Saturday, October 30, 2004

Beyond the Echo Chamber, No. 1

We need to get away from all these liberals --- I mean, labels.
(John F. Kennedy, Jr. - 1988 Democratic Convention)

What do these things have in common?

1. Democrats deny the existence of liberal media bias.
2. Walter Cronkite casually suggests that Karl Rove planned the Osama bin Laden video.
3. John Kerry refuses to call himself a liberal (incurring the criticism of, among others, Walter Cronkite).
4. The current election is accompanied by unprecedented levels of fraud, mistrust, intolerance, and outright violence.

These things are, I submit, the rotten fruit of the peculiar Echo Chamber that has dominated public discourse for the last fifty years at least, thanks to the establishment media (commonly called the MSM these days). This Echo Chamber is entering into its final crisis. The crisis is profound because the Echo Chamber has long sustained a kind of fabricated reality that has gotten too far out of line with political reality and public opinion to survive any longer, and the MSM must reluctantly make a turbulent transition to the larger world - or face extinction at the hands of its vigorous new competitors. However, the Echo Chamber has created an alienated culture that is not prepared to make that transition, and that culture is nearing open rebellion. If it's not there already.

The Echo Chamber was never a conspiracy in any rigorous sense of the word. It was just a set of rules, which defined the boundaries of political reporting, maintained its lexicon and vocabulary, and enforced certain assumptions about American politics and its players.

The Echo Chamber did not champion political "liberalism" in a positive sense. Its proponents did not establish "liberalism" as an affirmative agenda, competing against less desirable agendas, and ask people to rise to it. They may have lacked the power or the courage to do so. Or they may have just been just wise enough to know that Americans don't like to be preached at by their alleged betters - though they were not wise enough to know that Americans would see through an attempt to disguise preaching as objectivity.

So the MSM did not say, "Liberalism is good, conservatism is bad." Instead, they re-defined liberalism to be a kind of nameless centrism; a default position. The so-called "mainstream", as they saw it, was created. This "mainstream" was not something that people adopted or aspired to. It was just assumed to be what normal, decent people naturally believed. Far from getting credit, the very word "liberal" was virtually disowned. The respectable MSM uttered it rarely, and almost always in a negative sense: "Senator Kennedy's critics accuse him of being too liberal" was a common formula. To say "Senator Kennedy is a liberal", though, was a clear violation of the rules.

So the MSM acted as if "liberalism" were a shameful kind of thing, even though everyone knew that this was not what they believed. But they dodged the word as if it were death itself. In the Echo Chamber, only liberalism's opponents (conservatives, arch-conservatives, ultra-conservatives!) had names and agendas. Conservatives wore the pants all the time. They were invariably portrayed as the active, aggressive, partisan force in America - the people who were trying to get other people to believe things, and to do (or not do) things. The "mainstream", on the other hand, was presented as being passive and inert. The "mainstream" of normal, decent folks was not an affirmative force in politics, it was mostly just the hapless victim of politics.

This was the picture of America that the MSM drew, under the rules of "objectivity": an anonymous "mainstream" mass, whose principles and beliefs were described only in the vaguest terms, arrayed against a menacing and politically-charged conservatism. Conservatism was imagined to be be hopelessly extremist and marginal, yet it seemed to have the playing field all to itself.

It's arguable how well this scenario has served liberalism, or liberalism's parade float: the Democratic Party. It certainly did well enough to have survived for many decades, passed down to new generations of MSM journalists like folk lore. But it has been the cause of many obvious disasters, which became critical when the "ultra-conservative" Ronald Reagan rose up to challenge Jimmy Carter, the king of those who dare not speak their own name.

For many years now, the MSM has sat on top of public debate like an embarrassingly ugly and inappropriate hat. They are no longer able to conceal their active partisanship, and they are still notoriously unable to talk about it. Their portrayal of political reality is generally recognized as not only biased, but absurd. These obvious characteristics have given them an odor of hypocrisy and dishonesty, and has caused an explosion of popular non-MSM media.

