Without question, the nation is undergoing a broad change in the nature of politics and the structure of representation in our traditional democracy.
The emergence of a revolutionary, anti-government movement on the farthest to the right of the political spectrum, the monied, Supreme Court-sanctified attack on the ability of anyone but the top financial echelons to participate in the country’s business, the assaults on humanism, individual rights, religious tolerance, Science and Reason, the move to enact measures to derail and prevent the popular vote– all these are being documented as they unfold.
And in today’s digital realm of instant response, the potential exists for more people than ever to follow and react to these developments.
The potential exists, and many do participate– but, given the serious nature of these developments, why not more?
Why is no greater number engaged?
Even at times when reactionary principles have been enacted, and progressive causes have struggled against suffocation by the corporate elite, in the United States of America of the Twenty-first Century a seemingly unassailable tradition of intellectual liberty does persist.
We rarely seem to consider how naturally it comes to anyone to speak ill of our government and its officers without the least fear of repression from the authorities. Citizens of other countries often find this incredible. Anyone can say anything, and does.
In that ongoing project of the Right to eliminate all dissent against its self-reinforcing world view, this easy freedom to express an unscripted individual opinion will probably be the last to go, even if the reactionaries get their way in all else.
Because true freedom of speech does exist, because it surrounds us as invisibly as the air we breathe, perhaps that’s why so few pay real attention to the political landscape.
After all, as long as we can speak our minds, modern life offers many diversions and entertainments, and we can always get some sense of what’s happening in a few minutes from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, or perhaps from TV’s bleary array of late-night comedians.
Maybe that’s why so many, even from the supposed intelligentsia, don’t seem to be tracking the progress of the fight against the menace of a corporate coup against our country as it has always been known.
Maybe, but there could be another reason.
Writers, bloggers, performers, artists and others who create our cultural landscape– more than a few of these have an aversion to paying any attention to the News, whether in the form of newspapers or TV news shows.
They display an aversion to news itself, with the predictable, ironic result that in an age of data, of information saturation, far too many are ignorant about what might otherwise engage them, or enlist their aid, against the organized forces working, perhaps, for the extension of a new Dark Age, protracted by “perverted science” (as Winston Churchill put it).
Everyone enjoying Bohemian life, here in the Weimar Republic?
How did this come about?
As Republican budget cuts and antipathy toward learning in general have degraded public education, civics classes are largely becoming a thing of the past, true.
But it could be that people are just plain tired of the fast-talking “chattering crowd” on the various channels, too tired to make distinctions between those with information to give and those who only expel superheated air.
“All that yelling,” said one (nominally leftist) writer I know, when I asked him, during a visit, if he were following a particular story. He gestured vaguely at the TV where the Lawrence O’Donnell Show was playing on MSNBC. “I just tend to tune it out.”
Of course, with much to impart in a limited time allowed, TV news-talkers must speak rapidly to cover all that a single news episode entails.
The measured tones of, say, an Edward R. Murrow, from broadcast journalism’s formative years, may seem to contemporary ears not even recognizable in the context of a news program.
But fast or slow, there is far too little specific interest in the news stories of the day. Or actual content is given equal weight, on the Internet, with vaporous paranoid imaginings and malarkey about UFOs and secret conspiracies.
It’s accepted doctrine on the other side of the screen that controversy and contention, for the most part, makes “hotter” programming than smooth explication.
This form of presentation represents a tendency which has grown in the past two decades, no doubt as a ratings-getting strategy.
There’s The McLaughlin Group, whose shouted verbal interplay caused Ronald Reagan to call it “a political version of Animal House.” The late Bob Novak shepherded the yell-fest on such programs as Firing Line and Capital Gang.
These shows, with their unruly interchanges, may have set the stage for recent Presidential debates in which Willard “Mitt” Romney interrupted President Obama, at one time telling him with palpable condescension, “I’m talking now–you can talk when I’m finished.”
Is it that these shows exist in a plenum of continuous, unresolved argument?
Perhaps it is wearying to the soul to hear an endless, vituperative yak-fest which is never brought to a conclusion.
These shows never offer any relief to the “yelling.”
For myself, I’m not averse to tuning into political arguments. That may be because I have a long memory of listening, as a child, to the adults in my family talking about current events and personalities (after I was supposed to be asleep), back in my grandfather’s house in Lebanon, Indiana.
I remember how my sister and I would gather at the top of the stairs, around the bend where we couldn’t be spotted by the “grown-ups,” and listen, late into the night, to the comforting sounds of my grandfather, father and mother, sometimes my aunt and uncle, talking on about the New Deal, Stevenson, Eisenhower, Kefauver, McCarthy, Kennedy, Nixon.
It was a reassuring part of my childhood. It certainly did not create any adversion to hearing the news.
But something does stand in the way of a broader engagement in political issues today. Whatever it is, it may be more significant than a taste for trivia over politico-intellectual issues.
And it may turn out to be one of the causes underlying the world of the immediate future, in which we’ll all have to spend the rest of our lives.
Hal Robins is a renowned underground comic artist and his work has appeared in Last Gasp’s Weirdo, Salon Magazine’s Dark Hotel and many other publications. For decades he has been the co-host of KPFA-Pacifica Radio’s “Puzzling Evidence” program. Reverend Hal is the Master of Church Secrets for The Church of the SubGenius. As Dr. Howland Owll, he has served as MC for many unique San Francisco events, and is the principle of The Ask Dr. Hal Show, still currently running both as a live staged event and in-studio on Radio Valencia (radiovalencia.fm) Friday evenings. Hal contributed his unique vocal talents to the award-winning interactive game Half-Life.