July 14, 2002

Death of the Dinosaurs:
Fascism, Freedom and the Internet

If I were a business consultant I would tell the corporate media what consultants are telling companies in every industry: evolve or die.

If I were making historical predictions I would say the major media will not die, they will change. They are self-correcting systems from a financial standpoint (and only from a financial standpoint). As they increasingly fail to communicate with their audiences, it will affect their bottom lines, and probably already has.

As organs of the corporate state, the major media must bend over backwards to avoid letting certain ugly truths become widely known. As income disparities become ever greater, corporate corruption of the government becomes increasingly pronounced, and human rights violations become ever more extreme, the ugly truths that must be hidden become large and larger, until it becomes almost impossible to hide them.

As the outrages grow in number and intensity and an ever larger number of people become victims of the insatiable greed of the corporate state, the gap between what is reported and what is real continues to widen. As the 5,000-year-old Chinese Book of Changes says, continuing increase inevitably leads to decrease. In all processes there is a breaking point.

Now that the Internet provides an alternative medium of communication, the major media can no longer monopolize information. Increasingly, people have alternatives. This is the death knell of the major media as we know them.

The major media now are in a situation analogous to the clerks in the 12th Century who were an extension of the church, which proved its dignity by its resistance to change, or to the secular writers of the 17th Century who wrote only for the elite governing classes, reflecting back to them their own unshakable religious ideology and belief in the divine right of kings.

Those closed systems were eventually broken by external forces, such as the rise of printing, the spread of education, the growth of a middle class, and eventually the flowering of democracy.

When advertising was introduced into newspaper publishing in the early 19th century, it subsidized production costs and made it nearly impossible for a publication that did not take advertising to compete with one that did. Advertising kept the price for the reader low. But over time it also had a tendency to restrict the content of the publication. Having the publication become more accountable to its advertisers than to its readers subtly changes its ultimate mission. Over time it has changed the character of publishing.

Today most magazines and papers and broadcast media are thought of primarily as business enterprises. They are targeted to the affluent because that is who the advertisers stand to make the most money from. The whole communications environment has been tilted toward the affluent minority for so long people barely notice it. No one alive has seen much else. That segment of the population is protected from the harsher aspects of life, and the corporate media shield it from knowledge of harsher things the government spends the public's money on.

As wealth continues to accumulate and centralize as it has over recent decades, the widening disparities eventually exert social pressure. The affluent and privileged sector to which the media cater, is becoming more of a minority. The media are losing touch with a larger and larger part of the population that is being left out of economic prosperity.

Enter the Internet.

The Web creates a democratizing force that stands in opposition to the massive power of today's global corporations to centralize and accumulate wealth and power -- and quite possibly the equal of that force. Perhaps its nemesis.

To an extent, the Web levels the playing field. At the point in history when corporate power and monopoly is concentrating to a greater degree than ever before, the Internet makes it possible for people with limited capital to play with big guys. To some degree, it reduces the advantage given by money in almost every field of activity.

A Web site can be maintained for a modest amount of money, which allows a single entrepreneur the opportunity to stand on an equal footing in some ways to CBS or ABC.

Since the major media have more or less abdicated the responsibility of talking about many of the most pressing issues of the time, the job has fallen to a vital network of independent media that is driven more by politics and passion than selling products. This is not a small distinction.

Of course a small enterprise doesn't have the means of promoting itself and making its message heard that the major corporations have, but smallness has advantages as well. A major corporation is unshakably tied to the profit-seeking imperative. A corporation exists only to maximize shareholder wealth. It cannot act in any way that runs counter to that purpose. That severely restricts what it can say, and on a more fundamental level, shapes its world view.

A medium of communication that is primarily motivated by profit cannot risk alienating its advertisers, who are the source of much more of its income than its readers. So while the small enterprise may not be much of a threat to the major media in commercial terms, in terms of ideas and information, in terms of social history, it has a distinct advantage.

Though there are exceptions, an establishment publication or broadcast medium today cannot speak in plain terms, for example, about the connection between the slaughter of innocents in the Palestinian territories by Israel and the weapons that are provided for the purpose by U.S. taxpayers. As a commercial enterprise it is too tightly bound up within the system itself. A few advertisers pulling their ad schedules can put the paper in trouble. The entity seeks primarily to succeed as a business, but fails as a medium of communication that could enable its public to make an informed decision about financing mass murder.

When the slaughter is mentioned on the news it must be slurred around, obfuscated, hidden behind technical terms and cliches that turn it into mush, that filter out the human suffering that is underlying the reality the words represent.

The major media have long since failed as the constitutionally designated fourth estate, which is essential to the healthy functioning of democratic government. They are increasingly failing to address themselves to the vital interests of their readers. They continue to be successful as commercial enterprises, dispensers of entertainment, distraction, and as means for selling products.

They are now in danger of losing their audiences in an erosion as rapid as the Bush regime's rollback of the civil rights of Americans.

It is yet to be seen how rigid these media systems are, and how well they will adapt to the lightning pace of change of the 21st Century. The present situation is in some ways historically unprecedented. Many have speculated that the Web will have more impact on culture than the printing press. Some have gone much farther and said the Web will have a greater impact on human society than anything since the invention of agriculture.

For the purposes of a discussion about media, the invention of the printing press is momentous enough. It drastically transformed human society. It changed reading from a monopoly of the elites, to a more general practice. It unleashed information, gradually placing knowledge and power in the hands of the general population and laying the groundwork for democracy.

