“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”
There are many reasons to write. Hypertext and the Internet only add to that tally while making readership a theoretical possibility for anyone. It is the essence of democracy to transfer power from the few to the many. Yet this raises a compelling question — why are some trends of increasing popular participation so at odds with realities of power’s ongoing consolidation?
Accurately recording information, expressing a creative vision, purging secret guilt, honing literary abilities — there are many reasons to write. One of those reasons is to promote a particular way of thinking. With millions of of active writers amongst billions of people, never before has this world seen so much language harnessed to promote personal viewpoints. Among other things, sheer quantity increases the degree to which acts of influence yield to empirical study.
Science creates power, sometimes literally. Consider atomic fission. It can be used to reduce a city to toxic rubble in a matter of seconds. Yet the same energy can be used to light the streets of a city for many years. For that matter, the sudden blast has potential to divert celestial hazards, while the controlled reaction could be used to electrify devices in a secret torture facility. Power is an amoral thing.
Once upon a time, an entire industry of professional journalists worked diligently while exercising their power to tell people what they should think. The journalists’ mission was simple — ferret out the facts, then offer a clear perspective on that reality. Insofar as they had any agenda at all, it was to oppose institutional secrecy and call public attention to abuses of power. Then came infotainment.
Information provided for its own sake, as a public service, was largely abandoned. Credibility ceased to matter beyond the extent that it might influence profitability. People turn away from ugly truths. Speaking truth to power is a great public service, but it is no way to draw the largest possible media audience in a given moment. Sensational speculation is in. Sound analysis is out. Celebrity scandals are in. Monitoring enormous institutions as they wield unprecedented concentrations of resources . . . that’s out too.
Yet there is still no shortage of people intent on telling other people what to think. Alternatives to journalism rise as hard news coverage slips into the margins. Abuse of power runs rampant in this niche. Never before has so much been understood about how to engineer and propagate narratives that drive public opinion. Millions write in earnest, yet how many passionately parrot stories to which they have never applied a moment’s critical thought?
Campaigns of deliberate misinformation are nothing new. What makes the modern phenomenon so insidious is the way advances in techniques of manipulation play out across a coherent subcultures driven by negative emotions. The great irony in all of it is those legions of wholehearted patriots unwittingly devoted to 21st century aristocrats at least as harmful as those on the losing side of the American Revolutionary war.
There is always wisdom in mustering some measure of skepticism when someone tells you what you should think. Perhaps even the previous sentence merits a little doubt. Thus, central to any question of what you should think is that you should think. Lies crafted in service to an agenda, even after extensive recirculation by unreasoning zealots, wither in the light of informed thoughtful analysis. This happens not out of desire or hostility, but even in the most dispassionate and detached musings.
When it comes to matters of national or global significance, the opinions you hold should follow from a coherent thought process. All too often what passes for “thought” is nothing more than the emotional impact of many heated moments or the social satisfaction of identifying with some sort of group. People who are perfectly happy to admit having no idea how DNA influences cellular growth or how the age of fossils is determined will nonetheless go to extremes in defense of their views on evolutionary biology. People who could not so much as explain the distinction between “climate” and “weather” nonetheless display unwavering devotion to a particular stance on global warming.
Clearly, people in those situations are driven by something other than thoughtful analysis. In the absence of knowledge, questions and silence are both perfectly sound approaches to a subject. Yet today lack of knowledge is no barrier at all to addressing a national audience with baseless speculation . . . or deliberately misleading commentary. Mob psychology on a truly massive scale, the stoking of human hatreds can drive up ratings/circulation even as it tears down the responsible civic discourse that should occur instead.
With that in mind, I will set out to address a number of issues with the intent of illuminating both the facts that inform my views and the thought processes that bring me to whatever conclusions I hold. I do this not because I champion any particular cause or begin this process on any particular payroll. I do this because it is part of my pathology to dwell on a range of complex matters and seek some authentic sense to be found beyond all the house organs and noise machines.
I know I alone will have little impact on cultural institutions and political processes so severely crippled as they are at present. Some informed honest individuals experience moments of national attention without selling out to any special interest. Yet the public will to turn from this increasingly dark path remains unfocused. I do not anticipate an end to my own obscurity. Yet, given the choice between doing little good and no good, do you think I should do differently with my voice?