Of Spectators and Participants

spectatorsIn response to many questions years ago about the nature of postmodernism as a cultural era, I described it as the “Age of Participation,” for technology was making it possible for us to participate in culture in ways that were once impossible. As a young boy, I used play “bombs over Tokyo” with marbles in the back yard. We were about ten years downstream from World War II, so the name of the game was a reference to the war. When we were able to buy toy planes, we’d play the same game, but it took a great deal of imagination to actually put ourselves into such a game of good guys and bad guys.

Such it was with just about everything we did, from cowboys and indians to our little rubber models of Disney characters. It was all about making up some story and interacting with each others toys. Not so today.

Video games are so advanced today that the Armed Services actually use them as simulators to train the people who defend our freedoms, and this is what I mean about the Age of Participation. We are no longer forced into a spectator role in our games and entertainment; we can actually be a part of the experience, and this is only going to become more and more immersive.

But it’s way more than just games and entertainment. The Age of Participation will unfold as one in which free people are deeply connected and able to participate in a great many other walks of life. This is a staggering threat to our cultural status quo, which demands that the have-nots be spectators and not participants. It’s right out of the mind of social engineer and father of professional journalism, Walter Lippmann, who with his buddy Edward Bernays wrote the books on how respected intellectuals should run things for everybody else.

Bernays wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”

In his 1955 essay “Walter Lippmann and Democracy,” Herbert Aptheker refers to Lippmann as an “offended and frightened snob” to say such things as these:

“…there is no possibility that men can understand the whole process of social existence.” Forgetting “the limitations of men” has been our central error. Men cannot plan their future for “they are unable to imagine it” and they cannot manage a civilization, for “they are unable to understand it.” To think otherwise, to dare to believe that the people can and should govern themselves, that they can and should forge social systems and governments enhancing the pursuit of their happiness here on earth—this is “the gigantic heresy of an apostate generation…”

In writing about Lippmann, contemporary intellectual Noam Chomsky published the following insightful paragraph:

“The public must be put in its place,” Walter Lippmann wrote, so that we may “live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,” whose “function” is to be “interested spectators of action,” not participants. And if the state lacks the force to coerce and the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right thing, as respected intellectuals have been advising for many years.

As we look at the chaos of today’s election season, we would all do well to remember that the whole system needs the kind of reinvention that only an informed and involved public can produce. In this sense, I have hope that 2016 is a part of the forthcoming cleansing and not something to be feared, an awakening on many levels that we’re all tired of being led around by Chomsky’s “respected intellectuals” for their own benefit and not ours. This will require a different kind of education than what’s being discussed today, one that I view as inevitable so long as we are connected and able to share freely amongst ourselves.

I’ve written many times about historian Chris Lasch and his wonderful 1990 essay, “The Lost Art of Political Argument.” This lengthy essay is eye-opening, especially as it relates to Lippmann and Bernays, for Lasch makes the case that the fall in citizen participation in the political process in the US is directly tied to the rise in the professionalization of the press. Participants need argument; spectators need a view of the arena in which others play, and that has been the role of an elitist press for many years.

We need lessons on arguing a position instead of simply passing along memes that tickle our ears but were created by somebody else. That’s simply lazy.

