Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What troubled newspapers and troubling bloggers have in common

Monday morning we learned that a number of gay newspapers had been shut down abruptly because the holding company that owned them was being liquidated. That leads me to ponder a “paradox” of sorts inherent in what we call “democratic capitalism”: people will use their own money and private money, even investor money, for political activism or to inform the public on matters of social importance, and people will feel that their message is more important than money for its own sake. But, ultimately, media companies have to make money to stay in business. If they are publicly traded, they have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize earnings for shareholders. This is really an issue in the motion picture business, explaining why the “culture” of big budget major studio filmmaking is so different from that of independent film. Agents keep saying that ultimately all media business is “numbers driven.” That’s an interesting problem for public movie companies like Lionsgate, which want to get into progressive subject matter but depend on horror to feed the bottom line.

Yet, we see “business money” invested in media from both “liberal to progressive” causes (as with most gay publications) to conservative causes (newspapers like The Washington Times and book publishers like Regnery). Even the media companies have places on the political spectrum, with Fox supposedly notorious for its “conservatism.” Still, ultimately, all such businesses are vulnerable to the bean counters.

At the other end of the media spectrum are the independent bloggers or webmasters, who don’t try to make money at all, who run their sites as proprietorships so that they don’t have to report to anyone (except the IRS). Yet, in a legal sense their operations are often “commercial”, leading to legal questions explored on these blogs (COPA, implicit content, reputation, media perils, and the like).

It may be the implicit content issue that is the most nettlesome for “non-monetary” speech. That is, if the speech doesn’t seem to have a monetary motive or isn’t sponsored by an organization, readers or persons who find it might attribute existential motives to the speech. This could lead to some kinds of issues: enticement, hostile workplace, etc. It also is interpreted by some people as "disloyal", especially who see familial or social cohesion as a more important virtue than global "truth" (particularly from rogue speakers). Remember John Stossel's (ABC 20/20) broadcast on speech codes: "you just can't talk about that!"

This concern came to mind with a film I saw last weekend, called (ironically) “Untitled”, about output from certain musicians and artists whom the public resented as just trying to make them feel bad (I discussed this Sunday Nov. 15 on the movies blog). So the same observation could be made about some blogs, I suppose.

It’s true, that my blogs amount to an “inventory” of “problems” that could undermine our individualistic implementation of freedom. The “problems” are reported in the order that I encounter them, not in a logical sequence; they are reported as “news.” Yes, they harp on “personal responsibility” (so does South Park sometimes) but one real point is to encourage people to imagine constructive solutions rather than just take sides and turn the problems over to special interests and politicians. Yet, some people react as if merely talking about some troubling things (like the “personal responsibility” and “socialism” aspects of the health care debate) merely comes across as a way of belittling people who are less fortunate or expressing social disloyalty.

Actually, we can get beyond this turf-oriented reaction. If we did implement a Swiss-style approach to health care, for example, yes, some people, especially the young, would pay “more” for “other people’s problems”, but soon we would get used to the system, find that it works better and the whole “karma” thing would cease to seem controversial. There are grave threats to our way of life both in man-made areas (terrorism, EMP) and nature (not 2012, but asteroids, oceanic landslides as from Cumbre Vieja, and probably climate change), but if we “work smart” we really can solve these problems. For example, besides H1N1 vaccination issues, why are we so far behind the eight-ball on H5N1, which may be much more dangerous?

Nevertheless, many people, particularly in older generations, less affluent or religious conservative cultures, see life in terms of social structures and people-centered interactions rather than in ideas like “station in life” (money, fame, political or social influence, physical presence, etc). So they may feel they have less to lose if there is some massive disruption. Our modern “expressive” way of life is less relevant to people with a familial or group-centered social consciousness. But the challenge for “individualists” is an exercise in projective geometry, to map older styles of thinking about public morality into deeper understanding of ethics in an individualistic environment. We wind up with a system like “pay your dues” as well as “pay your bills.” One of the biggest problems is that many people benefit from the “hidden sacrifices” of others. It is much harder to get and keep what you want without infringing on others than “you” think. Think about how this mediates the debate over “don’t ask don’t tell” and then recall what it was like when we had a draft – and let a lot of people out with deferments.

Earlier generations understood this kind of conundrum (seeming to necessitate “double standards”), and that’s one reason why they spent so much effort in inculcating that “hidden curriculum”, social values that encourage complementarity and interdependence, and the willingness to mediate one’s own personal ambition by the needs of family and community; the capacity to do this was thought to be a foundation for stable martial sexuality. If we fail to solve some of these huge show-stopper issues, we could “slide back” to a world that places a lot more emphasis again on familial socialization.

Society, of course, became more individualistic, and people, in a society driven especially by modern communications technology (including the Net with all its social media and self-promotion tools) believe they are more on their own, often leaving some people behind (when the “family” would have taken care of things before). But it gets harder to maintain individualism as these challenges like sustainability, climate change, energy, and social demographics (like eldercare) force people back into accepting more social interdependence.

There were a lot of bad things in the older societies – economic exploitation, racism, and various inequalities hidden by “family values”. (We criticize these things, as well as primitive tribalism, in radical Islam today.) Yet, in a free society, people are never exactly equal. The “Freedom Principle” sounds almost like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of modern physics.

Indeed, I hope my postings, while hinting at solutions, do build an inventory of matters of “right and wrong.” Some people will say, we don’t need individual speech like this: we already have all our “rules” spilled out in the Koran, the Torah or the Bible. God has told us how to live. (Even God can’t rewrite mathematics, unless He does something like create an alternate universe without the Axiom of Choice.) But not really; I think that righteousness for its own sake turns out to be an underground way of making certain modes of sexuality work in some people; worship of “beauty” for its own sake can lead to worship of the “State” in such a way that real people get cut out, and freedom is then gone.

Nevertheless, in a “free society” there will always be uncertainty and some inequality; there will always be less than perfect justice; there will always be ways to get better. Calls for absolute justice will go down the path of revenge and eventual self-destruction. No wonder we need concepts like forgiveness, and the Christian notion of Grace. Even so, in a free society, there will always be competition, and some people will do better and come out ahead of others, in some real sense. So it is right to be concerned that those who come out ahead do so legitimately. Blogs can help us do this, just as did the Washington Blade (and as I hope it will again).

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