The Politics of Information

July 26, 2012

A few things happened last week. Rolling Stone ran one of the best, clearest, and most exhaustive yet concise pieces about where we stand right now regarding Global Warming and how climate change will affect us over the next 16 years. The article gave sound numbers and facts that showcase further what we’ve heard (and ignored) for years, and detailed the problems true progress and reversal on this front will face up against Shell and the other Oil, Gas, and Coal profiteers of the world. Over on NPR, Florida’s Republican senator Mark Rubio criticized NPR’s funding while being interviewed by the station, making the claim that with so many other “options” public radio is no longer the necessary public service it once was. In world news, Iraq had its most violent day since the withdrawal of US troops as attacks resulted in the deaths of several Iraqi police officers and civilians. At the box office, Christopher Nolan released his conclusion to the best superhero trilogy of all time. And of course, the tragedy that will sadly always be tied to that film occurred, as many  innocent people died in a horrible manner while simply trying to watch a movie.

What do these things, if anything, have in common?

Obviously there are those who will try to link the film with the tragedy, beyond an experiential manner (because obviously the tragedy did occur at a screening of the film and the suspect did choose this particular film as the scene of his crime), in an attempt to link the art with the crime, as direct inspiration for the tragedy. The aftermath of anything horrific like this results in the old arguments that always cycle around–is art responsible for our violent society? Is the internet? Is our culture? What about gun laws vis-a-vis gun control and should we revisit the issue? What about the state of and the emphasis on (or lack thereof) mental health care in this country? As always, in the interest of “fairness,” most news-forums gave almost equal time to each of these possible “causes” so that proponents of one could nay-say proponents of the others. I say that not each of these potential causes deserves equal table time and that at the expense of one in particular another is trotted out, but more on that later. But suffice it to say for now for anyone who turned on the TV this past weekend, if you tuned to any news channel or network news hour, you likely saw only, or overwhelmingly primarily, coverage on this particular issue. You might think nothing else occurred.

The story Rolling Stone ran, “The Reckoning,” by Middlebury scholar in residence and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, which I linked to above, is well worth your time whether you’ve read much or nothing about climate change because it concisely and profoundly brings us up to date on where we now stand in regards to climate change and the threats it poses. To briefly summarize the story for our purposes here, Mckibben provides us with 3 numbers that beg our attention now: (1) 2 degrees Celsius, which is the amount scientists had previously predicted we must not pass in raising the global earth temperature if we want to avoid catastrophic changes. World leaders recently met to vow to do what they can to help keep carbon emissions low enough to avoid that 2 degree change. The trouble is, beyond being able to hold countries to their actions on this issue, is that now that number seems too high. The record heat numbers, the ecological devastation and erratic weather, the melting ice caps and the other incidents our world has witnessed over the past year has called scientists to question how much lower the degree change must really be kept to since such effects are already being witnessed; (2) 565 gigatons, which is the amount of carbon emissions which can “safely” be dumped into the atmosphere and “probably” not cause the 2 degree change, but the problem with this number is that with recent events it seems likely that even an immediate cessation of fossil fuel burning would still leave us with quite a bit of temperature change as a result of previous burning; lastly, (3) 2795 gigatons, which is 5 times the amount of our previous number and is the amount of carbon that will be released by the time the major oil, coal, and gas conglomerates are done burning through their current reserves. The major problem with this number is that it is tied to resources already on the ledgers of Shell, BP and the like. This will come from the use of fossil fuels these companies already have in reserve and already plan to use, reserves which are the foundation of the companies financial ledgers. So the problem is that even were the major Oil, Gas, and Coal companies to immediately end drilling, mining, and allocating further resources today yet still burn the reserves they already have in stock, 5 times the “safe” amount of carbon will still be dumped into the atmosphere and irrevocable, catastrophic change will occur. Yet if the big companies were told tomorrow they were not allowed to use their reserves, the reserves which their stock, trade, and financial numbers are already based on, these major companies would fold. So it is sadly obvious why BP, Shell and the like have no real interest in moving to alternative fuels even though it is possible and completely necessary for the future of our world.

As to Iraq’s recent news, further violence occurred, more intense violence than the country has seen since US forces left the area. As lives were lost and a fragile population suffered yet more tragedy, sadly similar events occurred elsewhere across the planet, in Syria for example. Mark Rubio took his time to attack  public radio and if his claims that the mainstream news media adequately reports all worthwhile current news is true, you might think such events would have been mentioned at least in passing. Rubio’s complaints are a strong recurrent far-right sentiment because apparently objective journalism which doesn’t cater to the sensationalism that the ratings game has forced even CNN into, and because public radio uses facts, analysis, and at least attempts to address issues from all sides and angles it is undoubtedly a bastion of liberal bias.

