The Decline of “Mainstream” Media

“Mainstream” is not just a go-to pejorative thrown around by would-be hipsters to dismiss anything they happen to look down on as too square for their nonconformist tastes, it is also (more accurately) a term applied to any item or medium that is considered to be the dominant venue in its respective field.  When referring to the mainstream media, the medium normally being discussed is one that encompasses the major cable news channels, the major national and local newspapers, and several independent news outlets that are easily recognizable to the average viewer.  Therefore, conventional wisdom implies that, by virtue of owning the “mainstream” label, these media sources are the dominating outlets in the news business.  However true this may have been even a solid decade ago, the fact is that–as far as the younger generation of viewers is concerned (the demographic whose choices determine the longevity of any product’s lifespan)–what is still being popularly referred to as the mainstream media is anything but dominating as the medium of choice for information amongst the greater public.

Although there are still a couple of stubborn people insisting that the old-fashioned newspapers are the only real form of information for the sophisticated consumer, the reality is that this is nothing more than the pompous musings of a few hardliners who won’t face the fact that their favored medium is–if not dead–very much on life-support in the technologically advanced parts of the world.  Furthermore, the favored stereotype of newspapers being a “purer” and more reliable media alternative is nonsense to begin with on account that, just like any other source of information, newspapers will range in tone and perspective depending on whoever happens to be their owner (or main financier) at the moment.  TV news sources, though still able to garner a semi-decent audience, is experiencing a similar decline in ratings, and for the same reason: their main demographic is expected to be dying off in the next decade or two.  And younger audiences aren’t turning on their TVs to set off the loss.

Nowadays, online media alternatives are the favored choice of almost everybody in their 30s and under (this trend is also true for a noteworthy portion of older consumers, too).  The reason for the shift away from the standard medium format to web-based content is simply a matter of efficiency.  No longer do we need to sit through an entire program to get the information relevant to our interests, we can just search for the bits and pieces we need and go about our day in no time.  Neither TV news shows, nor newspapers, can provide this level of viewer-freedom, as their format is too rigid to provide that scope of flexibility for their audience base.  Thus, as inferred by all predictive models, the internet is becoming the dominant media source for the global public-at-large.  Yet, despite this commonly accepted shift in the zeitgeist, the term “mainstream” is still being reserved exclusively for a declining media format; with seemingly no current push for the term to be amended to include the increasingly more popular online media outlets.

The reality is that news outlets are business conglomerates.  And the goal of business conglomerates is to make money (this is not a condemnation, but simply a statement of fact).  A lot of money goes into producing a TV news program, making the venue a primary point of interest to advertisers whose goal is to reach potential consumers (again, no condemnation on my part ought to be read into the text here).  In contrast, websites are relatively cheap to set up, and the simpler templates usually don’t take much effort or tech-knowledge to maintain.  Sure, to make money off your website you’ll need to share space with advertisers, however the easy accessibility to partnering with Google for generating automatic ad revenue lifts the burden of having to actually find investors and advertisers for the content-creator; who’s left to just focus on posting the relevant information for her/his audience, at a relatively quick and steady pace.

Over the last few years [decade], advertisers have taken notice of the rise in web-media, and have taken steps to ensure their presence is not overlooked by the more popular medium (notice the sharp increase in ads at the beginning and end of the more popular YouTube videos, compared to a few years back).  However, given that the average internet user is more tech-savvy than the standard ad generator, getting around having to watch these tiresome commercials is as little as a few keystrokes away (i.e. ad blocker).  Therefore, TV remains the primary medium by which businesses get to reach potential consumers, which is why that’s where the majority of the money will go.  But people aren’t watching TV like they used to (in that, we’re no longer dependent on it as our main source of information).  TV media outlets are seen as archaic, and slow, and impersonal; yet, they are still called “mainstream” because that’s where their advertisement base resides; therefore, it is of the utmost importance for advertisers to promote the idea that the venues they have the most influence over are the more legitimate media sources.  And until we reach the point where online alternatives can generate an equal or greater amount of consistent and steady ad revenue for potential financiers (many of the more recognizable online news outlets are moving/have moved in this direction already), the term mainstream media will remain largely a convenient marketing strategy to boost the relevance of a fading medium, due to the revenue it generates for its advertisers; regardless of how much its viewership and influence drops in favor of more efficient alternatives.  Their lack of prominence and trust among the general audience is immaterial to the conversation.

Exploring Violence in America

“Why is violence so rampant in American society?”  That is the question I often hear expressed concerning the apparent brutality that exists within the American psyche, especially in comparison to its equally economically developed first world countries.  It is a particularly difficult question to address as its phrasing seems to demand a conclusive answer on a topic that is ripe for hasty generalizations and personal biases on the part of the individuals interested enough to even tackle the issue.

I think that it needs to be remembered how the U.S. is not really one cultural block, as much as a collection of various (often contrasting) cultural sentiments.  By which I mean, it would be a mistake to think of any one cultural expression/norm as a reflection of the American mindset (and one should be weary of any public figure who insists otherwise), because the propensity by which any such cultural expression dominates will by necessity vary greatly between different geographic areas in a country whose landmass spans from one ocean to another.  For example, sociopolitical beliefs and preferences will diverge greatly between Americans living in California, Texas, Vermont, and Michigan.  Moreover, even within these contrasting states it is not unusual to find enclaves of population whose cultural mindset is contrasting enough to make them seem like foreigners to each other (i.e. the cultural difference between San Fransisco, CA and Sacramento, CA, or Odessa, TX and Austin, TX, is prominent enough despite both of the paired cities being located within the same states).  Given all of this, it is possible that the perceived violence attributed to the United States as a whole might simply be the result of a few concentrated areas of violent activity fostering the impression of a more hostile society, which may not be altogether warranted.

