Sunday, January 24, 2010

Safe For Democracy

There has been quite a bit of uproar over the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. One major complaint is that by allowing organizations the safe free-speech rights as people, coupled with the idea that money is form of speech (so that you can't limit the ability to fund), the Supreme Court has created a situation in which those people with the greatest access to money will have the loudest voices. And, in that regard, they are most likely correct. And while that's a problem, perhaps it isn't the problem that we should be dealing with.

It is commonly taken as an article of faith that any advertising or public relations campaign, sufficiently sophisticated, is indistinguishable from literal mind control. (At least on the Left - it may also be common on the Right, but I know fewer Righties then Lefties, and pretty much [but not quite] everyone I know on the Left believes this to one degree or another.) Put another way, any well-enough funded media outreach is more or less capable of bending the public to its will, regardless of what it is they are selling or how good or bad an idea that buying it might be. And while I was a student of the human mind for a while, I cannot say with any certainty that this true or false, outside of noting that the multiple billions of dollars that go into advertising each year must be earning some return on that investment. Again, this might be a problem, but it might not be the problem.

THE problem, in this instance (as far as I'm concerned) could very well be that we're operating on a model that we shouldn't be. The assumption is that the American public a) sits back and passively waits for information to be poured down their throats and b) tends to trust anyone that they see on television or understand to be an expert. To the degree that this assumption is true, it's what needs to be attacked, and this isn't something that you'll ever be able to deal with via legislation. But we already have the tools to do something about it. Well, most of us, anyway. The World Wide Web is a repository for a vast amount of information, on pretty much any topic that you might care to learn about. And even if you can't find the information that you're looking for, it's likely that you can figure out where you can find it. Of course, one cannot be assured that any particular information that one comes across on the web is at all accurate. But, then again, you have that same problem with television, radio and newspapers, correct? Of course, many of us have become accustomed to putting a certain amount of faith in certain outlets, which is why you find Acai berry ads thinly disguised as news reports or consumer information. Personally, I'm surprised that anyone with an intellect that rivals that of a cabbage would be taken in by such a transparent ruse, but perhaps I'm less skeptical than simply suspicious. While one could make the point that the average person doesn't have the time to seek out and vet the sort of data that would make them a more informed voter, and I can understand that, it points at another part of the problem. Understanding the political messages that we're being given should be a high enough priority that it's worth spending some time on, and we should be willing to push back against other demands on our time (even our jobs) to accommodate it.

In the end, I suspect that republics, let alone democracies, are not forms of government that are workable for masses of passive people, and to the degree that they operate on the will (or lack thereof) of the majority, enough passive people make republican and democratic forms of government unworkable for anyone. And therein lies the rub - it's difficult to create a situation in which passivity is dangerous only to those who engage in it. But to the extent that government of the people, by the people and for the people requires active, engaged and deliberative people, attempting to create a world that is safe for passivity does us no good.

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