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“We’re Not Losing The Culture Wars Anymore.”

Apparently, that’s what some Conservatives in America think when they look at English media today, at least according to this article by Brian C. Anderson over at City online. Anderson writes:

The Left’s near monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information—which long allowed liberal opinion makers to sweep aside ideas and beliefs they disagreed with, as if they were beneath argument—is skidding to a startlingly swift halt. The transformation has gone far beyond the rise of conservative talk radio, that, ever since Rush Limbaugh’s debut 15 years ago, has chipped away at the power of the New York Times, the networks, and the rest of the elite media to set the terms of the nation’s political and cultural debate. Almost overnight, three huge changes in communications have injected conservative ideas right into the heart of that debate.

It’s debatable whether there actually has been a liberal conspiracy to keep “conservative” ideas out of the media. To me, those claims sound more like the rantings of extremists who simply don’t see their own ideas represented in the mainstream media… and, to boot, I know plenty of leftist extremists—or, worse, leftist big-talk bitch’n’whine poseurs—who claim the mainstream media is all-out hijacked by conservative America.

What’s the truth? Maybe the truth is that the media is a kind of uneven, uncontrolled conglomeration of different individuals who, yes, from the top-down are limited in terms of what they can say and report, but who still show a great deal of variance in their take on a given story.

Of course, being a Canadian, I am not used to the American model of media. Canadians watch American news and then, later, on our own channels, we watch Canadian news. I don’t want to agree with Michael Moore too loudly, because he does sometimes talk rot, but he was a little right about his observation comparing some American news with the main Canadian news programs. Our Prime Minister may have trouble pronouncing some things, but he is speaking in his second language. He’s multilingual, in other words. I don’t think there’s been a multilingual President in the White House in a long time, though of course I could be wrong.

In Canada, we have our rightwing papers and our left-wing papers and not many papers on either side of that divide seem to me to be written for readers at a comparably lower level of education than the other papers.

The exception, of course, is in Quebec. Being French media, I think the incoming sources are more limited, somewhat more anyway. I can’t remember who, but one of my francophone friends complained to me about how the Quebec media had managed to maintain a terrible set of blinders on much of the monolingual population, whose news-media reading choices were limited to what was translated into French and often to what was published in newsprint. (I often forget that Korea is unusual in the absolute commonness of quality internet access in homes and businesses.)

However, in English-speaking Canada, at least, we also have print media from the USA and, in the big cities, from all over the world. I know, that’s available in big cities in the USA too, but… for those of us who read regularly, reading foreign print media is an assumed thing, something that we of course do. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case in the States, except maybe in some college programs.

Another bit of evidence for the limitations on America media is the fact that on the internet, Americans are often famous for always transposing all debates to the American context… assuming the American problems are the same, assuming the American problems are known to people in other countries. But if we make the same assumption, we are often sorely disappointed. It’s rare for me to meet an American who is actually aware of, well, even where my home province is, though I know where most of the states in the USA are. Granted, I have met pitifully nationalistic Canadians online as well… and expat Canadian teachers are often more famously obnoxious than the American teachers, here in Korea. (America GIs is another story, however.)

Now, I have had a lot of experience with Americans in online communities, and even given their relatively privileged status—most people in online communities are educated, can afford net access, and have luxury time to spend debating whatever random topic they’re interested in—often seem to come from a kind of limited, politically inbred, blindered perspective. I’d say about 90% of Americans I’ve met online fit this pattern. Though I’m a Canadian and we have a completely different set of positions in our politics, most Americans routinely slot me into “leftwing” and assume that I hold all kinds of ridiculous beliefs. The fact that these days I’m basically, in terms of Canadian politics, very close to center, doesn’t matter to them. The fact that I tell them I believe their left-right dichotomy is hamrful to intelligent debate of issues never seems to get through or sink in, and everything in any debate seems continually to be recast into a left-vs.-right thing. It’s as if there’s a learned instinct always to find out which team someone else is playing on.

I’m not complaining that Americans always look at me, or at foreign politics, in terms of their own political understanding. What I think is a problem is that they seem never to make the leap to looking at politics from the point of view of the people whose politics are being looked at. The American perspective, right-and-left, seems to be, for them, the basic dichotomy of the world. Everything seems reducible to this.

When it isn’t. For example: look at South Korea. America intervened and prevented Kim Il Sung from taking over South Korea. Yay! Freedom for the South Koreans! South Korea is not Communist!

