Friday, October 07, 2005

Gore: Public Discourse Requires Media Reform

Excerpts from Al Gore's recent speech criticizing how TV news destroys public reasoning below. Gore also describes projects to restore a functioning public sphere of democratic discussion.

"It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse ... I know that I am not the only one who feels that something has gone basically and badly wrong in the way America's fabled "marketplace of ideas" now functions.

"How many of you, I wonder, have heard a friend or a family member in the last few years remark that it's almost as if America has entered "an alternate universe?"

"I thought maybe it was an aberration when three-quarters of Americans said they believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on September 11, 2001. But more than four years later, between a third and a half still believe Saddam was personally responsible for planning and supporting the attack.
. . . .
"Are we still routinely torturing helpless prisoners, and if so, does it feel right that we as American citizens are not outraged by the practice? And does it feel right to have no ongoing discussion of whether or not this abhorrent, medieval behavior is being carried out in the name of the American people? If the gap between rich and poor is widening steadily and economic stress is mounting for low-income families, why do we seem increasingly apathetic and lethargic in our role as citizens?"

[ Gore then summarizes the forgotten basics of how the 18th century Enlightenment devised a democratic public sphere: ]

  1. It was open to every individual, with no barriers to entry, save the necessity of literacy. This access, it is crucial to add, applied not only to the receipt of information but also to the ability to contribute information directly into the flow of ideas that was available to all.


  2. The fate of ideas contributed by individuals depended, for the most part, on an emergent Meritocracy of Ideas. Those judged by the market to be good rose to the top, regardless of the wealth or class of the individual responsible for them.


  3. The accepted rules of discourse presumed that the participants were all governed by an unspoken duty to search for general agreement. That is what a "Conversation of Democracy" is all about.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

{ We live in a neo -Dark Ages when such basics have been forgotten. Meanwhile, Gore himself should read a now aging classic of scholarship by Habermas: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. If you happen to know his address, please send this to him. Habermas gives a dialectical analysis of how "the market" then also led to the decline and fall of that public sphere of open information and debate. The 18th century "Republic of Letters" was killed off by the rise of mass media as business and the manufacture of public opinion by marketing experts, or the kind of thing that Gore goes on to describe by naming names in today's American version. Gore did refer to Habermas in his speech, but only a remark from a more recent statement:

"The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, describes what has happened as "the refeudalization of the public sphere." That may sound like gobbledygook, but it's a phrase that packs a lot of meaning. The feudal system which thrived before the printing press democratized knowledge and made the idea of America thinkable, was a system in which wealth and power were intimately intertwined, and where knowledge played no mediating role whatsoever. The great mass of the people were ignorant. And their powerlessness was born of their ignorance."

Gore is a centrist democrat who seems to call for a return to government regulation of mass media and the Internet in order to assure fairness and "balance" and access, sustained by the ideal of merit rather than money. While this would greatly improve upon today's media climate of sensationalism and propaganda, still it seems, well, a typically "liberal" compromise with the worst white collar avarice that has led American into its present morass. It's OK as far as it goes, but probably not far enough. He also announces forthcoming experimental projects to support the democratization of media, so we'll have to see what comes of that. Gore's speech continues at the link above, and it is like an alarm clock going off at dark-thirty in the morning to be reminded that President Bush's speeches are so childish and embarrassing in comparison . . . }

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