The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Monday, June 14, 2004

You provide the pictures, and I'll provide the war

- William Randolph Hearst (apocryphal)

Those who own and control the relevant mass media channels of the time have always been able to draw attention toward some events and not others, not infrequently to the point of creating catalyst points at which developing wars can shatter into sudden existence. The particular example from which the quote is taken, the Spanish-American war (1898), had as its rallying cry "Remember the Maine!" ... yet even immediately after his ship's destruction and the deaths of 268 people of his crew, the commander of the Maine urged that no pre-emptive assumptions of enemy attack be made until the cause of the explosion could be investigated. For this caution Sigsbee was vilified in the press, which virtually unanimously refused to see the explosion as anything other than a deliberate act of war by Spain: and the United States went to war and flexed its own imperialist muscles for the first time.

A (1975) investigation of the wreck found no evidence of an external explosion, concluding that the sinking was most likely caused by a coal dust explosion. (It seems the coal bunker had been located next to the ship's magazines.) Among dedicated historians, it has become fairly well accepted at this point that, whatever else, the cause was not the Spanish mines the New York Journal had gone to such great lengths to beautifully illustrate.

And yet, even today, even in that most stubbornly "now" of countries: there remains enough of living awareness of history that "Remember the Maine!" still carries some part of the same emotional weight in American popular culture as "Remember Pearl Harbor!" or "Remember the Alamo!" Like illustrations and photographs, like symbols: slogans are potent things.

When the automotive licence plate design became permanent in Québec, the French language minority province of Canada, the slogan on automobile licence plates was altered from "La belle province" [the beautiful province] to "Je me souviens" [I remember]. The year was 1978, ten years after the modern separatist political party le Parti Québecois was born, two years after it came to provincial power for the first time ... and two years before the PQ initiated the first provincial referendum to begin negotiation for independence. The cry to remember is a powerful one: even when what precisely is to be remembered is (deliberately!) left somewhat vague. Where interpretive frames are not inherent to the communicative vehicle, there are many power-seekers more than willing to provide them.

As the power of videotape and near-instant global communication started to become apparent, major, often violent events started to shape themselves around the presence of someone to distribute the images of those events. It has become notorious in the news industry that in several parts of the world, all a reporter has to do is to show up with a news camera, and demonstrations will quickly evolve in the immediate vicinity.

At some point in the not too distant past, journalists started not only reporting the news, not only being cooperative partners in the process of making the news, but themselves becoming it.

What there is too much of, ceases to be valued. Too much information, and we begin to tune out, to selectively hear -- as indeed we are biologically equipped to in our sensory processing: most of us are hard-wired with sensory information filtres. (Rarely, children are born without, and consequently spend their lives wearing contact lenses or earplugs designed to limit sensory input.) Although media literacy is not similarly biological, we can learn to develop cognitive filtres which allow us to attempt our own processing of the modern deluge of data.

Or (much easier!) we can seek out others to filtre information for us, and feed it to us in comfortably digestible point form.

It is nothing other than a variant on our deep instinct to seek out and accept authority during crisis. One of the markers of crisis is the necessity to make urgent decisions in the absence of sufficient comprehensible data. In the modern world data may be plentiful, but comprehensibility and structure is frequently felt lacking: which tends to create a psychological framework of perpetual crisis. We can either attempt to develop a structure to evoke comprehensibility for ourselves -- in effect creating a personal acceptance of our own authority -- or we can select others to provide them for us. (This second demands an inherent unquestioning acceptance of those structures and that authority: for to question at all places the personal need for an authority to make the hard choices for us squarely back on our own shoulders.)

Yet this selection process doesn't occur in a vacuum. Personal paradigms are evolved at a very young age (to a large part grounded in the environments we encountered, growing up), and for the most part we tend to seek out those sources of information matching what we already know. Those whose voices match our personal 'isms we see as intelligent, informed, rational. Their arguments reinforce our own paradigms, and therefore are considered and logical. Those whose voices don't, we most commonly classify as ignorant, naïve, self-serving, or irrational; and when we even consider any part of their arguments we will seek out those which we find easiest to knock down with the tools we choose to use.

Who (do we think) would know more about what the things happening around us actually mean, than a reporter who has been integral in telling us about those things? (How many reporters find successful second careers in politics?) After all, they spend their lives telling us about them. They must understand it ... at least the ones whose eyes are open, and whose conclusions match our own.

Preaching to the converted. Negatively analysing only what falls apart immediately -- to whatever tools have been made appropriate to the structures we have come to accept ... on faith. Trusting not even so much as a toe to the ocean: lest we find something we do not already know!

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