Except that South Korea was, thereafter, a fascist military state that did such things as torture and kill student protestors, and remained so not until America forced it to clean up (despite some good action on Jimmy Carter’s part, my friend John tells me), but rather until enough citizens got mad enough to force the system to change through ceaseless demonstration and activism. South Korea was not a free, democratic country after the war, even though it seems many people would assume that, helped by America to be free of Communism, that is what it would obviously be.

These things are symptoms. They’re evidence of a kind of closed-mindedness, a kind of intellectual and ideological blockage that of course every culture suffers from. But… Canadians seem able to understand both the American two-party system and the Canadian multi-party system. My Australian friends almost all seem able to see how a nominal democracy is not necessarily better than any other bad government, depending on how fascist it becomes. Why is it that for so many Americans, even briefly looking at (and trying to understand) a culture on its own terms is something that is either ridiculous (on the right wingers) or something fetishized to the point of having to turn off one’s rational judgment (for the left wingers)?

I think it’s because of a closedness of American media… not a conspiratorial one, just one of venue and mass and availability. There are so many American films, novels, and news shows that one could happily pass one’s life only watching these and never know anything different was even out there. Additionally, if one has not grown accustomed to looking through unfamiliar perspectives, one can find it difficult at first… and if a population is pampered by never having needed to do so, they’re unlikely to start en masse for pleasure.

Given that closed-ness of American media and news (which I may be wrong about but I’m not certain), and given the very simple left-right system through which America’s political debates must pass, it seems to me that media is a precious resource, a kind of limited idea-distribution system. It reminds me somewhat of Korean agriculture, actually. You cannot buy cilantro in most stores in Korea. If you want to make salsa, you need to do it without. Now, there is cilantro in Korea. It called Go-Su and at my local grocery store, there’s a chart of vegetables with their Korean, Latin, and English names. But nobody seems to know where one can buy it. People know it’s out there, vaguely, but nobody wants it enough to grow it, or import it. And I am an oddity for even wanting it here. I try explain that it has this different flavour, one that’s wonderful for salsa or other foods, and people laugh and shrug because those are alien foods in the Korean countryside. I say the same of fresh basil, and they ask why I would want to make Thai food anyway?

If I’m right about this closedness of the American mediascape, then I think there’s one thing very important that Anderson mentions but, of course, does not explore:

Ross believes that September 11 shook up the publishing world and made it less reflexively liberal. And in fact, many new conservative titles concern the War on Terror. But what really overcame the big New York publishers’ liberal prejudices is the oodles of money Washington-based Regnery was making. “We’ve had a string of best-sellers that is probably unmatched in publishing,” Regnery president Marji Ross points out. “We publish 20 to 25 titles a year, and we’ve had 16 books on the New York Times best-seller list over the last four years—including Bernard Goldberg’s Bias, which spent seven weeks at Number One.” Adds Bernadette Malone, a former Regnery editor heading up Penguin’s new conservative imprint: “The success of Regnery’s books woke up the industry: “Hello? There’s 50 percent of the population that we’re underserving, even ignoring. We have an opportunity to talk to these people, figure out what interests them, and put out professional-quality books on topics that haven’t been sufficiently explored.” Bellow puts it more bluntly: “Business rationality has trumped ideological aversion. And that’s capitalism.”

Are capitalism and conscience reconcilable? If it is actually true that this is a kind of culture war, is it acceptable for people to ignore their beliefs, their politics, and publish books that push this closed-off, politically somewhat solipsistic population to one side or the other?

I am not for censorship, of course. But I wonder if it would be wrong if a publisher were to follow his beliefs and ideals and politics in selecting which books he published? Anderson would probably have us believe that it would be, that publishing is about economics and profit…

But I wonder if anyone would make the same claim if the politics that was suddenly being published was counter to their beliefs. Something tells me Anderson is only happy to claim capitalism should trump one’s personal politics because they complement one another advantageously for him.

So: the American population reads of right and left, maps the rest of the world in left and right; meanwhile the world around them, infinitely more complex, moves in a different set of directions that most of them can’t even begin to imagine.

It looks familiar. It looks like countries where language is a barrier. It looks like Korea, in fact: where news is routinely biased and also sometimes blatantly mistranslated. Most people being essentially monolingual, the mass population never knows the difference, or if they sense it is skewed, never get access to anything to compare notes with.

Or… maybe that’s just my narrow reading of things.

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