Monday, June 21, 2010

I Don’t Believe It Anymore I’m Not Pretending I Do

This has been developing over the last several months.

When I sat down to write this post it was going to be about another story in today’s paper about a teenager being tormented by bullies in her school. As that piece was forming itself on the screen, details about the campaign of terror waged against one child, I changed my mind.

I decided to say instead, I just don’t believe it anymore. I believe that child’s oppression is the result of what her oppressors think and where they learned that from. And I think it’s clear where some of it comes from. Their behavior is the result of it.

I don’t believe the predominant dogma of media libertarianism, I won’t fall for it anymore. I don’t believe that we have to be fair to malignant media or its producers or those who sell it or even those who consume it. I don’t believe they deserve it, they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt anymore. I’m not going to be their stooge or carry their water. I don’t believe that liberalism and a decent life can survive in a society that gives media carrying malignant content an absolutely free rein.

When you let just anything into the media stream you’re going to get seductive violent, sexist, hateful crap that will be seen by children and others who will learn to be twisted, mean, selfish, sociopathic units of consumption instead of people you would want to encounter. Not people you’d want to meet in person, not even on the other end of the telephone line or processing your online order. Even more troubling to think about, would you want the enemies of your children, or a potentially very violent school mate who they might not even know, to have their minds informed by the worst of media? Because they could very likely have that last one now.

And what’s true for you, as an adult, it is many times more true for your children and other children.

The clear fact that different media has different effects and so probably shouldn’t be considered the same kind of thing as a printed text, didn’t occur to me until sometime in the 1980s when someone told me that a couple in town habitually watched porn videos with their children in the room with them. I didn’t make the connection between having a machine to show movies in your house with it becoming not only possible to watch the most depraved forms of pornography and violence with the youngest children, but that, inevitably, it would often be done. I did know that none of the children in that family was older than ten and that they went to school with my nieces and nephews. Consider that. YOU might just turn it off, you might protect your children from the effects of the worst the entertainment industry offers but they almost certainly will be in school with children who have been imbibing it since they were in diapers. Would you want the friends of your children, their boyfriends, girlfriends to have their minds formed by the worst of media? Because that’s the situation we’re in now thanks to technology mixed with media libertarianism.

They are in your children’s schools, your children won’t be able to avoid them. And, don’t lie to yourselves, the chances are you children will be seeing the same commercial depravity that those young horrors are, if not in your home while you’re assuming they’re doing their homework online or in their friends’ homes.

You might want to listen to this interview with Nancy Carlsson-Paige about the effects of media on young children. In a piece she wrote with Diane E. Levin they point out some really horrific facts:

Children in the United States are swimming in a culture of violence which has its effects from subtle to deadly on every child. The violence comes in many forms--family abuse, violence on the streets, in the community, violence in the news. Every 10 seconds a child in this country is abused or neglected. Every 2 hours a child is killed by a firearm.

And then there is entertainment violence--every child's automatic membership in a media-saturated, popular culture that glorifies violence through images, actions, and models marketed to children via television, toys and other products, videos, video games, and Hollywood films. On television alone, children see 32 acts of violence every hour and over 1,000 murders a year. Teachers and researchers have been warning for more than a decade that this violent culture marketed to children has harmful effects, both in the present and for the long term.

I have pointed out a number of times, elsewhere, that between three and four women a day are murdered in the United States because they are women. It’s been stated that this is a lynching campaign against women, a terror campaign that kills many and robs all women of their full freedom. Media that feeds social misogyny encourages that violence. And we see the same campaign against children. Twelve children a day killed by firearms, I haven’t read enough yet to make any parallel to lynching but it is clearly a disaster that is killing more than 4,300 children a year. It’s not hard to imagine that the psychological effects on the rest of children can’t be good. And their turning 18 isn’t going to fix that.

The pretense of media libertarianism that began in the 1950s was that the product an unrestricted media would bring would be innocuous, that “studies showed” there wasn’t a correlation between media violence and violence in society. I won’t go into the character of those “studies” except to say they were junk science. And the media didn’t even believe it themselves. We’ve noted here before that the line of “no effect” wasn’t the same one they were selling to advertisers the entire time as they touted the ability of media to influence behavior. But all that was in a much different media. TV was under content codes, there were no home videos or computers. About the only thing that is the same is print and that was regulated for content too, especially graphic content.

