The Media and Publics seminar is falling into a clear pattern. As we proceed through the assigned readings on Mondays, I lead the discussion, and then each Wednesday two or three students will be assigning relevant topical readings on media and public life, related to the assign works. They, then, start the discussion of their suggestions, as they inform their understanding of our readings and of contemporary media and publics.
This past week was fascinating. We read Arendt’s essay “Truth and Politics,” along with a selection from Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday life. The students, Alysha originally from India, Lina, from Sweden, and the Julian from Los Angeles, wisely decided to draw upon the diversity of their experiences and make our discussion more explicitly comparative. They assigned this and this from India, this on Sweden from a reputable source and this and this on Swedish politics from a questionable, Russian controlled source, and lastly this from LA on Trumps executive order on immigration and refugees, and this on the demonstration against the order at LAX.
We had a noteworthy discussion. The relationship between factual truth and politics that Arendt highlighted was comparatively demonstrated in the readings. We discussed how a close analysis of Prime Minister Narendra Modi politicking about his demonetization policy has been based upon a simple lie, that the rich were being disciplined by the policy and the poor were benefiting, when the opposite was the case. The reputable article on Sweden reported on a “creative” ominous development that takes the attack on factual truth to a new level, a fake fact checking website, with all the appearance of a real fact checking, undermining the solidity of facts for political ends. And one report from LA reports on the lie that Christians were discriminated against as refugees in the Obama years, and the other reports on effects of this lie at LAX, revealing both the suffering that has resulted, and the the resistance to the lie and its effects.
As we noted the assault on factual truth, we inevitably started to shared our different judgments and opinions on the matter. We noted together that the assault on factual truth seems to be global and organized, but then debated our various interpretations. The systematic lying that constitutes post truth politics is sustained because of the present media environment, as people depend on their social media friends to keep up with current events and to inform their opinions. It is a result of algorithms of social media giants that feed us with all the news that confirms our already formed opinions. It serves the interests of the powers that be, and is connected to the power structures of neo-liberalism. It was evident that the group draws very different political conclusions from these interpretations. I emphasized the importance of the difference between analytic observation and informed opinion, as a way to distinguish educational and political engagement, and also wanted to encourage informed opinion.
I fear that at two moments I may not have been clear about where education ends and political engagement begins. When I spoke, perhaps a bit too passionately, about the grotesqueness of the announcement of the Executive Order on Immigration and Refugees on Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorated by the Trump-Bannon Regime without mention of Jews, I told the class about my own experience of the distinctive form Holocaust denial took in the Auschwitz concentration camp museum in Communist Poland. A long list of nationalities who were exterminated in the camp were recognized: French, Russian, Polish, Dutch, Italian, etc., but Jews were not included. I also became quite demonstrative expressing my dislike for what I see as the extremely vague term, “neo-liberalism,” and the power people imagine its unclear referent has in ruining our lives. I promise to come back to these issues in future posts.
I did express my opinions, but, as is my general rule, I tried to make clear that I welcome other opinions, and very much enjoy being challenged. My hope is that the way I express the opinions, my manner, how I intentionally give expression to my judgments, and the way I give off my openness, helps us to develop alternative positions in our seminar interactions, working on making our opinions informed by the material we read and also by the way we seriously consider alternative informed views. For this to work requires the careful rituals of deference and demeanor. We will focus on their dramaturgical qualities of this today in our discussion of Goffman’s classic analysis of these rituals in everyday life.
But here, before going to the class, I think it is important to note that under the shadow of Trump, working on these interaction rituals with the desired effects is especially difficult. And this may not be just a consequence of my lack of discipline and seminar leadership. Arendt explains:
“Only where a community has embarked upon organized lying on principle, and not only with respect to particulars, can truthfulness as such, unsupported by the distorting forces of power and interest, become a political factor of the first order.” p. 251
I, as a teacher and social scientist, The New School with its distinctive history, and universities everywhere must now struggle with the demand to oppose organized lying, but to do this in our political diversity, informed by a commitment to educate and not indoctrinate. Because these are not normal times, this has political as well as educational consequence.
Trying to do this all at once does keep me up at night, as I explained in my last post, but it also empowers. I am heartened by my interactions with the students in the Media and Culture seminar, and with my interactions with my colleagues at The New School, and with colleagues and contributors beyond The New School at Public Seminar. The public world we create among ourselves provides illumination against the new darkness. We constitute what I call “the politics of small things,” an idea built around the political theory of Hannah Arendt and the sociology of Erving Goffman, the next focus in our discussions in Media and Publics.