Sunday, September 27, 2009

Democracy in peril?

As Aldous Huxley very rightly put in his Brave New World: “Words can be like X-rays. If you use them properly, they'll go through anything.” I find this a fair illustration of the significant role that language plays in the transfer of ideas and in shaping the society, the culture, and… the entire world we live in. So, should an unregulated flow of words and media products – ultimately, ideas – be allowed, given all their power and influence over people, who then (attempt to) decide how things function? This question becomes even more significant when put into the modern-world context: we see a “chicken or the egg”-type debate about media content and gradually shifting patterns of demand.

Siochrú and Girard point out that media products are special because they are essentially the tools of “society production.” In order not to get back to the discussion of the media shaping identities, suffice it to say that their statement is in itself a powerful argument for a cautious regulation of the media market, especially as it is increasingly privatized and taken over by commercial interests.

A free media market essentially implies equilibrium. This can work perfectly well… in theory. In reality, many times people forget to ask about how that market demand is created. A second question that needs to be urgently addressed is whether, given the above-mentioned special status of the media products, the mega-corporations should be given the unlimited freedom to create that demand. I see the matter as an ethical issue (especially when it comes to news reporting and journalism), unless, of course, the sole acceptable morality is that of profit-maximization and instant gratification.

The traditional “mainstream” approach in the US seems to have been very critical of the European (as well as other governments’) attempts to regulate or, at least, carefully monitor the media market. Well, perhaps justly so. After all, a true democracy cannot function without freedom of speech and a free flow of information. However, I still find it hard to understand how a system that took such great care to create a meticulous structure of checks and balances can be inclined to completely overlook a fundamental threat to its very existence. With the increasing trend of privatization and liberalization of the media markets, which gave way to the rise of the large transnational media empires, the very democracy that freedom is supposed to facilitate is being jeopardized, as the corporations start to acquire and exert political influence.

Yet, their influence – acquired through large profits channeled into active lobbying and “support” campaigns, in expectation of favorable policies and treatment – is not limited to the political sphere. It is no secret that media ownership affects content and that through carefully directed programming, media companies can potentially cultivate the demand for specific “products”, create and promote ideas and social movements, and even kick-start revolutions. The first example that jumps to the mind is the claim made by the Iranian regime about the June presidential election. However, why go there? Let’s look at the US and Obama’s healthcare plan debacle.

Of course, Al-Jazeera, being the channel that it is, is NOT unbiased, but still it provides a very good alternative insight into the recent 9/12 demonstrations and the role Fox News played in all that. Needless to mention, of course, that Fox is one of the central pillars of Murdoch’s empire, and that there is absolutely no coincidence in the fact that he had recently begun voicing his concerns about Obama’s approach to the economy, calling him “dangerous.”

Freedom of speech and information, whether in the national realm or in the global sphere, was meant to serve as a vehicle to ensure plurality and diversity of opinions, as well as best possible access to the best possible information. Being fundamental to democracy, these were also supposed to improve governance AND effectively check the government’s power. Thus, the media were meant to be the “domain of information” and supposedly assumed the responsibility to act as the fourth estate, in the public’s best interest. And yet, the recent trends of conglomeration, privatization, and deregulation have resulted in a situation of decreased competition and domination by aggressively profit-driven corporations that gradually become the very power that was meant to be contained. And so it happens that by “using the words properly” the transnational media corporations are spinning the idea of freedom to serve their own ends, defeating the very purpose of the much-cherished First Amendment.

Did you know?

An interesting summary of many facts on the Info Revolution: co-produced by XPLANE and the Economist.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Globalization and Realism

It is funny how ideas and paradigms get their names and retain them, even after becoming supposedly “out-of-date.” A perfect example would be Realism, which, despite being dismissed as obsolete, still retains its name and its sense as the most “down-to-Earth” and “assumption-less” approach to analyzing affairs. With the emergence of all the complexities of the globalizing world, particularly, Realism might provide a very limited view on the “real” state of things. But when circumstances get down to the “real” things that really matter, no one can deny that self-interests and cost-benefit calculations are the ultimate determinants of decision outcomes. I see this idea as the very essence of the arguments pushed by globalization pessimists, who view globalization as perpetuating the existent inequities, while the “agents of change” as pursuing ulterior motives. In a sense, they are right, as there can be no development or progress unless there are substantial incentives driving those, particularly if they involve large costs. Multinational corporations are trying to maneuver the international space looking for profit maximization, and it is only rational of them to pursue their goals in a Realist manner. The same can be said about states, with a slight change in wording: substitute “profit maximization” with “national objectives.”

That said, it is important to note the OVERALL outcome. Globalization that brings with it the intensification of resource flows and a greater interdependence of nations can ultimately result in an increase in general output: i.e. overall increase in affluence and in the standard of living. What is more, one cannot overlook the fact that the more the states are economically interdependent, the less willing they will be to engage in any conflict, which, in turn, can lead to further stabilization and sustainable economic and political development (even in cases where the interstate, or the state-corporation relationship is regarded as asymmetric). Therefore, potentially, globalization can bring the greatest benefit to most people, and all the readings this week touched upon this matter in one way or another.

