Media fragmentation and a culture of distrust

Not a unique set of ideas, but Alastair Roberts brings some important trends together in his post on the prevalence of distrust and falsehood as a social crisis in American culture and, more specifically, in American evangelicalism:

Some of the factors that have given rise to our current situation are related to the current form of our media. The unrelenting and over-dramatized urgency of the media cycle, especially as that has been accelerated on social media, heightens our anxiety and reactivity. It foregrounds political threats and changes and makes it difficult to keep a cool head. When our lives are dominated by exposure to and reaction to ‘news’ we can easily lose our grip upon those more stable and enduring realities that keep us grounded and level-headed. Both sides of the current American election have been engaging in extreme catastrophization and sensationalism for some time. This has made various sides increasingly less credible to those who do not share their prior political convictions and has made us all more fearful of and antagonistic towards each other. It has also created an appetite for radical, unmeasured, and partisan action.

The Internet has occasioned a dramatic diversification and expansion of our sources of information, while decreasing the power of traditional gatekeepers. We are surrounded by a bewildering excess of information of dubious quality, but the social processes by which we would formerly have dealt with such information, distilling meaning from it, have been weakened. Information is no longer largely pre-digested, pre-selected, and tested for us by the work of responsible gatekeepers, who help us to make sense of it. We are now deluged in senseless information and faced with armies of competing gatekeepers, producing a sense of disorientation and anxiety.

Where we are overwhelmed by senseless information, it is unsurprising that we will often retreat to the reassuring, yet highly partisan, echo chambers of social media, where we can find clear signals that pierce through the white noise of information that faces us online. Information is increasingly socially mediated in the current Internet: our social networks are the nets of trust with which we trawl the vast oceans of information online. As trust in traditional gatekeepers and authorities has weakened, we increasingly place our trust in less hierarchical social groups and filter our information through them.

Our news online is increasingly disaggregated. A traditional newspaper is a unified and edited body of news, but online we read from a multitude of competing sources, largely sourced by friendship groups. As our news no longer comes as a package, exists within a click-driven economy, and is largely sourced for purposes of social bonding, sensationalism, catastrophization, ideological reinforcement, outrage, and the like are incentivized. In a world of so much easily accessible information, news is a buyer’s market and pandering to the consumer by telling them what they want to hear becomes a greater temptation. Coupled with the growth of non-mainstream media sources that are often much less scrupulous about accuracy, the result is a much less truthful society. Even formerly respectable broadsheets are now not above publishing tabloid-style articles and hot takes and clickbait akin to popular websites.

The traditional mainstream media also seems to be increasingly partisan and left-leaning, serving as the organ of privileged opinion. Even the comedians that one would traditionally expect to criticize those in power seem to spare the progressive left their ridicule.

The Unwinding by George Packer

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New AmericaThe Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Packer tells the stories of many people trying to navigate the “unwinding” of the robust and regulated post-WWII American political economy as it has become more individualistic, partisan, globalized, and competitive since the 1970s. Many of the stories of average people are compelling, and Packer often shows empathy for their struggles. He also targets many of the most influential people of the period, slowly roasting them in chapter-long profiles or over the course of the book. Packer is a talented writer whose political sympathies clearly lie on the populist left. This allows him to write with genuine concern for ordinary people, but there also seems to be the assumption that progressive populism is the path forward in a very different world than that which gave birth to the New Deal and Great Society.

David Brooks wrote a nice review of the book. He writes:

By “the unwinding,” Packer is really referring to three large transformations, which have each been the subject of an enormous amount of research and analysis. The first is the stagnation of middle-class wages and widening inequality. Depending on which analyst you read, this has to do with the changing nature of the information-age labor market, changing family structures, rising health care costs, the decline of unions or the failure of education levels to keep up with technology.

The second is the crushing recession that began in 2008. Depending on which analyst you read, this was caused by global capital imbalances, bad Federal Reserve policy, greed on Wall Street, faulty risk-assessment models or the insane belief that housing prices would go on rising forever.

The third transformation is the unraveling of the national fabric. Depending on which analyst you read, this is either a gigantic problem (marriage rates are collapsing; some measures of social connection are on the decline) or not a gigantic problem (crime rates are plummeting, some measures of social connection are improving).

