I’ve been going through a dry spell of writing, which isn’t so bad. I got accepted last week to The New School‘s Media Studies graduate program, which is fantastic as it was my first choice for grad school since I visited there last summer. I wasn’t bothered at all by a rejection from MIT’s CMS program, because while that’s a great program as well, a variety of reasons set my heart on The New School.
Anyway, I’ve been spending my time watching some films and reading lots of things; I just finished The Trotsky, which was a great comedy on a number of levels. Some thoughts; if it had happened in America, Leon would have been denounced as a traitor like every socialist, harassed by his schoolmates like Katie Sierra, invited on Bill O’Riley and attacked like Jeremy Glick, and finally killed by a tear gas canister, a tazer, or a rubber bullet when he took his principle hostage.
But the film did make me think. A central theme of the film was the question “Are you apathetic, or bored?” When a student answers, “bored,” Leon is relieved and says “Apathy is the condition of not caring. Boredom–boredom is just a slumber one can be aroused from.” And the student responds (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) , “Oh, well, then definitely boredom.”
I’ve been reading The Whole World Is Watching by Todd Gitlin, a terrific book which is all about how the media documented the New Left and especially SDS in the 60s. Honestly, it’s really a case study of the New Left and the subject of the book is media framing, but still, it’s a great read, especially for anyone who’s interested in activism and political movements. Leon Bronstein’s story in “The Trotsky” resonates with the story of the (as Gitlin calls them) “white radicals,” and a conversation with a burnt out relic of the 60’s revolution played by Michael Murphy is especially revealing, as he reminisces about his own days as an activist and the frustration of people who just “showed up” to be part of “the scene.” Much of Leon’s problems in the film arises from his agony of the seeming disinterest of his fellow high-school students, who are more concerned with things like shaving their pubes than the “great struggle” of forming a student union.
It’s a very fair dilemma – I once tried to form a politically-inclined student group. It didn’t go over very well. I tried to find a suitable one worth joining and it was nowhere to be found in my locale. After that, I looked out to local community groups and found them somewhat lacking as well (either they had collapsed in on themselves or they were as purposeless and shiftless as any other social club). As any person who is sensitive to these things knows, people just don’t seem to care.
And we are back to our first question. Is this because they are apathetic, or bored? Can their lack of concern be addressed? Why, or why not?
I consider myself an egalitarian – in a recent conversation, I told someone how I disliked the notion of leadership, because I felt that each person must be encouraged to become self-determined, cooperative where it suits their interests, and ultimately collectivists rather than subservient. However, history is the story of singular individuals persuading, seducing and coercing a greater mass of people with ideals, lies, and force, to bend their wills to some other force. Every successful social movement, whether it is political, religious, or cultural, is based on the influence of elites, people who are skilled and knowledgeable, and have the resources to embody some sense of purpose which is not always completely susceptible to their whims. At times, those forces get away from them, and they are done away with (Maximilien Robespierre comes to mind as a particularly gruesome example).
Edward Bernays, for all the spite progressives have given him, was absolutely correct in his assertions that
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
– Propaganda (1928)
In these opening lines he wrote a truth which has been the guiding principle of public relations, image management, ombudsmen, press secretaries, media liaisons and spokespersons since before and ever after the initial thought entered his head. It is a technocratic privilege to serve as a medium for the communication between elites and the masses. Whether we are “stuck” in the confines of a medium (as Gitlin at times suggests of print and broadcast and then forgets in his book) or we are free to shape our own devices (as Karl Rove was intensely aware , and Robert Gibbs also masterfully orchestrated public discussion putting the right and the left against themselves when it suited the White House), media elites can employ a strategy like “he who can destroy a thing controls a thing” from Frank Herbert’s Dune. The power is in a leader’s ability to disseminate their words to the public. Many, many different factors render that power impotent or amplify the message when skillfully played.
To move forward along egalitarian ideals, we must recognize the current structure of media elitism and the potential of democratization of the media. There is potential in participatory culture (as I’ve written before) for people to become original content producers, rather than just consumers or mere “rebloggers.” We can complain that there is nothing new under the sun, and remain skeptical of just more people being manipulated to amplify a larger agenda through crowdsourcing, but with education and better media literacy skills, it’s possible to encourage fresh ideas. However, at present, the system of technocracy is still the status quo, and egalitarians should acknowledge the burden of obtaining elite positions from which to disseminate privilege to the masses.
This is true of any inequality. It behooves the people in a position of power to give to altruistically benefit the less fortunate. Otherwise, power stratifies and oppresses to where insurgence reshuffles the cards (such things can be staved off through pittances as Piven and Cloward argued years ago) . Although there is a shift, things remain out of equilibrium until concessions can be made. Media elitism is a form of privilege that we’ve only begun to recognize, just as convergence and democratization is creating a terrific shift in who gets to say what. Hopefully, we are already hearing the death knells of what Chomsky calls elite media. So can we really expect people who have not been incised to insurrection (by some appalling nature of their condition) to be anything but bored (much less apathetic)?
My answer is another Zen-Mu “The answer does not fit the case” solution – whether people are apathetic or bored does not matter. People are manipulated at various times by dominating forces which represent cultural movements. Either they are entrenched in preserving the status quo at their own expense, or they are forced to action, because like a man at the top of a burning building, jumping is preferable to waiting for the flames. The last dignity is to die by our own decisions. Whether the people are apathetic or bored, it is not the horse that leaders want to seize, but the reins.