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The American Education System: Part Six: News For All The People (A Speculative Essay)
Why is news consumption promoted as a good thing?
The argument we get, from the proponents of news consumption, is that the citizenry need a strong, free press, which we need to pay attention to, so that we, the people, can "make informed decisions."
"Make informed decisions" about what?
As I said before, in talking about the "American education system," I am not merely talking about what happens in the school house. I am also talking about the general public intellectual culture---as viewed through the lens of the thesis of cultural historian, Susan Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason).
As I have been saying, taking her thesis and using "her numbers" of about 1820-1980, what we derive is something like this: From about 1820 (she tells us that the American 'lyceum' movement of public lecture halls featuring visiting scholars of all kinds across the country, began sometime in the 1820s) to about 1980, or so, American engagement with intellectual and artistic culture, by and large, was relatively serious, deep, and broadly participatory, with some peaks and valleys in between.
The question-lament, which Jacoby poses, and to which I have addressed this series of essays is this: Why is it the case that after 1980, or so, there was such a dramatic drop off of American engagement with intellectual and artistic culture, with its deleterious consequences for memory and knowledge?
Cultural historian Susan Jacoby's "numbers" of 1820-1980, as I said before, match up almost exactly with a set of numbers used by an economist called Richard D. Wolff (1820-1970). Dr. Wolff, as I have said, uses those numbers for an analytical tool of U.S. economic history, as a way of contextualizing the financial and economic crisis that hit America in 2008.
The long and short of Dr. Wolff's argument is that in the 1970s employers stopped paying workers higher real wages to keep up with inflation, as a reward for increased worker productivity, which really never flagged. I think Dr. Wolff would say that workers have been suffering a thirty-odd year economic crisis, which was not helped by the credit card, a device, says Dr. Wolff, in which employers (either directly or through banks) actually loaned the workers the money they should have gotten as pay raises (in keeping with inflation, as a reward for ever increasing productivity). The beautiful part, as Dr. Wolff explains, is that the workers had to pay back (this very money they should have rightfully been paid in wage increases, in accordance with the social contract) with interest.
Anyway, notice the correspondence between the start of the thirty-year economic crisis of the American working class, and the point at which Susan Jacoby notes the severe drop off of Americans', by and large, engagement with intellectual and artistic culture.
As I have been saying, the "race thing" is my own intervention into this discussion. It is the answer I propose in response to the question put by Susan Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason). Race plays no role in the answers she produces in her very fine book. If anything, fundamentalist religion comes in for some blame in her thesis.
Anyway, my thesis uses both the cultural historian Susan Jacoby's thesis and "numbers" (1820-1980) and economist Dr. Richard D. Wolff's thesis and numbers (1820-1970) to say this: From about 1820 to 1980, the majority of "white" Americans (to greater and lesser degrees according to class) were getting something---a mysterious 'X' factor---from their engagement with intellectual and artistic culture. This 'X' element was so powerful and addictive, that when they stopped getting it, or its assertion became increasingly unviable, white Americans, in general (to lesser or greater degrees) basically turned away from intellectual and artistic culture, becoming famously "anti-intellectual" and even "anti-rational," again, as Susan Jacoby sees it (The Age of American Unreason). The multi-decade economic downturn of the American working class, noted by Dr. Richard D. Wolff, comes in for contributing to the material conditions, which would appear to have made the assertion of the mysterious 'X' factor unviable.
That "mysterious 'X' factor is what I have been calling "the insidious narcotic of white supremacy ego gratification." Because I have been calling this 'X' factor "insidious," I mean to say that I believe that all of this very well may have, let us say, subliminally indoctrinated generations of white Americans. That is to say that they would have been, on a conscious level, rather oblivious to this process, in precisely the following same way: If you asked a fish what the most obvious feature of his environment is, "water" would probably be the very last thing he names.
I hope that I have been reasonably convincing using some scholarly sources.
Let's move on.
Let us return to the matter of the American news media. We are given to understand that a citizenry bathed in the light of a strong, free press should be empowered to "make informed decisions."
As I said before: "Make informed decisions" about what?
I have invoked the name of veteran news man, Juan Gonzalez and the book he co-authored: "News For All The People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media."
