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I had the opportunity Friday evening to listen to Robert Kennedy Jr. of NRDC speak. He was in Toronto to support Lake Ontario Waterkeepers, a division of the international Waterkeeper Alliance. It was a stock speech — nothing substantial added to the angry litany of Bush’s regulatory rollbacks, non-enforcements, and appointment of giant polluters and their lobbyists to head up all federal environmental agencies. What was new was an expanded discussion about the role of the media in shaping American public opinion on issues such as the environment. The underlying thesis, which may not be new but is the first time I have heard it from him, was (I’m paraphrasing):
There is no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives on core values. What there is is an information gap, caused by the fact that most Republicans and conservatives get all their news from mainstream media sources that are either propaganda arms of the neocon, Christian ultra-right wing, or cowed, timid networks that lack the courage to report what Americans really need to know, for fear of attracting the wrath of this ultra-right wing group, and for fear that it would cost them corporate advertising revenues, and hence their jobs.
There were quite a few Americans in the audience, and I took the opportunity to ask them afterwards what they thought of this comment. I got three different responses in roughly equal amounts:
What intrigued me about this third viewpoint was that it was espoused by almost as many self-proclaimed conservatives as progressives. What this implies is that there are a significant number of Americans who are revolted by Bush’s anti-environment and anti-worker laws, regulations and positions, but who don’t believe the Democratic Party will do a significantly better job in either area, and who vote reluctantly Republican because they prefer their conservative moral stance.
I confess to being shocked and appalled both at the thought that the average American could be that ignorant, and at the thought that the situation is so hopeless that informed, intelligent people really believe it doesn’t make that much difference which of the two oligopoly parties wins. I suspect the average Canadian would find either possibility almost unimaginable. After all, we have more than two parties, and the one in power now has a minority and as a result its legislative agenda has been dramatically altered by the need to get support from other parties to stay in office. We are so alarmed at the possibility of the Bush-loving Canadian neoconservative party (which recently took over the more established, moderate conservative party) getting into office that we hold our nose and tell pollsters we would vote for the modestly corrupt Liberal party, as the significant lesser of two evils. And Canadians have repeatedly shown enormous skepticism for what they hear in the Canadian media, and a proclivity for making up their own minds after discussion with peers, rather than after watching or listening to the ten o’clock news. Are Canadians really that different from Americans?
If Kennedy is right, and the majority of Americans are that ignorant (unable or unwilling to hear information that would dramatically affect their vote), or if this third group of cynics is right, and a large minority of Americans are so skeptical that they don’t think it matters which party wins anyway, the neocons win either way. Ignorance and apathy both mitigate against change. If you’re in power and you can breed both in the electorate, you’re laughing.
Let’s suppose Kennedy is correct. He argues that a grassroots movement is needed to get the mainstream media that are not already in the pay of American neocons to get off the fence and start force-feeding the American people some terrible truths. But if you were CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN or any of the (few) independent radio stations or newspapers, why would you risk the wrath of Karl, your ratings, your advertising revenues or your job, to do this? You can get these truths from the New York Times or the New Yorker, from NPR and PBS (for now, anyway) and from a handful of other sources, and from many online sites. The public isn’t abandoning the non-neocon mainstream media for these more illuminating sources, so why would these media rock the boat? Out of a sense of responsibility to give the public what they clearly don’t want? Yeah, right. If Kennedy is correct America is in deep shit, and anyone who listens to him carefully and thoughtfully is going to be filled with despair and defeatism, not with indignation and energy to bring about change.
Let’s suppose this third group is correct. Let’s suppose that half of the half of Americans who don’t vote stay away because they’re really convinced it doesn’t make any difference, because they’ve been screwed by both parties and don’t trust either of them. They have to be really cynical to stay away when the talking points of the two parties are so radically different from each other. Is the emergence of a third party, in a country where two-party politics has been so entrenched and where the entire system (gerrymandering, campaign finance, the media, the leadership debate selection committee etc.) is designed to sustain that duopoly, going to happen in anything short of overwhelming, catastrophic circumstances? Of course not. So if this third group is correct, the situation is even worse than if Kennedy is correct.
As much as I like RFK Jr. and greatly admire the work he is doing with NRDC, I cannot agree with his grim assessment that so many Americans are so ignorant they can’t think past the propaganda of the neocon media machine. I think the large majority of Americans are smarter than that. They may not be well informed, but they know bullshit when they see or hear it.
I am less inclined to doubt the cynicism of the third group, who despite the apparently dramatically different rhetoric we are hearing from politicians, really don’t believe it makes much if any difference whether the Tweedledum or Tweedledee party is elected. What Gene McCarthy called acedia (beyond apathy, spiritual torpor, resignation) in the dark days of Nixon’s America, is far more dangerous an enemy than ignorance. It is far more difficult to overcome, and it afflicts those who are creative and who would normally tend to be activists. Worse, if you follow the lessons of history, it is apathy, in deadly combination with fear, that has allowed the deterioration of values and the seizing of power by opportunists responsible for the greatest atrocities of the past millennium.
Apathy, acedia, learned helplessness, hopelessness. These, and not ignorance, are the real enemies of our time. We will not overcome them with rhetoric, or with knowledge. We might overcome them through a few charismatic and independent leaders, though they are as likely to take us down a worse path than a better one. We might overcome them by inventing and talking about a better way of doing things — a better social, economic, political, legal, environmental, and educational system — but will even that be enough to pull people out of their resignation?
Barring that, we can only wait until the situation gets much worse, until the pain of doing nothing exceeds the pain of revolution. Until, in other words, there is nothing more to lose.
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