Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall - Truth, the Press and the Arts in 2017

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on................."

2016 is over - finally.  A horrible year for me personally (health and finance nosedives), and I think a not so good year globally.  Of course, many people and perhaps any number of organizations, interest groups and entities may have had banner years.  The fates always smile on some and rain on others.  Indeed, on the other side of those who decry the election and the current power center in Washington D.C. are those for whom the change is one long coming and a boon.  We are a divided people.

The wider world didn't seem to come to its senses last year.  2016 continued the collapse of global civility and diplomacy - and even rationality if you consider climate deniers and religious dogma. The world moved to the right in fear people had of the loss of any control over their lives.  Brexit and Trump.  War raged on across the planet:  Syria, Iraq and the Middle East tensions; ISIS and terrorism; increased authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships; Putin and the rise of Russian aggression; China's bullying in the South China Sea; huffing and puffing by the megalomaniac in North Korea; and rampaging violence by the megalomaniac in the Philippines.  Everywhere you turned you were met head on with intolerance.  The economy improved, but the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and the gap between them widened.  Scandals and corruption were commonplace.  For many, everything held sacred and critical was under attack.

A rash of iconic celebrity deaths saddened people and reminded everyone of the fragility of life, and the aging of the population.  Health threats loomed in the background, but fortunately the doomsday scenarios that might one day come true, were not yet armageddon for humanity.

Year end is when we trot forth lists of the past year:  accomplishments and failures; stories with impacts and consequences - often in order of importance; predictions for the future - the isolated issues and the big picture.  It's a new year and anything is possible.  Alas, the evidence suggests the new year will likely be a continuation of last year - and for many, that's not good news.

And while all the stories that dominated the news have importance - for Americans, the top ten issues were arguably the same:  Donald Trump, for changes are coming which will alter the very fabric of the country.

This is a hard time.  And the hard rains are coming fast.  People are dispirited, frightened, unsure and uneasy.  We are in uncharted territory, navigating without a map.  For many, the frightening thing about a Trump presidency is the unknown factor.  We simply don't yet know for sure what will happen, yet alone how to react.  But we have a good idea, and we can already see an upending of the way we existed up to now.  The Trump factor has countless offshoots - from the GOP Congressional agenda that threatens to upend five decades of American foreign and domestic policy - to the profound change that has already arguably rendered virtually useless the fourth estate.  

And it is the failure of the press that should concern us.  Have we already witnessed the death of real journalism - and any vestige of impartial, unbiased analysis and understanding?

In the process of the abdication by the news medias of performing their jobs (for they clearly eschewed digging into the issues in the past campaign in favor of the circus) - facts, evidence and truth itself have fallen victim to fundamental changes in how we gather, analyze, verify and report news of our world.  To be sure this change began sometime ago - at least back to the manipulations of a dishonest Nixon - who, despite denying he was a crook, turned out to be a crook of epic proportions; back to when television became the principal source of news , replacing print, and, post Edward R. Murrow, became a profit center for entertainment conglomerates whose chief concern was bottom line ratings and thus profits.  Talking heads replaced investigative journalists; in-depth investigation was replaced with shallowness of the 20 second story, and the sound bite; the positions and opinions of those that govern us corrupted by the "spin doctors" who sought to explain what things meant - in direct contravention of what was actually said.

And today, truth has taken a further backseat.  It probably started before Dick Cheney popularized the strategy of simply denying everything, and of making stuff up out of whole cloth (Iraq's WMD the most obvious example), but it's now taken full flower as anyone can say anything and then - even in the face of irrefutable video and sound recording - deny their on the record pronouncements completely.  And now it not uncommon for public officials to say one thing to one audience and another to a different audience - then deny any conflict between the two, or that they said either one.  Truth.  Who can possibly know anymore.  Truth has morphed from an absolute to a relative.  We may have crossed over the singularity line for truth, where lies and fake news have merged with truth and real news to blur it all (note: "singularity" is a concept that refers to the merging of human intelligence with artificial intelligence.  I am borrowing it here).

How can a society exist if facts and truth are relative, with myriad groups able to fashion their own truth and their own facts based on nothing more than what they want the truth to be?

Compounding this potentially fatal attack on a working press that provides the citizenry with news based on fact, is that the delivery systems for news have radically changed.  No longer does news come from a few, centralized hubs that are universally shared by everyone, and which are at least somewhat accountable; now news, or what purports to be news, enabled by the technology of the internet and smart phones, comes from ten thousand unverifiable sources via social network platforms and independent sources that masquerade as legitimate news gathering agencies.  Anyone can, and does, say anything as though it were the gospel, as truth.  Lies now pass for truth, and we are increasingly unwilling or unable to even call a lie what it is.  Truth is now - like beauty - in the mind of the beholder - passed on from one like minded person to the next with the same results as in the child's game of telephone.  And the mainstream press seemingly has no interest in calling out lies or even trying to determine what the truth is - nor apparently does the public.  The story is that people believe this or that, and the story is the important thing - not the truth, because people like stories that reinforce what they want to believe.

And does the source of information even matter anymore?  The establishment press - the broadcast channels, the daily newspapers, the researchers - are increasingly listened to, heard and considered by a smaller and smaller segment of the populace (chiefly on the left), with whole swaths of demographic groups and political leaning groups, oblivious to that part of what today constitutes the "press".  Perhaps a majority get their news from highly questionable sources, if they get any news at all.

We've now gone way beyond the Paul Simon lyric that: "A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest."  Updating that chilling observation, as people are no longer concerned with actually "hearing" anything, and so have nothing pesky and troublesome to disregard, people believe what they want, and once having come to their positions, believe anything that validates those beliefs as true.  Truth, facts, evidence are irrelevant.  And the news apparatus and organizations are irrelevant.  The right rejects mainstream press as biased and inaccurate.  The left rejects them as ineffective and complicit in creating the problem.  Journalism is both irrelevant and dead.  No one cares.  I know what I want, and who my guys are.  Everybody else is the enemy - telling lies.  I don't need any other news.

And that portends results and problems that I am not sure anyone can possibly predict with any accuracy.  But it threatens the very idea of democracy.  That ought to worry us all.

And what does any of it possibly have to do with the arts, with us?

Two things I think:
1).  Artists and art has always had a role to play in getting to the truth, and I suspect that as truth falls victim to the manipulation of those in power across the planet, pandering to their base of support that is often in their camp because of successful campaigns to deceive them into thinking the liars are their defenders, art will, and should, play a part in continually questioning the inappropriate nakedness of the Emperor.

2).  As a field, and as individuals, each of us have to ask what can we do, what should we do in the face of a broken world?  What do we do about truth?  An open discussion and debate among us might be helpful to all of us in determining how to act.  On the one hand, we can try to fly under the radar and not alienate our new masters.  On the other, we can sacrifice to bring the cogs of the machine to a halt.  Or neither, or something in between.  We have moral decisions to make that go beyond what we do, no matter how precious and important what we do is.

Everyone will have to come to their own conclusions and decisions about the future, and the future is exactly what 2017 will be about.   But while people are depressed and in some ways paralyzed, we can ill afford to be defeated.  We must steel our resolve and fight for the world we want. There simply isn't any other choice.

As Toni Morrison observed (as quoted in Brain Pickings):

"This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art."

I think Bob Dylan had a tenable suggestion in A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall:

"And I'll tell and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it
And I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'
But I'll know my song well before I start singing
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard

It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall."

Happy New Year to each of you.  I hope 2017 is a better year than 2016.

Don't Quit