Friday, July 22, 2005

Short Attention Span or Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Much as I admire them and what they've accomplished, I sometimes worry about the major progressive watchdog organizations. Sometimes it seems as if they've all got their fingers poised on the panic button, ready to start yet another shrill outburst and fundraising campaign at any moment (often every day, it seems). Another problem is that they seem to sell the public rather short for its capacity to multitask.

Please excuse the corporate-speak, but in their obsession with being the first, the loudest, and the most important voice in the progressive community, each of these organizations closes itself off, insulating itself in aggrandizement until we are in peril of no longer having a progressive community to speak of.

Perhaps I should give an example of what I mean here. Quoted below are two very significant points raised by two separate groups, which arise from the same complaint. Or is it, the same misperception of the American public? The first is from the great 527, still the model by which all other 527's are measured,

Like a roller coaster, the news out of Washington this week has been an up and down ride. On Monday, the entire country was focused on Karl Rove's leak of the identity of an undercover CIA operative to the media. Then President Bush announced his nominee for the Supreme Court on primetime TV—nearly pushing the Rove story out of the news. The timing was intentional, a top Republican told Reuters: "It helps take Rove off the front pages for a week.” Monday, there were 1,043 news stories mentioning "Karl Rove" on top TV stations—yesterday there were 128.

Next, we have a rather more ominous message from an outstanding organization called The Center for American Progress:

A week ago, we launched the BeAWitness campaign, in conjunction with the Genocide Intervention Fund, to tell our TV networks to cover the genocide in Sudan. Why do we need to air this ad right now? Here are just a few reasons:
• As many as 400,000 people have died in the genocide, with thousands more dying every month.
• CBS hasn’t run a story about the Darfur genocide in 73 days.

Well, what's the problem here? Both organizations are working independently to point out a hideous lack of balance in the mainstream media. Point well taken—have a look around this weblog and through my archives, and you'll see that I couldn't agree more that there is a terrible attention span problem in the mass media. Call it institutional ADHD, if you will: the inability to maintain focus or to truly plumb an issue to any depth beyond the thinnest veil of appearances.

We could also argue that it is the principal medium that is the trouble here: television, with its forced passivity; its economic engine of 30-second bites of advertising (each of them the ADHD symptom constellation in microcosm); its compulsion to overcome that ingrained passivity in the relationship between the box and the viewer by focusing its hyperactive searchlight on the shrillest noise, the bloodiest scene, the most offensive scandal, the strangest rumors. As Robert Bly said in The Sibling Society, "Television provides a garbage dump of obsessive sexual material...,minute descriptions of brutalities, wars, and tortures all over the world: an avalanche of specialized information that stuns the brain." He goes on to cite a 1995 study sponsored by the National Institutes of Mental Health, which concluded that eating a meal typically requires more skill and concentration than watching television.

But these are points that no one allows in our culture today: how can we listen to voices of sanity that tell us to turn off the television, when its decadent momentum is so far advanced as to be inescapable? Just look at what those two admirable organizations, quoted above, did to publicize their just complaints against the mass media: they each produced a television ad!

So all right, let's leave aside the television issue for now, as crucial as it may be in the larger scheme of things. Still, there are some points that must be made to and the Center for American Progress:

1. You're not communicating very well: how can we have a progressive movement whose principal public voices can't connect and communicate? Quoted above we have two statements of a very well grounded complaint toward the mass media, but the disparity in their direction is alarming. One of them says that the Karl Rove fiasco is being repressed by a manipulative government and a hyperactive media; the other sternly points out that a scene of genocidal murder is being ignored by the same media, under the influence of the same manipulations. It would be laughably ridiculous if it weren't so serious in its implications and consequences. Why couldn't these two organizations have connected with one another during their planning of these campaigns, and come out with a unified voice on this issue?

2. Is it also possible that you're committing the same mistake that the media make in underestimating the attention span of the American citizen? People tend not to respond very well to insults, either implicit or overt. But if your message is that we're all pawns of tabloid TV journalism, and then reinforce that message with a tabloid TV-style advertisement, then the insult is blatantly palpable. All of this probably arises from an even more insidious and obstructive attitude, which is:
3. The polarization of the issue. The genocide in Darfur is not a right-wing vs. left-wing, Republican vs. Democrat type of issue. It's a matter of a crime against humanity—a violation of Cosmic law and the inner truth of every human individual capable of feeling pain, injustice, and horror. And even the Rove debacle is a matter of bipartisan agreement, as public statements from Republican Congressmen and polls of the American people have abundantly illustrated this past week. But turning it all into an us vs. them dynamic winds up making the conflict itself the main story. The only effect of that is to further deflect attention away from the very issue you'd like people to be focusing on!

So my message to and the CAP would be this: stop the pissing contests. Put your dicks back in your pants, zip up, and then join hands (don't forget to wash first). And for god's sake, communicate with one another. Learn from the conservatives: how have they influenced major elections for some six years running? Well, we can begin to get an idea by looking at their organizations. Check out's member page—it's astonishing what a nest they've built on the world wide web. More like a beehive, in fact. Now go to moveon, or CAP, or Democracy Now, and try to find even a Links page! Winning the American public's trust is not about taking some imaginary moral high ground—it's about finding common ground, among people, organizations, and movements—and then delivering a reasonably consonant message to the public. For the Democrats, this is something that Dr. Dean will have to help steward.

By no one's measurement could I be deemed a genius. In fact, with the onset of middle age and with a history of somewhat dissolute ways, I would fall firmly into the average realm of intellectual metrics. But guess what—I can really understand the need for Karl Rove and the administration he represents being called to public account, even while I also openly demand that my government and the free nations of the world work assertively toward ending the slaughter in Darfur. And all of the Joe Normals out there like me are capable of the same level of intellectual multitasking. For most of us, our jobs demand it; and for all of us, so should our sense of citizenship. But the public voices and organizations that purport to lead us must begin by affirming that ability, and then offering us the information and the opportunities to exercise it.

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