  • Let’s argue and not inflame, knowing that those who wish only to inflame are playing us through our emotions and fears. The only people in this for us are us, and we need to resist the temptation to be conduits for somebody else’s gain. In politics, nobody speaks the truth, for truth is not the goal of politicians. It must, however, be ours.
  • Ad hominem attacks are never allowed. Following this simple rule alone would lower the decibel level considerably as we worked out our differences publicly. Sadly, those who are smart in the ways of marketing know how easily people fall for character attacks in the place of reasoned argument, which makes the American public complicit in the hubris and hyperbole coming from those they support.
  • Argument is not a dirty word. It’s just a noun. In Webster’s 1828 dictionary, the first definition reads like this: “A reason offered for or against a proposition, opinion, or measure; a reason offered in proof, to induce belief, or convince the mind; followed by for or against.” In other words, it’s simply stating your case with reasons. Too much of what we have today is the parroting of marketing or propaganda without reasoning, neither of which come close to Mr. Lasch’s use of the word “argument.”
  • Reasoning must be fact-based. Following this would be the most useful rule, because much of what we pass along today are emotional responses to triggers we “just know” we understand. This is useless in the creation of an argument, but it is so clearly satisfying to those resonate with the message solely on an emotional level. Smart marketers are able to use emotion in stating what they’re selling, and we all badly need to be educated about this trickery. Emotion is not to be confused with passion, for there is certainly a place for passion in the expressing of one’s argument. Those who argue that passion is the enemy of reason are blinded by their own arrogant convictions of rightness.
  • Facts from both sides in an argument must be on the table. This is why reason is so important to the art of argument, because the idea isn’t to blow the other guy’s facts off the table; it’s all about proving those facts to be otherwise. If that cannot be done, then your argument is weak, and this is why public debate is so useful. We’re all entitled to our opinions, propositions, and convictions, but unless we can state them in an argument, we run the risk of falsehood creeping into our consciousness.

The outcome of public debate will often depend on consensus, and we must be prepared to accept that, although we can always go back and hone our argument so as to make it more convincing. There is no appeal process. We accept and we move on. We take the matter up again the next time public debate brings it to the table in the process of our participatory culture. Nothing can be set in stone.

If we no longer wish to simply exist as manipulated spectators, then we must agree that participation involves a willingness to set our own wishes aside occasionally for the betterment of the whole. That means being prepared to listen along with stating our own case.

Call me idealistic, if you wish, but I don’t view the future through dystopian lenses. Life wants the human race to survive and thrive. I’m convinced that the explosiveness of the early twenty-first century is a necessary stage through which we all must pass, because as big as the world seems, it’s really just an island that we share in the midst of a vast and mostly dead universe.

We need each other. We really do.

Our neverending civil war

Let’s look at the Donald Trump phenomenon through a slightly different lens, shall we?

I’ve often written in describing postmodernism that horizontal connectivity makes impossible many axioms of modernity, and one of the most disruptive is that “in war, the victor gets to write the history.” As long as leaders are able to control the narrative, this is a fairly easy proposition. The American narrative, for example, is THE history of Pearl Harbor, unless you find yourself on a Japanese tour boat at the Honolulu memorial. There are thousands of other examples. The postmodern point is that the ability of people to cross formerly limited boundaries today makes controlling the narrative harder and harder. I view this as a good thing for humanity.


Take a moment to read this leaflet.

So let’s have a wee bit of fun with the idea of horizontal connectivity in the wake of the Civil War. American History wasn’t very kind to the Confederacy, and that remains the conventional narrative today. When the Union won, the north simply turned the page. After all, their position was judged “correct,” because they controlled the narrative as victors. Over time, however, the assumption of rightness takes its toll on intellect, because there is no controversy associated with their story. Hence, nobody argues, and so it goes.

But what about the people of the Confederate states? To them, edicts that came down from the Union – even generations later – do not carry the same weight, and it’s easy to imagine Facebook exchanges among the varying perspectives. A great many of the “defriendings” that take place in our little adventure are over these fundamental disagreements. Meanwhile, the positions of each side are solidified, as each group validates itself through common beliefs. In the South, no amount of righteous indignation from northerners is going to alter a core belief that “the South shall rise again.” The people may go along with what’s foisted upon them legally, but they’ll always do so reluctantly and teach their progeny what’s actually “right.”

You can see this being played out globally today, and it’s only just begun.

It’s like the boy who’s being punished by his father. “Sit down,” the old man screams, but the boy just stands there. Again, he shouts, “I said sit down!” The boy still refuses, so the father grabs him by the shoulders and forces him into the chair, to which the boy responds, “I’m sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.”

