Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Mass Media: Polluters of the Human Soul?

I've just re-read Ortega's Mission of the University. Interesting stuff, like everything he wrote, but the best part is the last page, which is a blistering attack on the press -- or what we today would call "the mainstream media." When his colleagues at El Sol, a paper for which he wrote, saw it, they wrote a collective editorial bashing him for it. What's most disturbing is how close to the truth it still is today -- probably much closer than it was in 1930, when he wrote it.

Here we are in the midst of a primary election campaign, and there is a huge amount of reporting on who is going to win (though it's fairly obvious who will win), little reporting on the candidates' positions on the issues, and almost non on the issues themselves. That is exactly the sort of "inversion" Ortega talks about below.

Anyway, here is the passage. Scroll down to get my quickie translation:

[H]oy no existe en la vida pública más “poder espiritual” que la Prensa. La vida pública, que es la verdaderamente histórica, necesita siempre ser regida, quiérase o no. Ella, por si, es anónima y ciega, sin dirección autónoma. Ahora bien: a estas fechas han desaparecido los antiguos “poderes espirituales”: la Iglesia, porque ha abandonado el presente, y la vida pública es siempre actualisima; el Estado, porque, triunfante la democracia, no dirige ya a ésta, sino al revés, es gobernado por la opinión pública. En tal situación, la vida pública se ha entregado a la única fuerza espiritual que por oficio se ocupa de la actualidad: la Prensa.

Yo no quisiera molestar en dosis apreciable a los periodistas. Entre otros motivos, porque tal vez yo no sea otra cosa que un periodista. Pero es ilusorio cerrarse a la evidencia con que se presenta la jerarquía de las realidades espirituales. En ella ocupa el periodismo el rango inferior. Y acaece que la
conciencia pública no recibe hoy otra presión ni otro mando que los que le llegan de esa espiritualidad ínfima rezumada por las columnas del periódico. Tan ínfima es a menudo, que casi no llega a ser espiritualidad; que en cierto modo es antiespiritualidad. Por dejación de otros poderes, ha quedado encargado de alimentar y dirigir el alma pública el periodista, que es no sólo una de las clases menos cultas de la sociedad presente, sino que, por causas, espero, transitorias, admite en su gremio a pseudointelectuales chafados, llenos de resentimiento y de odio hacia el verdadero espíritu. Ya su profesión los lleva a entender por realidad del tiempo lo que momentáneamente mete ruido, sea lo
que sea, sin perspectiva ni arquitectura.

La vida real es de cierto pura actualidad; pero la visión periodística deforma esta verdad reduciendo lo actual a lo instantáneo y lo instantáneo a lo resonante. De aquí que en la conciencia pública aparezca hoy el mundo bajo una imagen rigorosamente invertida. Cuanto más importancia sustantiva y perdurante tenga una cosa o persona, menos hablarán de ella los periódicos, y en cambio, destacarán en sus páginas lo que agota su esencia con ser un “suceso” y dar lugar a una noticia. Habrían de no obrar sobre los periódicos los intereses, muchas veces inconfesables, de sus empresas; habría de mantenerse el dinero castamente alejado de influir en la doctrina de los diarios, y bastaría a la Prensa abandonarse a su propia misión para pintar el mundo del revés. No poco del vuelco grotesco que hoy padecen las cosas -Europa camina desde hace tiempo con la cabeza para abajo y los pies pirueteando en lo alto- se debe a ese imperio indiviso de la Prensa, único “poder espiritual”. Es, pues, cuestión de vida o muerte para Europa rectificar tan ridícula situación. Para ello tiene la Universidad que intervenir en la actualidad como tal Universidad, tratando los grandes temas del día desde su punto de vista propio -cultural, profesional o científico.