What ties all of these issues together is what I’m calling here “the politics of information.” The Colorado shooting was a horrific, terrible event. Many were killed, many were injured, and many families and an entire community will never be the same. The person responsible must be held accountable for his actions, and whatever actions that can be taken to ensure such a thing is less likely to happen in the future must be taken. The victim’s stories should be told, their memories are worth celebrating in protest to the injustice of their untimely deaths. Now, all of that said, the Colorado shooting was not the only thing that happened last week. Violence occurred all over the world; many more homicides occurred around the country the same night, many tied to gun violence. Further violence, wars, and atrocities occurred around the world. I make these statements, not to be dismissive or inconsiderate, but in contrast to many recurrent comments I’ve heard in the wake of the tragedy:

* A repeated comment made by many after this story broke was that “we can’t be safe anywhere any more.” Certainly we can never be 100%, completely safe at all times without any chance of anything bad happening to us; not here in the US and not anywhere else in the world. But “The Dark Knight Rises” screened at countless theaters around the country at midnight the same night and no other major incidents occurred. For the most part, America is still an overwhelmingly safe place to live and move around in going about our daily actions.

* The violence in Iraq exacerbated; there are places right now where it is incredibly unsafe to go outside or to conduct any daily activities whatsoever. Places throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Places in the poorest sections of our own country as well. Obviously our attention and our emotions are more drawn to something that hits us closer to where we live and that scares us because it seems much more likely to happen to us, but the  deaths of people to senseless violence anywhere and by any method is always bad, and if this one story drew such coverage, why not other stories of equal tragedy involving people equally deserving of our sympathy, attention, and respect?

* It is a disservice to those who lost their lives in this tragedy to create a media whirlwind of infamy to a deranged individual who likely sought attention more than anything in the first place. The details of every action, the screen shots of chaos, the constant repetition of this one heinous event captivated the complete control of all mainstream media last weekend. Others on the edge seeking their own infamy may very well latch on to such shock-tactic sensationalism.

Okay, now to get more at the politics of information at play here–why is a story like the Colorado shooting, which devastated the lives of hundreds and which is now far past the point of prevention and instead now in the realm of justice and punishment alone more widely covered than an event like looming catastrophic climate change that can be averted and which will devastate the lives of all of us, particularly (at first) the poorest who live in the most susceptible areas? Even in the realm of this particular tragedy, why are certain things “off limits?” Monday night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart showcased a series of clips from FOX news and statements by today’s leading conservative pundits and politicians that “now is not the time to talk about gun control.” On mainstream news outlet round-tables, in the interest of “fairness,” pointing fingers at art, such as Nolan’s film itself, was given equal consideration as talking about gun control. Now, earlier I mentioned the relative safety of life in the US in comparison to many other countries. In countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc. violence is a daily fact of life. Yet those countries are flooded with guns and are incredibly war-torn. The one major factor that jumps out as an aberration to the US’s general safety level in deviation is gun violence. Our yearly numbers regarding death due to gun violence are out-ranked only by such war-torn countries as listed above. Canada and every European country report numbers that are minuscule in comparison. And they have the same entertainment and art that we have, the same internet access, the same “culture wars.” Art is a measurement of a society, it showcases, exemplifies, contrasts, criticizes and reflects current mores, fashions, ideals, and fears. A film like “The Dark Knight Rises,” if it is good, acts as a barometer or Zeitgeist of current dialogue to craft art that is different enough to serve as escapism for us but close enough to comment subtly on our own world. It is false and unfair to give equal table time to point blame at art and to refuse consideration of revisiting our current gun laws. Certainly art can be facile, vapid, and promote a culture of materialism, superficialness and ignorance. But it cannot force one to pick up a gun and commit a crime. Yes, mental health does play a role in that only someone who is unstable could truly act in the manner this particular individual did, but mental illness does not result in instant ownership of an arsenal capable of outfitting a militia. Revisiting our current gun laws is the only thing that truly makes sense in the wake of such a tragedy so that we could try to emulate some of the countries who have very little gun violence. There is no need, not in the name of any personal freedom, that should allow private ownership of automatic weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Certainly there are other issues at stake and there are other steps to take to curb such events, but the politics of information ease serious discussion of this matter out of the picture. The NRA and the gun-rights organizations and politicians have too much money and influence to allow very much discussion on this issue in a mainstream outlet.

Moving far beyond gun violence, why is it that a serious, daily discussion on climate change and the damage it is already causing and the exponentially worse damage it is likely to cause is not part of mainstream news? The damage possible in the next 20 years will affect all of us living on this planet if proper precautions and real change is not made soon. Yet this is not covered on CNN, the local news, and certainly not on FOX. Why? BP and Shell pay a lot of money and advertise quite a lot on TV; their conglomerates and political lobbyists box in this conversation because too much profit is on the line working to maintain the status quo. If it weren’t for journalists not beholden to such companies, especially those on public TV and radio, much of this information wouldn’t make it past the science journals. Waking up the masses to the fact that we must move from coal, oil, and gas to electric cars, wind, solar and green energy or we will have no planet to leave our grandchildren is paramount; letting them know that we can make such a shift, that it is possible; that we can come out better than we were if only the right emphasis and support manifests. It will take a break in the political information deadlock to truly stir such a groundswell. Because science as fact doesn’t cut it, expressing it through art usually goes over too many people’s heads, living through a summer of 100+ and daily heat-record breaking intensity doesn’t clue enough of us in, and an issue that should never have become so political in the first place has because of money and the politics of information.

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