Budget crisis, Tea Party, and the ignorance machine

For years (too many, perhaps) I taught sociology to college students, and had to help us all understand every great social issue that came up — why things are the way they are and what we might have to do to change them. Not that I think sociological reasoning can give us definitive answers, but it should help us frame the questions better by testing various hypotheses and eliminating all the false leads and continuing to test the more promising ones. Though I have no classroom before me now, I'll try again to exercise the sociological imagination for something useful.

So, today's big issue: The impasse in the US Congress (which may or may not be about to break — they've still got to vote) and its likely consequences. Why? And what next?

Everything is the way it is because it got that way, as biologist D'Arcy Thompson is said to have said. (D. C. Dennett, The Evolution of Culture). We start there, with the history. Here's my understanding (a metahypothesis containing several testable assumptions):
  1. Since the beginning of the Republic there has always been a sizable stratum of change-resistant nuts ready to blame everything that makes them uncomfortable on some insidious conspiracy, regardless of any evidence to the contrary, and they're still among us. Foreigners or people with other religious beliefs have been the usual suspects. (Bibliography can be assembled if anybody is interested.) Why the US has so many and why these people insist on believing these things, what drives them and so on, are worthy questions but for now (just to explain the current crisis) we just have to recognize that they are there, almost always have been, and are likely to persist. 
  2. The introduction of truly mass communications (when the telegraph enhanced newspaper reporting) enabled Pulitzer, Hearst and others in the 19th and early 20th centuries, motivated more by profit than by political conviction, to turn that stratum of mostly inchoate and locally harmful conspiracy-seekers into a nationwide mass market and mobilize them; regional media potentates did the same, for example in stimulating Klan outrages in the U.S. South. The Spanish-American War, the nearly genocidal U.S. military campaign in the Philippines, the anti-New Deal, anti-FDR movements in the 1930s are just a few examples of this activity.
  3. Major business groups initially unrelated to media (banks, railroads, oil, steel and later big pharmacy, etc.) saw the advantages of mobilizing that populist anger against any reforms threatening their profits and used their immense resources to enhance enormously the reach of the mob-rallying media, until big media and other big capital actually fused in, among others, the big television broadcasting companies.
  4. Murdoch, Fox News and the Tea Party are thus the predictable culmination of this process. Their main function is the production of ignorance. What I mean is that (at enormous expense and with huge resources) they work to convince people that what they should and could know simply by examining available evidence (assuming they have had a decent elementary education that enables them to read clearly) is untrue, and that the Real Truth includes such things as (for example) the foreign birth of Obama (despite all the evidence), the imminent danger of Islamization in the US, and so on.
I've spelled this out so that we can pick it apart and see how well those assumptions hold up. Until contrary evidence can be presented, that's my hypothesis of how things got this way. Next question: What next? If it's too late to prevent this crisis, what can be done to forestall the next one?

The first thing that suggests itself is disarming that media machine, somehow. Imposing rules as to how far beyond the evidence a broadcaster can go is one possibility, but tricky and dangerous (free speech). Limiting ownership of media outlets is more feasible, but of course will have to overcome the resistance of those big media. Reversing the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision that the Constitution permits corporations to secretly fund, in any amount, phony public interest group's campaigns seems like another important and probably effective check on that machine, but will require a huge amount of work.

In these and other ways, including using whatever resources we have including this little blog, we will need to to combat the production of ignorance by the defence and expansion of knowledge. And to keep asking better questions.

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