[T]oday, there is no “spiritual power” in public life, other than the press. Public life, which is the truly historical life, always needs to be governed, like it or not. It is, in itself, anonymous and blind, without autonomous direction. Well, then, in these days the old “spiritual powers” have disappeared: the Church, because it has abandoned the present, and public life is always superlatively current; the State, because, with democracy triumphant, the state does not direct it, but the reverse, as the state is governed by the opinions of the public. In such a situation, public life has handed itself over to the only spiritual power still functioning at present: the press.

I have no great desire to abuse the journalists. Among other reasons, there is the possibility that I am no more than a journalist myself. But to close oneself off to the obvious fact that the spiritual powers present themselves as a hierarchy is to delude oneself. In this hierarchy, journalism occupies the lowest rank. And so it comes to pass that the public consciousness today receives no other pressure nor command than those that arrive from that debased spirituality that drips from the columns of newspapers.

So degraded is it that it often does not attain the level of spirituality at all, being in a certain manner a form of anti-spirituality. Due to the abdication of the other powers, the one left with the charge to nourish and direct the public spirit is the journalist, who is not only one of the least cultivated classes that society presents, but who, for reasons I hope are transitory, admits to his profession unkempt pseudo-intellectuals full of resentment and hatred for the true realm of the spirit. With no sense of perspective or architecture, they take for the reality of the times whatever makes a momentary noise.

Real life is characterized by a certain pure currentness. But journalistic vision deforms this truth, reducing the current to the instantaneous, and the instantaneous to the sensational. Hence the world appears to public consciousness by way of an image rigorously inverted. The more substantial and enduring importance a thing has, the less they speak of it in the press while, on the other hand, they highlight in their pages whatever will be a “success” and bring notoriety. Even if they were freed from motives that in many cases are unspeakable, even if money were to remain chastely aloof from infuencing the opinions of the dailies, they would nonetheless pursue their mission of depicting the world inside-out. No little of the grotesque inversion we see today – for some time now, Europe has been going along with its head below and its feet pirouetting above – is owing to the undivided power of the press, the sole “spiritual power.” It is a matter of life and death that Europe should rectify such an absurd situation. To that end, the university must intervene in current affairs. It must do so as the university, treating the great themes of the day from its proper points of view, cultural, professional, or scientific.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Moral Thinking in the Real World

This is a very interesting article on the OWS movement by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

I've been following his work at a distance for some years now. He and his colleagues analyse real-world moral thinking based on "six clusters of moral concerns": "care/harm [eg., compassion for the underdog], fairness/cheating [here, distributive justice has a place], liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation."

Among their findings: liberals and libertarians think almost exclusively in terms of the first three clusters. Social conservatives use all six, extensively. We liberals and libertarians, by comparison, live in a morally truncated world. At a fundamental conceptual level, their moral world is much richer.

The signs at Zucotti park, he finds, are extremely typical of the left-liberal Weltanschauung.

The most interesting thing in this particular article is the Machiavellian advice he offers OWS at the end:
[I]f the protesters continue to focus on the gross inequality of outcomes in America, they will get nowhere. There is no equality foundation. Fairness means proportionality, and if Americans generally think that the rich got rich by working harder or by providing goods and services that were valued in a free market, they won’t support redistributionist policies. But if the OWS protesters can better articulate their case that “the 1 percent” got its riches by cheating, rather than by providing something valuable, or that “the 1 percent” abuses its power and oppresses “the 99 percent,” then Occupy Wall Street will find itself standing on a very secure pair of moral foundations.
When I read this I realized that, by George, equality is not to be found in his six "clusters." What you see is fairness, which (pace Rawls) is not the same thing. Haidt thinks of fairness as a matter of proportionality, not equality. Equality means treating everyone the same. Proportionality means treating people in appropriately different ways.

Then another realization hit me: if he is right, academic political philosophy is even more out of touch with the way normal people think than I had thought it was. Whether you look at Arneson or Cohen or Dworkin - or the vast horde of Rawlsians - it is pretty much wall-to-wall egalitarian. Their big issue is: which kind of eqalitarianism is the right one? The one thing they assume is the fundamental moral foundation for political thinking is something that most Americans, and possibly most human beings, don't really care about at all.