Packer wants us to understand these transformations, but ultimately, narrative and anecdotes are not enough. They need to be complemented with evidence from these long-running debates and embedded in a theoretical framework and worldview.

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Pessimism and political success

In The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer chronicles the decline of the post-World War II American political economy in the face of globalization and neoliberalism. He tells this history through the experiences of both famous and ordinary people.

One of the individuals that Packer follows is Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel. One anecdote describes Thiel’s interaction with Mitt Romney, who wanted Thiel’s support. Thiel told Romney, “I think the most pessimistic candidate is going to win, because if you are too optimistic it suggests you are out of touch.”

Packer continues:

In other words, it would be a mistake for Romney just to argue that Obama was incompetent, and that things would automatically be much better with a new president. Reagan might have been able to make that argument against Carter in 1980, but in 1980 only 50 percent of the people thought that their children would be worse off than they were, while in 2011 it was closer to 80 percent. It would be smarter for Romney to say that things could be much better, but getting there would be very hard and would take more than changing presidents. But it was a point that Romney couldn’t grasp. He assumed that the more optimistic candidate would always win. He assumed that things were still fundamentally working. (382)

I thought that this was worth noting in light of Thiel’s support of Donald Trump. While Trump did not fully embrace this strategy (he promised a quick recovery), his campaign was characterized by a claim that much was not “fundamentally working.”

A guide to American evangelicalism and fundamentalism

Understanding Fundamentalism and EvangelicalismUnderstanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by George M. Marsden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture while I was in graduate school, and it was a pleasure to return to his work again. He gives a clear summary of the main trends in American evangelical and fundamentalist history from the 19th century to the present, showing both his understanding of the movements on their own terms and his willingness to critique them. His two chapters on the American evangelical and fundamentalist relationship with science are especially helpful.

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The quest for community and the appeal of identity politics

Ross Douthat writes in his most recent New York Times column:

Liberal societies have always depended on an illiberal or pre-liberal substructure to answer the varied human needs — meaning, belonging, a vertical dimension to human life, a hope against mortality — that neither John Stuart Mill nor Karl Marx adequately addressed.

These included family, religious communities, and a common American culture and patriotism. He continues:

Each of these foundations often manifested illiberalism’s evils: religious intolerance, racism and chauvinism, the oppressions of private and domestic power. But they also provided the moral, cultural and metaphysical common ground that political reformers — abolitionists, Social Gospellers, New Dealers, civil rights marchers — relied upon to expand liberalism’s promise.

Much of post-1960s liberal politics, by contrast, has been an experiment in cutting Western societies loose from those foundations, set to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” No heaven or religion, no countries or borders or parochial loyalties of any kind — these are often the values of the center-left and the far left alike, of neoliberals hoping to manage global capitalism and neo-Marxists hoping to transcend it.

Unfortunately the values of “Imagine” are simply not sufficient to the needs of human life. People have a desire for solidarity that cosmopolitanism does not satisfy, immaterial interests that redistribution cannot meet, a yearning for the sacred that secularism cannot answer.

Like Robert Nisbet in The Quest for Community, Douthat ties the weakening of traditional notions of community with the rise of larger-scale, less personal communities.

It’s interesting that Nisbet, writing in the 1950s, was mostly concerned with the decline of smaller-scale, traditional communities in favor of membership in the abstract national communities of modern states, most obviously in the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century. If Douthat is right, then cosmopolitanism on the left is having the effect of eroding nationalism, the previous beneficiary of the erosion of smaller-scale communities.

Expressive individualism: 19th-century abolitionists and 20th-century New Leftists

In 2012, Michael Kazin analyzed Students for a Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement for its fiftieth anniversary. He made a connection between the radicals of the 1960s and 19th-century abolitionists:

The statement managed to fuse two types of ideological advocacy that are often viewed as antagonists: first, the romantic desire for achieving an authentic self through crusading for individual rights and, second, the yearning for a democratic socialist order that would favor the collective good over freedom of the self. This fusion was wrapped in language whose utopian tone resembled that articulated by other messianic movements in American history—from the abolitionists and Owenite socialists to the Wobblies and Debsian Socialists to such radical feminists as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Emma Goldman.