So, he and his writing partner seem to think there is some connection between race and media in the American situation---actually from the American historical situation.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that I have not read the book yet. But there is video available in which Mr. Gonzalez explains what their thesis is. The first thing to know is that it is a book that tries to answer a question. The question is this: Why does the American news media, by and large, depict the lifestyle of peoples of color in the United States, as a "Gangster's Paradise," (1) as the rapper Coolio put it?
Whenever you investigate why a thing is the way it is, a good place to start is how and under what circumstances that thing came into being. It is good to reflect upon the ontology of the thing in question. We often find that form fits function. Here's what I mean.
But more importantly, here's what Mr. Gonzalez and his writing partner mean. Juan Gonzalez can be seen and heard reminding us all that the United States of America is a "settler society," which I hope is not a point of controversy (2). The nineteenth century was the period over which the Euro-American nation-state came into being through its expansion from "sea to shining sea," and all that, with acquisitions like the "Louisiana Purchase," the "Trail of Tears," and all that.
It is under these circumstances, says Mr. Gonzalez, which the organ of public information, which would become the American news "media," got its kick off. Basically this public information organ was devoted to keeping white (and westward moving) settlers apprised as to the movements and activities of Indians and blacks, in the interest of preserving settler physical safety and property protection (3).
Stay with me.
If you have been following this series from the first installment (especially number two), you may recall, that within the framework given to us by cultural historian, Susan Jacoby's "numbers" of 1820-1980, she identified the 1960s as a time point when some signs of drop off of American news consumption become discernible, though not crisis-suggesting yet.
The 1960s, especially, I suppose the mid-to-late-1960s were an interesting time, a Dickensian, "Tale of Two Cities," best and worst of times. In the 1960s, when America was still enjoying the post-World War Two oligopolistic economic bounce, economists and sociologists and "futurists" thought that Americans were becoming so tremendously wealthy that they would never have to work hard again. The American economy was thought to be clicking on all cylinders, as it were. In fact, the experts thought that right about now (actually a few years ago, sometime around 2000) we would have a 28-hour work week and six-week vacations. This caused some consternation among moralists and corporate executives, who worried about how they were going to keep their workforces motivated (4).
In August of 1966, an organization called the AP/IPSOS ran a poll asking Americans if the United States was on the right track or the wrong track. Only twenty-six percent said the country was on the right track and seventy-one percent said the wrong track. This tells you about the overwhelming sense that pervaded that the country was coming apart at the seams. Crime was on the rise (people certainly believed that it was on the rise); cities were being devastated by riots; privileged youth were turning to "counterculture" expressions of discontent (so-called "hippies"); and demonstrators were protesting the Vietnam War (5).
Between 1964 and 1978 something called the American National Studies Survey asked Americans if they favored "strict segregation," "desegregation," or "something in between." In 1964, twenty-three percent said they wanted "strict segregation" and thirty-two percent said they wanted "desegregation," leaving around forty-five percent saying they wanted "something in between." This, of course, means that sixty-eight percent of Americans in 1964 were comfortable with some kind of segregation (6).
Indeed, it is the case that throughout the 1960s, more than 60 percent of (white) Americans said that the Civil Rights movement was pushing too hard, for too much, too fast. The Republican party certainly piggybacked upon this sentiment to get elected (7), as did Richard Nixon with his "Southern Strategy" (8).
And yet, Richard Nixon governed, in many ways like a liberal. I have heard the scholar-linguist-activist Noam Chomsky, in one of his public talks, call Nixon "the last liberal president." He assured the audience that he was not making a joke.
After all, Nixon did index Social Security for inflation. He also created Supplemental Security Income (a major program for the disabled elderly). His administration expanded government regulation of workplace safety and environment; and tried to introduce universal health care insurance (9). In addition to that, it is well known that Nixon created the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
And now, some economic "best of times"
Let's do some table setting.
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Robert B. Reich, in one of his books, offers us this:
"AMERICA AT MID-CENTURY was not a trading nation. Few recently devastated economies were capable of selling Americans much of anything or buying much of what America might have had to sell. Even by 1960, only 4 percent of the automobiles Americans bought were built outside the United States, only 4 percent of the steel Americans used came from abroad, and less than 6 percent of televisions, radios, and other consumer products had their origins outside of America's borders. Nonetheless, the nation in these years committed itself to an ambitious plan for extending the wonders of American capitalism to the rest of the world, as a further bulwark against the spread of Soviet communism. This effort also contributed to the erosion of the stable oligopolistic system" (10)[.]
