Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Inanity of "Politics"

Imagine for a moment that you're sitting down to see a virtuoso musical performance. You're very excited, this has been hyped up as the most anticipated show by this musician in years. Expectations are extremely high. They get up there, start strumming their guitar, cello, whatever, but instead of playing any sort of song at all, they sound like a five year old child just banging away on the instrument. They go on like that for hours. And that's the show.

You read the review in the paper the next morning, and the guy talks about the masterful way in which the artist held the instrument. And the confidence with which they hit the strings. And the one-on-one connection they were able to make with the audience members. Maybe you talk to a friend or two who were at the show a little later, and they're just ecstatic at how good the performance made them feel. No one says a word about how the person you listened to didn't know what they were doing, and how there was never any music at all.

This is a little bit how I feel after watching all the presidential debates.

Take a brief glance at some of the top headlines in r/politics right now. Over 2 million people are subscribed to this subreddit.

  • From an 89 year old Florida voter I just called on behalf of President Obama: "Son, I'm one of those women who marched in front of the Supreme Court in support of Roe v. Wade - you can be damn sure I'm not voting for Romney."
  • Bill Maher, 'If the Mittmobile does roll into Washington it will be towing behind it the whole anti-intellectual anti-science freak show.'
  • Obama Campaign Ad Tries to Name All of Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts Taxes & Fees in 30 Seconds
  • Jon Stewart Rails On The Absurdity Of The US Health Care System Refusing To Hire Combat Medics
  • While Romney Runs and Hides, a Confident Obama Takes Media Questions in All Formats
  • The New York Times Endorses President Obama.
  • Another Catholic Bishop Threatens Damnation If Congregation Votes For Obama | Addicting Info
  • Biden: America not in decline, Romney in denial

Notice what all of these things have in common? It's all meaningless. Almost every single story that's splattering r/politics right now is -- "THIS was just said by SOMEONE and THIS is what you should think about it!" It's gossip. They don't talk about any of Obama's policies unless it's oversimplified to the point of inanity. And even then, they rarely ever talk about Obamas actual policies at all. It's all ROMNEY BAD. All of it.

I realize r/politics is hardly a good sample to take examples from. It's full of complete and utter morons. But it's important to note that the vast majority of people who claim pay attention to "politics," whether on reddit or not, get their news in this format. They all go home in the evening, switch on their MSNBC, or their Fox News, or get on their computers and check out their HuffPo or their Drudge. It's no wonder that nobody has the slightest fucking clue what's going on when they're forced to get their information while trapped inside bubbles.

Reddit is a site where people vote on content -- if people like it, they give it an upvote. The more upvotes something has, the more it will be seen by others, and maybe even reach the front page. People can downvote things too, and many important stories are often buried.

Stories like the ones I mentioned get literally thousands of upvotes. They eat this shit up. On the other hand, here are the kinds of stories that don't quite make it in r/politics, including the upvote/downvote numbers they received:

Some of these are weeks old, this is the best they're going to do. A couple of them got half-decent responses, but I meant it when I said those shitty stories up there get thousands of responses. Most people are never going to hear about these things, and even if by some miracle they do, they're conditioned to ignore them and push them out of their thought processes. It just doesn't register. In fact, if anything is critical of Barack Obama in any way -- even it's based on complete fact -- it's going to get downvoted. If anything is by Glenn Greenwald, you can almost guarantee that it's going to be buried, with dismissive comments about how Greenwald is a one-issue writer, drone strikes we get it, big whoop, that's war, who cares.

This is making me rethink my position that interests within the American media deliberately withhold stories that make people uncomfortable, solely because they go against corporate interests. That's obviously part of the reason (as shown here), but it really does seem mostly that people are conditioned to enjoy bullshit. It's all about the show, it's a game to them. It's a sporting event.

George Orwell noticed similar patterns to this, he wrote an essay about it called Politics and the English Language. He argued that mass contradictory thought in a society not only degrades ideas, but also the very language the society speaks.

All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find -- this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify -- that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship. 
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning's post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he "felt impelled" to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: "[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany's social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe." You see, he "feels impelled" to write -- feels, presumably, that he has something new to say -- and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain.
We live in an extremely propagandized society. The wars get so much support because meaningless phrases like "Support the Troops" discourage people from questioning anything about the wars. The question on Iran during the foreign policy debate was not about whether Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon at all -- that discussion is obviously over. It was, Iran wants to drop a nuclear bomb on Israel. The end. That's the frame in which the discussion is allowed to take place.

All issues are framed in ways similar to this. I've seen it called the overton window, Chomsky called it the "Propaganda Model." Its purpose is to limit the range of acceptable opinion. Chomsky made an analogy once, he said the boot to totalitarian governments is propaganda to democracies. Public opinion has to be controlled in some way so that it will fit in line with political-corporate interests. When both political parties are fighting for those same corporate interests, their supporters need to be distracted with meaningless gossip so no one notices what the politicians actually support.

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