Shift: it’s what paradigms do

If paradigms could not change, we wouldn’t have the word. We would not be able to distinguish a paradigm in the first place. When the shift happens it makes for strange bedfellows…

The media continue to discuss toxic partisanship, dysfunction, gridlock, simmering working-class resentment, as if the context had never shifted from the logic of information markets to the logic of mass audience markets. Who knew? How have we come to this? Curious journalists want to know!

But the keyword is markets: government doesn’t control markets, also the natural habitat of the media; both live and die in them.

In the old days of data, the smoldering rage of the downtrodden had always been effectively capped. The very structure of language itself required that grievance be articulated only in a context where the underlying causes were already assigned to the failings of those who complained loudest. 

Complain loud enough, and it became Art, avidly consumed by the sophisticated. This was true when my elegant grandmother befriended Paul Robeson in New York City, and still true up until Martin Luther King was killed, for complaining in a manner that threatened to break the paradigm.

Sociologists didn’t ask, “why are the poor so broke?” but “why are the poor so unhappy?” reflecting the foundational assumptions upon which they compiled their data. There was bipartisan pity for the un-connected, the under-represented, the wage-slaves, the darker-skinned, who played by the rules and fought the good fight. And stayed in their place. 

But then personal computers shrank to the size of a bar of soap, and the price competed with a pair of overpriced sneakers, and everyone moved into “social” media. This did not relieve the isolation, it increased it. But it did confirm for the previously isolated the intolerable scale of systemic unfairness. Realizing they were not alone in their misery, they found themselves in a new relationship to society.

About when the exploited majority stopped feeling guilty about their sense of outrage, a psychopathic media-maven could shake the the body politic like a bottle of rootbeer, and take the cap off. The resulting upheaval was heroin to the former newspapers starving for “content”, and the new President kept upping the dosage. Soon there was no other news worth reporting–that is, nothing that could compete for the kind of revenues this one man generated. As for strategy, we need only recall ordinary schoolyard tactics. If the media threaten to compete with him, he just out-dares them.

Markets, after all, are the natural habitat of both media and government. Once a technological advance gave advantage to sensationalism over agreed-upon reality, our doom was sealed. Media and government became true symbiotes. Who controls one controls the other absolutely.

It’s been five years or so, and the season for retrospectives, analysis–nostalgia. What is there to fill the talk show air? The actual visions and goals of each party? That would be career suicide. Serious political arguments don’t impress viewers so benumbed by terror that they name their children for characters in a medieval fantasy show. So talking heads interview each other about how we became so polarized.

The job of journalists has changed, too.  Dunne’s “Afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted” has been upended. This is natural, since the point is no longer to expose perfidy and mendacity (shocking information, once the lifeblood of the news business), but to garner public attention (shock itself, the lifeblood of everything now). 

The formula for media success is so much simpler now. Shock people, and they will pay. Shock them more and they will pay more. Scare the shit out of them, make them cover their kids’ ears, and they’ll make you the leader of the so-called Free World.

For the first time in history, we are given a thing-in-itself. But we aren’t noticing this new authenticity, since we’re still hearing it all as stories-about the thing. The name of the thing, in the previous paradigm, is “terror”. In the present paradigm we can’t bring ourselves to use this oh-so-common term. We just try to hide. One way to do that is to become a consumer, figuring the golden goose might not get killed this time.

Good luck.