It never ceases to amaze me how so many people in America can live in what has been called a “parallel universe”. A universe Fox News not only helps to create, but apparently believes in itself, as witnessed on election night, when its pundits were taken completely off guard by Obama’s victory.
The conspiracy theories about the United Nations (of all things) taking over the world and the Jews stealing all our money through the International Banking Something-or-other have been around for decades. I thought those were already pretty unreal.
But now people believe their own president only pretends to have been born in Hawaii, that he’s actually a radical Kenyan Indonesian Islamist socialist who is hell-bent on taking everyone’s guns away so they can’t defend themselves when he somehow turns the country into a fascist communist dictatorship overnight.
Apparently the solution to this threat is to buy every AK15 they can get their hands on.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any weirder, the rumor is introduced that the whole Newtown shooting didn’t even occur, that the grieving parents are actually crisis actors helping to bring the country to the point that the people will lie down and give up all their rights while an evil, grinning Obama is rubbing his hands behind the curtain.
Yes! That’s what was missing–our very own miniature Holocaust Denial Theory!
I find myself wondering how on earth these fictions are not only thrown out there, but persist. Obama is about to enter his second term in office, and still the birthers insist Obama is not an American, for example.
I think the answer lies partly in the enormous choice in media–TV, radio, not yet dead newspapers, and now the social media as well.
For most of my life in the Netherlands we had two channels: Nederland 1 and Nederland 2. Many people could also receive the two Belgian channels and the three German channels, but those catered exclusively to their own countries, and the Dutch used them mainly to watch movies and krimis–German whodunnit series.
As far as news about our country was concerned, and commentary on and analysis of that news, we were all dependent on Nederland 1 and 2. We did have several broadcasting companies, historically but increasingly loosely aligned with different demographics like Catholics or the Right or Left, but they all shared those two channels.
So everyone watched everything. When I arrived at work in the morning, at least half of my colleagues had seen the same television programs I had the night before. And so had at least half my neighbors, half the people in the bus, on the train, at schools, in bars, etc.
That right there prevented the kind of mass hysteria and delusion we see now in America.
The pundits and news analysts were aware that the whole country was watching them. Or at least half of it. So they had to be good; they had to know what they were talking about and they had to have their facts straight. If not, they would be set straight, either right away by one of the guests on the same show, or the next day, in another program that was also watched by at least half the country.
In that scenario the national clown couldn’t just put on professorial-looking glasses, call himself an expert and give blackboard classes in Nonsense 101 without being called out by the real experts almost immediately afterward. In that scenario politicians, political parties, party candidates, pundits and rabble-rousers couldn’t just throw out total fictions and be believed by large numbers of people.
But now, in America, there are entire television channels that cater to different demographics. So you just find the channel that says what you like to hear and you never have to touch the remote again. You never have to hear people say things you don’t want to hear and those you do listen to are never called out by the opposition. Not on the channel you watch anyway.
So if you like watching or listening to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh or Pat Robertson, their “facts” are all you hear. People who could refute them are simply not invited to speak on those shows, or if they are, the only purpose they serve is to demonstrate how quickly Glenn, Rush or Pat can shut them up.
The same goes for MSNBC on the left. Most of the time I turn to the channel in search of programs I haven’t watched before, it’s showing prison stories, but every now and then I do get a news program. As far as I can tell, The Last Word usually shows like-minded people vehemently agreeing with one another and talking about how wrong the other side–“they”–are. Ed Schultz of The Ed Show can’t talk about anything. All he does is yell. Even when the guy is saying things I agree with, I change back to CNN because I don’t like being yelled at. Of the MSNBC shows I’ve seen, I find The Rachel Maddow Show the only one worth watching.
In the Netherlands I never dreamed I’d ever be saying this, but I watch CNN for my news here because it’s the most balanced of the television news channels. At least they usually invite speakers on both sides when discussing controversial issues, so those guests can point out what they feel are deceptions by each other. I listen to NPR (National Public Radio) in the car, and occasionally, when I remember, I watch Rachel Maddow’s take on things on MSNBC.
So I’m as guilty of selective media use as anyone else.
I don’t watch Fox News and I don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. I insulate myself from those folks as much as their listeners insulate themselves from CNN, NPR and Rachel Maddow. The only time I hear what Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson are up to is when they talk about it on CNN or when Jon Stewart makes fun of them on The Daily Show.
So everyone preaches to their own choir and this is how people can have such entirely different impressions of what’s going on in the country.
And then along came the social media. Now anyone can say anything. You don’t even have to be the national clown. You don’t even have to be on TV to be heard. I can have my very own blog. It’s like my very own online magazine, filled with only my very own articles. I could write the most ridiculous nonsense with an air of authority and people would read it. People who agree with me, that is.
Because bloggers also preach to their own choirs. I don’t read blogs by people who write about the Founding Fathers giving them the right to bear assault rifles with 100-round magazines, and those bloggers probably don’t read my blog either.
Recently, I’ve even seen blog posts that give “trigger alerts” in the introductory paragraph–warnings of controversial material to come, so that people who might get angry when confronted with a certain standpoint can stop reading before they get there.
So anyway, I could write the most blatant nonsense if I wanted to. I feel that I honestly try not to lie or to suggest untruths, but I could, like James Tracy, the “university professor” who is trying to start the Newtown Denial Theory, or the folks who convince people to live together in compounds like The Citadel in Idaho, where they can prepare themselves with compulsory AK15’s for the inevitable civil war against Obama’s communist fascist atheist Islamist dictatorship.
Even though the Internet and the enormous number of television channels have the potential to open the world to everyone, they also have the potential to divide people to a degree that has never been seen before.
History shows that increasing the availability of information always leads to increased civilization. The problem now, however, is that a lot of what is disseminated isn’t information in the traditional sense–facts and expert commentary on and analysis of those facts.
I wonder how this will evolve. Will people in the future look back on this phenomenon as a temporary insanity and will things level out again, or will they continue and get worse?
What do you think?
And I wonder to what degree this is also happening in the Netherlands. The last time I was there–ten years ago, how time flies–there were already many more channels. Is the Netherlands seeing a growing division? I would think that, because the country is so small and so densely populated, the American level of division wouldn’t be possible. But I may be wrong.
Let me know in a comment, Dutch readers.