During all of this, the press assumes a position of recording history after the war, which includes the narrative of the victor. They fall into the trap of assumption that events that unfold in the wake of “victory” are natural and uncontroversial, and so opposite views become increasingly deviant and unnecessary points of view in reporting “the truth.” This is the case whether speaking of the Civil War or culture wars, which, by the way, are always started by the silk stockings, those who suffer from the deadly and relentless fear that they won’t get what they think they deserve or that someone is going to take away what they already have (See Stephen Prothero’s new book “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).”

Fast forward to today where we find a vast army of people who’ve been sitting down on the outside while watching the things they hold dear destroyed by the natural assumptions of those who’ve won the culture wars and controlled everything for too long. Their jobs and consequent lifestyles have disappeared. Their faith is ridiculed. They don’t like what their kids are being taught. They don’t feel safe in any real sense of the word. They hear the judgments of their ancestors from the teachings they were given long ago. They’re filled with rage against things outside their control and feel they’ve been enslaved by those with the power to dismiss them and diminish their humanity. They witness the unchallenged complaints of those who march along the assumptive narrative’s path and get all the news coverage. The tyranny of the minority opinion is given free reign – the war over “rights” no matter how far removed from their core beliefs – which produces even more rage over being taken for granted, because the enemy narrative continues to move farther and farther away from everything they know. Their suffering – and it is very real – is irrelevant, because it is judged deviant with regards to the developing history.

In the above light it’s easy to grasp the enormity of the gap between both sides and the intellectual void in those attempting to understand the support for the candidacy of Donald Trump. Over the past year, I’ve watched as he was dismissed by literally every professional observer and journalist, because they’ve lived for so long on the narrative’s path that they’re completely unaware of this other America. Moreover, they’ve been taught and trained that people follow candidates when, in Trump’s case, it’s the exact opposite. The people following Trump are actually leading him, and that’s what makes the whole thing so interesting. They hear in Mr. Trump their own voices, and that’s new for them. It’s not about political party; it’s about deviance standing up and saying, “You WILL listen to me!”

The chorus of groans from the “normal” world is growing louder, and threats by people to leave the country if Mr. Trump is elected have taken on an aura of seriousness since his nomination now seems likely. The press continues to grasp at straws in a vain attempt to get their arms around what they disparagingly view as the absurd. The most common press narrative the past few days has been that a Trump/Clinton campaign will be one of extremes, and that is likely quite fine with Mr. Trump.

I don’t view this as apocalyptic whatsoever, because the union has been fractured for a very long time. It’s simply that it’s dismissed, not discussed, and it has to be on the table before the light of examination can produce anything other than division. In the end, we will be stronger for it. Some think it’s all about education, and I agree. My view, however, is that everybody needs to be educated, not just those whose views are held as ignorant.

Nobody wins culture wars. Not really. It is the scent of victory that produces change, not victory itself, and even then, the subsequent narrative cannot be held as universal.

We aren’t nearly as advanced as we claim.

Viewing Oregon’s horror in the mirror

oregonshootingThe Oregon campus shooting yesterday is yet another example of the soul sickness that blankets the U.S. The usual suspects are spouting their usual narratives about what we “should” do, and yet nobody talks about what’s really happening. This is a spiritual problem, and such matters cannot be discussed in public without recrimination. Moreover, nobody’s religion is going to fix it, because in America, religion is part of the problem.

But talk about it we must, for no amount of legislation will remove the deep shame, fear, loneliness, and rage that exist as the omnipresent fruit of our inability to successfully manage our own lives. And yet we try. We try, because we’re told constantly that civilization exists for those who do a good job of managing their lives. It seems to work so well for some, which further reminds us of our own failings. Such are the constant voices in the heads of the have-nots.

When your internal governor is other people’s success, you chase only the wind. And absent an internal governor, human beings are capable of anything, and the more heinous, the more obvious the evil. Yes, evil. It’s real, folks, and no amount of human reasoning can make it go away.

Education is certainly part of the solution, but education in what? Clearly, we’re not teaching the very basics of what it means to be human, and that’s because we can’t agree on what those are. And even if we did, there would be some group somewhere that would object, and so silence is our deadly response.

And so it goes.

