Impertinent Questions

"The incentive to reduce ambiguity to certainty, multivalent people to egos with fixed ideologies, and the observer's predilections to the essence of rationality pervades everyday discourse and social science practice. These premises reassure observers that their own interpretations are defensible."

-- Murray Edelman, Constructing The Political Spectacle

It is regrettable that at this late date educated and intelligent people should muse strenuously over the question of whether the collective media harbor a "liberal" or a "conservative" bias (a book by a disgruntled reporter titled Bias tops the bestseller list now). So much wasted mental energy, when one considers how the electronic tube affects and manipulates sensory perception and shapes habits of thought; how the simplistically positivist view of social reality reigns supreme and is seldom challenged; and how ownership and advertising affect content and news sourcing, which in turn affect attitudes and dispositions. These fields of inquiry are so much more fruitful, and in a more intellectual age they would command the attention of every good writer and every thoughtful commentator.

Imagine a game of word association with someone who is regularly engaged with the news. You say "Osama bin Laden," or "Iraqi government," or "terrorists," or "axis of evil," or "Taliban," and the other person offers a description or thought or two. How many would refrain from responding on the grounds of agnostic uncertainty or of abashed awareness of each term's pre-existing "meaning"? How many would acknowledge the filter that has been constructed by television news and newspapers and magazines? How many would proffer both affirmative and pejorative associations, giving perhaps a personal view along with one that might be held by the average Arab or Russian or Palestinian or Iraqi?

Not very many at all, if recent polling is to be believed. American sentiment very thoroughly comports with the editorial emphases one finds on the major broadcast networks and major weeklies and dailies. Thus, a majority of Americans look disdainfully upon Iran and Iraq (why not upon Tunisia, say, or Madagascar?), believe the United States has a responsibility to take an active role in international affairs (a coincidence in light of the putatively successful Afghan war?), believe that military spending now is about right (despite another major spike upward), believe that their chief executive is doing a superlative job. No indication from the polling, in other words, of feisty dissent, of unorthodox points of view, of deep distrust of the federal government and of the organs that disseminate news and editorial every day.

What strategy might one employ to combat media filters and the tendency, as Murray Edelman puts it, to reduce the complex and ambiguous to the simple and the certain? How can someone receive steady streams of news today while retaining a critical bent of mind? How, in other words, can someone be engaged in knowledge without being compliant to what Michel Foucault once called "regimes of truth"?

One strategy, I think, is to consider the antithesis of everything one reads and sees and hears, to see marginalized interpretations of reality at least as true as prevailing ones without holding stubbornly to any. Such a strategy would necessarily entail asking impertinent and unpleasant questions -- questions that strike at the core of certain cherished assumptions about our nation and ourselves and draw heavily from the well of paradox, irony, parody, sarcasm. This is not to suggest that any wild theory or extremely remote hypothesis or half-baked conspiracy theory should be entertained (though it might be said that history is full of odd occurrences and conspiracies; the U2 spy mission was a conspiracy; COINTEL was a conspiracy; Watergate and the Iran-Contra Affair were conspiracies). Rather that one should set the default button of mental judgments on dissent and work from there.

I can think of any number of recent examples in which contrariety better serves the mind than lazy acceptance of the dominant view.

Consider all the diatribes against the Taliban regime for its abuse of Afghan women. We're told that women could not be educated, could not be allowed to be independent, to speak their mind freely, to choose their own vocation; we were told that the most inhumane punishment awaited the woman who stepped out of line, who didn't live according to forbiddingly strict clerical rules. 

Like many other recipients of news, I presumed the information to be accurate; I was in no position to pass judgment on the veracity of the numerous reports. I do remember, however, reading a few articles in which the veiling of Muslim women in Afghanistan was put forth as an example of repression, as a violation of women's god-given right to expose any part of their body and to dress as they please. 

At first I took the opinion earnestly. It was only some weeks later, when I found myself in the middle of a Borders bookstore, that I reconsidered. I distinctly remember trying to find the latest edition of Scientific American in the periodical section and meeting with great difficulty. No matter which direction my eye was turned in, the same thing could be seen: rafts of magazines with big-breasted, overly gaunt, mostly nude, mostly blonde women on the cover and some veiled (forgive the pun) reference to sex and sensuality. 

Now my conscience is not easily shocked, and I'm not a member of that species of uptight moralists that cry and squirm over the littlest things, certainly not anything of a sexual nature. I might even be said to be a disciple of those philosophers (e.g., Spinoza, Nietzsche) who wish to drop the distinction between good and bad altogether.

Nevertheless, it occurred to me that maybe veiling isn't so gruesome a custom after all. Maybe the rationale for it is completely laudable and understandable. Which habit of culture is more respectful of women as human beings? Veiling head to toe, or the propensity to disport oneself as a hot commodity replete with shapely tits and callipygian ass? Experiencing a woman in a non-sexual way, gathering judgments about her mind and emotions, or making a final judgment based on her endowment and on her eagerness to show it all? (See One Muslim Woman On Her Choice To Veil.)

There are, indeed, countless other instances in which the information-saturated mind would do better to react against prevailing points of view than passively accept them:

We hear officials of the government condemn certain states like Iraq because "they're building weapons of mass destruction." Why is it morally acceptable for a handful of nations to have nuclear weapons -- and thus a decided advantage over the rest of the world -- and others not to have them? The only country in history to have used nuclear weapons is the United States -- not Russia, not Iraq, not China, not Iran, not India, not Pakistan.

The fight against "terrorism" has officially been going on for at least two decades. The United States increased its military spending by over a hundred percent in the 1980s. In 2000, the United States spent over $283 billion on the military, a figure more than the budgets of Russia, China, Japan, India, England, France, Iran, and North Korea combined (Source: World Almanac 2002). Is there a scintilla of evidence to be found anywhere that increasing the budget to over $350 billion will make the nation safer and prevent more September catastrophes? Any evidence to suggest robbing the treasury will leave the nation completely invulnerable? Doesn't recent history show quite the opposite?

When reading and hearing about some international persona non grata, how many of us trouble ourselves with rudimentary questions like, "Who is this maligned person really? What family was he born into? What exactly is his political ideology? How is he really different from any other world leader or regime? Does he have any reason at all for detesting the U.S. government or its allies? Are his crimes any different than those committed by friends of our government? Is he really a monster, or is there an incentive for our own leaders to vilify him? If he were a leader in our own country -- the exact same man -- would the same routine judgment apply?"

I think as intelligent citizens we could do much worse than scribble Murray Edelman's lines on a card and stick the card anywhere we're likely to see or hear the day's news.

(Tim Ruggiero, February 17, 2002)

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