Monday, November 11, 2019

Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another


nakedcapitalism |  Matt Taibbi’s Hate Inc. is the most insightful and revelatory book about American politics to appear since the publication of Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal almost four full years ago, near the beginning of the last presidential  election cycle.

While Frank’s topic was the abysmal failure of the Democratic Party to be democratic and Taibbi’s is the abysmal failure of our mainstream news corporations to report news, the prominent villains in both books are drawn from the same, or at least overlapping, elite social circles: from, that is, our virulently anti-populist liberal class, from our intellectually mediocre creative class, from our bubble-dwelling thinking class. In fact, I would strongly recommend that the reader spend some time with Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004) and Listen, Liberal! (2016) as he or she takes up Taibbi’s book. And to really do the book the justice it deserves, I would even more vehemently recommend that the reader immerse him- or herself in Taibbi’s favorite book and vade-mecum, Manufacturing Consent (which I found to be a grueling experience: a relentless cataloging of the official lies that hide the brutality of American foreign policy) and, in order to properly appreciate the brilliance of Taibbi’s chapter 7, “How the Media Stole from Pro Wrestling,” visit some locale in Flyover Country and see some pro wrestling in person (which I found to be unexpectedly uplifting — more on this soon enough).

Taibbi tells us that he had originally intended for Hate, Inc. to be an updating of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (1988), which he first read thirty years ago, when he was nineteen. “It blew my mind,” Taibbi writes. “[It] taught me that some level of deception was baked into almost everything I’d ever been taught about modern American life…. Once the authors in the first chapter laid out their famed propaganda model [italics mine], they cut through the deceptions of the American state like a buzz saw” (p. 10). For what seemed to be vigorous democratic debate, Taibbi realized, was instead a soul-crushing simulation of debate. The choices voters were given were distinctions without valid differences, and just as hyped, just as trivial, as the choices between a Whopper and a Big Mac, between Froot Loops and Frosted Mini-Wheats, between Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, between Marlboro Lites and Camel Filters. It was all profit-making poisonous junk.

Manufacturing Consent,” Taibbi writes, “explains that the debate you’re watching is choreographed. The range of argument has been artificially narrowed long before you get to hear it” (p. 11). And there’s an indisputable logic at work here, because the reality of hideous American war crimes is and always has been, from the point of view of the big media corporations, a “narrative-ruining” buzz-kill. “The uglier truth [brought to light in Manufacturing Consent], that we committed genocide of a fairly massive scale across Indochina — ultimately killing at least a million innocent civilians by air in three countries — is pre-excluded from the history of the period” (p. 13).

So what has changed in the last thirty years? A lot! As a starting point let’s consider the very useful metaphor found in the title of another great media book of 1988: Mark Crispin Miller’s Boxed In: The Culture of TV. To say that Americans were held captive by the boob tube affords us not only a useful historical image but also suggests the possibility of their having been able to view the television as an antagonist, and therefore of their having been able, at least some of them, to rebel against its dictates. Three decades later, on the other hand, the television has been replaced by iPhones and portable tablets, the workings of which are so precisely intertwined with even the most intimate minute-to-minute aspects of our lives that our relationship to them could hardly ever become antagonistic.