I just don’t believe it anymore, I’m not willing to pretend I do. We live in a country where the Supreme Court has declared that the protection of children isn’t a greater interest than the entertainment of adults. The highest authorities in our country have abdicated adult responsibility on behalf of commercial media and its distributors. And in the name of freedom. Burning the village to save the village wasn’t a more ironic concept. In that, I think the judicial system has adopted and extended the same two ended lie that the media libertarians were pushing. Only they are embedding it into the law of the land. The rest of government is lying right along with them.

I especially don’t believe that there is any rational reason that a distinction can’t be made between text and photography and video and live performance. The founding fathers might have been ignorant of the potential differences, in 2010 there is no excuse for us to pretend we don’t know that.

Liberalism has been declining the entire time that media libertarianism has been rising. That isn’t any kind of paradox unless you mistook the reason for liberalism to ever have existed to begin with. Liberalism has been twisted into libertarianism along the way. The seductive message of liberty on behalf of Ulysses and other great works of fiction have made liberals forget that their purpose isn’t to be impartial. It made liberals forget that they have no business suspending judgement. The purpose of liberalism is to promote ends, it is to push an agenda and to oppose forces in the media that oppose that agenda. Equality, a decent peaceful life, an informed electorate, and a host of other benefits to the world are the real goal of liberalism. That’s what I still believe in. And pretending it was wrong for us to make distinctions even among books (which have no inherent rights) was among the stupidest acts of capitulation in this decline. Putting Last Exit to Brooklyn on public library shelves was never any serious concern of real liberals. The message of the book is hardly a promotion of womens’ rights, equality or anything positive. The content makes it entirely different from information about contraception and gender equality and safer sex or sex in the context of mutual respect and affection. It is possible to distinguish the necessary from the malignant, the positive from the oppressive. They should have let the illiberal junk fight it out on its own.

I don’t believe that all media is equal or that it should all be treated the same way. I believe that liberalism that has adopted media or corporate libertarianism has ceased to be liberal. I’m not buying those transparent libertarian lies anymore. I think it’s possible to make distinctions between malignant media and media that isn’t, I think that if we ever want a decent society it is necessary to come up with the processes for doing that while protecting media that is beneficial. If it isn’t, we are doomed to becoming a species dominated by psychopaths.

Media that promotes the opposite of equality and treating people and the world decently should be opposed, it’s not the equal of media that promotes good, it appeals to the worst in us, the most selfish in us. It’s selfishness is seductive and gives it power that media promoting unselfishness will not have. It should be opposed.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Dangers of Pretending Politics Is A Geometric Construct

Our educations and what our culture teaches us are often useful and on occasion produce a good model of reality to manipulate and find further clarity. But what is presented can also be a really rotten model of reality and when it is over simplified or unrealistic and precludes a more realistic view of life, it can be extremely destructive. A lot of the modeling that we do is unconscious, the product of long habit and unconsidered acceptance of what we’ve been handed. From our earliest years we are taught to esteem this kind of model making and diagram drawing. Being good at it will get you good grades in school and a lot of approval. A lot of that paper and ruler work is for the production of simple lines derived from the alleged identification of two points on that line.

Consider the linear definition of political identity. The line from left to right*. In a recent, lighthearted blog discussion, which motivated this short post, people were trying to place themselves on that line.

I’m not going to go into how to place yourself on it, or to place other people on it I’m going to ask a different question altogether, one which, I suspect, will be very confusing because it challenges one of the most common automatic habits of thinking.

Why would anyone think that politics, among the most complex and dynamically changing of social, moral, geographic, cultural, and, in some rare cases, even rational, phenomena we commonly deal with, would fit into far less than just three dimensions is worth considering. And, I suspect, it’s a good beginning for considering one of the habits that are alleged to produce an understanding of complex reality when it only produces a deceptive and artificial form.

The idea that the analysis of politics could possibly be realistically squeezed into a two dimensional flatland entity and then compressed further, onto the simplest of one dimensional figures is rather obviously absurd. Just defining what one of the points that allegedly comprise political identity, a “position”, is at least as elusive as defining a subatomic particle. Placing that nebulous entity onto a line in order to compare it to other points on the line is an activity that is most likely to lead away from precision and clarity, not to it. And those are the mere positions. If there is anything obvious about people’s lives and minds, the actual beginning and substance of politics, we aren’t those artificial, nonexisting entities, POINTS in space.

This habit of drawing geometric figures on paper and thinking we’ve gotten complex phenomena nailed down is absurd. It only kinda works for very simple and well defined things. Even defined by two or more coordinates in a plane or in three dimensional space you won’t find even the most simple person. None of us are points in any kind of space.

