The Foresight Saga
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The prescient 1977 book Mediaworld, written by John M. Phelan, who taught my Broadcasting 101 course at Fordham, defined propaganda as “the control of behavior through the control of belief.” Phelan wrote, “The evil of propaganda is not that it is false. It is its indifference to the very question of truth. Human expression is seen merely as a means, as an instrument, to get people to do what is desired.”
Phelan rightly complained that the understanding of “issues” has changed. Politicians, along with media and marketing practitioners, have reacted to a more complex world and a widespread materialism that tends to dehumanize and manipulate audiences. They have also helped to infect public discourse with a propaganda state of mind, and we all have played a part.
In the old days, my media studies professor argued, issues emerged at clear crisis points to help shape communities into “purposeful publics” that would seek out and debate relevant information, leading to a decision on how to solve a particular problem. Issues could be phrased crisply: Shall we do this or that? Fish or cut bait!
Then dawned the era of “programming the public,”according to Phelan. Political candidates—especially at levels beyond local government—adopted stands “not on issues of policy, but on deeply divisive cultural clashes of fundamental principles” and the values with which people identified, such as anti-sexism, counterculturalism, or free enterprise. With help from advocacy groups, lobbyists, and others, it seems we started paying attention less to the issue at hand and more to the lenses through which we could see and experience the issue.
(This foreshadowed Justice Anthony Kennedy’s famous statement in a 1990s Supreme Court decision: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”)
Phelan observed: “Issues were beginning to melt and fade into vague wraiths of attitudes toward the meaning of life in general.” Specific policy questions became “promptings for the public unveiling of personality traits—compassion, sincerity, vigor, wit, intelligence.”
This disconnection from the virtues of wisdom and participative problem-solving fostered propaganda as a higher priority. Now, the goal is not to win over hearts and minds with facts, but to “manipulate drives and needs” through mechanistic assumptions about what the “public” will respond to, what “product” they will buy to find relief, and where they will place blame.
Those marketing these products/programs/candidates/ideas to generate alliances, Phelan said, tend to see the people they influence as children to be guided, rather than unique, valued individuals who deserve to be informed, served, and empowered.
Accountability wanes. What’s more, if the propagandistic “easy answer” fails to yield the promised improvement, the next step is to point a finger toward a segment of the public so that the product and its marketers escape blame. “Whatever is said effectively” becomes the “truth,” and morality is defined as “the assigning of responsibility to others.”
Phelan foresaw today’s retreat into inauthentic, performative leadership: “Politicians perform for audiences who will mark them on their charm and, above all, on their sincerity.” Imagine him putting air-quotes around “sincerity.”
As I reread these pages in Mediaworld recently, I pondered how principles of civic duty, healthy debate, and robust democracy are in conflict with propaganda. Ironically, propaganda itself has become a hot topic; back-and-forth allegations of thought-manipulation, domestic and foreign, sometimes garner more attention than the realities being assaulted.
Can we observe the propaganda state of mind as a factor in the pandemic-management controversies which have arisen since 2020? When some government leaders took aggressive stands on masks, injections, and lockdowns, did they aim to promote hopeful obedience by projecting strong governance and infallible expertise?
Did they over-perform the trait of certitude despite the ongoing stream of scientific doubts and incomplete information about Covid developments”? Could they have tried harder to boost knowledge, solidarity, and encouragement at the grass roots by calibrating their exercises of power and controls on information to the latest discoveries, mysteries, and needs for reasoned resilience?
Perhaps in an age that has lost its ability to define issues in a constructive binary way, we are clumsy in our attempts to “meet the moment” of crisis. When are urgent mandates and stark decisions called for? When is it time to take a pause and avoid jumping to the most negative conclusions?
Governments need to trust their citizens, and vice versa, but this comes from seeing reason and prudence at work. Leaders who pander may get rewarded for treating the public as children. But, without honesty and moderation on both sides, the public will resent being treated like kids, whether it be spoiling them rotten or imposing disciplines they do not understand.
Civics courses of the future should include careful study of books about the qualities of true leadership. Those qualities usually include possessing and sharing a meaningful vision, as well as a sense of purposeful teamwork. Our media world has imparted false lessons. Keeping up appearances and forming unproductive alliances are insufficient strategies for surviving tough times.
Along with books on “how to be a leader,” I would recommend that any up-to-date civics class also study John Phelan’s Mediaworld from 1977.
Bari Weiss, who resigned as an opinion editor and writer for The New York Times in 2020, is producing an eye-opening podcast called “Honestly.” Listen to her recent interview with noted economist and former Harvard University president Larry Summers. At approximately the 50-minute mark in the recording I have linked, the host and guest share their concern about today’s “cancel culture.”
Summers, who is a longtime friend of the Democratic Party, agrees when Weiss notes that “the list of unsayable things” has grown disturbingly long, disrupting society’s free marketplace of ideas.
“It’s a profound problem” that university campuses are canceling opinions among faculty members and guest speakers, the economist says. Academic leaders have become too reluctant to “venerate excellence” or “assert that there are greater or lesser truths” or “celebrate accomplishment” or “welcome iconoclasm” with an open mind.
We can draw strength from Summers’ open-minded search for the whole truth about others and his respect for universities as places of wonder, respect, and curiosity. When Weiss asked him what he would do about the cancel culture if he was currently president of Harvard, he had a decisive answer: “I would invite a range of speakers who challenge orthodoxies and make it clear I want to hear and learn from them.”
