10 September 2010

Anger is an energy

Since Sunday I have spent a significant portion of my time traveling to and from my grandparents' house, the hospital, and points in between. My grandparents live a 40 minute bus ride away, and from there the taxi-ride on to the hospital seems to take between 20 and 40 minutes depending on the traffic. This has offered both positives and negatives to my week; on the plus side I have had an unusual amount of enforced free-time for reading while taking the bus, on the other hand I have been subjected to a ridiculous amount of talk radio while in taxis.

But first, the positives. On September 15th 2008 José Saramago posted online a love letter to his beloved Lisbon. This was to be the first of a series of blog posts, three or four per week, that the then 85 year old Portuguese Nobel Laureate would write over the following year, a regularity of posting far in excess of my own recent efforts. This year of collected thoughts was released a few months ago in English as "The Notebook". I was drawn to it on hearing of his death in June of this year, but have only now on the occasion of a multitude of bus journeys found time to read it.

Ursula Le Guin in a recent review of his penultimate novel, "The Elephant's Journey", said of Saramago:
"His preoccupations and politics and passions might seem to belong to a past age: a diehard communist impatient of dictators, subversive of orthodoxies, disrespectful of international corporations, peasant-born in a marginal country and identifying himself always with the powerless, a radical who lived on into an age when even liberals are spoken of as leftist . . . But the still more intransigent radicalism of his art makes it impossible to dismiss him from the busy chatrooms of the present. He got ahead of us; he is ahead of us. His work belongs to our future. I take comfort in this."
Throughout the year he chronicled events both personal and external, interweaving reflections on the lives of his friends with polemical (yet rational) thoughts on the war in Iraq, the Bush Presidency, the rise of Obama and the global financial crash. I began reading it almost exactly two years to the day of the publishing of the original posts, and while there is a certain warmth that arrises from the discovery of parallel tracks that at the time occupied both his mind and my own, the true wonder lies in the direct relevance of his arguments to events that continue to unfold today.

In October 2008 Saramago, with a small group of colleagues from different countries and political backgrounds, published an open letter on the unfolding financial meltdown. In it he wrote:
"The laws of the market led to a state of chaos that brought about a rescue of thousands of millions of dollars - to the culprits, not the victims. In other words, "rescue" meant "privatize the profits, nationalise the losses." This is a unique opportunity to redefine the global system in favor of social justice. There was no money to fund the fight against AIDS, nor to support feeding the world... and finally, in a real financial whirlwind, it turns out that there were enough funds to save from ruin those very same people who, by overly favoring dotcom and property bubbles, have destroyed the world economic edifice of "globalisation"."
- José Saramago, "The Notebook", p55
It is impossible to read these words today in Ireland without hearing a striking condemnation of NAMA, the Anglo Irish bailout, and almost every action taken by the current government to protect the interests of their financial backers in the property and financial sectors. Ronan Lyons and Prof Brian Lucey recently published a jaw-dropping list of a 100 ways to spend the €25 billion of taxpayers' money that has been pumped into Anglo to keep it afloat; read it and try not to cry.

And now for the bad stuff.

Talk radio is the comments thread of old media. It is both the forum and the troll, the spam and the vitriol, the flame and the gasoline that fuels it. At times when advocating the internet as a medium for education and enlightenment, true conversation and discourse, I despair that the format of the medium itself, the anonymity and immediacy, engenders and facilitates the very basest of human actions. After being subjected to far too many hours of Mr Joseph Duffy and his cohorts in the back of dank and uncomfortable taxis this week I now absolve the internet of all its supposed sins, for I now know that it is humanity itself that is vile, small-minded and selfish, and the internet, like radio, is but an enabler.

When advising groups on the web I wax lyrical about its power to create a dialogue between them their organisation and their users or members, that it empowers a conversation and lets all voices be heard. After a week of Liveline and its equivalents I now believe that perhaps this is a bad thing, that those most motivated to take to the airwaves or forums are those least likely to welcome a genuine dialogue. There is a violence in their words, an aggression and desire to dominate, not communicate, and I am subsequently prompted to replay in my mind with horror any online infractions and lapses that I myself have succumbed to, such occurrences being regrettably all too numerous.

Talk radio is a commercial enterprise. Revenue is generated from advertising, advertising rates are determined by audience size, and like motorists slowing down to stare at a car crash, audience numbers are all too often driven by a perverse obsession with violence. My grandfather justifies his viewing of Fox News by rhetorically asking why would he want to listen to people who agree with him; he watches and his blood pressure rises, he gets angry and feels alive. As John Lydon said, "Anger is an energy", and talk radio feeds off this energy, selecting callers from the public to air on the basis of those whose views will outrage the most, stimulating more calls in response and larger audiences in turn.

Internet forums and comments threads function in a similar way, while larger sites may at times make a play of switching off their comments sections because "conversations" have become too heated, those sites' Sales Managers love aggressive commentators because they prompt more outraged responses - more responses being posted means more page views, more page views mean more ad revenues. As with talk radio it is in the commercial interests of many sites to cater to and encourage diatribes of the most reactionary kind.

Thus the market drives this faux-discourse; Commercially motivated populism has always dominated media, but what is now touted as the democratization of the airwaves is nothing of the sort, the invisible hand of the market maintains a tighter grip than ever and under the illusion of open discourse society itself suffers as base negativity is actively encouraged and the language of violence becomes the accepted norm.

Manufactured anger is the energy that powers our new 'Democratic' public sphere, the toxic waste left behind will poison our society for generations to come.

As I leave the last word on this to Saramago, my only regret whilst reading "The Notebook" is that I have come to his words only after his passing.
"We live in a society that seems to have made violence a way of social interaction. The aggression that is inherent in this species of ours, and which at times we think that we have managed to control through education, bursts brutally up from the depths in the past twenty years, manifesting itself right across the social sphere, prompted by modes of idleness that have stopped using simple hedonism to condition the consumer's mentality and instead use violence."
- José Saramago, "The Notebook", p23

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