Though an appealing hypothesis, it still fails to account for the fact that the U.S. actually does have a higher rate of violent activity, even after one factors in populations size and population diversity.  The undeniable truth is that, on average, we are a more violent country than a great deal of other first world countries.  One can even go further by saying that the mindset of the United States appears to regard a certain form of social turbulence as culturally healthy, in ways that other similarly developed countries do not.  This is actually not as absurd of a position to take on the matter as one might initially think.

The United States, for the majority of its history as an independent country, was composed of uncharted–essentially lawless, since sitting laws could not always be enforced–territories.  Essentially, the image of the wild west is a reality that is barely only a little over a century old in a large segment of the American population.  And although these areas have by now been modernized and incorporated under the rule of enforced law, in many ways the appeal of the rugged, self-governing gunslinger has remained ingrained in the romantic sentiments of many people (including people who have no realistic interest in emulating such a harsh reality).

This is possibly best characterized in the popular prominence of a gun culture in many sectors of American society (a very unique feature amongst first world democracies).  Whichever side of the debate you fall on (either favoring more gun regulation or less), it is undeniable that there exists within many segments of the U.S. public a distinct self-identity with one’s right to carry firearms, as well as firearms in general.  As someone living in the South, this is not at all surprising considering how the mere possession of guns for a long period of time beneath–and west of–the Mason-Dixon Line made you the law in a local region.  This mindset that unless the individual retains the right to–if the occasion demands it–keep order and safety by any and every means possible (including firearms), the common citizenry is put into a disadvantaged position to combat against lawless disorder, is still seen as particularly relevant in the eyes of many Americans (whether the alleged perpetrators are common criminals or overreaching governing authorities).  And it is within the context of this mindset that the appeal of identifying with the vocal gun culture resonates with so many Americans.

But is the influence of this gun culture a contributing factor in the proclivity for violence often identified with American society?  I personally see no clear answer to this question, as it’s highly dependent on one’s presupposed opinion on the matter.  My goal on stating the above isn’t to find a solution or compromising in the gun regulation debate, it is to point out that–within the context of a generalized American society–violence is not always categorized with malicious tendencies.  In fact, a prominent premise among advocates for less gun regulation is the claim that it is necessary for good and law-abiding members of society to use violence to protect themselves from the same society’s bad and lawbreaking members (this is also a mainstay theme in most Hollywood action movie plots).  Thus, one could argue that this lack of a reflexive repulsion towards violence amongst many Americans (this includes both those for and against more gun control)–where the act of resorting to violence is more often than not valued in accordance to the consequences it brings, rather than its adherence to an ethical principle–goes far in fostering to the rest of the world an impression of the U.S. having a rampantly violent culture.

“But why on earth would you want to leave such an impression?”  Would be the follow-up question I imagine being voiced from those residing outside the U.S. border.  The only truthful response I can give to this is that, as a collective culture, Americans don’t really care what impression they leave on the rest of the world.  Because there exists another, complimentary, mindset within most of U.S. society–and I’m speaking as a naturalized American, who matured through his adolescence in America, and went through the American education system–which is:  As the United States of America, we are the standard by which we judge the world, not the other way around; for no other reason than that we are the United States of America.

So, if the rest of the world judges us as violent (justifiably or not), we’ll simply claim it’s a testament to our nation’s individualism, without losing a moment’s worth of sleep over it.  Come to think of it, that’s probably the same response we would give to explain our abysmal test scores in comparison to the rest of the world.  Well, at least we’re consistent.

The Collectivist vs. The Individualist: A Conversation

Collectivist:  “Society cannot exist without the collective effort of the entire group working as a single unit to provide for all members of the population.  And the only fair means by which this system can function is if measures are taken to ensure that all persons within society are given equal opportunity and equal advancement in life.”

Individualist:  “Society is not dependent on the collective effort of its population as a whole to either function or advance forward, but the accomplishments of a select few individuals who are innovative enough to create means and opportunities by which they personally (and society secondarily) benefits from these individual accomplishments.”

Collectivist:  “No man is an island.  And every individual who has ever innovated anything did so through the direct or indirect assistance of a countless number of other individuals who make up the collective of society, and they deserve to share equal credit for the final outcome they helped bring about.  Henry Ford’s automobile would have never been mass produced if it wasn’t for the worker in the assembly line.  Individual innovations are meaningless acts of mental masturbation without the muscle to bring them to life, and the population as a whole are the muscle on which individual innovations depend on to exist.”

Individualist:  “The worker making a living on the assembly line wouldn’t be working and making a living on the assembly line, if Henry Ford hadn’t come up with the idea first.  These groups of people didn’t collective come up with the idea (or any idea for that matter) on how to either make a living, or contribute to society; they depend on the individual to come up with it first.  If a functioning society and productivity is the end result being sought, than individual innovation is still the antecedent that thinks it into life.”

