Magazine article The Christian Century


Magazine article The Christian Century


Article excerpt

SOPHISTICATION ABOUT media, someone has remarked, has made Americans the most superficial people in the world. This bleak thought came to mind while I was watching the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Designed by party leaders who are indeed sophisticated about media, especially about television, this year's conventions continued their evolution toward being extended political commercials, relentlessly upbeat and bland. The goal, largely achieved, was to expunge from the proceedings all traces of actual politics--which is to say, traces of differences, ideas, debates and conflicts.

These days, the appearance of real politics is thought to be bad politics. Political strategists assume that Americans are put off by the messy details of politics, and also that it's a political liability to clarify one's stance on substantive issues--or have one's opponents clarify it for you. It's best to have enemies who are either vaguely defined or universally condemned (like those who want to get children addicted to smoking) and to concentrate on sketching a rosy portrait of the future.

The networks and the political commentators are themselves sophisticated about media, of course, so they are quick to explain how and why the conventions and the politicians' statements are constructed as they are. Then they speculate on how the presentation (the undeconstructed version, presumably) will be received by the public. What's both fascinating and depressing about this is the way the expert commentators seek to expunge their own political convictions and any traces of political argument for the sake of "objectively" analyzing the impact of the media presentation.

An air of unreality hovers over all this media sophistication--something like what Kierkegaard detected in Hegel's philosophy. Kierkegaard complained that the Hegelians, in attempting to trace the movement of the divine in history, projected themselves outside history, forgetting that individuals do not live in some realm above history but are existing human beings faced with immediate decisions.

Those sophisticated about media, for their part, forget--and encourage the rest of us to forget--that understanding media does not mean understanding the world, that we do not live in media, and that our own convictions do not trickle down from some authoritative account of "public perception." There is a world outside the construction and deconstruction of media presentations.

Media sophisticates might reply that politically, Americans seem quite happy to live inside media--happy, that is, to live inside reassuring slogans. …

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