We cannot get away from media, it seems, today. According to the CIA World Factbook, the United States has 422,000, 000 cellular phone subscriptions, in a population of 329,256,465. Almost everyone is walking around with a flat screen device that connects him to the wi-fi internet wherever he goes, giving him access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, YouTube, and more. Satellite and cable plans still occupy the home. The modem keeps us connected there as well, through the now obligatory home computer. Like the Borg from Star Trek, society is constantly linked through a web of communications that are always talking at us. We are never unplugged. Experts tell us that high radio frequencies are physically harmless. It is not 5G transmissions that we should worry about, though, but rather the unceasing bombardment of content that reaches us.
"Given the vast saturation, and the range of dissemination media now enjoys, escaping the constant thought- form of the modern-day egregore is, to say the least, difficult."
The occult concept of the egregore comes to mind; an entity unto its own, but composed of the thoughts of a group, influencing the thoughts within the group in turn, creating a symbiotic relationship. The non supernatural equivalencies to the egregore would be the corporation model found in the civic sphere, and the meme, an ever prolipherating unit of “culture” found on the internet. Given the vast saturation, and the range of dissemination media now enjoys, escaping the constant thought-form of the modern-day egregore is, to say the least, difficult. The stage and the audience are the biggest they have ever been, and getting bigger still. Meanwhile, more eyes and ears mean greater scrutiny of what is presented to a voracious public. Spins, or out and out fabrications, are detected and shared swiftly. Celebrity pontifications are met with angry reactions, and sometimes followed by boycotts. We get the label “fake news” and the saying “go woke, go broke” from these receipts, and we draw the conclusion that the facade is harder to keep up under so many purveyors.
Peeking behind Oz’s curtain has become the norm today, but the curtain, to be sure, was lifted before the time of tablets and cell phones. Indeed, the American public was aware of fake news early on. For instance, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a 1807 letter to John Norvell: “The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.”
Hollywood has even told on itself, and the rest of media, by way of movies. Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece, Network, starring film greats William Holden and Faye Dunaway, gave an eyeful to audiences on how the reporting industry unscrupulously practiced its craft. We find in Peter Finch’s Howard Beale a convincing portrayal of an anchor breaking down into insanity; and in the brilliantly delivered “Mad as Hell” speech, the reality of how media jumps on anything for the attention it brings. Lumet would revisit similar material a decade later, in 1986, via David Himmelstein’s less successful but provocative script for Power. The film features Richard Gere as a public image crafting media consultant named Peter St. John, a man who helps his clientele advance their political aspirations, as long as they pay his $25,000 a month price. Power shows how a narrative thread is manufactured by capturing the right moment on camera, and making up the rest. For there is considerable money to be made, and power to be obtained, by fabricating a certain political message or public image, no matter the consequences to society.
In the 2002 film Death to Smoochy, directed by Danny DeVito, we are shown how children’s programming is used as an instrument for merchandising and capitalized on by various corporate interests. Ed Norton, playing an infallible do-gooder in Sheldon “Smoochy” Mopes, is plucked out of obscurity to replace a scandalized and ostracized “Rainbow” Randolph (Robin Williams). Mopes’ hard stance on being an ethical children’s entertainer, instead of a mere peddler of toys and junk food, causes all the vested interests to converge on each other to kill Mopes, or, in the case of the Irish mob, to protect him, since Mopes casts the mob boss’s brain damaged son on his show as a supporting character. At the end of the film, Mopes (warning: spoilers) is left standing alive and untainted amid the crossfire, with a decent body count around his costumed feet. The message of Death to Smoochy, perhaps, is that the business of TV programming is akin to a kleptocracy. And can anyone sincere survive in the midst of the constant “cui bono?” crucible found there?
While all three of these films give a fictional tale, the shameless opportunism of the media machine is accurately represented, and we see that in the world of media personal integrity is a liability. The obvious question to ask would be why Hollywood would make such films to begin with? To quote the Eighteenth-century German physicist and satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, “The most dangerous untruths are truths moderately distorted.” And as an old Yiddish proverb puts it, “A half truth is a whole lie.” Whatever is shot through a Hollywood lens is done so with the intent of making money and (occasionally) to be entertaining; often the industry is incapable of honesty because of its material focus. While its fictions might address what is true, they are ersatz fables that either sugar coat it at best, or undermine the importance of it altogether at worst by diminishing whatever impact the specific truth may have had, for Hollywood takes what is true and turns it into a plot trope, easily dismissed when the end credits roll.