Collectivist:  “But can’t you see that these individual innovators you’re referring to are also an obvious part of the collective population, and thereby also benefit from the collective effort of the group.  Sure, it’s individuals who think up the innovations all of society benefits from, but thoughts are meaningless and useless until they are produced by someone.  And historically that someone has always been the mass populace.”

Individualist:  “Working under the direction of individuals.”

Collectivist:  “Yes.  So what?’

Individualist:  “Without the guidance and innovations of an individual few society stagnates, because the collective population does not collectively create anything beneficial for society.  This is why society values these individual innovators more, and rewards them with a higher rank in its social hierarchy.”

Collectivist:  “A rank earned through the physical work of the people who make the individual innovators’ higher place in the social hierarchy possible.”

Individualist:  “Physical work which wouldn’t have existed without the innovations of these few individuals.”

Collectivist:  “Innovations which would never be realized if it wasn’t for the lowly members of society doing the grunt work to create it.”

Individualist:  “The fact that the other chess pieces play a role on the board in no way invalidates the greater importance of the King in the overall game.”

Collectivist:  “But if no concern is given to strengthening the position of the other chess pieces the King is left vulnerable and exposed.  Important or not, left individually the King is doomed to fall, too.”

Individualist:  “But acknowledging this still doesn’t diminish the higher value of the King in the game of chess.  It is still the King that is held in higher regard than the Pawn, the Knight, or the Bishop.  And it is still the individual that is held in higher regard in society than the collective masses, because individuals are what move society forward.”

Collectivist:  “You’re forgetting that a ladder can’t stand upright without its lowest pegs.”

Individualist:  “You’re forgetting that a ladder is useless if no one ever climbs it.”

Collectivist:  “A world where only the few rise, is a world where opportunity for advancement will seize to exist as the few in power will horde everything for themselves.  What you’re proposing is oligarchy!”

Individualist:  “A world where no one falls, is also a world where no one rises!  If everyone always stays on the same level, there will be no achievements and no advancements.  We can’t all rise collectively, but we can certainly plateau together.”

Collectivist:  “I’d rather plateau as a unit, then watch a minority segment of the population rise at the expense of the majority.”

Individualist:  “And I’d rather watch at least one individual rise above the herd, than have a society made up solely of equally mindless sheep.”

The Measure of a Man

Leonardo da Vinci: Art, Family & Facts - HISTORY

One hundred years from today, I will be long dead.  This is a fact whose veracity exists completely independent of my attitude or concern towards it.  Before I am accused of youthful nihilism, let me make it clear that my guaranteed death sometime in the coming decades does not cause me much grief, or fear, or pessimism; after all, the way I see it, once I’m dead I will not have the capacity to even care one way or the other.  The only intent I have with mentioning my own mortality is to focus my young mind on the way in which individuals are remembered by succeeding generations.  Or, more fittingly, how they are not remembered.

In history, very few individuals are ever really remembered.  If one was to compare the names of individually known figures, to the names of the unknown masses, the former would not even tip the scale in ratio to the latter.  Which is why, I suppose, we have a tendency to often define eras and concepts in history by the measure of their most imposing personalities (i.e. Pre-Socratic philosophy, Napoleonic Era, Darwinian science, Keynesian economics).  In times where no single individual can quite reach the notoriety needed to be the zeitgeist’s neologism, the individuals who make up the era are left to be defined by the perception later generations have of them as a collective mass (i.e. the Dark Ages, where any individual accomplishment that may have been produced is overshadowed by the popularly understood inaction of the historical era as a whole).

This bit of information leaves me with little doubt that, as a content member of the unknown masses, the faults (and, of course, the strengths) that will come to define the age I happen to live in, will eventually be the standard by which future generations measure my merits and contributions as an individual (on account that my individuality is entirely tied in to the merits of the social structure I happen to have been born into).  This means that just as we today may pitifully look back at the anonymous peasant of the 11th Century–who thought the sun revolved around the earth and that witches were ruining his crops–long after I am dead, I will continue to exist in the consciousness of the yet-to-be-born public, as a pitiful, anonymous representation of all the bigotries and delusions that are too prevalent in my current society for me to even fully acknowledge; regardless of whether I personally subscribed to such sentiments or not.

Some might see this as a compelling reason for why one must speak out against perceived errors of one’s day, but I’m skeptical to how much of a deterrence this has against the prevailing generalizations of history.  Certainly speak out when you see fit, new media forums have made that easier now than ever, and the chance exists that your voice will stand out from the crowd.  But it should be kept in mind that back in the 11th Century, there must have been at least one peasant who did not hold to witchcraft as a plausible phenomenon, and perhaps didn’t even subscribe to a geocentric model, but her/his voice is still irrelevant to the greater historical narrative of her/his social era.  Because even when dissenting voices are acknowledged to have existed within the nameless public, they are usually treated by history as minor anomalies in the larger framework.

Maybe this should give us reason enough to collectively strive to do better as a society, so that the faults of our generation don’t become the eventual measure of us as individuals.  But such worries can seem almost too laughably idealistic to even the most astute observer (how on earth can we correct faults we don’t even notice we have, yet?).  Not to mention, this is only a concern to me because I’m still alive (and plan to stay so for some time to come).  If I was dead…well, I refer the reader to my statement on mortality at the beginning of this post.