The similarity to the language of the abolitionists was particularly strong. Consider this bold assertion from the Values section of the statement: “The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with . . . popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic. . . .This kind of independence does not mean egotistic individualism—the object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own.” Compare it to the late-life reflection by the anti-slavery crusader Theodore Weld: “The starting point and power of every great reform must be the reformer’s self,“ declared Weld. “He must first set himself apart its sacred devotee, baptized into its spirit, consecrated to its service, feeling its profound necessity, its constraining motives, impelling causes, and all [the] reasons why.” Devout Christians were a distinct minority at the conference; evangelical Protestants were entirely absent. But the SDSers were expressing the same ultra-romantic idea that a free society can be built only by individuals who define that freedom for themselves that had inspired fervently Protestant abolitionists more than a century before.

In this sense, Port Huron demonstrated how the new, young Left—in its rebellion against a managed society and its hunger for an authentic one—was beginning to turn back, if unintentionally, to similar impulses that had inspired Weld and such fellow crusaders as his wife, Angelina Grimke, as well as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Walker. Both groups insisted that one had to live one’s politics as well as preach them. Both took delight in smashing taboos about interracial sex, about the proper roles of men and women, and even about dress and diet. Both experimented with styles of communal living they believed would allow individuals to realize their “true” nature and to find happiness in doing so.

Whether pious or secular, radicals before the Civil War and their counterparts during the Cold War both struggled fiercely to free their minds and bodies from an evil society and to fill the world with individuals who aspired to perfection. The passion for self-improvement in the cause of social transformation could be found nearly everywhere on the young left in the 1960s and 1970s. “I had to find out who I am and what kind of man I should be, and what I could do to become the best of which I was capable,” confessed Eldridge Cleaver, in a neglected passage of Soul on Ice. In 1970, in his Politics of Authenticity, Marshall Berman observed, “the New Left’s complaint against democratic capitalism was not that it was too individualistic, but rather that it wasn’t individualistic enough.” In 1977, the black lesbians in the Combahee River Collective asserted, “Our politics . . . sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy.” So the final American Left of the industrial age gestured back, in spirit, to the first.

In addition, Jeff Greenfield’s reflections on Tom Hayden’s death connected Hayden with the young Hillary Clinton:

“The goal of man and society,” Hayden wrote, “should be human independence: a concern not with . . . popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic. . . .This kind of independence does not mean egotistic individualism—the object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own.” (You can gauge the power of this idea by seeing its echo years later in Hillary Rodham’s famous commencement speech at Wellesley in 1969, when she said: “our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.”).

The politics of the Gettysburg Address 

Robert Tracy Mackenzie recently wrote about Lincoln’s political intentions in the Gettysburg Address as part of his response to Donald Trump’s speech at Gettysburg. He places the famed address in continuity with Lincoln’s arguments that the abolition of slavery was a fulfillment of the purposes of the founders:

When Lincoln began by telling the assembled throng at Gettysburg that our fathers had been “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” the politically savvy among them immediately recognized a familiar refrain in a long-standing partisan debate. And when, a couple of minutes later, Lincoln concluded his brief remarks by implying that the Union dead at Gettysburg had died so that the nation might have “a new birth of freedom,” the crowd understood that he was enlisting the fallen at Gettysburg in the controversial cause of emancipation.

Republicans saw nothing exceptional in this. Democrats were livid.  The Harrisburg [PA] Patriot and Union concluded that the entire event “was gotten up more for the benefit of [Lincoln’s] party than for the glory of the nation and honor of the dead.  The Chicago Times went further, reminding readers that it was to uphold the Constitution “and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg.”  What the president had done at Gettysburg was simply despicable. “How dare he,” thundered the Times editor, “standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

Today we don’t read the Gettysburg Address as a partisan speech in part because we read it in a vacuum.  In chiseling it in marble, we’ve also wrenched it from its historical context.  But we also don’t pick up on its partisanship because Lincoln himself did a good job of hiding it from posterity.  There are no explicit cues for later generations.  He never refers to his political opponents.  He takes no cheap shots.  His interpretation of the war was effectively the Republican interpretation of the war, but he hoped that someday all Americans would remember it in the same way and so he avoided gratuitous insults of those who disagreed with him.