Monday, May 01, 2006

Democracy's Dumbing Down Effect

Nicolas Tenzer doesn't think today's mass media is doing democracy any favors (What? With so many people getting their "news" from comedians or People? Who cares if it's not true? It's so entertaining and funny, it's so ironic...) He pulls out the Tocqueville to help prove his point:
For Tocqueville, democracy’s systemic effects could lead citizens to deprive themselves of reasoned thought. They could pretend to judge events and values on their own while in reality they would merely copy the rough and simplified opinions of the masses. Indeed, what Tocqueville called the hold of “social power” on opinion is probably strongest in democratic regimes — a view that foretells the growth of modern-day demagogy and media manipulation.

Tocqueville believed that there are no effective long-term constraints on this tendency. Neither local democracy nor small societies, neither governmental checks and balances nor civil rights, can prevent the decline of critical thought that democracy seems to cause. Schools have the power to be little more than enclaves from the corrosive strength of social influences on how the mind works. Similarly, while Tocqueville thought that pursuing virtue as the ancients did, or having a religious faith, could sometimes elevate the soul, both conflict with the democratic ideal if they become officially prescribed in public life.

In this sense, Tocqueville’s intellectual heirs include the neo-Marxist theorists of the Frankfurt school, as well as Hannah Arendt, all of whom feared above all the disintegration of reason in modern societies. Indeed, the French philosopher Marcel Gauchet named a recent book Democracy Against Itself. The democratic way of life, these writers argue, tends to destroy original thought and to suppress “high” culture, yielding a mediocrity that leaves citizens vulnerable to democracy’s enemies.

But, while history is replete with murderous regimes applauded by cowed and deceived masses, the greater risk for democratic nations is that their citizens withdraw into apathy and short-term thinking for immediate gratification. The past — despite rituals that seek to commemorate historic moments — is obliterated by an addiction to the now and the new. Even the supposedly well-educated ruling class is subject to this bewitchment. The essential problem of the democratic mind is its lack of historical consciousness.

Do the defects of democracy really mean, as Tocqueville claimed, that resigned pessimism is the only — realistic but unsustainable — path open to us? I don’t think so. There are means to fight against what might be called today’s growing “democratic stupidity”.

The first defence is to push for an educational system that really forms critical minds, namely through the (nowadays) largely neglected subjects of literature, history, and philosophy. If an informed and critical citizenry, that democracy requires, is to be formed, our schools must stop pandering to the latest popular fads and begin to sharpen the analytical capacities of students.

The biggest impediment to such an education is the mass media, with its tendency to cultivate superficiality and amusement. Many people nowadays spend more of their lives watching television than they do in classrooms. The passivity that mass media encourages is the polar opposite of the active engagement that democratic citizens need.

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