Putin Ordered A Political Murder…In Other News

A UK judge has concluded that Vladimir Putin is most likely implicated in the 2006 fatal poisoning of former KGB officer, and outspoken critic of the Kremlin, Alexander Litvinenko.  This is not news to anyone who’s been following the fate of Putin’s critics.  The man has undoubtedly orchestrated the death of many individuals who pose him even the slightest bit of political danger, and will undoubtedly continue to do so, primarily because there are no consequences to his crimes.  Political leaders in his own country will not depose him, and heads of state in other countries will do little more than gently scold him for his excesses, while continue to engage him as a legitimate, respectable political figure in the world scene.

So, what now?  Put simply, nothing.  Putin could not care less what one judge, or even a hundred judges, in the United Kingdom say.  And western leaders are more concerned about keeping the variables in the global political scene as predictable as possible than risk removing even a single demagogue, as long as they have a manageable working relationship with him.

The fact remains that Vladimir Putin, sitting President of the Russian Federation, is a murderer.  An authoritarian thug, with a cold disregard for rule of international law regarding even the most basic of human rights.  And the individuals we look to, which we have sanctioned to hold positions as our representatives to enforce the international laws we abide by, will not move a muscle to bring an obvious criminal to face the justice he deserves.  Because it would not be a politically “savvy” move.  Because it would introduce undue strain and unknown variables into the global scene.  Because it would create a power vacuum in a fragile state.  (My, my…how impolite of all these pesky activists to bother human rights groups and organizations about taking action against individuals violating human rights, I mean, it’s not like it’s their job or anything, right?  No, no, no.  Human rights organizations, international courts and law, all those exist to preserve the balance of power, not safeguard against its abuses.)

This story brings me to a some things that have been on my mind for some time.  Such as:  Is there any reason for the United Nations to exist?  What about Interpol?  What about International Court Tribunals?  Believe me, I am not being facetious when I ask these questions.  Is there any justifiable reason for these entities to exist when their focus is myopic to the point of being astigmatic?  What good is a human rights organizational willing to sellout, and outright subjugate the very notion of the principles of human rights and justice it was established to protect?  If these are just buildings in which thugs and murderers–and their accommodators–verbally masturbate about their self-importance to mask their powerless irrelevance in the face of opposing any actual threats to world peace and human rights, can we then drop the facade already, and call a useless spade a spade?

The Darker Side of William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth’s 1798 poem, “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman”, takes the reader into the emotional turmoil of loss, regret, and death, as they shape the human experience and understanding of the world that surrounds us.  The prose begins with the startling lines, “Before I see another day, Oh let my body die away!”  A clear plea for death, enunciated through a tone of exhaustion.  The prospect of continued existence has become an unbearable burden to the speaker, forcing the exclamation of “Oh” as a preemptive sigh of gratitude for the sweet relief of death that the speaker hopes will come soon as a deliverance.  In common Wordsworthian fashion, the narrative is not complete unless it offers a reverence to the natural surroundings of the poem’s setting:

In sleep I heard the northern gleams;

The stars, they were among my dreams;

In rustling conflict through the skies,

I heard, I saw the flashes drive,

Judging by the description above, the speaker is in the icy regions of the northern latitude, where the famous Northern lights have been documented as making a seemingly “rustling” and crackling noise through the air.  The diction implies that the speaker has been stranded to look at this scenery for some time, and though overwhelmed by the majesty of it, the beauty of the imagery only works to remind the speaker of the blissful state that death would bring, “And yet they are upon my eyes, And yet I am alive.”  The beauty of the northern sky serves as a contrast to the narrators destitute state, which stands in for Wordsworth’s greater message that while we who dwell under Nature’s grace will inevitably fade away, the grace of Nature itself will always be eternally observable in the night sky, no better the fickle state of the observer.

The poem transitions from the sky, back to the individual, as the narrator draws links between natural processes and the human experience:

My fire is dead:  it knew no pain;

Yet it is dead, and I remain:

All stiff with ice the ashes lie;

And they are dead, and I will die.

The speaker understand that once death arrives, she will no longer be in any state to either contemplate the event, or complain about it–in death the fire knows no pain, and neither will any of us.  Watching the ashes that remain from the once flaming campfire focuses the narrator’s mind to recognize the temporary reality of her current pain.

Though the poem appears to have reached a point of serenity for the character involved, the prose quickly takes a turn towards reminiscences of life and regret:

Alas!  ye might have dragged me on

Another day, a single one!

Too soon I yielded to despair;

Why did ye listen to my prayer?

Wordsworth’s poem narrates the story of an American Indian woman left behind by her companion when she decided she could not continue the journey any longer.  The first two lines in the above passage would have the reader assume that this is a tale of callous abandonment, but the last two lines imply that the woman’s companions continued on without her, at her own insistence (hence, the retrospective woe, “Why did ye listen to my prayer?”).  The whole passage is one of  self-scorn for not having persisted against the obstacles faced, for not having chosen life over a defeatist end.  Although the speaker now recognizes that she could have held on further, the recognition comes too late; she now is where she saw herself at when she chose to give up trying.

The narrative then adds another layer of dimension to the emotional turmoil of the poem, with the following lines:

My Child! they gave thee to another,

A woman who was not thy mother.