After some talk about the specific postwar measures the United States took and the international organizations it created to bring about global capitalist recovery and all that, Robert Reich concludes:
"By almost any measure, the effort was a large success. Between 1945 and 1970, real incomes tripled around the world and world trade quadrupled. Not coincidentally, America's foreign policy created new opportunities for America's largest corporations---then larger, richer, and more technologically advanced than anywhere else in the world---to expand their markets abroad. With the dollar as the currency on which the world's fixed-exchange system was based, America's bankers and large corporations could extend the reach of American capitalism at minimal risk. Under a World Bank controlled by Americans, development assistance could be focused around the globe precisely where large American corporations saw greatest opportunity" (11).
And yet, as economist Paul Krugman pointed out, between 1957 and 1970, crime rate tripled and robbery rates quadrupled. Because of changing technologies of production and transportation, manufacturing began to be relocated out of the urban industrial districts to the suburbs, making jobs scarce in inner city areas where African-Americans lived (12).
So, my point in going through all of that is to say that the picture of American society in the 1960s, with its "best of times, worst of times" polarity is very similar to the situation of one hundred years before that, the "frontier" days of the 1850s and 1860s.
Again "make informed decisions" about what?
Mr. Gonzalez's thesis is that during the frontier days, the organ of public information, which would become the American "media" system, had the task of informing whites about the movements and activities of Indians and blacks (slaves and otherwise), with the aim of protecting their physical safety and property (and growing acquisition of property).
In the 1960s---in accordance with Susan Jacoby's thesis (The Age of American Unreason)---(white) American engagement with the news media, while slipping, was still relatively enthusiastic.
Because, as we have seen, America (especially and in some respects exclusively "white" America) was still experiencing its post-World War Two bounce. In some quarters, as we have seen, the feeling was that the good times would roll forever. As we have seen, at the same time there was white racial resentment against the demands and what many of them saw as the encroachments of the Civil Rights movement; and there was rising crime rates.
Or at least the perception of rising crime rates (13).
Therefore, the function of the news media, during the 1960s, by and large though not exclusively, was to inform and keep the white masses on the alert, so that they could "make informed decisions" about the protection of their persons and property from hordes of presumably wild, grasping, predatory peoples of color.
I have never seen this point made more explicitly than the remarks of veteran news man, Selwyn Raab, in one his books about the New York Mafia. In the introduction he gives some space to what he viewed as the media whitewash of and the indifference of local police authorities to the Mob, in the 1970s.
We read: "Despite their criminal records and suspected participation in multiple murders, John Gotti, Joey Gallo, and Joe Columbo were accorded celebrity status and often portrayed not as merciless killers but as maverick, antiestablishment folk heroes.
"Indeed, a commonly recycled story by newspapers and television subtly praised the Mafia, citing its formidable presence for low street-crime rates in predominantly Italian-American sections. With predatory crime soaring, two Mafia strongholds, Manhattan's Little Italy and Brooklyn's Bensonhurst, were presented as safe havens to live in. Ureported and underemphasized were the factors behind the statistics. Significantly, the gangsters relied on sympathetic neighborhood residents to alert them to the presence of probing law enforcement agents and suspicious outsiders trying to encroach on their bastions. These watchdogs helped turn their neighborhoods into xenophobic enclaves, sometimes resulting in violence against strangers, especially African-Americans and Hispanics" (14).
Let's appreciate what this veteran news man is saying.
In what he considers to have been the atmosphere of relative societal tolerance for the Mob, in the 1970s, Raab has accused the New York media, certainly---and perhaps the American media in general---of of implicitly endorsing the race-based intelligence-gathering, carried out by allied agents of the New York Mob, which resulted in xenophobia, and sometimes anti-black and anti-Hispanic violence---by lauding the Mafia for its supposed safe neighborhoods "program," if you will, without going deeper and exploring the "factors behind the statistics."
In other words, Mr. Raab seems to be accusing the media of not doing their job, or "falling down on the job," as it were. But, if you think of the "job" of the American media was to warn masses of white people about the movements and activities of supposedly wild and grasping peoples of color, with a view to safeguarding white safety and property, then the media were performing admirably in the 1960s and 1970s. Also, we might note that the prosperity of white Americans was, largely, seen to be on the rise in the 1960s, as had been the prospects of white settlers been on the rise a century before that.
