The New Yorker magazine once ran a cartoon of a couple sitting down in front of the TV. “How do you like your news?” the wife asks, holding the remote. “Love-to-hate or preaching to the converted?” That’s a fair summary of political culture in the Information Age. Not only can we sequester ourselves in specialized news silos which reinforce our own prejudices, but we can select representations of our adversaries which further confirm a sense of their implacable Otherness.
I suspect that a significant portion of the audiences for Fox News (and its Canadian equivalent of Sun TV) are liberals who get a masochistic pleasure from watching right-wing ideologues like Glenn Beck and Ezra Levant – no matter what your personal values, cable television and search engines let you keep discovering something, somewhere, that mortally offends them. Just as Rush Limbaugh can stir up his listeners by citing the militant manifesto of an obscure “feminazi,” so progressives can flatter their own sensibilities with smugly disapproving Facebook posts about a bigoted evangelist in Jerkwater Tennessee.
But there are two problems with this sort of indulgence. One is that such “gotcha” exposures distort our perception of the political landscape by focusing only on the outlandish fringes of it, rather than the moderate middle. The examples may not be fabricated, but they are pulled from a range of far more nuanced expressions, and while the material can be perversely entertaining, it hardly reflects average opinion. Thus the mildest objections to gay marriage get reduced to a psychotic “God Hates Fags” preacher; the most anodyne ideals of multiculturalism are exaggerated into the repressive campus speech code at Hyper-Sensitive University.
The second issue here is that the emphasis on ideological extremes undermines our willingness to live in a pluralistic society. Democracies are premised on the peaceful coexistence of many people with mutually exclusive views – we may fundamentally disagree on a lot of things, goes this notion, but we are still all citizens and we can still all get along. Yet by constantly highlighting polarities of word and action, partisans inculcate an us-against-them outlook which presumes we must somehow “take back” the country from those who are somehow ineligible to live and believe in it.
It was not always this way. Generations ago, local newspapers and national magazines may have leaned left or right, but broadcast networks aspired to neutrality and the popular mass accepted the facts presented by all of them. With the advent of specialty cable channels, desktop publishing, and the Internet, however, news consumers became news connoisseurs: so many people had been warned that the press served one or another special interest (big business, secular humanists, the Jews, the military-industrial complex, etc.) they became inadvertent postmodernists, judging information by the alleged motives of its purveyors rather than its actual content. Thus the “fair and balanced” conceit of Fox News is the bastard child of theorists like Noam Chomsky, whose central claim is that the media is merely a puppet of power. That claim has been widely endorsed – it’s the identity of contemporary “power” which is still in dispute.
Our fascination with political fanatics, then, is part of the barbarians-at-the-gates paranoia that thrives in a specialized media environment. In 2003, the Globe and Mail‘s Doug Saunders saw the potential for trouble:
It is worth everyone’s while to read left-wing views from AlterNet and This Magazine and right-wing views from NewsMax and the Weekly Standard. There are exciting arguments to be found there. But serious problems arise when people use these forms of commentary as primary sources of information, in effect breaking the population into exclusive camps given only one, very limited view of the world, and opposing perspectives only from commentators bent on denouncing them. Partisan isolation can foster dangerous mythology.
The result is that politics deteriorates into a spectator sport where we root for our side and hiss the bad guys; winning, not empathizing, is paramount. By cherry-picking stories, statistics, and quotations from a vast swath of journalism, we construct straw men precisely tailored to our direst fantasies, wherever they originate on the spectrum. But straw men, remember, are not the living individuals with whom we share our country.