When from my arms my Babe they took,

On me how strangely did he look!

Through his whole body something ran,

A most strange working did I see;

–As if he strove to be a man,

That he might pull the sledge for me:

And then he stretched his arms, how wild!

Oh mercy! like a helpless child.

The story of loss takes a new turn, as the seemingly abandoned woman now takes on the role of an abondoner.  Wordsworth draws a contrast in the behavior of the child in comparison to his mother; whereas the mother lays down to surrender to the elements, the boy’s demeanor is one of positive life affirmation–a desire to continue forwards at all cost–against whatever may arise in his path.  But the mother recognizes that this positive determination in her child’s eye is futile to help her, and gives the impression that she holds herself responsible for not meeting the boy’s drive and forcing herself to head on.  To be separated from one’s child is a reality all people will eventually face as they shuffle off this mortal coil, but to hand him away to another and then wait remorsefully for death to come is the very zenith of despair.  Perhaps this is the reason for the narrator’s initial unwillingness to muster forward after her premature surrender to the forces of nature, causing her to later muse privately to her gone child, “Then do not weep and grieve for me; I feel I must have died with thee.”

The theme of despair and sorrow is not uncommon in Wordsworth’s poetry, but usually it is told in a sense of pining for Nature’s simplicity, and a romantic plea for greater introspection of the joy’s of life and love.  But in “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman”, the poet deviated from the format his reader’s are accustomed to.  Here, the tone begins in pain and ends in pain; the reality of Nature’s cruelty is not rationalized away–no apologizes on behalf of Wordsworth’s deified grace of Nature is offered.  As the poem’s ending shows, loss, regret, and death are inseparable components of life, and no retrospective pleas or complaints of one’s past actions will amend this fact:

Young as I am my course is run,

I shall not see another sun;

I cannot lift my limbs to know

If they have any life or no.

My poor forsaken Child, if I

For once could have thee close to me,

With happy heart I then would die,

And my last thought would happy be;

But thou, dear Babe, art far away,

Nor shall I see another day.

Bibliography

Wordsworth, William.  “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman,” 1798 (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, Cambridge Edition, 1932 reprint).

Conflating Cause and Identity

When we care enough about a particular issue (be it social, political, religious, cultural, or recreational) enough to devote a noteworthy amount of our time and energy into addressing it, we naturally start to relate with said issue on a deeper level than mere interest; in short, it becomes a cause for us to identify with.  And, in and of itself, this is not a point at which I would raise objections.  People looking to find and promote remedies to a problem they feel is serious enough that it needs to be addressed, and are willing to invest themselves into finding reasonable solutions to address it, can all be very praiseworthy (depending on the issue and the sort of solutions being proposed, of course).  The concern for me is when the adoption of an issue (the promotion of a particular cause) starts to take on an omnipresent tone in a person’s life.

When someone stops being “John, who happens to be an environmentalist” and starts being “The Environmentalist John”; or going from “Jane, who cares about tax reforms” [either conservative or progressive, it makes no difference in this scenario] and becomes “The Tax Reformer Jane.”  When the issue being discussed takes precedent over the individual/s promoting it, that’s where I believe people’s judgments are liable to being skewed and easily misled due to an emotional investments in their favored cause.  (Even if the cause itself remains a laudable effort.)

One can look to the revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and deduce how the majority of average persons who made up the ranks of these movements were people who truly, genuinely, cared about promoting an issue, whose benignity they wholeheartedly believed in.  Even the precursors to what would eventually become the Bolshevik faction did not begin under the assumption that it would institute a repressive regime as its end goal.  It began as a movement looking to (in their eyes) elevate the dignity and ensure equal prosperity for the hitherto oppressed segments of society in Imperial Russia.  However, somewhere along the way, for the people driving and participating in the cause, it seized being about addressing the legitimate issues of the cause, and more about upholding the perceived righteousness of the movement inspired by the cause.  This happens when the advocacy of a particular topic stops being just one attribute (amongst many) of a person, and becomes an extension of the individual her/himself–the individual identity gets sacrificed for the benefit of a greater Identity Movement, where identifying with a cause serves as the primary function of the cause itself.

The severity of this depends largely on the scope and power of the Identity Movement in question, but regardless of its impact on the population-at-large, its affect on the perception of the persons who partake and become engrossed with the prospect of having a message with which they can empathize–moreover, with which they can identify–works to create a false impression of the issue which they were originally seeking to address/remedy, as it causes the participants to internalize what is essentially an external problem.  Making the likelihood of ever achieving a solution to the initial issue unfeasible as a development that will be noticed by participants in the cause, because by this point their interests have already (unbeknownst to them) shifted from promoting answers to a cause, to just simply having a cause.  And having their individual identities defined by it.

To avoid charges of plagiarism (and indulge in shameless narcissism), I’ll summarize my own interests in this topic by quote myself from a previous post  when I first wrote my thoughts on “The Sacrifice of Identity”:

Perhaps, this trend is not widespread enough to cause alarm for most people, but I shutter to think about the great minds the world may have lost to such misguided reasoning.

Not to mention, those that it may still end up losing.

Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and the Political Utility of Religion

500 Years and Counting: Why the World Is Still Terrified by Machiavelli |  The National Interest

Niccolo Machiavelli is one the many writers in history fortunate enough to be extensively quoted by individuals who have little patience to actually read his large body of work.  Most (in)famous of the man’s oft cited prose is his 1513 political tract advising ruling figures on how to govern, simply titled The Prince.  In it he boldly states that when it comes to exercising one’s authority, the ruler needs to adhere to the basic principle that the ends always justify the means; with the ends always being a retention of power, and means being whatever will bring about that desired end.

Although at face value the work is a clear promotion of totalitarianism, there exist several peculiarities with the way Machiavelli formats his dictatorial learner’s manual.  For instance, despite it being address to the ruling classes of society, the book is actually written in the plain Italian of Machiavelli’s day, making its sensitive instructions to rulers available to the very commoners whose exploitation Machiavelli is encouraging.  Granted, literacy wasn’t too high among the lower classes, but for a manuscript aiming to teach governing sovereigns how to be more deceitful, one would think that Machiavelli would at least have bothered to make the message a bit more cryptic to the masses (possibly by writing it in Latin, which was already in disuse outside of aristocratic functions).  Even stranger is the fact that only six years later Machiavelli wrote Discourses on Levi, a political book that enthusiastically taunts the superiority of democratic republicanism over monarchical forms of governance; completely contradicting the authoritarian advise he offers in The Prince.  It’s possible that between 1513 and 1519, Machiavelli changed his preference from despotism to republicanism, but I think it is also very likely the allegations labeling The Prince a clever work of political satire should not be so quickly brushed aside, as it appears to be the most plausible answer to account for the discrepancies mentioned above.  If it is true that The Prince is nothing more but a satirical revelation of the aristocratic mindset, meant to convey to the lowly subjects the true nature of their rulers’ motivations, then Machiavelli deserves to be acknowledged as the greatest writer in all of history for composing a piece of satire that continues to fool people (scholars and laypersons alike) to this day.

Although Machiavelli’s politics might be evasive, his views on religion appear to be fairly consistent throughout his writing career.  In The Prince, Machiavelli refers to religion as a tool of the ruler, to be used as a method by which he can convince the masses of his benignity.  Machiavelli makes it clear that the sincerity of the ruler’s piety is of no importance:

Every one knows how praiseworthy it is in a Prince to keep faith, and to live uprightly and not craftily.  Nevertheless, we see from what has taken place in our own days that Princes who have set little store by their word, but have known how to overreach men by their cunning, have accomplished great things, and in the end got the better of those who trusted to honest dealings (Machiavelli, Niccolo.  The Prince.  Chapter XVIII, “How Princes Should Keep Faith,” (Pocket Books:  New York) 2004 reprint, p.83).

Machiavelli does not dispute the notion that faithfulness is a popular virtue, but he is arguing that while the Prince (i.e. the ruler) should take care to be seen as ideally faithful by his subjects, his actual actions need not be limited by any pious restraints.  In other words, if left to choose between preserving one’s crown and staying true to one’s religious principle, the competent ruler will always choose the former over the latter, “a prudent Prince neither can nor ought to keep his word when to keep it is hurtful to him and the causes which led him to pledge it are removed” (Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 84).  While Machiavelli’s words sound odious to our most basic sentiments concerning decorum and public honesty, it needs to be remembered that the writer is merely stating a fact that holds true for almost every person living, then and now.  Few of us are unwilling to amend even our most cherished convictions if opportunity demands it of us.  I will even go so far as to say that every single person, functioning in society, has at one point or another been faced with a situation in which s/he has gone against a core principle s/he claims to adhere to.  Of course, when confronted with our obvious hypocrisy we will find some way to rationalize it away as irrelevant, but what Machiavelli is advising is for the Prince to fully embrace his hypocrisy as a necessary part of his position.

On the topic of religion, Machiavelli considers it important for a ruler to exhibit the outwardly qualities that are popularly associated with the practice:

A Prince should therefore be very careful that nothing ever escapes his lips which is not replete with the five qualities above named, so that to see and hear him one would think him the embodiment of mercy, good, faith, integrity, and religion.  And there is no virtue which it is more necessary for him to seem to posses than the last (Machiavelli, The Prince, p.85).

Special attention should be given to Machiavelli’s word choice at the end of the above quote; note he says it is necessary for the Prince to merely seem religious, not to be personally sincere about it.   The reason being that people look for commonality when identifying with other individuals, and religiosity is a widespread system by which a variety of people pledge some base level of identification with one another.  Hence, an open proclamation of religiosity by the ruler is a key way for him (or any public figure for that matter) to retain support from the populace.  But it is inevitable that at some point the ruler will be faced with having to violate some religious decree, and according to Machiavelli this is perfectly acceptable, as long as he gives of the impression of being pious it is enough to convince the masses; actions are meaningless, “Everyone sees what you seem, but few know what you are, and these few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many who have the majesty of the State to back them” (p. 85).  This is especially true for leaders who gain endorsement from the main religious institution, like the church, since such organizations often hold the final word on what is pious and what is not (religious belief itself is usually a secondary concern in these sort of church-state relations, if it is a concern at all).

