlo, but in the general area. It’s being led by farmers and locals fighting a huge construction project.” 
      Gene finished the thought. “The Indian Camp Dam,” he explained. “It’s being pushed by a group of corporate fascists who operate through a front group, the Rancho del Rio Conservancy District. Stopping the dam, that's my priority.”
      It was the same way he sounded that day in his campaign office, spouting off about PIA and the other private military interests that were manipulating foreign affairs at the behest of corporate conspirators. As always, absolutely convinced about the righteousness of his stand, as well as the inevitability of victory in whatever struggle he took on. Yet blind to unintended consequences. This time he had seriously miscalculated. 
     As any investigative journalist ought to know, a good theory explains the available facts and cannot easily be contradicted. That’s why I was immediately skeptical about the announcement that my old friend Gene had committed suicide by poisoning himself with dioxin. The same toxin used on Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian President who was leading his country's opposition at the time of his exposure and discovered 1,000 times the normal amount of dioxin in his blood. Although his face was disfigured with chloracne Yushchenko survived and eventually became president anyway. 
     The amount ingested by Gene wasn't publicly revealed but it had to be considerably more. 
      Even harder to accept was that he ended his own life in the midst of a last-minute surge toward the presidency, and decided to do it with a chemical compound more likely to cause cancer, diabetes or long-term damage to the immune system. In other words, he couldn’t even be certain it would work. 
    The theory made no sense, as opposed to the idea that he was targeted, at the very least to be brought low by an attack that would prevent him from appearing in public during the rest of the campaign. 
     As for why, that was the easy part: he had become a threat to the wrong people. 
     Nevertheless, within 24 hours discussion of a possible assassination, accidental or otherwise, was ruled out and suicide became the consensus story, endlessly echoed on major media outlets, along with the suggestion that he had struggled with episodes of deep depression for many years. I found it about as convincing as the official story about the 9/11 attacks.
     Whatever you think about that, my point is that the official line didn't adequately explain all the available facts and was, to say the least, open to interpretation and challenge. Yet not even the Rose group’s talking heads wanted to go there.
     Lucas didn’t reject my analysis. But he was worried about my state of mind. I had arrived at his studio close to hysterics, more out of it than he had ever seen me, even after my break up with Miranda. Then I was young and overwrought, disillusioned about a failed marriage and a pointless job. This time I was a supposedly well-balanced, middle-aged and responsible executive. Yet I believed that some latter-day illuminati wanted me dead. 
     He listened patiently as I recapped the last few days, starting with Gene’s call shortly before he died, excited about his prospects for winning the race and eager to discuss his decision to publicly call for a halt to private military contracts. The issue was catching fire and the timing looked right, Gene said. The next day he was gone. 
     The day after that, as the first coat of whitewash was being applied to his untimely demise, I had to fly to Texas for the annual Rose Board of Directors meeting. That night I stopped at KLAP to appear on Against the Grain, a weekly show, and talked about my departed friend. 
     Just before going on the air, my mobile phone rang. The display showed a restricted number so I ignored it. During the interview I mentioned that Gene and I had talked at times, without saying how recently, and mentioned his concern about mercenary armies - without revealing his latest plan. 
     As I left the studio, I turned the phone back on to check for messages. The first voice, officious, cryptic, said that the Secret Service was sending a car and wanted to interview me as soon as possible. I never heard the next message. It was drowned out by the explosion, the sound of shattering glass and the screams of terrified volunteers. 
     “You think the two are connected,” asked Lucas after I finally reached his studio in a panic, “Gene’s death, the bombing at the station?” 
    “Are you high? He was going after guys with the best death squads in the world, not to mention the ability to monitor calls and figure out where we are. And I may be the last person who talked to him. Definitely not a coincidence.” 
    "So, are we safe here?"
    "Good question."

To be continued (when I know more..)

Sounds from the street