Well before September 11, 2001 I worried about what an appropriate response to terrorism would look like.
Because of this I came to understand a few of the ways our lives are being compromised and how these erosions have been setting the stage for many difficulties.
Let me begin with a confession:
- While thinking about these matters, I was mindful of a (short) list of publishers polite enough to have personalized rejection slips regarding my 'over the transom' submissions.
- I have a modest history of being paid for articles, essays and book reviews.
- For several years, not one of my efforts has been given the nod.
Since I am clearly more accomplished these days, my suspicion is that the publishing market is shrinking.
Moreover, according to what I read and hear, this experience is echoed across creative communities of all sorts.
A reasonable suspicion is that the demand for writers, musicians and 'creative types' ... has not kept pace with populations - even though the volume of information, gossip and entertainment making the rounds has never been greater!
A central reason for this state of affairs involves corporations' co-opting and pre-empting of cultural activities, fuelled by the economies of mass production and the virtuosity of artists who become ‘household names’.
The creative activities of this small tribe have become the 'stock in trade' of corporations, who reproduce their achievements and market them to millions or tens of millions of consumers.
From consumers' points of view, this makes apparent sense. They get to enjoy excellent entertainment, most of which costs no more than sitting through commercial breaks and paying embedded advertising costs whenever goods and services are purchased.
The more subtle reason for mass media success is that 'consuming experiences' always feel like one-to-one relationships with artists, performers and writers. Consumers do not care that thousands or millions may be sharing the same intimate connection, because this intimacy is not part of their experience. Two voyeurs may be peeping at the same delectable scene simultaneously. If they are at windows on different sides of the house, this unrecognised simultaneity will not diminish the enjoyment of either.
Voyeurs seem equally indifferent to the fact that such channels of communication are always one-way. Information flows from performers to audience and never from audience to artists.
Even the limited feed-back that occurs when artists and audiences share an auditorium or a grassy field is missing in mass-media events.
In today's media-savvy world, famous artists, and the corporations that make them possible, have no interest in what audiences think - beyond counting the transactions putting products in consumers' hands or bums in seats.
The downside of corporate-abetted, apparently free entertainment is that individuals yearning to share creative moments - but lacking, perchance, extraordinary talent or pulchritude - find it difficult to gain an audience.
For a time, it was thought that the Internet would dissolve this problem. A significant percentage of web-surfers have issues or ideas they would like to talk about. The problem is that there are more people with things to say than individuals prepared to pay attention.
Ironically, this may be the silver lining. By democratizing communication so that anyone can run actual flags up virtual poles, the World Wide Web may finally dispel the fantasy that proselytizing and other forms of top-down moral and rational persuasion can make a difference in the way events unfold.
Poetry, stories and music have always been at the heart of cultural activities. Poetry and music are mnemonic devices - much easier to remember than prose. Before writing and Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, the 'oral tradition' conveyed information about events and customs among communities and across generations. This meant that new generations did not have to re-invent tools and strategies. They could pick up where previous generations left off, and so their lives went better.
What today's media gurus and digital revolutionaries overlook is that cultural activities are valuable if and only if they occur in contexts in which an improved ordinary life is a possible result.
There is growing evidence that what counts as 'cultural activities' is now substituting for personal and community life.
This goes some distance towards explaining why there continues to be so little interest in substantial conversations and scholarly achievements. This is an unexpected worry for those who cannot understand why communication possibilities are having so few useful outcomes.
The vote is now in: most human beings prefer conversations and entertainments with sensible connections to here and now. This is why hockey games, soap operas and reality shows are of enduring interest.
Almost certainly, there is nothing that can be done about this. However, we can come to recognize that only communications that pass 'here and now' usefulness tests have a chance of making a difference.
This is certainly what history demonstrates. Individuals who have 'made their mark' and occupied historians have always found ways of hooking their ambitions to the needs and concerns of ordinary people.
Prosperous corporations have always found ways to capitalize upon the same issues, anxieties and satisfactions.
The paradox confronting those pointing out that more is required for prosperity, and perhaps even survival? The circumstances that make life-saving initiatives possible must be in place before such initiatives can occur. Yet such initiatives must create these circumstances.
The point is that moral and rational promulgators can only hope to accomplish 50 percent of what is required. They can talk, sing, write ... but they cannot also pay attention.
This is not a trivial matter. In spite of centuries of remarkable efforts by moral and spiritual leaders, homely instincts, immediate needs and pressing circumstances ... continue to set the stage for 'growth at any cost' economies and their associated brutal politics.
Human beings' preoccupation with immediate issues has been worsened by the way we educate ourselves and understand our mutual responsibilities. For centuries, literary, philosophical and academic pursuits have been regarded as critical elements of culture and citizenship. The producers and consumers of these self-styled 'important cultural activities' have responded to the general lack of interest in their transcendent issues by organizing and populating self-validating institutions. Universities, formal accreditation procedures, ceremonies ... imply that important matters are moving forward. The citizens of these cultural enclaves encourage one another, pretend to be interested in what one another are getting up to and, most importantly, defend their institutions against critiques and criticisms.
