Distraction Inc.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote a very good op-ed in Time this week about Ferguson. This seemed to me to be the key paragraph.

The U.S. Census Report finds that 50 million Americans are poor. Fifty million voters is a powerful block if they ever organized in an effort to pursue their common economic goals. So, it’s crucial that those in the wealthiest One Percent keep the poor fractured by distracting them with emotional issues like immigration, abortion and gun control so they never stop to wonder how they got so screwed over for so long.

If you think about Ferguson as a microcosm of this problem, you have ask yourself “how come in a city that is 80% African American, is the city council 90% white?” The answer is fairly simple. The voter participation rate in the last city election was 12%. So most of the whites voted and most of the African Americans did not.

If the One Percent wanted to construct a “democracy” where they could hold most of the political power, despite their micro-minority numbers, they would need to do more than just distract the poor with issues like immigration. They would need to convince both the poor and the lower middle class that there is nothing to be gained by participating in politics. If you have ever been to a political fundraiser in Washington, where the lobbyists are swarming the candidate and his staff like groupies, you know that for the rich there is a real self interest in participating in politics. Political influence pays direct benefits in the form of tax breaks or decreased regulations. But for most people, there seems to be nothing gained by participating in politics and one could argue that the Republican strategy of total obstruction was partially calculated to enforce this perception amongst the average citizen that nothing gets done in Washington, so why bother.

But there is another part of the distraction business, which is the role of the media. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the government keeps the populous in a passive state through a combination of immersive mindless entertainment (The Feelies) and daily doses of drugs (Soma) that mimic the effects of both Prozac and Viagra. One could argue that the people are too damned busy watching Real Housewives of Atlanta, while washing down their Oxycontin with light beer, to get up off the couch and vote.

Voter Registration-Ferguson

Voter Registration-Ferguson

Of course when someone tried to address this issue last week in Ferguson, the idiots at Breitbart jumped all over them. We will of course watch many Republican legislatures try to make voting even harder in the next few months.

Finally, it occurred to me in the last week that the Civil Rights movement desperately needs a new generation of leaders. When you see camera hounds like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson hogging the spotlight in Ferguson and not a single local young black leader, you have to despair. Martin Luther King was 39 when he was killed, after a decade of struggle. Where is the 29 year old Black leader that can impress on a new generation the “fierce urgency” of getting out and voting in November?

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4 Responses to Distraction Inc.

  1. len says:

    A very good question at the end of the piece: where are the new leaders? Occupy Wall St for one but they are starting to go over the top just as the civil rights leaders did when at a certain point few comment on today King became passe and was almost replaced by a more violent group of voices some of whom quickly met the business end of police violence and execution. At the same time, the peaceful naive were met by the radical and criminal thugs who wanted nothing more than to kill white kids, and the drug king pins killed their competition. It is the confluence of predators who overhwhelm peaceful rational voices, the Sea Peoples of the Mediterranean who swarmed the islands, the Aztecs marching into Chaco and driving the natives into the canyon cliff dwellings. With social media this is a process that can be amplified a thousand fold and fast.

    We know this is the pattern historically. So the question is how can we change that outcome? Media is steering but is not the force of events. We’ve known since before the web was launchned the dangers of superstitious propagation, what we know that just ain’t so. We also know that in the beginning of the civil rights movement, people were trained before they were sent into the Deep South. Let us not in art, culture or protest undervalue the power of training. And this is where institutions such as the one you manage can become a change agent, a formulator of technique and ethic, and a distributor of that to other places as events warrant.

    And this can be your finest hour. I watched a tired David Crosby on stage last night talk about being a protest songwriter and say he failed because things are worse today than when he wrote those songs. But then he and Graham Nash stood there and sang Who Are the People Who Run This Land acapella. And it was electric. And the people put down their frikkin cellphones and stood up. Then they played other songs of the day and finally Stills stepped up with the Buffalo Springfield For What It’s Worth. And then a show that to that point had been loud, a little untuned, played well but tired and aging, came alive. You can find the CSN concert by following the old people into the arena. They are fat, white, smell of too much perfume instead of pot and use their phones too much. But in that last set they became what they are inside, boomers. Protestors. Alive and mad as hell. Together.

    The kids don’t have that. They aren’t trained. They are pissed at us and do not yet grasp that THIS is their time. THIS is their scene. THIS is their responsibility. And THEY need to stand together.

