Its been a hard winter here in Maine. We are running out of places to put the 90 inches of snow that has blanketed our area since December. Piles of snow are beginning to look like mountains. The wind whips through you like a knife and it doesn't look like we will see God's green earth anytime soon. Al Gore has been conspicuously absent lately. He even missed the Academy awards. Our fireplace has had quite a workout; we keep throwing logs on the fire in the hopes of keeping our mounting expenditures for fuel oil to heat our home to a minimum. Perhaps it has been the workload at the office where the waiting room is full of sick children and worried mothers. Maybe it is the "cabin fever" of being cooped up indoors or the constant drumbeat of bad news lately or a sense that things are stagnant. Like many Americans, I feeling that something is amiss. Springtime still seems a long way off.
I have always been proud of and loved my adopted country. It is the land that took my family in when we had nowhere else to go. Fleeing from the 1955 pogrom of the Greek minority in Turkey and the Communist takeover of Albania in 1945. My parents had few options. America welcomed us with open arms. It gave us a home, it gave us hope, it gave us the chance to escape the depravities inflicted by the barbarians at the gates. I don't remember much about our sailing into New York harbor or my parent's catching a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. All I know is that for our family America was indeed the promised land, the land of milk and honey. My parents taught us to love America with all our heart and soul. So much so that at the age of nineteen I joined the Marines in the midst of the Vietnam War and went off to fight America's wars. All gave some... some gave all, as the trite little saying goes.
In the last one hundred years, my country, for all its many faults has played a pivotal role in three major struggles. The wars against fascism, communism and Islamic extremism. Say what you will about American foreign policy, the world would be a much worse place if America did not exist. Yet, lately I sense a deep personal and national malaise regarding our role in the world, and more importantly where we are headed as a nation. No amount of high minded rhetoric from those current crop of candidates running for president can change the deep seated feeling many Americans, like myself, have that our country has lost its way.
In The Republic, Plato, described “the noble lie” which rulers told their subjects. The elites could tell “the noble lie”, to maintain societal stability and to ensure a contented population. In Plato’s ideal city-state, there were three hierarchical classes: the Guardians, the Soldiers, and the Workers. The rulers were selected from the Guardians class. For Plato, a “noble lie” or a “noble myth” was needed to maintain the hierarchical structure, to maintain the moral order, and to keep the society functioning in a productive manner.
For Plato, the state could tell the “noble lie” if it was for the public good: "A noble lie will make the citizens of the polis, of The Republic, more civic-minded and patriotic and will ensure communal bonding and cohesiveness and a sense of community. In short, the metaphor is necessary to rationalize and to justify the rigid hierarchy. Ultimately, the noble lie fosters the public good."
What role does the noble lie have in democracy? Walter Lippmann, was a journalist, a media critic and a philosopher who tried to reconcile the tensions between liberty and democracy in a complex, modern world. In his book, Public Opinion (1922), he argued that a “governing class”, similar to Plato’s “guardian class”, must emerge in a democracy to inform the rest of us. Today, this specialized class of elites includes members of think tanks, professors, bureaucrats, journalists, analysts, “senior diplomats”, and of course, the indispensable pundits. Their mission is to tell the unwashed mob what to think, and how to think. Intellectual elites are needed because citizens in a democracy are ignorant. They only have knowledge on some issues, but not on others. This is why elites and experts are necessary to walk people through the complexities and ambiguities of the issues which I suspect is merely a euphemism for telling people what to do.
As Alexander Hamilton noted: “Your people, sir, is nothing but a great beast”. For Hamilton, the masses do not know what is in their best interest or what is in the national interest: “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. ” Edward Bernays, one of the father's of public relations, wrote the following in his most important book, Propaganda (1928): "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ...We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ...In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind."
Lippmann believed "the mass of the reading public is not interested in learning and assimilating the results of accurate investigation." Citizens were too self-centered to care about public policy except as pertaining to pressing local issues. He saw the purpose of journalism as "intelligence work." Within this role, journalists are a link between policymakers and the public. A journalist seeks facts from policymakers which he then transmits to citizens who form a public opinion. In this model, the information may be used to hold policymakers accountable to citizens. Though a journalist himself, he held no assumption of news and truth being synonymous. For him the “function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” A journalist’s version of the truth is subjective and limited to how he constructs his reality. The news, therefore, is “imperfectly recorded” and too fragile to bear the charge as “an organ of direct democracy.” To his mind, democratic ideals had deteriorated, voters were largely ignorant about issues and policies, they lacked the competence to participate in public life and cared little for participating in the political process. People make up their minds before they define the facts, while the ideal would be to gather and analyze the facts before reaching conclusions.
Let's extrapolate to our present dilemma. The problem these days is that the media deals increasingly in disseminating opinions, titillating, entertaining, rather than providing facts. It may be lazy journalism or just a lack of access. Nevertheless the "facts" are not only suspect they are often wrong. The role of the mainstream media no longer seeks to educate the citizen, rather it attempts to maintain or increase its audience share. It also more often than not seeks to further its own agendas. What it does and does extremely well, is project images, however, fleeting. These images are very powerful and easily manipulated. Since the public is increasingly alienated from the democratic process, apathetic, poorly educated and devoid of essential critical thinking skills, its opinions are vulnerable to being shaped by the elites in ways that are detrimental to their interests. The role of the demos is described quite well by my friend, Simon over at Democracy Street: " I say it's not only about voting, but about lobbying, campaigning, participating in government, educating and through art and exemplary citizenship that we influence who rules and how they rule...."
Clearly, the problem rests squarely on the shoulders of the average American citizen, those folks most impacted by American policies both national and international. Nowadays, given the rise of alternative media such as the Internet there is no reason for Americans to claim ignorance about any issue. There are enough available sources to give everyone who cares to find out both sides to every issue, in order to make informed decisions. Kosovo is a case in point. The decisions made there not only affect the inhabitants of the Balkans, they affect many other countries. The dialogue has been non existent or notoriously one-sided. The precedents that American bureaucrats and intellectuals are establishing will have major consequences throughout the world. They may even spark a major conflagration. One in which Americans will once again be asked to sacrifice blood and treasure. The American public cannot afford to be mere bystanders and we cannot afford to succumb to lies, noble or otherwise.