Some of my most moral friends are those who self-identify as atheist. This is something that people of religion can’t seem to grasp, for they are too busy targeting atheists as their public enemy. This is but one of the reasons I say that religion is a part of this problem. It’s a problem, because it presents itself as the solution. But religion is a human institution that exists first to support itself, so its message is hypocritical by default, and people sense this.

Moreover, the politicization of fundamentalist Christian beliefs has been the final straw in Christianity’s saltless impact on contemporary culture. It is sadly the sole voice representing the faith publicly today (recent Papal exception noted), a turn-off so repulsive that it’s actually producing the opposite of what – giving the benefit of the doubt – is intended.

I’m willing to look in the mirror in the wake of Thursday’s horror. Are you?

“It served its purpose”

Syed ShabbirVia Newsblues this morning comes word of a young reporter with a new job. He’s Syed Shabbir, and the lucky TV station to acquire his obviously brilliant services is KSHB-41-NBC in his hometown of Kansas City (Market #31). He must be brilliant, because he’s only been in the business for two years, having begun in Topeka (Market #136), where he worked for a year before jumping to WCPO-TV in Cincinnati (Market #35) a year ago.

He told Cincinnati.com that working in his hometown has been his dream since the 8th grade, and now he’s made it. He’s a big city kid. Good for him. Bad for the business.

“I came to Cincy, because I needed to get out of Topeka,” he tells Cincinnati.com. “It only took me a year before I got tired of the small market stories and small market pay (in Topeka). I knew WCPO was only going to be a stepping stone, so I only signed a one year deal. It served its purpose, and I guess I’m lucky things are going according to plan.”

According to plan. Yep. That’s the way it is. Along the way, everything this young man did was to prepare himself for his dream, and this is the curse of the ego it requires to “be on TV.” Mr. Shabbir’s concern as a journalist in both Topeka and Cincinnati was for what those stops could do to fulfill this dream, not in serving the community. I’ve seen it a million times. The job reel is more important than serving the news needs of the community. Moreover, these kinds of people who are  just having their purpose served have no interest in the roots of their stepping stones, because they’re not really in it for the news; they’re in it for their own purposes, and one foot is already out the door at the moment the other foot steps in.

A commenter to the Cincinnati.com story, Steve Gaines, wrote: “loved being your ‘stepping-stone’ ….pls feel free to come back to cincinnati & walk on us again in the future…but honestly, i don’t even know who you are..”

I hate this about our industry. It cheapens what we do and robs smaller markets of what they need and deserve. Parochial news coverage wanted by small towns gives way to the cosmopolitan stories that look good on a young person’s reel. The retort, of course, is “pay me what I’m worth, and perhaps I’ll stay.” No you won’t. It is what it is. What you’re worth? Give me a break! You’re not in this for a “living wage” in a small town, because your definition is a better-than-living-wage. You’ll add “who doesn’t want that?” to which I’ll reply “go to law school.”

Maybe I’m the prick here. Maybe I should instead be chiding broadcast companies for not paying people more. I don’t, because I honestly don’t believe it would solve the revolving door problem. Besides, it’s extremely unrealistic economically. These people likely believe that they’re doing the Topekas of the world a favor by loaning them their brilliance for a year or two. Oh. Right.

Moreover, the egocentricity of young news people is an evolution that took place during my lifetime in news management — on my watch. People used to get into “the biz,” because it was a way to make a difference. Today, it’s all about “being on TV” or “being a star.” Watergate produced Woodward & Bernstein, and they became the poster boys for a new generation of journalists and journalism instructors. Shortly after that, trust in the press began to decline. Around the same time, communications schools began popping up to feed the growing beast known as television news, and the industry borrowed from the newspaper paradigm of small-market-to-big-market.

The Personal Media Revolution challenges all this, and I believe the day is coming when communities themselves will grow their own journalists. The Syed Shabbirs of the world — with their 8th grade dreams — will build and study their craft at home and work their ways into positions with local media companies. They will then be people with roots who care deeply about the communities they serve, whether it is governed by geography or issue. That will be good for journalism, it seems to me, because what we have now are gunslingers passing through towns, people generally who are a mile wide and an inch deep (but look good on TV).

