Bewildering Stories discusses...
The Peril of the Age of Entertainment
with Brian L. Steed
[Brian] I do agree with your commentary on my commentary. I am not a believer in the extreme solipsism associated with Berkeley’s esse est percipi, however, our media environment creates a thought process in the percipient such that absent perception there is no existence. This is the primary criticism of American news, which is dominated by domestic news, entertainment, and sports coverage. Most viewers are ignorant of the actions, events, and even suffering of the world around them.
I think this is what is being addressed in “Without Sky” in some measure. If Putin can keep the world ignorant, then his actions are as if they are not happening and can happen absent outside intervention.
I hope this clarifies the point.
[Don W.] Thank you for the explanation, Brian. I foresee that all readers will agree with it. Taking the long view: not only Putin but like-minded figures elsewhere have simply adapted to the era of television and social media the “Big Lie” strategy that the Nazis applied in the age of radio.
In “Go Tell the Spartans,” Hermann Goering is quoted as cheerfully implying that the Nazis did what Stalin and the Communist Party had already done in the Soviet Union: take advantage of social conditions in order to impose a utopian — or dystopian — narrative.
Goering points out that the same strategy also holds for democracies. Of course, one may argue that democracies can change their narratives in a more or less orderly fashion by a social contract and elections. Dictatorships, on the contrary, cannot adapt; they are frozen in time until the leader is overthrown or replaced by death naturally or otherwise.
Your argument is well taken: any society can lose touch with reality by sheer distraction. As you say, the resulting ignorance may be due to accidental factors such as mass marketing. Or it may be deliberate. The “Roman circus” distracted attention from the imperial city’s “dole” economy, which could be sustained only by plundering the provinces. The basic narrative was “divine right” and the creation of enemies at home and abroad. In a material sense, it was “bread and circuses.” The narratives of latter-day dictators are merely variations on the same theme. And yet reality remains, whether or not the Senate and the Roman People — or any others since — have been aware of it.
Strong support for your argument comes from what might appear — superficially — to be an unlikely source: John Dominic Crossan’s God and Empire. He says the same thing you do, and his sarcasm is disturbingly perceptive: the Age of Enlightenment has been supplanted by the Age of Entertainment. As a result, science and religion are no longer at odds; they now find themselves allied against a common enemy that is the offspring of ignorance: fantastical narratives.
“What is truth?” Pilate’s question to Jesus in John 18:38 is cynically rhetorical. The truth is that Pilate doesn’t give a damn. His job is to enforce law and order, and his laws and orders come from the empire. But the question of truth remains. And the answer is another question: “Whom do you trust?”
Prof. Thomas W. Malone argues that a narrative of trust depends on reputation, and it is formed in various ways. In decreasing order of trustworthiness:
- Hierarchies are especially effective in the hard sciences, such as mathematics and physics, which rely on logic and the scientific method.
- Democracies can form hierarchies such as the sciences, professions, and journalism, which have strict ethical and methodological guidelines.
- Communities typically rely on social consensus. For example: Unlike city dwellers, everyone in a small town may know everyone else. And popular fantasies such as the “flat earth” lasted until recent centuries because only astronomers and navigators needed to know the Earth’s real shape.
- Markets are not concerned with truth in a literal sense; what’s “true” is whatever makes a profit possible. However, any marketing that has a code of ethics will depend on truth.
- An ecosystem is a “jungle,” the world of power and fantasy. Truth is irrelevant; it’s whatever a supreme authority says it is — or else.
Each system will form a “narrative” of its own, a story that people tell to themselves and each other. A “polarized” society — one in which no common narrative is agreed upon or is possible — devolves into an “ecosystem” where the consequences are usually separation, civil war, or both.
[Editor’s notes] The five modes of “trust” are taken from Prof. Thomas W. Malone’s “A Matter of Trust,” in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Saturday 16 June 2018, p. o8.
“Distraction” may play a greater or lesser role depending on a society’s inherent susceptibility to dictatorship. Cass R. Sunstein’s review of three histories of Nazi Germany — by Milton Mayer, Konrad H, Jarausch, and Sebastian Haffner — shows how important individual attitudes and decisions are: individuals either rejected Nazism, embraced it, or complacently accepted it as the “new normal.”
and Brian L. Steed