Nevertheless, they also pointed out the fact that the benefits are not as equitably distributed as most of us would like to hope, which gives further ground to the pessimists. Even more relevant in this matter is the fact that the nation state seems to be among those to lose out most in the globalization process, as its sovereignty and self-determination are gradually eaten away by the post-modern tendencies. Together, the groups that fall behind in this intense global competition (be it on the international, national, or sub-national level) can present viable evidence to prove the selective advantages of globalization and its deficiencies. And certainly, the Marxist argument of “the rich exploiting the poor” is ever present in any such talk, be it concerning nation-states, or MNCs. Perhaps it may sound rudimentary, but one only needs to look at the current international sphere to see that these arguments might really be making a GOOD point. International structures such as the G8 and G20, despite all their altruistic mission statements, are essentially serving the interests of the select few – those who are IN the club – and even if the attainment of their goals might involve the development of the other parts of the world (well, being interdependent will allow more international stability and better business), they are still motivated by their very same self-interests. Fair enough. But that is where Morgenthau and Realism come creeping back in.

And yet, the end result should not be overlooked. Development and “progress,” especially on a global scale, can take many decades, if not centuries, to achieve and instant gratification is not something one should expect. Even if all the “agents of change” are ultimately driven by their self-interests, they can still play a significant role in dragging the “laggers” along. It is then up to these laggers to make sure they are included in the process, by proving their potential and getting involved – sufficiently and on time – instead of merely complaining and waiting for benevolence. If one looks at world affairs as a game, then there are rules by which it is played, and each player should make the most out of them, apparently, without expectations of altruism from others...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A new era for nationalism?

Diversity is one of the “virtues” of post-modernism, many would claim. We LIKE celebrating diversity, hoping that a clearer understanding of each culture’s idiosyncrasies will help to bring us closer and reduce the probability of conflict (or, at least, intense conflict).

To a degree, it might be true. But my personal experience tells me that the actual “celebration of diversity” can often lead to the very opposite: re-emphasis of the differences. This can be easily observed at International Festivals/Fairs, just to give an example. Although there are many nations and/or cultures presenting their “specialties”, each one of them goes out of its way to make sure theirs are better than the others', particularly if there are “historical enemies” (internal, external, imperial, etc…) among them. The banal objective of the event is to boast about the “harmony” of so many representatives of different backgrounds within that institution (be it a university, an organization, or a country), but inevitably it leads to a break in that harmony – even if only temporary – as each group goes searching for that which separates them from “the others”.

Interestingly enough, I found this phenomenon in line with what Weaver had suggested (last week’s readings): the idea that one understands and learns more about their own culture through interaction with others. I see this usually happening when people leave their country/culture, as they find themselves in an alien environment and try to define their own identity based on the differences from others that they can recognize. Indeed, it is very difficult to understand, know, and appreciate your own culture while you are immersed in it, as you take it for granted (Weaver). Coming back to the international fair example: the event allows one to ponder more on what is that defines the identity of their country/culture, and makes them emphasize that difference, not bringing them closer to the others, but rather taking them further away.

This theme is ever-present in the nationalism-diaspora discussions, as diasporas have become the space where nationalism (and should I say, chauvinism) is pretty much intact, and is even encouraged, while the “homeland” nation-state (if such exists) undergoes the transformations Castells referred to. They LIVE among “the others”, experiencing the differences between cultures on a day-to-day basis, which constantly reminds them of the need to focus on these differences, in case they wish to retain their identity. These communities are much more “imagined” than the territorial nation-state-based communities, as they do not have the degree of formal institutions for “socialization” that are usually available within the nation state. Thus, they keep emphasizing the “mythical” and idealized image of their homeland, which at times results in cultural rigidity and distortion of the real “essence” of the homeland (i.e. of what it has become over the years they were away), at least among the core members of the community.

Over time, this causes a break between the diasphoric community and the homeland, as each one develops separately, and as interests and understanding of “the national objectives” begin to diverge. This is particularly so, when the diasphoric community(ies) have the ability to exert any palpable influence over international affairs, without serious regard as to what is the perspective of the homeland. This is clearly evident in the case of my own “nation”. The Armenian Diaspora has developed a significant political presence in many parts of the world, making the issue of the Armenian Genocide as CENTRAL to “Armenianness” (quite naturally: because it is the central pillar of their identity, and the major reason they ended up in such a big Diaspora in the first place). However, the government of the Armenian state has been trying to improve the relations with the Turkish state over the past couple of years, and is currently facing much more pressing issues, such as economic hardship or the problem of Nagorno Karabakh, which are not given sufficient importance by the mainstream Diasporan discourse. Rather, many in the Diaspora view the Armenian government and the Armenians of the homeland as “traitors”, which, in its turn, fuels their Diasphoric chauvinism further. And just as discussed in all of this week’s readings, the modern communication technologies make this “debate” more heated, and at times, extremist.