Like Mr. Shabbir, they’re serving the purpose of self, and crapping all over the public in the process.

What makes us so uncomfortable about Wikileaks?

Lord ActonIn a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, British historian and moralist Lord Acton said these famous words: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This utterance of human nature can be found throughout history, regardless of the politics or culture involved. There’s something about being in charge that causes those in charge to need more.

I like to write about human nature, because it’s one thing that never changes. Whether you believe in God or not, the evidence is pretty clear that man wants to be his own god. That’s why we need an internal governor to live with each other and get along. Either that, or an external governor will rule us, although another group feels we can educate ourselves to a better place. I’m unconvinced but willing to give it a shot.

Wikileaks is arguably the biggest cultural event so far of the 21st Century, and while others are debating the many issues associated with it, I want to talk about culture and human nature. Wikileaks makes everybody uncomfortable, but why? I can think of at least ten reasons.

Before I go there, however, a little review is in order for those unfamiliar with my work and philosophy. The hyperconnected Web is pulling us into an eonic cultural shift, from modernism, with its hierarchies, to postmodernism, with its participatory nature. What exactly we’ll end up with is unknown, but it won’t be what we’ve had. If you don’t like “postmodernism,” try post-colonialism, for the world of hierachies fits very well into the colonialist mindset of “the masses NEED the elite.” In a hyperconnected universe, this isn’t necessarily true, and so we have a cultural conflict that some have described as a “war.” I don’t think it’s a war; it’s just the passing of the times. And just as modernism didn’t “replace” the faith of its predecessor, postmodernism won’t entirely replace modernism either. Change, however, brings discomfort, and that’s the biggest problem with Wikileaks.

So here are ten things that make us uncomfortable about Wikileaks:

  1. We can’t trust authority. Modernism needs that trust in order to function. It’s a world of oaths and promises, which are problematic in a trust-less culture. Wikileaks clearly shows that the secret world of diplomacy is very different than the one that we’ve been led to believe exists. This lack of trust is pandemic in our culture today, which is one of the reasons we’re looking to each other instead of “up” to culture’s leadership.
  2. Leadership lies to us. This directly impacts trust, but there’s an even bigger issue. If we can’t trust our leadership to tell us the truth in the bigger matters of life, how can we believe they’ll tell us the truth in the mundane? “He who is faithul in little will be faithful in much,” but the opposite is also true. Nobody likes to be lied to.
  3. We’re just pawns. We go through our lives knowing but not admitting that we’re really powerless, and we search for power everywhere. The demonstration of how our government routinely pulls the wool over our eyes or hides things from us screams of our powerlessness, and we feel used. That makes us uncomfortable.
  4. Powerlessness leads to fear, and that threatens the basic concept that we’re safe. Wikileaks makes us feel we’re unsafe, because the facade of control presented by our government is really a house of cards, according to what we’re learning. We don’t like how that feels.
  5. That leads to the next thing that makes us feel uncomfortable about Wikileaks: we wonder what’s going to happen to us? Fear seeps into our lives in ways we’re unprepared for, and this is complicated by what appears to be the collusion of the press in keeping us “down here.” The sources that the press quotes, after all, are the government. They lie, and the press passes it along. Nobody has prepared us for this, and we’re frightened.
  6. We’re disillusioned, because we thought that our interests were “the country’s” interests. Clearly they are not. To the extent that big business and the banks represent “our country,” you could say that foreign affairs are about us, but Wikileaks is showing us that in all the ways that matter, our government is interested in what happens to the haves, not us.
  7. We are not the “government of the people” that we were taught in elementary school. We are, instead, a government of the elite, who play us and other citizens of the world through secret dealings with other elites, regardless of their affiliation, but always to the end that the rich get richer.
  8. Our institutions are not infallible. We go through our lives in the hope and belief that those in charge work on our behalf, but Wikileaks shows us that they work on behalf of themselves. This, we discover, includes every institution, and this disillusionment makes us feel uncomfortable. All are run by humans, and humans with power…”
  9. The real government isn’t the one we see. The shadow government revealed by Wikileaks is really in charge, and they answer to no one but themselves. Its power is derived by keeping the truth to themselves, so what appears to us to be black can, in reality, be white. We can handle the truth, but it’s kept from us in the name of “need to know.” This is what hyperconnectivity disrupts so very well.
  10. Finally, we’re learning that our global reputation is earned. All along, we’ve thought that “they” were nuts, and we’ve never quite been able to understand why “they” don’t like us. Well, hello! Those in charge here lie to “them,” and at least some of “them” know it. This makes us super uncomfortable, because we suddenly realize that anger over such can cost us lives in the name of war.

