David Brooks, on PBS last night, said that as he travels around the country he finds pockets of deep and effective caring, compassion and sensibility everywhere with people helping others in the face of various emergencies. These stories provide a counter to the daily, hourly and now almost minute-by-minute tragedies: fires, drought, military conflict, terror attack, environmental spills, economic burps and blips, unemployment hiccups, and then there is the river of absurdities that gush from the mouths of people aspiring to or currently holding public office, especially The Donald.
Our media has abandoned its core purpose, in the pursuit of ratings and profits. Heavily twisted by the “man bites dog” kind of mantra, our media, so focuses on the human evil that surrounds all of us, that our public and private broadcasters are complicit in generating a culture of ‘the inevitability of fear and chaos’. And our own predictable and insatiable voyeurism plays right into their business model. The marriage of our search and appetite for “excitement through entertainment” to the corporate media’s insatiable appetite for profits is helping to generate a paralysis in so many segments of our public life that an individual cannot be faulted for falling into the quagmire of hopelessness and anxiety. And that, dear reader, is precisely what the terror element we face dreams of, as the highest result of their murderous terrifying massacres.
While the media concentrates its energies on the number of dead and the motives of the perpetrators of the many acts of terror, and on the numbers of votes and the implications of the Brexit vote, or the number of First Nations’ communities living with “boiled water” advisories, simply doing what they consider their “job”, people are nevertheless left with a gestalt that evokes the wringing of hands. And of course, there will always be those voices ready to accept the invitation to express their horror at a natural disaster like a hurricane or the detritus of a runaway truck on a sidewalk in Nice.
And, in the corporate board room of the media owners and decision makers, men and women dedicated to the pursuit of the highest level of profit and investment, consistently veer toward resources that concentrate on the plethora of immediate ‘breaking news facts’ knowing that both their immediacy and their gore will continue to magnetize readers, viewers and digital media ‘crowds’. Programs that take a step back, that analyse the structural and the thematic and the historic dimensions of any public issue (of the kind that Melissa Harris Perry so rigorously and so provocatively offered weekly for the last few years on MSNBC) are cancelled in a blatant bowing to the superficial, to the immediate and to the ratings that come from such decisions.
At the same time, universities are abandoning many of the integral components of their arts and humanities programs, as they morph into technical job-training institutes, and champion their collection of billions in donations from the corporations who want their names on buildings for “public reputation” purposes. In such an ethos, it is not surprising that Carleton University has removed a biology professor from one of the “faculty positions” on the university Senate, for refusing to agree to silence his opinions if and when they disagree with those of the majority of the Senate. The principle of ‘cabinet solidarity’ having infected the university housed in the nation’s capital, where the obeisance of all civil servants and politicians in the government is an expectation of the power holders, and a duty of all of the “peons”, the pursuit of truth and the clash of opposing views, originally one of the core principles of a university, is sacrificed. One has to assume that prospective corporate donors would not be as inclined to contribute to a university that did not have “one view” without opposition, in its administrative modus operandi. And so the “public relations” mandate of the corporate and government models, (intimately and obsessively integrated into the culture of both the military and the mainline churches, and the school boards and hospital boards) is tilting the public discourse and the public culture into a kind of conformity that resists public debate for the protection of the flow of cash.
And, of course, there is a profound paradox to this dynamic. It is profoundly and inexorably self-sabotaging, not only of the very organizations that accept and practice it as dogma, shutting out diversity of views and the fertilization of self-reflective analysis. It is also sabotaging in the long run, in the kind of organic messiness on which the life of an individual, family and organization depends. Homogenizing our milk to prevent illness and disease is one thing. Homogenizing the way by which our major public/private institutions operate, and thereby embedding into the culture a kind of repressive obedience and a kind of intellectual atrophy at the organizational level (not necessarily at the level of the individual researcher in his or her laboratory, on in the preparation of his/her doctoral thesis) also sends off social clues to those young people aspiring to complete their formal and more importantly their informal education, that militate against activism, public engagement and disruption of the public square.
And of course, the public square where these fortifications of public “trust” have dominated for centuries, is now filled with scepticism and even contempt for the kind of self-serving attitudes and policies that narrow the focus and the ethical principles on which they operate.
The media’s dependence on the acts of evil and the march of massive ego’s, and the presentation of these dramas as news, linked to the demise of free thought in both the political life and the curricula of our major universities, and the public’s glazing over its potential to inject some different and levening views, together, could well be having an impact on the rise of right wing political parties, in the rise in the level of violence, and in the rise of such demonic figures as the Republican candidate in the United States.
‘Sunny ways’ in the “mantra” of the Canadian Prime Minister is merely a kind of ‘sell line’ in his advertising campaign for public adulation. The phrase is not a surrogate for compassion, although it may hint of a government, especially in comparison with its predecessor, is capable of thinking and feeling simultaneously.
David Brooks knows that the corporate moguls for whom he works at the New York Times will continue their coverage of man-bites-dog news. Nevertheless, his off-hand comment about the caring and the compassion of his fellow citizens, often relegated to a feel-good “on the road” segment at the close of a newscast (as at CBS) could provide some guidance for the long term life and potential of those same media and intellectual masters in whose hands rest the legacies and the futures of those newspapers, television networks, universities and even the corporations and the churches.
Immediacy, and dramatic and tragic events of the evil genre, will always be important in the development of a public consciousness. And so too, could a much longer perspective that seeks not only its own immediate “success” but also the survival and the hope and the dreams of those who come after. We are not only “our brother’s keeper” today; we are, and are capable of being and becoming “our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers” of those generations yet unborn. And our fetish with the moment does not have to give way to our abandoning our perception of its relative importance. It is our self-serving narcissism that threatens our legacy and the future of our grandkids.