Also, I must note that there are reams of scholarly literature about America in the latter half of the twentieth-century, which shows that African-Americans were largely left out of the benefits of the New Deal and the post-World War Two G.I. Bill programs due to political pressure from Southern Democrats. That geographical outpost of the formerly proslavery Democratic party remained reactionary in their racial views until the 1970s.
I know what you're thinking: You don't think my quote about Italian-Americans is quite relevant to my thesis about the "insidious narcotic of white supremacy ego gratification," given all of the prejudice and discrimination and marginalization Italians did indeed suffer in America.
A few points.
1. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) chauvinism of people who consider themselves to be of Northern and Western European extraction---has always looked down upon people of Southern and Eastern European extraction, as basically "tainted" white people due to excessive miscegenation with Africans (Moors) and Turks.
2. The dominant "white" ruling faction in America thought of themselves of this Anglo-Saxon heritage.
3. As a result, US immigration authorities have always prized Northern Italians much more highly than Southern Italians. This is because Northern Italians were/are often tall, blond-haired, and of light complexion, more representative of the Nordic ideal than Southern Italians, whose appearance bore the mark of Africa (the Moors); Southern Italians tended to be short, dark, and more wooly-haired.
4. So, when we talk about the travails of "Italians" in the United States, were are really talking about Southern Italians specifically.
On the process of Italian assimilation into American culture.
Historian Nell Irvin Painter: "With real American identity coded according to race, being a real American often meant in joining antiblack racism and seeing oneself as white against the blacks. Looking back to the war years, an Italian American recalled a tempting invitation to take sides during the Harlem riot of 1943: 'I remember standing on a corner, a guy would throw the door open and say, 'Come on down.' They were goin' to Harlem to get in the riot. They'd say, "Let's beat up some niggers." It was wonderful. It was new. The Italo-Americans stopped being Italo and started becoming Americans. We joined the group. Now we're like you guys, right'" (15).
And just to put the exclamation point on it, again, Dr. Painter noted: "Malcolm X, spokesman of the black nationalist Nation of Islam, and Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize laureate in literature, later noted that the first English word out of the mouths of European immigrants was frequently 'nigger.' Actually, Morrison said it was second, after 'okay'" (16).
Of course, we can go back much further.
Historian Thaddeus Russell: "In the 1830s, when there was only a trickle of Italian immigrants into the United States, a prominent gentleman in New York declared, 'A dirty Irishman is bad enough, but he's nothing compared to a nasty... Italian loafer.' A few decades later, the eminent American historian and philosopher John Fiske concurred, estimating that 'the lowest Irish are far above the level of these creatures [Italians].' The most common claim made against Italians was that they possessed 'a natural inclination toward criminality,' as the New York Times put it in 1876, but they were accused of other unsuitable behaviors as well, as the Times remarked in the same editorial: 'The Italian is lazier, more gossiping, and fitter for intrigue than the American' " (17).
Furthermore, in the 1920s, there was an article in the Saturday Evening Post, calling for an end to Italian immigration to the United States, on the basis that southern Italians were part African, and as a result were 'incapable of self-government and totally devoid of initiative and creative ability.' The Post claimed that 'unrestricted immigration [into southern Italy] made a mongrel race of the south Italians' and that unrestricted immigration [into the U.S.] will inevitably and absolutely do the same thing to Americans' (18).
In any event, opinion leaders of the Italian-American community did certain things in response to all of this, in order to prove to America that they, [Southern] Italians were, indeed, true Americans. Let's just take one example.
Thaddeus Russell: "Father Luigi Giambastiani of St. Philip Benizi Church, the largest Sicilian church in Chicago, led a movement to keep Italians and blacks segregated in new public-housing projects. According to Gugliemo, 'prior to the 1940s in his many public statements and essays in defense of Italians,' Giambastiani 'mentioned whites rarely,' defended Italians by highlighting their virtues as Italians, not as whites,' and 'even in his neighborhood battles against incoming African Americans in the mid-1930s, he shied away from explicit talk about whiteness.' By the 1940s, however, 'Giambastiani's language had changed dramatically, as Italians became 'whites' and race became color.' in a 1942 letter written on behalf of his constituency to the Chicago Housing Authority, Giambastiani explained that 'the cohabitation or quasi-cohabitation of Negro and White hurts the feelings and traditions of the White people of this community'" (19).