The most important defense involves persuading the public that institutional costs are a bargain in terms of economic spin-offs and spiritual and moral enhancement. The core argument is counter-factual and, hence, irrefutable: “You say things are bad now. Think what they would be like in the absence of uplifting, thought-provoking, civilizing ... influences!”
The problem is that proselytizing, moral suasion and corporate-centered cultural activities are not merely ineffectual at improving lives, they arguably make matters worse.
There are two reasons:
- The most obvious involves the consequences of generating enclaves of ‘moral, prudential, economic, political, medical ... experts’. The fact that there are experts everywhere rationalizes the indifference most of us have with respect to ‘exotic issues’ ... i.e., issues not relevant to today's affairs. When problems arise that warrant wide responses, they now must overcome not only instinctive myopia but a new factor - the presence of experts that makes the indifference of non-experts not only defensible but desirable. Professionals, superbly-trained groups, response teams ... patrol the world. Their mandate is to interdict, propose, dispose, dissolve and resolve problems. The rest of us are discouraged from 'taking matters into our own hands’ . Our responsibility is to pull off of the road so emergency vehicles can pass.
- In addition, since taxes and profit taking have been financing moral and scientific investigations, we can legitimately decline further responsibility.
Obviously, research and high-level cultural activities have much to do with the world we live in. My suggestion is that these changes are not always beneficial.
More importantly, a great deal is not being accomplished at all. Scientific research and technological developments are proceeding at a wonderful pace, while moral and rational initiatives remain moribund. We have not become thoughtful or empathic vis-a-vis one another's well-being or the harms of new technologies or industrialization. There is a growing gap between what we are technologically capable of and our ability to make thoughtful use of this capacity. The development of nuclear weapons, the collapse of the world's fishery, the global warming threat ... can all be understood in terms of what happens when narrow agendas are coupled to powerful tools.
The reality is that corporations, industrial projects, and technological developments ... are increasingly good at harnessing here and now needs and insecurities to business plans. Market surveys, focus groups, psychological modelling, factor analysis of economic data ... are good at quantifying, modeling and influencing behaviour. Billions of dollars are invested in such efforts, costs handed back to workers and consumers in the form of embedded overhead expenses.
Experts and promulgators have further unhappy consequences. They rationalize participation in technological and commercial projects. As increasingly inscrutable devices and systems emerge, any resulting moral and prudential issues must be looked after by similarly competent experts
What is missing in the excitement over the 'knowledge economy' is recognition that the associated manufacturing and efficiency improvements not only diminish employment possibilities for most, they cause individuals to disengage politically, morally and rationally.
The world is becoming increasingly sophisticated, even as we come to regard ourselves as incompetent to have an opinion about anything beyond some narrow competence. This means that we are excused from responsibility for the conduct of the nations and corporations constituted out of our bodies and energies.
In other words, preachers, proselytizers, experts and promulgators are toxic in three ways.
- They fail to identify how their presence devalues and disenfranchises the usual person.
- This weakening of general resolve and engagement causes the work experts get up to seem increasingly urgent.
- Moral and rational talk means nothing if not translated into action. The presence of experts and audiences encourages everyone to confuse talk with action. In the meantime, corporations and nations, which are not obstructed by this confusion, have a free hand.
The challenge will be to recast moral and rational understandings so that they are not understood as fait accompli to be sent into the world to succeed or fail according to the choices of individuals reading them.
Moral and rational promulgations have been failing because they do not include methods of instantiation. Until this is remedied, they are worse than nothing. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Finally, a reason to be optimistic. Human beings can behave in sophisticated ways. Progress can occur in small steps from 'here and now' concerns to 'think globally, act locally' activities - if 'personally relevant rewards' occur along the way.
Such proceedings can lead to either heroic or depraved consequences - as we learned at Auschwitz in the 20 century and, more recently, on September 11, 2001 in New York.
The people involved in such behaviours almost always regard themselves as aggrieved victims. Alternatively, they see themselves as so excellent that they are licenced to exploit Jews, Negroes, aboriginals, scoundrel nations ... and, of course, any species or resource promising quick profit.
For the most part, moralists shun such stratagems. Instead, they appeal to the 'free will' , to the moral and rational agency, of audiences. Audiences, of course, love to hear that they are masters of their own destinies - although the evidence that this is not so is overwhelming.
In the meantime, politicians and corporations are not confused about how to get things done. They certainly do not confuse talking with acting.
And they have been ably assisted by the world's soothsayers, naysayers, hand-wavers, futurists and experts ... who have been distracting the rest of us from what they are up to.