Gradually the writer was freed from being a servant of the governing elite, whose only purpose was to reinforce that elite's world view. Knowledge and power flowed out of the church and the monarchies.

Today's corporate media are like the clerks of the 12th Century court whose purpose was to bolster and protect the dogma of the church and the divine right of kings. They cannot allow a free flow of new ideas into their systems because the ideas would be destructive to the systems themselves.

Speaking of entrenchment in tradition, the New York Times - "the paper of record," arguably the most important paper in the world -- adheres so rigidly to tradition that a reporter in that paper cannot refer to a person in a second reference without a title such as Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms. If the paper refers to Ringo Starr for example, it says "Mr. Starr," even though "Ringo Starr" is a stage name, hardly at home in a formal setting. In a second reference to Sid Vicious, the reporter would presumably be required to say "Mr. Vicious," which is probably as good a reason as any why you don't see much coverage of such people in the New York Times.

As the Paper of Record, the Times is the keeper of history, so every morning it must theoretically proclaim and document the most important events of the previous day, even if its entire audience has heard those events in a hundred TV and radio broadcasts and several editions of tabloids already.

Just as its editorial style encumbers its ability to talk about contemporary events, it is handicapped in its ability to accommodate a broad range of events in the 21st century for which there are no precedents. How does, for example, the Times deal with a stolen presidential election? More or less by denial.

Since the Times and its brethren cannot discuss the stolen election as a stolen election, it must talk about it as though it were legitimate, and then fall into its standard patterns of language to refer to "the president" exactly the same as if he had actually been elected. When its own research shows that the operation was a heist, it must be polite to the extent of entirely avoiding anything that would be embarassing. As events become ever more extreme, it puts the Times at a greater distance from the real world its readers.

In the past, the major media has been very successful in enforcing ideas upon the public. If the polls commissioned by the major TV networks and newspapers tell us that a huge majority "approve" of "the job the president is doing," that judgment the becomes the accepted reality. But it is not at all sure that that the major media will retain its perceived authority as the gap between what they report and what the population can see for itself widens.

Under the Bush administration, the corporate state's drive to seize power and nullify democratic power has been unleashed and gone into runaway. A corresponding reaction is taking place in the population, a change that is not reflected in the major corporate media because the self-consciousness of that social change would be anathema to the corporations that own the media.

That changing awareness, which is little more than a natural reaction to the pressures of the corporate state to marginalize the majority, is finding a channel for expression on the Internet.

As Mussolini said explicitly, fascism IS corporatism. That is the process we are now witnessing: the ever increasing accumulation of wealth by an ever decreasing number of corporate entities; the turning over of the government to these entities; and their use of it as an instrument of war, by which they further enhance their profits and power.

We should come down off our high horses about it, drop our pretensions and get over our naive belief that it can't happen here. It is happening. Call it what you will, this is the process Mussolini called fascism. It played out in Italy and Germany and Japan and it is now playing out in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. If we don't like it, we can oppose it. If we ignore it, and deny its existence we are sitting ducks.

The major media have already ceased to exist as much more than some kind of background drone we've all become accustomed to. As they become more and more remote from their audiences, it becomes like a deaf and blind person speaking to an empty room.

In his essay "Why Write?", Jean Paul Sartre said that writing is essentially a joint process requiring at minimum two people, a writer and a reader. The reader is as essential as the writer, because a writer cannot write for himself alone, cannot possibly read his own writing. He knows what he meant, cannot know what it is like for the reader. "The results which we have obtained on canvas or paper never seem to us objective. We are too familiar with the processes of which they are effects," he said. "In reading one foresees; one waits. One foresees the end of the sentence, the following sentence, the next page."

Sartre also called the writing/reading process an act of generosity between two free people. People are not forced to become writers or readers as they may be forced to plow fields or operate machines in factories. It is a process that is inherently free and democratic. In history, the rise of printing and the spread of reading into the masses is inseparably intertwined with the rise of democracy. It is essentially one process.

When a newspaper becomes an organ of an oppressive state, it has sown the seeds of its own destruction, not necessarily as a dispenser of products or as a propaganda vehicle, but as a true medium of communication. The creative process can only exist in a free environment. A writer who identifies with oppressors, will kill his own creative spark, cut himself off from the source.

Sartre cites a historical example, one Drieu la Rochelle who agreed to produce a Nazi review for the Nazi government during the occupation of France.

Sartre says: "The first few months he reprimanded, rebuked, and lectured his country-men. No one answered him because no one was free to do so. He became irritated; he no longer felt his readers. He became more insistent, but no sign appeared to prove that he had been understood. No sign of hatred, nor of anger either; nothing. He seemed to have lost his bearings, the victim of a growing distress. He complained bitterly to the Germans. His articles had been superb; they became shrill. The moment arrived when he struck his breast; no echo, except among the bought journalists whom he despised. He handed in his resignation, withdrew it, again spoke, still in the desert. Finally, he said nothing, gagged by the silence of others. He had demanded the enslavement of others, but his crazy mind he must have imagined that it was voluntar-y, that it was still free. It came; the man in him congr-atulated himself mightily, but the writer could not bear it. While this was going on, others, who, happily, were in majority, understood that the freedom of writing implies the freedom of the citizen. One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only régime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too."

--by David Cogswell

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