This relates to a third point that needs to be made. Although there have been so many arguments pointing out the declining relevance of the territorially-based nation-state, nationalism as an “imagined” phenomenon is still very much alive, as the craving for identity and a sense of community is a natural need for the human being (yes, we are social animals, and we want to live in our communities). Even if the nation state is slowly disintegrating, the ideas that held its community together are not, especially when the changes come too fast. Ideas and values take a long time to transform, and newly introduced ones require years, if not decades or centuries, to be internalized and accepted as their “own”. The modern media and IT have strongly accelerated the process of “modern idea dissemination” (multiculturalism, freedom, human rights, etc…); however, they do not allow the time required for the internalization of these ideas, resulting in an inevitable resistance from the “local” cultures. And when this resistance gathers up momentum and enough support, it starts its way towards a gradual relapse in the opposite direction: re-emphasis of their own “specific” cultural idiosyncrasies and, later, fundamentalism. Therefore, at least in the short-run, the rise of new communication technologies does not help to smooth the process of 'cultural globalization', but rather makes it more tumultuous by galvanizing nationalism in this sense.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Don’t let your mind fool you. Go with the senses…

I referred to cultural (neo-) imperialism in my first post. This time I would like to take my thoughts in a different direction and look back at the Soviet Union, and what the example can, potentially, show to an observer now.

Being “hegemonic” the USSR did, indeed, try to indoctrinate all the people living in its sphere of influence, and justifiably so: after all, there is no other way control can be effectively retained over a long period of time.

At first, though, control has to be established through aggressive means (be it military or not). Then, there is a pressing need to build a more or less functional economy, accompanied by, just as Gramsci suggested, building of schools, religious bodies, and an effective mass media to relay the message and the “right” culture.

The Soviet regime attempted to do exactly that. First, they had the Red Revolution, sweeping through Eurasia and slowly building up into an empire. Then, of course, the economic plans started to emerge, desperately trying to build some sort of a system that would function “union-wide.” This all was galvanized by the communist propaganda, creation of a Soviet educational system, and of course a religious institution of a kind (religious, yes; not ecclesiastic): religion – Communism; Gods – Marx, Engels; Prophets – Lenin and Stalin; clergy – The Party. And being a very modern religion, Communism made an active use of the modern media – radio and, later, TV – with the sole goal to opiate the very masses it claimed to be saving from the tentacles of religion. And just as the fundamental sociological principle of reality construction states (reinforced by many communication theorists), whatever they presented as symbolically real, eventually became real in its consequence, through psychological and cultural processes, as well as through socialization [i.e. indoctrination] and fear. Although the process was somewhat reversed, the symbols used as a representation for reality eventually became representations of the reality, to speak in Carey’s terms.

Too bad the USSR invested too much in the idea of foreign expansion and the fight of the “Evil Capitalists”, rather than successful internal reform early enough. The Secretaries of the Communist Party apparently had not read Gramsci closely enough; otherwise, they would not have missed the principle of pressing need to continually reproduce the process of communication hegemony, in order to ensure that the “periphery’s” interests are still in line with those of the ruling core in Moscow, and to minimize the probability of challenge. Instead, they were very haphazard in their “reforms”: changes were introduced inconsistently and over-cautiously, and could be withdrawn half-way through and followed by a period of hesitant repression of the very same reform. This process of freeze and thaw widened the cracks in the system, and once in power, Gorbachev made it worse.

Yes, it was not the only reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, but it was definitely among the major ones. The policies of glasnost and perestroika shattered the society (fundamentally based on coercion and oppression), and although they were supposedly intended as a reform for further extension of power, I could say they played a critical role in bringing down the Soviet system. In other words, the clergy of the religious institution gave up their monopoly of knowledge and their power to define reality, allowing alternative ideas to be considered as “legitimate”: self-determination, freedom of speech and association, openness, systemic reform… The periphery, meanwhile, did not lose the opportunity. Helped by the very same media that used to oppress them – radio and TV – as well as fuelled by the influx of these alternative ideas through Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (or VoA for that matter), the masses that had been alienated for so long stood up to challenge the empire and played into its demise.

Apparently, the Soviet regime failed to oversee a successful transformation of communication from “transmission” view, to that of a “ritual” and gave way as soon as the cracks got sufficiently wide.

This is just one example, which, I think, shows the importance of “ritual communication” in building a reliable foundation for a strong empire. Nowadays, we would like to believe there are no empires per se. Yet, no one can deny that there is a prevalent ideology [yes, take your pick: “Western,” “American,” “European,” “Capitalist,” “Protestant”…] forcefully spread throughout the world. The very ideas promoted by the so-called international organizations, international civil society, and universal human rights do a great job in terms of ritual communication to bring about a “global” culture. But they cannot be regarded as isolated from transmission communication, as eventually they extend control over time and space, just as in the Soviet example.

No matter how attractive the idea of “horizontal global communication” may sound, it inevitably results in a paradox. For some reason, the ideas accepted in this information flow are very culturally biased and do not seem to be showing real cultural sensitivity. And the result? We end up having the same dilemma all over again: “influence over” [i.e. control derived from universality of values] vs. “hostility” [an inevitable result when strong local cultures meet universality]. I’m still to see convincing proof that a truly “flat world” can actually exist…