Bewildered and Befuddled Masses

In The Pacific War, Saburo Ienaga (1913 – 2002) chronicles the culture and institutions of Imperial Japan during the years 1931 (the year Japan declared war on China) until 1945 (they year they surrendered to the United States to end WWII).  One takeway I got from reading this book was the power of national identity.

From the early 1850’s until the end of WWII, Japan’s institutions monopolized thought and content production.  A national identity – who they were, where they had come from, and where they were going, had been forged for their citizens.  Through government censoring, the Japanese developed  a common understanding of the reasons for Japanese aggression.  Schools taught their young that one of the greatest honors was to fight and die in war for their Emperor.  Ienaga, who experienced this era firsthand, gave examples of school book lessons that taught grammar through stories of bravery on the battlefront.  In these same books, other ethnic groups and races – especially the Chinese – were portrayed as inferior, needing to subdued, and then led by a superior Japanese race.  The books and essays that the government allowed to be printed explained Japan’s colonization of China, Korea, Indonesia, and other countries in Far East Asia as benevolent attempts to wrest them out of white, European hands.  Newspapers told stories of Japanese success on the battlefield, and ignored the failures.  Even as the Japanese Empire shrunk and the US militarily won victory after victory, the citizens, Ienaga writes, believed that Japan, its military, and its Emperor would win the war.

The narrative constructed by the Japanese authorities was cohesive, compelling, and agreed upon by most of the population (they had no choice, dissenters were dealt with harshly).  But the population had little knowledge of what was actually happening.  Japan’s colonization had nothing to do with protecting poor Asian countries from Western domination.  It was all about extracting resources.  The Japanese military was quite good, and punched way above its weight, but attacking the US was foolhardy and the Japanese were bound to be overwhelmed by American materiel.

Digital Age America is the exact opposite of Imperial Era Japan.  Where Japanese shared a national identity built on an information monopoly, Americans are wading through a welter of information with no way of understanding it.

New Media and Polarization

We see “old media” – television, newspapers, and radio – as being in bed with big government and big businesses, afraid to take risks.  The old media’s jingoistic coverage of a very questionable Iraq War is a prime example of old media’s cozy relationship with the establishment.  New media is seen as a type of corrective.  The emergence of new media – millions of bloggers and citizen journalists, thousands of new media companies like HuffingtonPost and Townhall, and an array of knowledge generating organizations – give people choice.

But writers on this issue have been lamenting the negative side effects of information overload for some time now.  They believe that all the media choices we have are contributing to the polarization of America.  Because of all the content out there we can, as the logic goes, pick only the information that suits our preconceived opinions.  Cass Sunstein writes in Republic.com that we are presented each day with a “Daily Me” through web news portals that gives us our own personalized news and information.  Eli Pariser says just about the same thing, arguing that personalized Google searches put people in a “Filter Bubble”.

This isn’t just speculation.  Recently The Pew Research Center for the People and Press released a report showing just how polarized we really are.  The study reports:

“People with down-the-line ideological positions – especially conservatives – are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families.”

Indeed we do get “Daily Me’s” and live in “Filter Bubbles”.  But I think the problems we have go much deeper than differences in political ideology.

A Lack of Context

We are polarized along ideological lines – liberal and conservative.  But politics is a means to an end.  The more we disagree on the ends, the more rancorous will our political process be.  The root problem is that we do not have a national identity to give us consensus on the ends.  We do not agree on who we are, where we have been, and where we are going.  New media has contributed to the lack of identity in at least two ways.

First, because we have so much choice in the information we consume, we are living in a paradoxical state where we have never been more wise when it comes to navigating our lives and more ignorant of the lives of others.  It is a cliché, but it is certainly the case that we have the world at our fingertips.  Thanks to our consumption of new media, we know more about where we want to vacation, the newest places to eat, what that annoying pain in our side means (if you use WebMD, invariably you will connect this pain to cancer), and so on.  Yesterday I went into Bestbuy, and thought seriously about buying a watch that will allow me to monitor my heart rate, how many steps I’ve taken, and how many calories I’ve burned.

