American democracy is now in danger—not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas.
"If you run this ad at this many 'points' [a measure of the size of the advertising buy], and if Ashe responds as we anticipate, and then we purchase this many points to air our response to his response, the net result after three weeks will be an increase of 8.5% in your lead in the polls."
I authorized the plan and was astonished when three weeks later my lead had increased by exactly 8.5%. Though pleased, of course, for my own campaign, I had a sense of foreboding for what this revealed about our democracy. Clearly, at least to some degree, the "consent of the governed" was becoming a commodity to be purchased by the highest bidder. To the extent that money and the clever use of electronic mass media could be used to manipulate the outcome of elections, the role of reason began to diminish.
As a college student, I wrote my senior thesis on the impact of television on the balance of power among the three branches of government ... I pointed out the growing importance of visual rhetoric and body language over logic and reason ... the first [example] that comes to mind is from the 2000 campaign, ... when the controversy over my sighs in the first debate with George W. Bush created an impression on television that for many viewers outweighed whatever positive benefits I might have otherwise gained in the verbal combat of ideas and substance. A lot of good that senior thesis did me.
The democratization of knowledge by the print medium brought the Enlightenment. Now, broadband interconnection is supporting decentralized processes that reinvigorate democracy. We can see it happening before our eyes: As a society, we are getting smarter. Networked democracy is taking hold. You can feel it. We the people—as Lincoln put it, "even we here"—are collectively still the key to the survival of America's democracy.
Old-fashioned dumbness used to be simple ignorance: you didn’t know something, but here were ways to find out if you wanted to. [...] Now dumb people aren’t just ignorant; they’re the victims of non-thought-of second-hand ideas. Dumb people are now well-informed about the opinions of Time magazine and CBS, The New York Times and the President; their job is to choose which pre-thought thoughts, which received opinions, they like best. The elite in this new empire of ignorance are those who know the most pre-thought thoughts.
We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as “it” is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.
What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well. And I can do no better than he. He believed with H. G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.
[...]Of course, to say that television is entertaining is merely banal . . . what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. Our television set keeps us in constant communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose smiling countenance is unalterable. The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue all together.
"Lincoln understood that the greatest challenge for a leader in a democratic society is to educate public opinion. "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed," he said. "Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions." This statement goes to the heart of his disagreement with Douglas; when such an influential leader as Mary's "Little Giant" insisted that blacks were not included in the Declaration [of Independence], he was molding public opinion and bending history in the wrong direction, "He is blowing out the moral lights around us," Lincoln warned, borrowing a phrase from his hero, Henry Clay. "eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people."
"Lincoln's goal was to rekindle those very beacons, constantly affirming the revolutionary promises made in the Declaration. When the authors of the Declaration spoke of equality, Lincoln insisted, "they did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality...They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.""
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