And so on and so forth.
It is important to know that the concept of 'whiteness' is a uniquely American invention of self-identification. This synthetic identity was composed for complex reasons which need not detain us here. I just wanted to show you the relevance of the quote I used from Selwyn Raab about the Italian-American Mafia, how their "safe neighborhood" program was inherently racist---Italians, once despised as a mongrel race earned their 'whiteness' by, essentially, throwing African-Americans under the bus.
Dr. Nell Irvin Painter calls this process the four "enlargements of American whiteness", and details how this process worked for Germans, Irish, Italians and Jews. Dr. Thaddeus Russell describes the same phenomena for the same four European ethnic groups (20).
The closing statement is simply this: With the decline of broad American prosperity, starting in the 1970s, for the reasons I have already indicated, a situation arose in which many (white) Americans have less material prosperity in need of protection, which, naturally, led to a mass American disengagement with journalism.
Put it this way. You park your Mercedes in a dubious neighborhood. Let us say you have to for some reason. Let us say that you are highly motivated to outfit the car with the most sophisticated alarm/noise deterrent you can afford, to protect your nice car.
But now, five years later, let us say that you lost all of your wealth in bad investments. You still have to make the trek to X neighborhood, for work or something. You have seen nothing to objectively change your opinion about the character of the neighborhood; you think it is as crappy as it always.
But because of your deteriorated financial circumstances, the car you drive is not so nice. Let's say that it's a "Ford Focus" now, or something like that---a second-hand one.
First of all, you are not as motivated to protect your Ford Focus from theft; and you certainly cannot afford to outfit it with an alarm system, which might be worth more than the car itself.
Think of the news media as that car alarm and share of income and wealth garnered by the working class and middle class, as the Mercedes, which has deteriorated to the Ford Focus.
I'll leave it there. Thank you so much for reading.
1. Juan Gonzalez "News For All The People" Oct 24 2011 [YouTube]. (2011). United States.
4. Johnston, David Cay. Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign To Rig Our Tax System To Benefit The Super Rich---And Cheat Everybody Else. Portfolio, 2003. 20
5. Krugman, Paul. The Conscience of a Liberal. W.W. Norton, 2007. 79-81
6. ibid, 84
7. ibid, 82, 85; and Domhoff, G. (2013, February). The Rise and Fall of Labor Unions In The U.S.: From the 1830s until 2012 (but mostly the 1930s-1980s). Retrieved March 3, 2015. Go to section 5: Big Hopes, But Rising Tensions: 1960-1968, subsection: The beginning of the end for union power. paragraphs 6 and 7, which talks about the role of race in putting America on its rightward path, on labor and many other issues.
8. Perlstein, Rick. The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Scribner, 2008
9. Krugman, Paul. The Conscience of a Liberal. W.W. Norton, 2007. 81
10. Reich, Robert B. Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life. Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. 43
11. ibid, 44
12. Krugman, P. Conscience. 87-89
13. This was a panel of American twentieth-century historians talking about the 1970s as a time of "declared" crisis, which was supposedly generated by liberal-Keynesian excesses of the 1960s. See: Social Changes of the 1970s [video]. (2015). United States: American History TV C-Span3.
14. Raab, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2006. xiv
15. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History Of White People. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 363
17. Russell, Thaddeus. A Renegade History Of The United States. Free Press, 2010. 181
18. ibid, 196
19. ibid, 197
20. Painter, N. I. The History of White People. see chapters 9: "The First Alien Wave" pp.132-150; 14: "The Second Enlargement Of American Whiteness" pp.201-211; 26: "The Third Enlargement Of American Whiteness" pp.359-373; 28: "The Fourth Enlargement Of American Whiteness" pp.383-396. See also Russell, Thaddeus. A Renegade History of the United States. Part Two of his book is titled, "How White People Lost Their Rhythm." See chapters 6: "From White Chimps To Yankee Doodles: The Irish" pp.140-159; 7: "The Jew Was A Negro" pp.160-180; 8: "Italian Americans: Out Of Africa" pp.181-204.