All this personalized information consumption means that I have no incentive or opportunity to consume information about others.  And so, I can listen to Tell Me More on NPR and learn all about all of the issues that affect blacks.  I can learn about how it will affect “me”, and how it will affect people like “me”.  But because this program, by design, has a narrow focus I can avoid the messy complications of understanding other groups’ opinions on the matter.  I cannot place my perspective within a social context – Do people think like me?  Why not?  Where exactly do we converge and diverge?

Second, the sheer amount and rapidity of information consumption makes it difficult to discern important events with long term consequences from issues that are transitory.  When news stories break, you get a barrage of information about the event.  Hundred of new stories trying to find new angles to explain the same event.  Everyone is competing for eyeballs.  Both new and old media are compelled to entertain you about the story through catchy and salacious stories, as opposed to informing you by talking about the history or significance of the story.

Eric Cantor recently lost in his primary to Tea Party candidate Dave Brat.  In my reading up on this event, I’ve seen stories about how Cantor’s steak dinner purchases were more than Brat’s entire campaign, or how Dave Brat got high ratings on his ratemyprofessor page (I’m not kidding, click on the links).  These are all entertaining stories, but they can blur one’s understanding of the significance of the event.  It is hard to place Eric Cantor’s loss, which may be another sign of a profound change in America’s political climate, in its proper historical context.

Give Me Your Bewildered Befuddled Masses

Here is my argument.  We are without a national identity in this country, and this is the root cause of polarization in America.  While we focus on the acrimony in Washington between liberals and conservatives, that is a symptom, not the illness itself.  New media contributes to the lack of a national identity by making it hard to contextualize information.  It is easy for us to avoid the perspective of others (we have no social context) and it is hard for us to understand the importance of events (we have no historical context).

So let me return to Japan.  Japanese history before 1945, for Americans, is almost always discussed in conjunction with World War II and with good reason.  However, that nation accomplished quite a bit before they went off the deep end.  They punched well above their weight.  Before WWII Japan had, as a country, went from agricultural and illiterate in the mid-1800’s, to being strong enough and technologically advanced enough to challenge, and often beat, established Western powers.  Their rise was meteoric.  Their government could ask much more from their citizens and their citizens were willing to work together more because they agreed upon the ends.  Of course, few else in the world agreed on those ends by the 1940’s.

So you may say that using Imperial Japan is not the best way to show the benefits of a national identity.  That was an autocracy.  We are a democracy.  OK.  No problem.

After Japan had surrendered to the United States, had been occupied and humiliated, they came back with a vengeance.  Democratic and free Japan’s economy developed so rapidly in the 1950’s and 60’s that it had become the second largest in the world within 30 years.  No nation had come so far, so fast.  There are many reasons for this, but one very important one was that the vast majority of Japanese citizens bought into the plan put forth by their leaders (specifically, the Ikeda Plan, from Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato).  They understood what the ends for their nation were.  Moreover, they understood what their individual success meant for others in the country.  Industrialists, banks, government officials, and workers, all had their own mouths to feed, but they all understood how their efforts fit into the growth and redevelopment of their nation.

Disagreement is a necessary component of society.  Even in Imperial Japan, as Ienaga writes, there were dissenters.  What I am talking about here is the degree of disagreement on who we are as a nation.  It has never been higher.  Americans can be described as a bewildered and befuddled mass of communities, organizations, and interest groups all pulling in different directions.  Ask people across the country, what is the most important issue facing America today, and you will probably get less agreement than you ever have at any time in recent memory.  Ask the single Hispanic mother in Tucson and she may say “immigration reform”.  Ask the black family in Atlanta, and they’ll say increasing the minimum wage.  Go up to Upper East Side in NYC: genetically modified foods (God, I hope not).

Usually, I’m all rah-rah over new media.  But new media has contributed to the polarization of the nation by making it hard for citizens to agree upon who we are as a nation.  We certainly do not want the government control of news and media that occurred in Imperial Japan, but we do need to find ways to produce a national identity as we move forward in the 21st century so that we are not pulling against each other on every political issue.

One comment

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