Nader on fragmentation

At Truthdig, Chris Hedges reports on a remarkable interview with Ralph Nader about his latest book, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us—a work of fiction which proposes that American society has become so atomized that only those with great wealth can shatter our collective inertia.

“Basically this book was written out of frustration,” he told Hedges. “Increasingly over the last 30 years the doors have shut on a lot of citizen groups in Washington, D.C. And every year, you put in your mental imagination, at least I did, ‘What did we need to have kept those doors open?’ Did we need more organizers? Did we need more media? Did we need more money? Did we need better strategies? Did we need ways to motivate millions of people who haven’t figured it out yet? And that’s why this book was so easy to write.”

In Nader’s opus, it is the collective action of 17 tycoons which launches the successful drive to restore domestic civility that currently seems beyond the reach of the fractured and often impotent action of progressive groups.

To what does Nader attribute collapse of once-cohesive social movements? He describes two main factors, which will be familiar anyone who’s been following the posts on this blog:

“I think something’s happened-50 years of looking at screens,” Nader reflects. “The young generation is spending 50 hours a week at least in front of the Internet, television and video games. Two-to-five-year-olds,  in a survey [published in October], … watched 32 hours of television and DVDs a week. Two-to-five-year-olds! We don’t tend to weigh the consequences. When you’re in virtual reality-it’s not like they’re watching a re-creation of the Federalist discussion-then something happens. They don’t know what a town meeting is like. They don’t know what the words civic engagement mean.”

“The other thing is the massive entrenchment of corporate power,” he says. “The corporations have weakened the labor movement. The two parties, under the influence of corporate power, are converging. These corporations game the electoral process. Money and politics is cleverly distributed. They have deregulated the regulatory state. They are beginning to block the courtroom door. All the countervailing forces, which were built up in the late 19th century and the early 20th century to curb corporate power, are powerless.”

While Nader’s thesis leaves the reader much to ponder, I have no doubt of the accuracy of his central theses.

The shattering of public attention and civility is the direct result of corporate power, which sees consumers rather than citizens, and rules by the strategy of divide and conquer. Or, in marketing terms, segment and conquer.

Media fragmentation

The traditional media of communication have been shattered. At his Newsosaur blog, Alan D. Mutter reports that “The presses stopped forever at no less than 142 daily and weekly newspapers in 2009, a nearly threefold increase over the number of titles succumbing in the prior year.” Hundreds of other papers hit employees with layoffs, pay freezes, and even outright pay cuts. Meanwhile, papers grow thinner on an anorexic advertising diet. If the San Francisco Chronicle gets any thinner, Hearst will be able to publish on toilet paper.

Radio stations have been undergoing the same contraction. First local stations were bought out by massive chains like Clear Channel, and now the chains themselves are headed for the financial rocks as former listeners switch to iPods and other MP3 players, abandoning a community to create a universe of one. Citadel Broadcasting Corporation, owner of 224 and suppling programming—including the Don Imus talk show—to another 4,000+ broadcasters, including Fox Business News, has just filed for bankruptcy protection, along with a plan to shave 64 percent off a $2.1 billion loan.

Another troubled firm is radio industry giant Clear Channel Media Holdings, now privately held by investment bankers, which last month reported a 17 percent decline in revenues. Earlier in the month, CBS Radio reported a 19 percent drop in revenues, with other chains reporting similar declines.

Radio’s still better off than newspapers, because cars don’t come equipped with daily newspapers. But a growing number of people jack their MP3s and MP4s into their radios and get their traffic news off GPS systems, so the last bastion of the radio is already in danger.

Television is struggling as well, with the huge audiences of the Big Three Networks of the rooftop-antenna-and-rabbit-ear era replaced by the splintered segmentation of the cable-and-satellite era.

The biggest challenge confronting us at this unique moment in history is how to reconnect with ourselves. Not in any abstract way, not by Facebook “friending,” not by texting, not by twittering. Which is not to say that we should reject any of the tools in our kits; only that virtual community is a poor substitute for actual community.

And yes, I’m something of Luddite, albeit one with a dual quad-core CPU.

Tip O’Neill [an old school Democrat and legendary Speaker of the House] had it right when he said, “all politics is local.” The solutions have to come not just from the community, but they have to come from the neighborhood level. I’m hoping my muse, who is also the creator of this blog, Moussequetaire, will share some of her inspiring ideas with us in the future.

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