Conservatives, of course, have been the natural beneficiaries of this. When Rush Limbaugh debuted on radio, he picked up a huge audience with ease. It was a freebie; all he had to do was plug into it. Cable news took some time to hit this stride. CNN ruled the market for many years, and it integrated itself into the Echo Chamber. But CNN is now dwarfed by Fox, which does not play by the MSM rulebook. The audience that has flocked to the non-MSM media mainly consists of those who feel that their views have been mischaracterized by the establishment media, and who have learned to take pride in their "conservative" identity from other sources. That identity has been weathered and hardened by decades of MSM disdain - conservatives are accustomed to defending themselves, and they take additional pride from that.

The Echo Chamber - quite inadvertently - has massively empowered conservatives over the years by casting them as the active force in American politics. The tendency of the MSM to treat conservatism in a manner that is either hostile or condescending (depending on how powerful conservatives are at the moment) has only empowered conservatism more.

"Liberalism", on the other hand, has been left in a hell of a state. Its principles, so far as anyone understands them anymore, are in a constant state of opportunistic flux. Liberalism has been used as a negative (by both liberals and conservatives) for so long that it's hardly strange that John Kerry dodges the word. By trying to make liberalism into everything, the MSM has made it into nothing. By trying to sneak liberalism into politics anonymously, they've made it a dirty word.

Old-fashioned liberals are disturbed by the unwillingness of politicians to call themselves liberal. They're disturbed by the fact that a shrinking portion of the electorate embraces the term "liberal". They're disturbed by the inability of "liberals" to duplicate the success of conservative talk radio. And they are disturbed by the fact that their children are chasing after the far left, or after loons like Michael Moore, instead of being good old solid liberals. This is nothing but the inevitable result of a lot of deception and cowardice. They tried to play the game from inside of a bunker, and they lost. Nobody wants to identify with a nameless mass of ordinary Americans (however decent and good) who do nothing but lose.

While the Echo Chamber has failed to make liberalism a good thing - indeed, failed to make it any kind of thing at all - it has succeeded in convincing many people that conservatism is a very, very bad thing. This has been picked up and intensified by the contemporary Left, in a way that the old codgers of the MSM did not fully intend, and can no longer control. Having pretended that the American politics consists of normal persons vs. conservatives, it follows that conservatives are abnormal. Not just abnormal, but evil, and bent on fantastic, conspiratorial programs of destruction.

Since conservatives have been increasingly successful in politics over the years, and are utterly evil, it follows that the political system itself is either evil or broken, and "America" itself is therefore the product of a tainted and illegitimate process. Those who follow this line of thinking see no reason why they should award any respect to their own country, or to the democratic process that serves it. They themselves do not embrace any kind of positive agenda - the Echo Chamber has taught them that, apart from conservatism, no such thing exists. "Labels" are bad, except for pejoratives hurled in a rightward direction. The only agenda that interests them is the annihilation of the exisiting order, and all of their "issues" are utterly subservient to this goal.

In the face of this, the old-line liberals (the ones who once proudly called themselves liberals) are beginning to lose their own sense of self. Thus is it possible for Walter Cronkite to effortlessly morph into Michael Moore. It's possible for the highest figures in the Democratic Party to rave about vast right-wing conspiracies, and to believe that Bush has Osama bin Laden stashed away in a Texas bunker. The leading "liberal" voices on the internet and the blogs are not liberal at all - they're leftist. Hard left or loony left, but not liberal.

The liberals (whoever they are) are out in the cold. They worked long and hard for many years to put themselves there. The Left is carrying the water in the Democratic Party now, but without any affirmative purpose, and without any reference to positive principles. Their fervor is a kind of messianic politics-as-salvation, loaded with anger and resentment, but not aimed at any realistic goal. They love nothing outside of politics, and they hate everyone except themselves - unless they hate themselves, too.

If liberalism still has a future, or even still exists, it resides now with the so-called 9/11 Democrats. They still know how to say the L-word, for one thing. And in standing up against the nihilist left, they may begin to rebuild its definition.