I suspect that this habit of trying to reduce very complex entities and phenomena in order to analyze them is a relic of our intellectual history. In order to generalize about the physical world we’ve been making representations of it since before Pythagoras. And for very simple physical phenomena it has worked reasonably well. That success has led us to the habit of assuming that success, that ability to find reliable truth about these simple, physical phenomena, was transferable to all of reality. But that ignores that the success was due to the ability to capture enough of the essential information about those phenomena in the model. You can move a shape around in space and assume the same geometric descriptions will match, but only as long as the shape remains exactly the same. Plane geometry is a set of assumptions about a range of different shapes just as more complex mathematics dealing with space is a collection about more complex entities. And, least anyone forget, the forms of pure mathematics aren’t actually there. People are hardly the same kinds of entities. We are far, far more complex than the most complex forms that mathematics can deal with and far more variable, containing contrasting and often contradictory ideas, many of those seemingly paradoxical. Our societies, comprised of many different people interacting over time, might be even more complex. And it is that human, social “space” that the analogues for points and lines in politics would be found, none of them one dimensional.

In some other reading I’ve been doing , there was this interesting passage from the mathematician Ruben Hersh

The aspects of the cosmos studied in physics yield to mathematical analysis. That's far from saying the cosmos is altogether mathematical. There can be no basis for such a statement except religious faith. But it's a familiar human tendency to think that what we don't know must look a lot like what we do know. This is a good principle for guiding scientific research. It's not credible as a philosophical principle.

I think a good part of the post-enlightenment cultural tradition has been a struggle between those who try to force overly-complex realities into a tight geometric form, ignoring much of the most exigent issues of reality in order to do that and those who reject that habit. In its most absurdly and dogmatic reductive stands it denies those fully experienced issues and denies the part they play in some of the most important and at times dangerous activities people engage in. Officially, the reductionists have been the winners, but reality doesn’t depend on who was given the gold star in that struggle.

Elsewhere in the same piece, Hersh says this in response to a statement by Martin Gardner:

“For this reason, he places great importance on the uncertainty of mathematics”, Martin Gardner

No, not for this reason. The reason the uncertainty of mathematics is so important is that for centuries the search for certainty in both mathematics and religion has been a major motive for Platonism, or, as Gardner prefers to call it, realism.

I was looking into Gardner’s** and his associates work for several years before his recent death and what struck me most is how they seemed to want to relax into a position of easy certainty. Anything that upset that relaxing equilibrium of post-war intellectual culture would motivate him to exert his, admittedly, brilliant, though not always honest, mind to restore his balance. And Gardner was the best of them. But in that, he was anything but a brave and bold questioner of his local orthodoxy, he was one of its most esteemed pillars. Even well informed people like to pigeon hole things in order to ignore them. But that certainly isn’t what is going to save us, the ease which we can lull ourselves into isn’t going to last for eternity like the imagined forms of pure mathematics are alleged to.

I think that search for certainty, in at least a form that can be published in scholarly publications and withstand the competitive professional struggle which that form of political activity lives on, is what leads us into a myriad of false assumptions about reality, constructing an artificial intellectual universe that isn’t a good model of real life. And I think it is one of the major contributing factors in the failure of our political institutions as well as others. That certainty isn’t there, it’s never going to be there, people and societies, the biosphere and the nonliving physical basis of those aren’t comprised of static forms lying outside of time. The extent to which a political system or a philosophy denies the reality of real life the more you can expect bad results from it.

It’s no coincidence that demagogues and fascists are among those who draw the simplest pictures of political reality. As seen in the Tea Party phenomenon, the people listening to them don’t care that those pictures aren’t real. When presented with the most solid of evidence that those positions are lies, that doesn’t matter to them. As long as the person lying to them is believed to occupy the same point they put themselves on the line of political identity, anything they say suffices. They relax into a false certainty and the most awful things result. And in that, we can see the dangers of these well esteemed habits of extreme reduction and analysis don’t just produce good results.

* I plead as guilty as anyone to doing that, to making reference to that phony line as a lie of convenience in trying to get other ideas across. I’m trying to break the habit and find new ways to talk about it, but doing that and getting people to understand your point isn’t easy.

** I regret that Gardner died just as some of that research was leading to conclusions that are important. But he never let up on the people he attacked because they had died and couldn’t answer him, so I don’t have any qualms about criticizing him on that basis.

Cross posted: at Echidne of the Snakes