    Train them, Jon. Ask your friends in the Biz, ask Crosby, Nash, Stills, Arlo, Judy Collins, Dylan, Peter Yarrow and Noel Stookey, ask Fonda, ask everyone that was anyone in the day to come to your school and speak, one at a time and tell them what it is and what it takes to come together. Hell, I was a kid in Alabama staring down racism when it was very close, very personal and very scary and those are the people who got me through, who sang songs that made me think again and choose a different path.

    Let them know it is possible and even if it moves the meter just a little to the right way, it is completely worth it. As the Freemasons say, no one knows if their religion is right; they know if it is upright. And you know it is.

  2. anycoloryoulike says:

    I completely agree with Len’s comment above. In other words, confoundingly, the wealthy ruling powers in the US have created a situation where they’ve somehow comvinced the disenfranchised to vote against their own interests. How? They (the media, controlled by the same majority shareholders/board of directors as the big multinational companies that stand to profit from obfuscating the public) have divided us on trivial issues. They have taught us that we are fundamentally different from eachother, they have indoctrinated us and forced us to fall into polarized binary camps; republican or democrat. In reality, the spectrum of our belief structure stretches beyond just door A or door B. The Who fanously sung “we won’t get fooled again” in reference to political/big business manipulation of the common man. What did they mean? They meant that we have been divided by spin doctors and PR campaign narratives funded by the establishment who stand to profit from the division of the common man, rather than the unity of human beings. How? They invent imaginary issues that serve not to protect or preserve beliefs but to divide people.

  3. henryjenkins says:

    I am in the process of finishing up my next book, By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics, so I can’t resist putting my two cents in on this discussion. This book reflects more than 200 interviews with young activists, as well as engagement with the broader range of quantitative and qualitative research produced by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics research network.

    My first question here would be who gets to decide what counts as politics. So, the opening quotation from Karem Abdul Jabbar, implies that immigration reform has been a “distraction” from politics. Yet, in fact, many of those we interviewed see the DREAMer movement, fighting for citizenship and education rights for undocumented youth who have been raised in the US, to be one of the central civil rights movements of our time, and it is one of the most active and engaged movements involving youth in American politics. So, we go into this blog post with a somewhat different framework about what kind of politics matter.

    Yet, if we stick to the frame you are proposing here — a very black-white conception of what racial politics looks like in America today, we still need to distinguish between politics as it exists on the ground and politics as it is depicted through mass media. The fact that the news media does not know how to find or does not care to find effective youth spokespeople on the level of MLK does not mean that they do not exist.

    But in the 1960s, the black civil rights movement had to rely on their own communications networks — the black press and the black church — to share their insights until they forced their way onto the evening news, and the counterculture movement created an alternative press and radio circuit where the key debates around the Vietnam War occured prior to, again, events pushing them onto ABC, CBS, and NBC.

    Today’s activists are much more at home on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr, though not exclusively so. As the title of our book-in-the-making suggests, they are using any and every available platform to make change, but so far, like many other activist efforts before them, they are mostly routing around broadcast-based media because journalists do not seem to recognize the forms this activism is taking.

    Trust me, there is some very good work being done on race and America via these tactics. Let me point you to some examples:

    #BYP100 Responds to George Zimmerman Verdict

    BYP100: Black Youth, Black Police & Transformative Justice

    The First Time


    And the fact that the world knows about what happened in Ferguson has much to do with their networked communications strategies. But the old guard civil rights leadership has swooped down once this got national media attention and the news media recognizes and foregrounds these figures in its coverage.

  4. Alex Bowles says:

    I followed the whole Ferguson episode on Twitter, which really takes on this increadible intensity and immediacy with fast-moving events. The danger is that this chaotic, conflicting stream can become a vector for bad information. It can also produces a Rashoman effect, where the subjectivity of the truth becomes readily apparent. When it comes to specific details, especially where sourcing is unclear, you really have to watch your step.

    The flip side of such an open channel is that key voices can emerge very swiftly and organically. It’s as if the audience is generally aware of the problems that come with a flood of unfiltered and frequently misleading information, and responds by seeking and identifying reliable voices in the malestrom. What’s interesting about the way the site is structured is that you can see consensus forming around trustworthy sources in realtime. These crucibles can make careers.

    I have to say, it was a real thrill seeing Antonio French sieze the day, especially since he shows every sign of turning what happened into a long term push to organize the diesnfranchised majority in Ferguson, and restore some democratic accountability to a horribly imbalanced government. Sharpton was a sideshow. This guy looks like the real deal.


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