His sense of responsibility can inspire us. Humble expressions of curiosity, openness, and admiration are good ways for people of high or low estate to help discourage cancel culture. In everyday conversations, in an apolitical tone, we can tip the hat to persons whose voices have been unfairly silenced. We might say things like: “I would be interested in hearing what they have to say. Are we sure they have nothing of value to say? Are they actually evil, or are we jumping to conclusions based on mistakes or misunderstandings?”
Sometimes, alleged misinformation or disinformation is simply additional information. The desire for more information is a civic virtue. Indeed, the desire for more truth can be a theological virtue that leads us closer to God; after all, Jesus called himself “the way, the truth, and the life.”
Those who would “protect” us from certain facts or opinions might sometimes be focused on protecting themselves and their side of an argument. We can make it clear that we do not consider it a kindness to have our curiosity canceled.
As Professor Phelan said in the commentary above, “The evil of propaganda is not that it is false. It is its indifference to the very question of truth. Human expression is seen merely as a means, as an instrument, to get people to do what is desired.” We can show we are not indifferent.
That’s the Spirit – Future as Backstory, Past as Prelude
Part of phronesis, or prudential thinking, is foresight—a word defined as prescience, an ability to anticipate, prudence, and “provident care,” as in “the foresight to invest wisely.” This is not a childish act of fortune-telling or a technocratic act of projecting statistics forward. Instead, it is a way to think more deeply about something in the present by combining detailed knowledge, common sense, concern for the future, well-grounded imagination, and the knack for seeing connections.
Iroquois philosophy illustrates foresight well when it instructs, “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
Because nearly everything connects to everything else in the ecology of public affairs, I would venture to say a curious but well-informed generalist with a liberal arts background might often be better equipped to foresee an event’s implications than a “subject expert” indoctrinated with narrow categories and past paradigms.
Allow me to attempt several exercises of foresight, which might be called predictions based on the news of the day. My wildest ideas may be way off—partly because I fall short of the high standards implied in “well-informed generalist.” I may emerge less like a prophet and more like the character Charlamagne Tha God has dubbed Nostradumbass. But I have a reason for trying.
· California’s recent passage of a law prohibiting the sale of non-electric vehicles by 2035 reveals less about that passionately green state than it does about prospects for national economic trends. Manufacturers love to have California set such guidelines because at least this one huge state—and probably some others that will follow its lead—will constitute a critical mass of demand, clearing the way for a profitable scale-up of EV production.
· While a big scale-up might help to keep EV prices lower than they otherwise would be, they will still be very expensive for the average American. Therefore, we can expect the response we have seen in a number of other markets: Buying will be partly replaced by leasing or renting. The government, carmakers, and others will offer incentives that make the temporary approach to EVs more attractive. Details of incentive plans could allow tighter control over when you adopt your first, second, and third vehicles—and perhaps how you use them—as technology and infrastructure evolve.
· Access to EVs and other cutting-edge products, such as “self-driving” cars and “smart” houses, could become the premium gift offered to those Americans who fully buy into a new digital-dollar regimen replacing cold, hard cash. They may give up elements of privacy and personal control over mobility in return for relief from future taxes or inflation or eroded retirement savings.
· The projected expenditure to add 87,000 Internal Revenue Service employees makes sense as a possible strategy for the digital dollar, since today’s conventional “audits” would gradually fade away. These new hires, also useful to replace lots of Baby Boomers ready to retire, would likely be better equipped to use advanced technologies like blockchain and AI-assisted monitoring of individual finances. Caution: The new sheriffs in town might also have grown up with “modern” sensibilities dulled to privacy and autonomy concerns.
· A mind frame of debt-relief and financial assistance based on fairness to needy groups appears to be growing; partial forgiveness of college loans is the latest example. The federal government seeks more leeway to design and implement very specific economic plans promptly. All other factors being equal, this would be a good fit with an entirely digital economy that can directly enact policies at the national or international (IMF, World Health Organization, etc.) level in response to declared emergencies.
· Because the nation’s existing electrical grid is incapable of supplying all the power demanded by battery-driven cars always and everywhere, and because today’s grid seems to remain extremely vulnerable to enemy attacks as well as changing climate phenomena, we can expect a push for a thoroughgoing overhaul of the nation’s power usage and infrastructure. Cities might plan huge investments in public transportation to reduce car traffic. Families with three cars might become a relic of the past. The dimensions of such a transformation are difficult to imagine. International politics, high-tech breakthroughs, and global markets for fuels and metallic components will be among the factors changing everyday practices and comprehensive systems.
Make your own “predictions”! Question the headlines which today fit so neatly into the mass-media schema of political feuds and sociological assumptions, and allow yourself to think outside those boxes. Through imaginative awareness, we can learn to “own” the far-reaching ethical implications of policies being shaped today. Of course, remember—curiosity may “kill the cat”; owning that responsibility is difficult, not a flight of fancy. But someone has to do it!
Do you feel a bit uncomfortable with the kinds of adjectives and adverbs people use today to describe superlative situations?
We went through a period when everything was “awesome.” Indeed, we learned the musical lesson that “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie in 2014.
That often-trivialized word was acceptable because the hyperbole seemed headed in the right direction—upward toward an ideal. Nowadays, too much praise seems to lean downward, or sideways, or into some artificial reality.
The economy is doing “unbelievably” or “incredibly” well. (Is this a compliment?)
Did your fifth book just become another best-seller? That’s just “crazy” or “insane”! (Is this a review of the book?)
I wonder if some synonyms for these words are actually losing popularity in today’s culture. Are we less prone today to say that someone is “truly” wise or a book is “purely” fictitious? Can an unduly privileged person be “extremely” kind, or would he want to be “extreme” in any fashion? Let’s caution Larry Summers that some folks might not want to be celebrated as “excellent” for fear that they had climbed some shameful kind of ladder.
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