I’ve tried for years now to catalyze greater participation in the conversations that drive governance, not necessarily advocating pure democracy but nudging the body politic in that direction. And I don’t think it’s completely wrong-headed to go there. As we’ve evolved a new form of media that’s bottom up, low barrier to entry and participation, we’ve discovered vital and compelling voices that would never have been heard in the broadcast era of scarce channels.
We watched Robert Altman’s MASH recently, and I was struck by the depiction there of the two cultures we see battling for our hearts and minds today. On the one hand, you have true believers who are religious about religion and also religious about bureaucratic protocols – in the film, represented by Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan. On the other hand, you have “secular humanist” professionals, Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre, who are competent, get the job done, ignore bureaucracy – eschew belief in favor of practice. The true believers were prone to mediocrity and cruelty, whereas the professionals were competent and generous. You could trust them to put people first, vs the believers, who put beliefs and rules first, and often put themselves first, rationalizing ego as god’s will or “it’s in the rules, dammit.”
MASH was just a movie, but Altman’s characters always had depth; these were believable stereotypes, representing something real within our culture, differences that are even more pronounced today, and visible in the U.S. culture wars. The difference is that the true believers are learning to leverage media and build effective mobs. It’s like Frank Burns and Hot Lips found a big-ass megaphone and rallied enough troops to their corner to accumulate some power.
The big-ass megaphone could be what we call “social media,” as well as its effect on big media (because social media has siezed the day, big media tries to be more inclusive). Anyone can toss a meme into the idea commons, and some have found that simple, loud, persistent messages can overwhelm the societal narrative. So we have Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, et al creating more following than they could ever have amassed in the world of old media and politics, wherein politics and media professionals would have recognized them as loons and ignored them. They would never have taken the stage, in a world where the stage is held and controlled by people and entities who are relatively sane and committed to professionalism over believe. We always had people like this, but they couldn’t get traction. McCarthy was an exception, but cooler head eventually prevailed.
So I’m wondering if a down side of the new media environments we’ve built is that we’ve facilitated the ascendance of complete loons who are cultivating mobs of supporters and getting far more traction than they deserve. If so, I think saner elements have a responsibility to contribute to the narrative and sort it out. I.e. don’t be apathetic. Take time to write what you’re thinking. Call bullshit on flaky, inhumane, outright cruel ideas. Answer simplistic messaging with readable explanations of the real complexity of our 21st century world.