Foibles of the Commentariat
Reading Glenn Greenwald’s reportage on the recent preemptive strike on RNC protesters in Minneapolis (thanks Gerry for the link), and then going on to his commentary and analysis, I was impressed and, to my slight moral discomfort, reassured, by his articulate, informative, impotent anger:
As the recent “overhaul” of the 30-year-old FISA law illustrated — preceded by the endless expansion of surveillance state powers, justified first by the War on Drugs and then the War on Terror — we’ve essentially decided that we want our Government to spy on us without limits. There is literally no police power that the state can exercise that will cause much protest from the political and media class and, therefore, from the citizenry.
Beyond that, there is a widespread sense that the targets of these raids deserve what they get, even if nothing they’ve done is remotely illegal. We love to proclaim how much we cherish our “freedoms” in the abstract, but we despise those who actually exercise them. The Constitution, right in the very First Amendment, protects free speech and free assembly precisely because those liberties are central to a healthy republic — but we’ve decided that anyone who would actually express truly dissident views or do anything other than sit meekly and quietly in their homes are dirty trouble-makers up to no good, and it’s therefore probably for the best if our Government keeps them in check, spies on them, even gets a little rough with them.
After all, if you don’t want the FBI spying on you, or the Police surrounding and then invading your home with rifles and seizing your computers, there’s a very simple solution: don’t protest the Government. Just sit quietly in your house and mind your own business. That way, the Government will have no reason to monitor what you say and feel the need to intimidate you by invading your home. Anyone who decides to protest — especially with something as unruly and disrespectful as an unauthorized street march — gets what they deserve.
Isn’t it that mentality which very clearly is the cause of virtually everyone turning away as these police raids escalate against citizens — including lawyers, journalists and activists — who have broken no laws and whose only crime is that they intend vocally to protest what the Government is doing? Add to that the fact that many good establishment liberals are embarrassed by leftist protesters of this sort and wish that they would remain invisible, and there arises a widespread consensus that these Government attacks are perfectly tolerable if not desirable.
Any rational person planning to protest the GOP Convention would, in light of this Government spying and these police raids, think twice — at least — about whether to do so. That is the point of the raids — to announce to citizens that they best stay in their homes and be good, quiet, meek, compliant people unless they want their homes to be invaded, their property seized, and have rifles pointed at them, too. The fact that this behavior is producing so little outcry only ensures, for obvious reasons, that it will continue in the future. We love our Surveillance State for keeping us safe and maintaining nice, quiet order.
The anger of “this behavior is producing so little outcry” reinforces the causal connection made at the end of the first paragraph between elite opinion and popular opinion: “There is literally no police power that the state can exercise that will cause much protest from the political and media class and, therefore, from the citizenry,” and is clearly directed at those whose constitutionally guaranteed free speech also has the powerof legitimacy. But the implied attribution is contradicted by expanding the determining agent to “we,” “any rational person,” whom Greenwald proceeds to speculatively psychologize.
As I see it, this demonstrates two phenomena: a) a general uncertainty over how to reconcile “popular opinion” with the producers of that myth, the media and political establishment, and b) another reminder that free speech is worthless without power. As Greenwald suggests, there is nothing much more to do in the realm of commentary than to state facts, make a few connections, and deliver it all with the indignation and disgust that these events so obviously deserve. The efficacy of such public statements is determined as much by their relative position in the mediasphere as by their content, which is more or less given, a set of facts that just about any middle-class person can figure out and be enraged by. Anyone with a modicum of writing ability, Internet access, and an hour or so of free time can take the “right stand” — thousands of bloggers and blog commenters are doing it right now, if not over this particular outrage then certainly over some other one. The failure of those whose job it is to respond to the obvious is the only “meaningful” aspect of this situation, the only thing worth “insightful commentary.”
Not because the reasons why are any less obvious.* Really the opposite — it’s all too apparent that we live in a country that has normalized violent overreaction, against which the First Amendment alone is ineffective. There’s no mystery here. The problem is more that the right to be widely listened to is a class privilege, and straightforwardly recognizing certain uncomfortable facts, like that commentators are not separate from their object of analysis, or that “audience” is their own creation, might undermine its legitimacy. These days telling the truth is a good way to ruin a journalist’s or an intellectual’s reputation. The importance of the wider access to media offered by blogs and other platforms isn’t that they “allow more voices to be heard” but that they make individual opinions superfluous, unless they are about other opinions, or the production of opinions, or the relative worth of opinions. But especially valuable is the ability to convincingly gauge “public” opinions.
Another case in point: political commentary by liberals on their favored candidates, by which I mean Obama, is almost all armchair image management, as if these self-styled observers were his private advisers and not his constitutents. What will this cartoon make people think about Obama. How will his race affect his chances. How many big words should he use. This goes in hand with minimizing the importance of the commentator’s actual principles and even knowledge, since they obviously don’t include themselves in the conjectured audience for Obama’s political theater, that same unpredictable gang of bigots and morons who don’t understand things like irony and not being racist. On blogs and message boards, others are invited to join in the debate, casting their vote whether they think some faction of the vox populi will take some element of Obama’s vast media presence “the wrong way.” Speeches are picked over to verify that Obama is presenting himself well, that his vocally imperialist VP pick is “the smart choice.” Whatever else, it’s a defense of their own “right to choose” in the form of ratifying the choices of the powerful and glamorous.
(McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for his VP is the act of a man who assumes precisely this form of reaction — and doesn’t seem to have included any other considerations)
Approaching media with the general assumption that “Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter,” a sensible one for anyone who isn’t a professional pundit, has the effect of minimizing the distance between facts and human agents; this is disconcerting if taken seriously, but liberating even if not.
* achieving scientific detail of how media distortion systematically occurs is not the same as broadly identifying causes, in the same way that an MD isn’t necessary to identify vital organs