Friday, February 03, 2012
Cut To Ribbons
I'm going to once again defer to Mary Beth Williams for the full story of how the Susan G. Komen organization quickly backed away in shame from its lunkheaded decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood. But I want to say one quick thing about the social media shit-storm that was largely responsible for forcing the Komen people to do the right thing: It scares me a little.
Look, I get that the masses spoke loudly and -- in social media circles, anyway -- almost unequivocally, and that the outrage was so incisive and so vast that in the end the Komen organization was really left with no choice if it wanted to save its brand (and if you know anything at all about Komen, that brand is the most important thing in the world to it). What we witnessed was a new manifestation of age-old democracy, the public effecting change in one of the purest forms possible. We witnessed it a couple of weeks ago with SOPA; we saw it help to change governments in the Middle East last spring; now we're seeing it again. The only problem with it is this: social media already has us thinking at a speed that isn't really thinking at all and spouting whatever the first thing that comes to mind happens to be, generally without contemplation or the consideration of context.
Now the natural byproduct of that has arrived: we act and react reflexively, also without really taking the time to think about what we're doing. Komen backed down quickly and unconditionally, bowing to the supposed will of the very loud masses and the media -- traditional and social -- which amplified their anger. In this case, it was not only right but warranted -- the outcry and backlash really was that ferocious and far-reaching. But today's media have the ability to amplify almost any message until it becomes its own echo chamber, one with the ability to fool us into thinking that the volume of an opinion directly correlates to how many people really have that opinion. Need a good example of this? Look no further than the Tea Party. Even a small army can make a hell of a lot of noise if it knows how, especially since the modern media abhor a vacuum of sound and fury.
This time the cause was noble and the outcome just.
What about the next time?
What happens when the person or organization forced to knee-jerk capitulate isn't someone who should?
Salon: How the Internet Changed Komen's Mind/2.3.12
"On Second Thought" (Originally Published 11.23.09)
There's a decent piece by David Sirota that's making the syndication rounds right now in which he takes aim at the dumbing-down of America as a nation; specifically, he ties it to what may eventually be remembered as the most inadvertently prescient not-very-good movie in history: Idiocracy. Sirota's contention is that while we've known for some time that unapologetic stupidity is steadily gaining an at one time undreamed-of respectability within our culture -- to the point where we're now besieged by it in politics, on cable TV and talk radio, and wherever Sarah Palin's new book is sold -- a couple of things happened recently to either pick up the pace, or at least significantly mark a sudden downward plunge, on the "de-evolution" of America as a society of people with brains at least slightly larger than a couple of Chicken McNuggets.
Last week, two of the Washington Post's top columnists -- White House press corps "dean" David Broder and the Post's foreign policy guru Jackson Diehl -- penned articles that slammed Barack Obama for not moving fast enough on making a decision whether or not to deploy more troops to the increasingly intractable war in Afghanistan. Broder's point was just plain fucking staggering:
"It is evident from the length of this deliberative process and from the flood of leaks that have emerged from Kabul and Washington that the perfect course of action does not exist. Given that reality, the urgent necessity is to make a decision -- whether or not it is right."
Meanwhile, Diehl's point seemed to hinge on the belief -- proffered without evidence, merely speculation -- that even though NATO, the Pentagon and Congress are supposedly unanimous in the opinion that we need more troops in Afghanistan, Obama just can't bring himself to commit, and that should be cause for concern among the electorate.
"As leading opinionmakers, Broder and Diehl are paid to carefully ponder issues and then offer their considered thoughts. That's not part of what they're supposed to do -- it's what they are singularly employed to do. It's how they earn their living and credibility -- indeed, it's their entire raison d'etre. And yet, these leading lights of the intelligentsia are overtly preaching anti-intelligence, insisting the president must avoid taking time to think through his actions.
This isn't interpretation -- it's what these Beltway sages are literally saying. Broder is explicitly demanding Obama make a knee-jerk decision -- any decision -- even if it has catastrophic consequences. Likewise, Diehl is calling for Obama to immediately risk thousands of American lives simply because that's what Diehl believes the establishment wants.
Let's be clear -- these are just two of many similar examples. Today, screeds calling for leaders to prioritize lightning-fast decisions over measured deliberations are increasingly commonplace in the Washington intelligentsia, even after an Iraq debacle brought on by the same ideological know-nothingism...
When the supposed guardians of political cognition and empiricism begin publicly flaying leaders for taking time to fully evaluate potential decisions — it's a sign our country is becoming the ignorance-deifying Idiocracy we should all fear."
While I agree with Sirota that calling for a president to make a decision to potentially risk the lives of American soldiers without first really thinking it through is reprehensible and the definition of anti-intellectualism -- unfortunately, I think the problem is even worse than he describes. The reality is that this course we're on -- this downward spiral -- is likely irreversible. The reason is that the ever-increasing speed with which we communicate these days has made introspective analysis not only seem antiquated but downright intolerable. We just don't have time for things like stopping and thinking anymore.
Through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter -- and, yes, even through texting, e-mail and blogging -- we've removed the need for context and contemplation as a prerequisite to opening our big mouths and can now spout an opinion to each other or to the world, occasionally with dire but all-too-avoidable consequences, without giving it, literally, a second thought. We've fractured and fragmented our communication skills to fit the new model of speaking -- one that only requires 140 characters, with as few vowels as possible. Our brains haven't evolved as quickly as our ability to express ourselves. We're officially a nation of knee-jerks.
And by the way, I'm the first one to admit that I've both fallen victim to this trap and have sung the praises of the Brave New, Hyper-Connected World that created it in the first place.
Admittedly, there is such a thing as overthinking -- becoming paralyzed by your own ability to analyze the potential effect of every choice to the point where you become perpetually lost in minutiae and unable to act. Barack Obama is certainly wonky enough to get hamstrung by his own intellect, but have we really regressed to the point where we can't tolerate a few weeks worth of careful consideration before our president makes a choice with such potentially devastating ramifications? Have we already forgotten the last time a U.S. presidential administration, filled with hubris and certitude, barreled headlong into committing American lives to a war before trying to discern any clue what they hell they were doing?
Just a decade ago -- maybe even less -- the notion of taking a little while to think things over before rendering a decision still seemed like the wisest course of action, an action in and of itself. Now? Take even a day or so to measure your options and it's considered glacial -- because 24 hours, one full news cycle revolution on cable and in talk radio and the span in which 850-gazillion tweets were fired back and forth on Twitter, is like an eternity to us. While you were sitting there analyzing, Mr. Smarty Pants, everyone else was actually doing.
But in the end, really, who's doing the right thing?