Saturday, April 11, 2009

Unfortunately I Have to Believe In Button Pushers by Anthony McCarthy

An elderly aunt has gone into a sad decline. Part of it is the natural decay of aging, some of which you can’t help. Some of that is exacerbated by a decline in voluntary physical activity. A lot of that is due to depression. Our bodies decline, the cares of life bear down on us. But part of it might be preventable. This poor old soul spends many hours every day sitting in front of the TV watching those phony court shows, the ones that are about as unbiased as a pro-wrestling spectacle. From what I’ve seen, the subject of most of the “cases” are either people too foolish to manage their lives taken advantage of by con men or creeps of some sort or people too stupid to stay out of trouble. There’s almost always a good side and a bad side, and you’re supposed to take one of them. It’s never left to doubt which one.

Like most of entertainment TV, certainly including the cabloids, and talk radio, the entire purpose is to press peoples’ buttons. Deregulated from serving a higher goal, button pushing has become the bread and butter of TV and radio, entertainment, infotanement and “news”. It is an easy way to manipulate people, to attract a dependable audience and to get them to return to get those same buttons pushed, same time, same channel. The audience comes back because they get the simulation of action without having to exert any effort. The button gets pushed and elicits a dull sensation that is gratifying. The audience gets to feel the addictive emotions of contempt and hate, of feeling morally and intellectually superior to the hated bad guy. And they get to feel it every day.

Other time segments of TV and radio consist of variations on the pattern, pushing different buttons in a slightly different pattern to attract other parts of the potential audience. Cable “news” consists of almost nothing but button pushing, providing scant information in between the manipulation of the audiences’ sensations. Their intent is to sell eyes to advertisers so they can push other buttons and get them to open their pockets to them. Secondarily, the “news” networks intention is to manipulate the audience to vote in a way that is more favorable to the corporations’ financial well being, which accounts for the bits of “information” and how they’re chosen.

In his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists*, Chris Hedges talks about the infamous debate that he and Sam Harris engaged in last year. Reading the book and around the web, you can’t help noticing that Hedges has a chip on his shoulder. I don’t blame him. It’s rather stunning how many people breezily dismiss his many years covering the Middle-East, knowing Arabic, having an intimate knowledge of a large part of the Islamic world through hard won and dangerously procured experience. They dismiss his professional expertise in favor of Sam Harris’ drivel, based on such stuff as a misrepresentation of a Pew research poll and his scanty research. If you look for the evidence around the blogs that discussed the “debate” you could see that the Harrisite opinion on the subject might be the predominant view. Sam Harris’ relatively information free assertions are widely accepted and if Chris Hedges mentions that his credentials give his ideas credibility, he is dismissed as an egomaniacal blow hard. It must be particularly galling to someone in Hedges position that those deriding him consider themselves members of the intellectual class.

I think that this is a clear manifestation of how easy and instantaneous button pushing has come to replace rigorous collection of information and analysis for even the relatively sophisticated and educated parts of our culture. And considering what Harris is selling, the buttons he can push and successfully get the desired response among his audience, it is pretty stunning. Consider that Harris has advocated a nuclear first strike against an as yet unrealized ‘Islamic bomb’. A first strike about which he, himself says: “ Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime - as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day - but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. ”

Out of the wisdom gleaned from a misreading of stuff like a Pew poll and the rest of his cobbled together factoids about “what Islamists believe”. Harris is calling for the possibility of committing an “unthinkable crime” which would kill more “innocent civilians” in a day than were killed in the Holocaust. It would be shocking if someone calling for that could get a dozen admirers and yet Harris has many, many more than that. Clearly Harris’ fans who dismiss what Hedges had to say aren’t interested in real information, they’re looking to have their predispositions confirmed and reinforced, their buttons pushed. If it’s that easy to get large numbers of alleged “humanists”** to entertain Harris as a serious thinker on these subjects, the “intellectuals” have no right to look down on the plebs who get led astray by Lou Dobbs and the liars at FOX. Many people have been relegated to permanent cultural oblivion for asserting things that fall infinitely short of mass killing of innocent people.

I think that the seduction of that kind of lazy, comfortable, simple, fiction-fueled, gratification is a real and serious danger. We all have the temptation to fall for it, we are all in danger of those who do. The mildly exciting stimulation afforded by the hatred of a remote other, of the chance to feel morally superior without any effort expended is too seductive to go unmentioned. I think it is the equivalent of Aldous Huxley’s imagined “feelies” in Brave New World. And you don’t have to turn on the TV or radio to get it. It’s all over the web and available “As seen on the NYT Bestsellers List”.

Note: I finally read Chris Hedges book, I Don’t Believe In Atheists last week. Eventually it should be published along with his book “American Fascists” about the real dangers of religious fundamentalism. I agree with his view that these two kinds of fundamentalism are flip sides of one thing, though I think religious fundamentalism poses the more direct political danger due to their greater proximity to power. Anti-religious fundamentalism carries its greatest danger in provoking a reaction against the left, if we get blamed for their excesses. As I’ve mentioned before. .

“I Don’t Believe in Atheists” book had been recommended to me by one of my sometimes antagonists from the blog atheist side of things, just after it was published. As ridiculous and embarrassing as it might seem, this person asserted that Hedges might have copied some of my ideas. It was mentioned that several of the things I’d posted before the book was published had identical points and ideas to some of what Hedges said. I don’t buy that for a second. A few of the posts I wrote before I’d read the book but after it was published have ideas and even themes in common with some of Hedges points. I’m not sure if the e-mail was trying to push my buttons or not. Perhaps they were. Maybe they wanted me to write an outraged post asserting theft, which would only make me seem silly. But the idea is so far fetched and the ideas in common so obvious that it didn’t surprise me that someone else had noticed.

One thing I thought was interesting, we both think that Aldous Huxley might have been on to a lot more than he’s generally credited with. I’m more impressed that he said a lot of these things decades ago.

** I’ve read more “humanists” online worried over Harris’ belief in “woo” than who are worried that he think’s it might be a good idea to kill tens of millions of people as an act of “preemption”.

I think that might also have something to do with why Aldous Huxley isn’t given the serious consideration his record of correct prediction calls for.