By now, we have probably lost our first soldier on the way to our next grim milestone, and we seem to have no way out. We are in that late phase of a failing project software developers call the "Death March," when all vision has been narrowed to a single point, all perspective on the process lost, and people work incessantly, grimly, patching leaks as the ship sinks, trying desperately to get something, anything out the door. In such "single vision and Newton's sleep" there is rarely victory, and always a terrible price. And not just in a suboptimal release or a failed state, but in other tasks left undone, other creative options that were never explored.
In an opinion piece in today's Washington Post, former counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke talks about the hidden costs of the Iraq War: a Presidency and Administration focused obsessively on Iraq, rather than attacking the full range of serious global issues that have been put on hold (global warming, the deteriorating political situation in Russia, war in Africa, resurgent narcotics trade in Afghanistan, and more).
As the president contemplates sending even more U.S. forces into the Iraqi sinkhole, he should consider not only the thousands of fatalities, the tens of thousands of casualties and the hundreds of billions of dollars already lost. He must also weigh the opportunity cost of taking his national security barons off all the other critical problems they should be addressing -- problems whose windows of opportunity are slamming shut, unheard over the wail of Baghdad sirens. — via the Washington Post
War is news, and the military-entertainment complex understands the magician's force. Look over here; pay no attention to what my assistant is doing to those detainees. Yes, the blogosphere has goaded mainstream media into reluctantly dealing with some issues, but those in power are still happy to play the percentages. And as much as I genuinely enjoy Jon Stewart, it is not without a certain irony that he represents the culminant moment of Chayefsky's masterpiece, "Network." What sounded like madness in 1975 (a news division being handled like other programming? preposterous!) now seems completely normal -- in fact necessary -- in a world with no attention span and a handful of multinationals running the public airwaves and newspapers.
Joseph Palermo, in HuffPo, urges the incoming Democratic Congress to take steps to re-balance the American media landscape, which has drifted into dangerous territory, unmoored from the Fairness Doctrine and increasingly vested in the hands of media conglomerates bent not so much on a particular ideology as they are on, well, making money. Which means delivering eyeballs to advertisers. Which means reducing all discourse to sound bites, all complexity to affable infographics.
"Twenty years ago, in "Amusing Ourselves to Death," Neil Postman wrote: "We are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment." Fox News anchor Brit Hume pretends to be a journalist instead of a Republican mouthpiece; Tony Snow pretends to answer questions the members of the supine White House press corps pretend to ask him. President Bush pretends to know and care about what he is doing. "Politics is just like show business," Ronald Reagan said in 1966." — via HuffintonPost
Palermo's suggestions are good first steps, but we would do well to remember what Postman concluded: that the real hope for slipping the noose of electronic media was "to rely on the only mass medium of communication that, in theory, is capable of addressing the problem: our schools." Education, as the last outpost of the printed word that created America, is our best hope for re-igniting the critical habits of mind that could jump us out of the death march and confront the complex world we face.
"It is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. That this task should now require that they learn how to distance themselves from their forms of information is not so bizarre an enterprise that we cannot hope for its inclusion in the curriculum...we are in a race between education and disaster." — Amusing Ourselves to Death, p.163
Happy New Year.