Cast deep in recession and with unprecedented political polarization inside the halls of government, it’s no shock that the American public is angry. Perhaps, this frustration is merely a byproduct of legislative and discursive gridlock. Perhaps, however, this anger is better understood as the cause of such gridlock. But if this anger is the cause and not merely a reaction to the current political situation, we must ask: Where has all this anger come from? Has this recession really made life so miserable, or is something other than the economic well-being of the average American to blame? Does someone stand to gain from all this anger? Perhaps that someone (or, better, that institution) recognizes its own interest in the promotion of generic anger and is attempting to capitalize on it.
Mainstream media has become an anger industry. I’m speaking, primarily, of the cable news revolution as well as the explosion of conservative talk radio in recent decades; however, other media have trended in this direction as well. We’ve all heard the trope “if it bleeds it leads.” Media personalities have realized that anger can be more profitably harnessed if they’re the ones doing the stabbing. The way anger has become rationalized and manipulated by the media is not altogether different from the realization that wrestling was more profitable when it was staged and professionalized. Yet, while professional wrestlers still have to be athletic, contemporary “journalists” no longer need to be well-researched. Pundits only need to be provocative. Each news cycle has become simple and formulaic: select an issue regardless of scope or public significance, arbitrarily take sides, fight, rinse, repeat.
The transition from a standard of fact-based reporting (however flawed) to a standard of provocation is grave for the prospect of doing sociology (i.e., sociology which produces knowledge useful to the broader public in understanding social problems and enacting social change). Whether we like it or not, sociology is bound up in the game of reason (i.e., systematically supporting claims through the use of evidence or deduction). Sure, a few works with an ostensibly sociological character may have escaped the limits of rational discourse (I’m thinking here of Nietzsche’s aphorisms or Baudrillard’s later works), but, by in large, we sociologists hold ourselves up to certain standards, whereby the certainty of any claim we make is proportionate to the degree of proof we can provide. To make assertions without reference to any sources, to lie and distort or, at least, to willingly convey such inaccurate information is outside the realm of reasoned argument and thus outside the sphere of sociological discourse. The problem, then, is that other members of the so-called “public sphere” don’t play by the same rules. While there exist ample mechanisms to discipline sociologists who lie or distort evidence, others profit from such practices.
Consider this recent snippet from an article, “The Frankfurt School: Conspiracy to corrupt,” by Timothy Matthews in the publication called Catholic Insight and read on air by talk show host Michael Savage (23 February 2010):
To further the advance of their ‘quiet’ cultural revolution – but giving us no ideas about their plans for the future – the [Frankfurt] School recommended (among other things):
1. The creation of racism offences.
2. Continual change to create confusion
3. The teaching of sex and homosexuality to children
4. The undermining of schools’ and teachers’ authority
5. Huge immigration to destroy identity.
6. The promotion of excessive drinking
7. Emptying of churches
8. An unreliable legal system with bias against victims of crime
9. Dependency on the state or state benefits
10. Control and dumbing down of media
11. Encouraging the breakdown of the family
It is a near impossible task to refute these un-cited assertions because doing so would amount to proving a negative. Furthermore, most of these assertions are incredibly remote from the content of any of the major works of the Frankfurt School. The best I can do is simply point out that such claims are incredibly vague and meet no burden of proof. But referring to such academic particularities is likely to do little to assuage the anger that these distortions are geared to produce.
Instead, I think we need to shift the conversation. We need to ask: Who benefits from distorting facts and evidence? In the case above, there are three parties involved: the public, professional academics, and the media. No doubt, media figures like Michael Savage benefit most when people are angry. Anger makes for good ratings. If fiction serves to stoke anger better than fact, then these media figures have a vested interest in fiction. Anger and fiction, however, generally work against the interest of both the public and of sociologists. As I have already mentioned, the gridlock which hampers government’s ability to effect any meaningful social change threatens public interests, while sociology is precluded from informing public debate so long as that debate is not taking place. Moreover, the most plausible explanation for Matthews’ writing such a piece is that he seeks to discredit Liberal Arts educators as secretly and deviously plotting to corrupt the youth. Consider that the essay begins “Most of Satan’s work in the world he takes care to keep hidden.” Implicitly, this reads: Anyone who disagrees with the following is an agent of Satan. Of course, the use of anger by the powerful to silence debate is nothing new: Socrates’ political opponents sentenced him to death for the same crime some 25 centuries ago.
We must call out the naked power play here. These people have an agenda. The Catholic Insight group wants to wage war against the “corrupting influence” of Liberal Arts education, and Michael Savage wants ratings. Neither seem to care if they have to trample on facts or reason to achieve these ends. The lesson we all should learn – and fast – is that power is bigger than reason, bigger than “the public sphere.” It will evade or even attack the public sphere when useful. This is a Machiavellian world we’re in. The ends all too often are used to justify whatever means. Unfortunately, this precludes the possibility of having reasoned debate on many issues. Instead, the only recourse we have is to attempt to make the mechanisms of power more visible.