Fake News and all, the West isn't Russia (or China)


There is a pernicious and false kind of equivalence I often hear some people try to establish: that democracies are no better than totalitarian regimes and their propaganda, for in the West, too, people are manipulated by the media through fake news and the like. These same people also often claim that journalism is dead and, therefore, social media and amateur citizen journalism are as legitimate a source of news as professional news channels.

In making these assertions, people start from true and concerning observations, but then proceed to insufficiently justified generalizations (the "Hasty Generalization Fallacy") and evidence cherry-picking (the "Texas Sharp Shooter Fallacy"). It is certainly true that Western professional media, in an effort to remain relevant (read economically viable) in the age of Facebook and Twitter, has often descended to tabloid level. A quick look at the likes of Chris Cillizza on CNN or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, to speak only of the American left, reveals a degree of puerility, superficially, over simplification, silliness and immaturity that almost offends. Matters are arguably worse in some channels of the American right, where any semblance of journalism has fallen into a sinkhole and conservatism has become equated with stupidity. And Europe doesn't escape unscathed from this nightmare either.

But none of this entails or implies that all journalism is now unreliable and manipulative in character. There is still good, professional, well-meaning journalism, and it remains one of the key cornerstones of democracy. There are many professionals out there risking their lives because their calling to chronicle what's happening in the world, as honestly as they possibly can, is irresistible. They give expression to a fundamental archetype of the human psyche, whose very existence ensures that there will always be reliable news sources.

I will not name what I consider to be reliable news sources here, since I believe that figuring this out is a matter of personal responsibility. After all, even to trust my own opinions on this matter you would have first to decide that I am a reliable source of opinions myself. But these reliable sources still do exist, even if you have to switch to different sources depending on specific circumstances. And the way to find them is to look at their track record, particularly at how they've reacted to their own mistakes in the past. Not all is lost.

Be that as it may, the most important point here is the following: in the West, we can choose our trusted news sources, for we have options; and we can criticize views and sources publicly, thereby participating actively in the cultural dialogue; we can debate and divulge our opinions. As a matter of fact, it is precisely these freedoms that impress upon us the very realization that our own media has largely gone awry; it is precisely these freedoms that have made our problem visible, recognizable, so something can be done about it.

If I were an American in the US in, say, 2020, I would have been able to say publicly that Donald Trump is a dangerous narcissistic psychopath, with a disastrous track record and an obviously low IQ, liable to destroying the country and the world with it; and I wouldn't have been arrested for saying this (I'd just have gotten a lot of flak on my social media timelines). But were I—a modestly well-known public figure—to say something like this about Xi, in China, in public, I'm not sure what would happen to me. Were I a Russian who states in public, on Red Square, that Russian actions in Ukraine are abhorrent and criminal, I would most certainly be arrested, for that is what the law calls for in Russia.

We cannot allow these enormous differences to be lost on us. There are no independent news sources in Russia and China; the government controls it all. Dissension and protest are punishable by law. There is very little freedom of expression. And that is precisely the reason why, at first sight, their news media may sound more professional and dignified: it is forbidden to bring the manipulation and charades—even the sheer stupidity—of their governments' actions into the open, in the interest of public debate.

What may at first look most unprofessional and disgusting in Western news media—the adolescent tone, the bias, the bile, the outrage, etc.—is part of what enables the checks and balances that give us alternatives and protects our individual dignity. We have many problems as a culture and a society, materialism being just one of them, but let us not allow these problems to prevent us from recognizing what we do get right. Our system is, by nature, one that brings its own problems quickly into the light of public debate. For this reason, it will always look bad when contrasted to the sanitized and glossy veneer of a Russia or a China. But unlike totalitarian regimes, ours is less prone to rotting from the inside, out of sight until it's too late to do anything about it.

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3 comments:

  1. While I definitely agree with your general take on free speech and press, there's an elephant in the room that needs to be considered. The institutional democratic forms we cherish tend to rest upon a relatively calm state of non-crisis, successful material development and economic sharing. For countries wrestling with extreme poverty or the chaos of political or economic polarization or natural crisis (climate, quakes, floods, pandemics) or being at war or in crisis in other forms, the practices will tend automatically toward the more autocratic forms of cultural or corporate cancelling and/or governmental censorship. So, does it really make sense to compare China and Norway?

    Beyond this lies another problem of people in general looking toward leaders, saints and sages to solve their problems rather than looking within themselves. This is when journalistic reporting becomes much more vital, as in our own highly institutional epoch. The ideal Taoist natural flow is simply lost in the core feature of modernity, which is scale. The common criticism of more idealistic or visionary ways is, "But does it scale?" Perhaps not but the Taoist ideal is worth considering:

    When the Master governs, the people
    are hardly aware that he exists.
    Next best is a leader who is loved.
    next, one who is feared.
    The worst is one who is despised.

    If you don't trust the people,
    you make them untrustworthy.

    The Master doesn't talk, he acts.
    When his work is done,
    the people say, "Amazing:
    we did it, all by ourselves!"

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  2. I agree, Bernardo, that materialism and money is a big problem. People idealize money, and don't look at the problems that capitalism brings to their lives.

    However, another problem is the belief in human authority and government. That is a belief that needs to stop. I don't know if you have heard of Mark Passio (former Satanist), but he has several videos on this channel that talk about this (and similar topics):

    You Tube: Mark Passio-Videos

    One of his videos was on how harmful atheism is (You did a blog entry on how Militant Atheists stole your sense of meaning to enhance theirs):

    Mark Passio: How the Religion of Atheism is Destrying Human Freedom

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  3. Personally I would like to see a commentary on how we as Idealist can use the full spectrum of possible tools the philosophy generates to help navigate this maze in order to arrive at a better outcome for the world. While I enjoy reading your comments and I agree with many of them it's still just one more intellectual telling how he sees the world. The number of those are endless and positively schizophrenic in their guidance. In the final analysis it comes down to individual decisions in specific circumstances. So in my mind their needs to be a focus on how to think and not what to think. How do we discipline ourselves to focus on what we can change. Maybe that isn't possible but I see the endless commentary by intellectuals as worse than useless.

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