Monday, October 5, 2009

The recurrence of the “gramophone mind”

I may be “biased”. I admit. But that gives me a better reason for writing this post. So please, bear with me for a while.

I’m sure most are well familiar with the concept of socialization: the process through which one acquires the norms within their culture through social institutions. Well, this process does not only include family and friends, but also the educational system, the media, the political system, etc… and it was only last week that we discussed the significance of the media in “shaping us.”

As much as it is true, it is also very worrisome. I’m sure the stereotype of the “assembly-line-produced Soviet person, who is not even an individual per se” is still well-stuck with many, just as the case of the “madrasah-idoctrinated zealots out there.” Well, these images may carry some degree of truth, especially when we consider the circumstances in which these “non-individuals” were “produced” by their respective systems.

Yet, as much as we would not like to think of it, a similar tendency seems to persist – though in a significantly different form – in most of the “developed world” today, and both, McChesney and Thussu attest to that. Isn’t a prevailing standardized message, centered primarily on entertainment and driven by sensationalism a threat to societies which hold their diversity and liberties dear? How different is then McChesney’s “populace that prefers personal consumption to social understanding and activity,” or a “depoliticized citizenry… [which is a] mass more likely to take orders than to act,” from the (hopefully) obsolete images mentioned above?

Orwell’s “never-published” preface to the Animal Farm makes this point precisely (So what if he was talking about WW2 Britain? The piece still makes a lot of sense, today). To quote him directly: “Unpopular ideas can be silenced and inconvenient facts kept dark without the need for any official ban.” It’s all about mainstream public opinion, and the unwillingness to go against it.

Not so? What if “national security” is at stake? Well, at Orwell’s time the wording was a little different: democracy was the principle of the day. “If one loves democracy […] one must crush its enemies by no matter what means […] [even if that] involves destroying all independence of thought.” Don’t we see that happening now? Especially after 9/11…

Yes, much has been written and said about the politics of fear. Or rather, we heard the part that was generally tolerated. Yet, there was a part that was not. For example, none of the American TV networks would air Adam Curtis’ “The Power of Nightmares”. Too controversial? Yes. And although a little over-stretched at times, it still makes a very strong point, which could have been regarded as just another prominent political-historical documentary had it provided an acceptable perspective. But apparently it was too unorthodox. (By the way, I really recommend watching it. Just for fun.)

The problem is kind of similar in the case of Al Jazeera or any other non-Western TV network (especially when it comes to news). They are extremists, terrorists, communists, nationalists, fundamentalists… you name it! Why? Well, they are simply talking in their own terms: something that becomes increasingly unacceptable by the mainstream. However, given that there are practically no true media contra-flows, the mainstream in the West becomes the mainstream everywhere else, too. Gradually.

Improvement and progress cannot happen without the realization and a true acceptance of a problem. While without the freedom and room for “unorthodox” ideas, the true realization may never come in the first place. Just as Orwell put it: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Well, the American officials are increasingly trying to open up to the world and understand where the problems in their approaches lie (just today I attended a panel discussion on the subject). And yet, at a larger scale, they do not have much influence even over their own public opinion, precisely because they do not have any power over the profit-driven transnational media corporations. Free journalism, which supposedly had to perform the role of the “unorthodox thinker” and of the true “agenda-setter,” is now completely distorted by the commercial, 24-hour “breaking news” and “get-it-the-first” cycle, allowing no room for any substantial analysis, debate, or the “unorthodoxy” that would kick-start a change for the better. Cannot resist quoting Orwell here, again: “The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”

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