It needs to be remembered that Machiavelli’s aim is not to teach how to deceive the common folk; rather what the writer is doing is measuring the worth of a Prince/ruler by the merits of his efficiency, “Wherefore if a Prince succeeds in establishing and maintaining his authority, the means will always be judged honourable and approved by everyone” (p. 86).  People don’t mind being lied to as long as it is a blissful experience.  Nor do they care about the piety of their leaders actions, as long as her/his words align with what they want to hear and their living standard remain comfortable.

I suspect–though I can’t be sure–that Machiavelli’s other aim was to openly document the method by which the lowly masses are kept content by their deceitful figure heads.  Perhaps his intention was to alarm the common man into action, but judging by the way political leaders to this day swoon their constituencies by a never-ending array of appeals to their personal piety (all while being documented adulterers, liars, frauds, cheaters, warmongers and war-propagators, and a whole lot of other “moral” transgressions), I doubt we really want anything else but to be deceived.  Or as Machiavelli himself put it, “”men are so simple, and governed so absolutely by their present needs, that he who wishes to deceive will never fail in finding willing dupes” (p.84).

Bibliography

Machiavelli, Niccolo.  The Prince. Chapter XVIII, “How Princes Should Keep Faith,” (Pocket Books:  New York), 2004 reprint.  Original publication 1513.

The Unspoken Flaw of Populist Rhetoric, or F–k “the People”

It doesn’t matter where you stand on the right-center-left spectrum of American politics, the fact is that, if you’re running for political office and you want to stand any chance of winning, you will laud and promote your candidacy as being aligned with the spirit of the people.  What exactly is this spirit, and who specifically constitutes being a member of such a vague and loaded category like “the people”?  None of that matters, because the phrase is meant to be a blank sheet, onto which voters can project whatever specific attributes they favor, left over from the sociopolitical legacy of the populist struggle of the 19th & 20th Centuries.

Populism is a broad term within political philosophy, but its basic ideological tenet is one of supporting the interests of the common worker and general public (frequently stylized simply as “the people” in popular speech), against the domination of the affluent elites of society.  In the United States, the populist movement began in the late 19th Century as a mostly rural (farmers, laborers, and small-businessmen) backlash against the growing monopolization of their resources into the control of a group of industrialists and venture capitalists.  Because the latter group had most (if not all) of the political and financial backing from the government, populism (even after its namesake’s fall as a major political player in the early 20th Century) became associated in the public mind with the common good of the lowly citizenry; essentially presented under the image of giving a voice to the hitherto politically voiceless.

As I already mentioned, nowadays the appeal to populist rhetoric transcends political affiliation.  Barack Obama can fail to call for the legal investigation of the individuals and enterprises (indeed, openly refuse any suggestion of it) who contributed to the high risk gambling of public and private funds that helped bring about the financial crisis of 2008 (the economic effect of which we are still feeling on a global level), and he will still promote his policies as prime examples of serving “the people” above the interests of the upper classes (well, I don’t know about you, but when I commit marketing fraud and declare bankruptcy, I don’t see the judicial system putting up its hands and saying, “Meh, shit happens, let’s just move forward.  Oh, by the way, here’s your old job back, too”).  During the 2012 election, Mitt Romney could openly say that his vision for America’s economic system is one in which the richest will be directly favored above the rest (while also privately implying that nearly half the country is made up of social parasites), and he still continued to claim how the goal of his policies is structured to actually work for the common good of “the people” (because somehow making sure that your boss is financial secure, will–without any legal imperative pressuring him to do so–guarantee that he’ll be generous enough to graciously trickle a descent sum of that money down your way, instead of the more likely scenario of him hording it away in his own private funds).  And both sides will get away with this vacuous rhetoric among their voting base, partly because most people are convinced that this is as good as it can get, and partly because they figure that (at the very least) their candidate is still making reference to them–which has got to count for something, right?

The reason people think it counts for something is the notion that somehow, by virtue of some noble force or another, the party, the candidate, the ideology that seems to most support the spirit of the people, is the less corruptible faction in the game.  It rests on the unspoken premise that “the people” are this incorruptible fortress that stands above the decadency of the power-hungry rulers, and therein lies the central flaw of populist rhetoric.  “The People” who make up the Democratic Party are corrupt enough to ignore the ethical trespass of their candidates, for the sake of promoting the handful of pet-issues they care about.  “The People” who make up the Republican Party are corrupt enough to ignore the ethical trespasses of their candidates, for the sake of promoting the handful of pet-issues they care about.  “The People” who make up the ranks of all political, social, ideological movements are corrupt enough to ignore the various faults in their reasoning for the sake of the greater good or the lesser evil they are convinced will benefit society more.  In other words:  I am corrupt enough to care more about my petty, pedantic disagreements with political thought, than to truly consider the possibility that a great deal of people could potentially benefit from my support of one political model over another.

This idea of the immaculate virtue of “the people” is a myth.  It was a myth when it was being promoted by my Southern farmer’s great-great-grandparents on behalf of the populist cause, and it’s a myth in its current incarnation as a bipartisan talking point during every election cycle.  After all, all corrupt individuals, in all identifiable fields of work and thought, are still people, and I’d wager that none of them consider their misdeeds as acts of corruption, as much as circumstantial/vocational necessities.  And everyone is liable to be led astray into morally questionable deeds, if s/he can convince her/himself of the virtue of the “bigger picture” involved.  You and I, no matter how humble and modest of a life we lead, are no exception.

Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

For lack of a better term, I have to make due in labeling myself as apolitical, meaning that while I hold certain opinions on social matters that occasionally align me within one political camp or another, I never intentionally seek to follow any one party’s ideological narrative, or support someone simply because they belong to party X, instead of party Y (in fact, if you were to list all of my socioeconomic opinions, you’d probably see me swaying from one end of the political spectrum to the other, across varying topics).

When it comes to the death penalty, I’d always been of the opinion that it is something to be opposed, and that those who side with me on this issue are doing a piss poor job arguing against it.  To give a little background, I live in a conservative, right-wing, 2nd Amendment loving state of the southern United States (i.e. Texas), where the death penalty is heralded as the only effective means to combat crime.  Pointing out that many of the urban counties in Texas hold the ranks of housing some of the highest crime rates in the country, despite also having one of the highest execution rates in the nation, is a non-starter with people here, since they can (rightly) maintain that correlation does not imply causation.

I would also freely admit that even if it can be conclusively proven that the death penalty does not deter crime (and I have no reason to suspect that this is not the case) I would refuse to use this as a valid point when debating the issue.  Why?  Because, for the sake of complete honesty, I know that if the evidence went the other way (that executions were deterring crime), my position would still be to oppose the death penalty on principle (I’ll explain further in a moment what I mean by this).  For death penalty opponents to rest their case on this line of reasoning is a blatant surrender of any ethical high-ground, since their counterparts can easily corner them into accepting that if a utilitarian defense of the death penalty could be hypothetically presented, they’d be forced to change their position.  Arguing on such terms is a fruitless waste of time and energy.

The second mode of arguing that my fellow death penalty opponents try to resort to is to point out the number of cases in which innocent lives were put to death before their innocence could be proven.  This, too, is a bad form of arguing in my eyes, as death penalty proponents can again corner their opposition by turning this into an appeal to have more effective methods of ensuring that the guilty party is the one that is held accountable.  Once again, the death penalty opponent seems to be arguing against the screening process, not the practice.  (The argument that minorities are more likely to be executed than whites in America would also fall into this line, as it claims that the death penalty is merely biased, but not wrong, and rather than being abolished needs to be made more egalitarian).

Arguing that the death penalty is state sanctioned murder is equally pointless, since proponents of the practice will rightly mention that the same can be said of war casualties, smugly aware that for one to admit to being against war and military is to commit one of the greatest of blasphemies in eyes of the American public (discrediting your position on the spot).  And I have met few death penalty opponents around here willing to own up to being pacifists.

By far, the worst logic I’ve ever heard is the statement, “I oppose the death penalty, because I’m a liberal.”  This is the worst to me, because I don’t see what place politics has in this discussion (and, yes, I would consider the statement, “I support/oppose the death penalty because I’m a conservative/libertarian/green/monarchist” to be just as stupid).  To hold a position due to it alining with your greater political ideology always makes me think that you haven’t thought about why the death penalty is wrong; you just accept that it is so because that’s what you think a good liberal should think.  As someone who is apolitical, I cannot support such lackluster logic, as it implies that your opposition to the practice will possibly wane throughout your life as your political allegiance changes.  Furthermore, I honestly see no reason why right-wingers and left-wingers could not agree on this issue, other than that both sides are more concerned with opposing one another, instead of actually contemplating on why they oppose/support the death penalty.

Having gone through all of that, let me now state why I, personally, oppose the death penalty.  It can essentially be reduced to one fundamental point: I reject the notion that a human sacrifices is a valid or ethical stance, when it comes to administering justice.  It has nothing to do with politics, or even philosophy, but everything with my opposition to the idea that societal vengeance has any place in the judicial process.  I don’t need any utilitarian, or theological, or Socratic, or syllogistic argument to justify this position.  And I dare those who disagree with me to say that they, in fact, do consider a human sacrifice to be a valid and ethical form of administering justice.  Maybe they’ll disagree with that characterization, but that is not my concern.  You are claiming that a person has committed a crime so heinous, that he must atone for it with his life, in order to redeem your trust in the justice process; this is a call for a blood offering to give you peace of mind.  A passive admission that when it comes to justice, you are primarily concerned with satisfying your own thirst for punishment, not rehabilitation of the citizenry.  An admission that you do not trust in the judicial process, and even reject its effectiveness altogether, if it does not work to satisfy your need for vengeance against those who step outside the law.

Before anyone tries the ever-so emotional tirade of, “you wouldn’t be saying that if someone you cared for had been murdered.  You’d be screaming for blood then, too.”  To this line of reasoning I must respectfully say, do not presume to know who I am, or what I have experienced; let alone how I respond to personal tragedies.  And if we are to go down the realm of appealing to personal experiences, allow me to ask bluntly in return: what peace would it give me to see the person killed as a punishment for the loss of someone I cared for?–None!  Is it going to bring the person back to life?–No!  Nothing changes, the person I loved is still dead.  The only ones satisfied in this scenario are those who advocate the modern equivalent of a blood offering, and they do so only to ease their anxious minds, not mine.  If that is your position, go ahead and hold to it, but do not even for a second pretend that it is ethically superior to my own.  What you want is a justice system focused on revenge and fear of retaliation, what I want is a society built on empathy and introspective enough to reevaluate its mores for the sake of all its citizenry (the good and the bad).