Looking ahead, Wikileaks could very well be the major catalyst in the cultural transformation that’s been brewing since the 60s. Those in charge don’t like it, because the fatted calf being whacked here belongs to them. I genuinely like the forced transparency that this has caused, because, like many of my contemporaries, I’m just sick of all the bullshit. Yes, we have it good in this country, but that’s because we have a Constitution written by some terribly wise people with funny wigs, and the extent of our discontent lies with how far we’ve drifted from that document. If this helps us get back to that, then I say that’s a good thing.

I also think this leads to an opportunity to shine for those intellectuals who believe so much in education. If we truly want to govern ourselves, we’re going to need a boatload of information upon which to base our decisions. That, too, seems like a good thing to me.

The prophets of the 60s spoke of all of this, and perhaps that’s what makes some of us most uncomfortable.

Buffalo Springfield: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

And, of course, Dylan:

“Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s naming.’
For the loser now will be later to win
And the times they are a-changin’.”

Education is the next disruption

education is nextRupert Murdoch’s hiring of New York City Schools chancellor Joel Klein offers fascinating insight into the innovative thinking at News Corp these days. There was preciously little specificity in the notice of the hiring, as News Corp would only say that Klein will advise Murdoch “on a wide range of initiatives, including developing business strategies for the emerging educational marketplace.”

In a press release Tuesday, Murdoch said that Klein’s record of achievement provides “a unique perspective that will be particularly important as we look into a sector that has long been in need of innovation.” That sector is education, what I believe will be the next big disrupted institution (media was first) that technology will utterly destroy. Murdoch apparently wants in on the destruction, because he smells profit.

Klein noted News Corp’s history of innovation in expressing his delight with the new position, because he was excited “to have the chance to bring the same spirit of innovation to the burgeoning education marketplace.”

What exactly is the “burgeoning education marketplace,” and how can a media company get involved in it?

The Washington Post has been funding its newsgathering operations in recent years through its reliable profit center, the Kaplan Higher Education division, one of the growing number of for-profit colleges that the government is increasingly trying to regulate. The profit comes from government-backed student loans, which some see as a money tree for unscrupulous capitalists.

But beyond the visible examples of for-profit education, that pesky old disruptor, the Web, is providing a challenge to any institutional infrastructure, as noted above, that is built on the sharing of information or knowledge. Separate the knowledge from the institution that exists by providing it, and you have a serious problem for that institution. There’s gold in them thar hills, too, for the smart entrepreneurs who exploit the disruption.

Is Murdoch that smart? We’ll see. In the interim, it’s smart for all media companies to consider the possibilities in this arena, because education — at all levels — is so ripe for disruption. Like media, “the system” gets a lot of complaints from parents and taxpayers, and today, those people can do something about it. I’ve advised clients in markets with a major university that this will be THE ongoing beat for years to come. Will those institutions get involved in the disruption? Not likely, because they have to protect the traditional infrastructure in order to sustain themselves, and that will be their clear mission. It takes considerable courage to cannibalize yourself in hopes of future relevance. It hasn’t happened with media and it won’t happen with education either.

Meanwhile, there’s a significant opportunity for media companies to play a role in the disruption. Why? Because the path is all about growth, and we don’t have a dog in the fight to protect the institution.

Keep an eye on News Corp and stay tuned.

(Originally published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel – sign up here)