One cannot dismiss reality, but one can dismiss a movie, or a TV show. Unfortunately, the fiction no longer remains confined to the venues of entertainment, but is introduced into classrooms as curriculum, 3,500 classrooms across the US to be specific. Thus the 1619 Project, a 100 page New York Times Magazine special headed by investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones as lead writer, endeavored to reconstruct American history by approaching the subject from the arrival of 20-30 Africans at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 who were enslaved. The project proposes that the year 1619, being the arrival of the Africans into indentured servitude, is the true birth of the country. Various scholars have proven the material to be bunk. Historian and Brown University Professor Gordon Wood has written that [it] “is full of falsehoods and distortions.” Leslie M. Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University who helped with the fact-checking for the magazine issue, stated the following in an article on Politico:
Weeks before, I had received an email from a New York Times research editor. Because I’m an historian of African American life and slavery, in New York, specifically, and the pre-Civil War era more generally, she wanted me to verify some statements for the project. At one point, she sent me this assertion: “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.” I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.
Leslie goes on further, writing:
The editor followed up with several questions probing the nature of slavery in the Colonial era, such as whether enslaved people were allowed to read, could legally marry, could congregate in groups of more than four, and could own, will or inherit property—the answers to which vary widely depending on the era and the colony. I explained these histories as best I could—with references to specific examples—but never heard back from her about how the information would be used. Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.
In spite of its fabrications, the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary was awarded to Nikole Hannah-Jones for the 1619 Project. It is no wonder that homeschooling in the digital age has seen some recent traction. Not only is it convenient with modern technology, but when social/political indoctrination becomes classroom text, it is clear that K-12 schools are no longer focused on teaching math, science, reading and other foundations of a proper education. Alternatives such as Unschool.school have become more palatable to the public amid quarantine, and not just here in the States. Kerry McDonald, in her article “Coronavirus May Lead to Mass Homeschooling” on fee.org, writes:
In countries where the virus is active, schools have been shut down and children are at home, learning alongside their parents or through online education portals. The New York Times reports that US schools have been prompted this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prepare for a coronavirus epidemic that could shutter schools and require alternate forms of teaching and learning outside the conventional classroom. According to Kevin Carey of the New America think tank, who spoke to the Times, coronavirus in the US could lead to “a vast unplanned experiment in mass home-schooling.” Indeed, in Hong Kong this is already occurring. The coronavirus outbreak led to orders for schools to be shut down in the city for two months, affecting 800,000 students. An article this week in The Wall Street Journal declares that “coronavirus prompts a whole city to try home schooling,” noting that in Hong Kong many children are completing lessons virtually through online learning platforms or receiving live instruction from teachers through Google Hangouts or similar digital tools. It’s unfortunate that it takes a viral epidemic to spotlight the many alternatives to conventional K-12 schooling. Not only is homeschooling widely popular in the US, educating approximately two million children nationwide, but other schooling alternatives, such as virtual learning, microschooling, and hybrid homeschooling continue to sprout.
Plenty saw that spotlight before the advent of COVID-19.
Returning to the media thought-form, an eagerness for what is genuine can be found in the masses it broods over. The symbiotic answer from the public is not just the politically correct mantra found on social media, but also the questioning of those deplatformed from it; or the demonetization of YouTube videos; or the conspicuous omission of certain ethnicities when crimes are reported; or the demand for the use of specific pronouns when addressing a dizzying spectrum of new “genders.” Then there is the fervor to not call COVID-19 a “Chinese Virus” or “Wuhan Virus”; the second assassination of a Bernie Sanders presidential bid by the Democratic party; RussiaGate; GamerGate; PizzaGate; ComicsGate; ObamaGate; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Once “why?” is asked the questions never stop, and these questions tear at the seams of the egregore, the hope being that authenticity will shine through the breaches.
In summary, the ubiquity of today’s media, and the question as to whether what is genuine can survive amid legion political divisions, faux personalities, and dogmatic narratives, must be faced, because human consciences are tethered to clouds of questionable information, an egregore of sorts. The populace dines on bullshit, watches vapid pixelated images, listens to auto-tuned voices, but many of us long for something honest, something with substance, something with depth.