Editor’s Note: This is part one of a multi-part series.
It’s as if American society, or at least the parts that garner national attention and discussion, has become almost derivative of itself. Our institutions – the mainstream media, politicians, sport, among others – are so eager to divert attention from material issues to things, talking points, that can be endlessly contentious that we can demarcate the people around of us based on their cultural assignments more than any other. Someone’s opinion on the idea of critical race theory in schools – and what they actually think about it – probably matters more to interpersonal relationships and discussions than the fact that public education at across the country is massively underfunded, for example.
It’s a pervasive creep in modern America that could be attributed to a number of factors: the non-stop news cycle made popular by CNN in the 1980s, a decline in people’s trust in the integrity of the aforementioned institutions brought about by their lack of success in materially improving people’s lives, the constant wars or Sinophobia the cover of which allows other problems to be ignored; or perhaps a deeper wave like a decline in religious adherence. Let’s not forget the era of fake news.
Whatever the cause, the vast spectacle, to borrow from Guy DebordEast infinitely observable. Between the decades-old news cycle about what began as “PC culture,” which metamorphosis in “SJW culture” and now “woke” or “cancelled” culture; sports debates over the relative status of teams and athletes as sports themselves struggle for their place in society; to the paternalistic fetishism of political parties and their figureheads such as Andrew Cuomo, one gets the impression that each passing news cycle is meant to be less informative – although it can be argued that this never has been the true goal of journalism at no time – and no longer to turn its consumers into fanatics.
All the while, our country — I don’t feel qualified or arrogant enough to extrapolate this argument beyond those limits — has legitimate material problems. Infrastructure in ruins, stratospheric wealth inequality, unsustainable housing markets and myriad health crises beyond the mere still-existing threat of COVID-19, and it might be hard not to feel underserved by dynastic journals or those purchased at potentially tarnish the reputation of the richest man in the world, or the media outlet that has had legal disputes over his news.
These debates and creations of cultural myths continually divert attention from the root of the problem, which is that the media often feels superficial, derivative, irrelevant to any meaningful change and, in the case of media arguments, serves primarily to protect the ancestors from these arguments themselves.
Let’s start with the most common example: cancel culture. Portrayed in some circles as opportunistic political opponents – usually described as the “far left” of some description – looking for any opportunity to shoot people they don’t like or are not with okay, he can more often in practice be seen as powerful people, whether they’re in the media, in politics or elsewhere, facing the consequences of their actions in ways that might never have happened in the pre-Internet era.
The most notable and high-profile “cancellation” of recent times — outside of the bizarre, island fights on Twitter that I don’t recommend anyone take the time to follow where the term runs rampant — was Andrew Cuomo, the former Governor of New York State and son of Mario Cuomo, another former NYS politician and brother of former news anchor Chris, who never had much trouble talking about Andrew on air in family terms.
Among the allegations against the former governor were that he failed to disclose COVID deaths in nursing homes – this was described by multiple sources as a “cover– as well as the multiple substantiated allegations of sexual harassment against him.
Meanwhile, Cuomo’s position has earned him daily airspace on channels like MSNBC, a book published in October 2020 about the quality of his leadership during this time, and god damn International Emmy Award. He was spoken of as a great leader in times of crisis. An obvious Democratic candidate for the next presidential election. People gladly called each other “Cuomosexualssomething so weird and unsightly that I’ll never forget it. And as with so many leaders, the democratically elected son of a career politician in a public-minded dynasty found himself undone, as an accomplice in abusing his subordinates (which, let me to be clear, is the much bigger problem here), failing to meet the standards of a miserly parasocial relationship.
For all the worship, Cuomo polite journalists whose job it was to check against him, impeded the flow of information when practical and had a media apparatus willing to ignore everything because he could be a conduit through which the incalculable effects of COVID could be spread in the service of someone who was above average for reading a presentation game every afternoon. Cuomo’s apology seemed largely insincere, and he blame now cancel culture.
Some “cancellations”, however, not only do not misrepresent the person making the inflammatory statements or actions, but often enrich them. A recent example is comedian Dave Chappelle, who in several specials has made jokes about any band he sees fit and has been rewarded with several Netflix contracts and several statements of support from the CEOsupposedly because it enriches the platform, despite internal breakdowns. Despite all the talk in recent years about whether or not a comedian can act with impunity on stage regardless of their platform, no one feels like they’ve lost theirs, as long as ‘he can make money for someone else.
I mentioned the critical race theory earlier. Let’s go back to this idea, and its media sister rooted in very real systemic problems: “Defund the Police”. I capitalize these terms because the cover often treated them as cudgels personified, as odd phrases that could be said in any context and resist the need to grammatically agree with the rest of the sentence. In short, a buzzword.
Although critical race theory is taught in very little public schools and very little the police departments were actually funded over the past 24 months, some even increased; any onlooker, shrewd or passive, would likely be subjected to political anchors and fellows discussing the apparent merits and demerits of these ideas, often portrayed in nebulous terms and with a lack of commitment to to discuss alternatives, in part because mainstream media and police institutions enjoy a positive relationship.
Unfortunately, no authoritative information such as the Tyndall report yet contains information for the years 2020 and 2021 (although we know the time spent on the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan), so I can only rely on anecdotes, personal experience, or “non-traditional” sources such as social media to back this up, but to my family and friends it seemed like a constant source of debate.
And yet, while the aforementioned fellows and presenters wondered if the minds of innocent children could be irreversibly corrupted by exposure to the realities of a deeply unjust society, society continued to be unjust. Underfunded schools still barely teach anything that can be loosely defined as CRT or a progressive substitute for it. More people were killed by police in 2021 than in recorded history in the United Statesmany of them black and many of them in situations where the use of force was far from necessary, although it probably never should be.
For all the fuss, no one who gets paid to be behind a camera has been able to fix or improve these issues much. More likely, they just tired their audience into not wanting to hear about it. There is still more to cover about the larger national media landscape and its weaknesses, but that will have to wait for now.
Harrison Markfield is a second year Community and Regional Planning student.