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Drawn Away from Reality in Plain View

By wearing a mask, the exhaled viruses will not be able to escape and will concentrate in the nasal passages, enter the olfactory nerves and travel into the brain,” several false posts on Facebook and Twitter stated.”

“An extremely credible source has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.”

Twitter, Aug. 6, 2012

In May 2017 President Trump tweeted “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” That garbled nonsense received 21, 663 Likes. In the throes of this Covid-19 pandemic, social media has posted false attacks on what the NIH prescribes.

Sometime in the future, near or far, we will discover whether social media has drawn us away from reality in plain view and thus helped bring down whatever the U.S. now is in 2020, or whether this same social media was the most wonderful thing any society could have ever wished for.

We will either have a society and a commonly accepted social order, or divided enclaves of like souls in a “togetherness” posting feverishly where the boundaries of warmth and love begin and end.

If a Constitutional order of things is what we are then it’s clear that a would-be autocrat has exposed all its weak spots, most especially the fact that hyper-capitalism has also gone on very nicely with the Constitution in place, the freedoms it offers in print always a source of encouragement to the many as the few arrange proprietary hold on their jobs, property and minds.

Because that order is a useful front for our hyper-capitalism then it doesn’t matter if social media is the kind of wisdom crying out in the streets, that is, the wisdom of the Personal Gut, making hash of any order not personally approved by every self-appointed authority. I mean that hyper-capitalism can lie down very nicely with our social media Tower of Babel because such incoherence is protective of the vile inequities our economics has produced.

Hyper-capitalism can expect the Supreme Court to make its display of Constitutional respect not to appear disingenuous. Proprietary privilege of corporations and finance institutions can and does sponsor the high ideals and vocabulary of democratic values, personal freedom, and moral exceptionalism as readily as we can expect it will sponsor the tearing down of racist tributes, i.e., statues, the ban on choke holds, no lynching, social workers and psychologists replacing precinct policing, and so on.

Proprietary privilege will sponsor everything that does not threaten its privilege, and this includes discourse, which can now be described as populist passionate online opinionating and neutered reportage without valuation or contextualization.

Facebook now sponsors the PBS Newshour, which amounts to an uncontrollable, spewer of the raw regurgitations of the Id laundered by underwriting PBS’s attempt to use neutral, representations amid a chaos of biases and severe societal imbalance. What we have is a legacy press and a public broadcasting system unable to adapt and seemingly oblivious to the whirlwind of manic voices drowning them and discrediting them.

This is doubly sad because of Facebook’s dismantling of our hard-earned path to create reliability between word and world. It’s also sad because PBS’s dedication to “neutrality” as Trump’s march to autocracy goes on is a special gift to him. Perhaps this “neutrality” has a Vichy France rationale — survival at any cost.

If NPR and PBS provided a valuation of what they are reporting, hyper-capitalism would destroy their financial support, or they would capture through corporate sponsorship the mission of public broadcasting, always hanging by a thread Republicans are anxious to cut.

The matter here has to do with a recognition of the public good, the common good, the societal good being justly represented alongside personal good. And this relationship hardly exists in the mind of Americans because society’s needs and purpose have been relegated to personal need and purpose. We can consider Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and others as serving a societal purpose only if our notion of society has collapsed into personal liking.

Consider that Trump rises to the presidency as a TV personality, a long-publicized person of wealth, popularity as well as notoriety, a celebrity with name recognition, a luminary who has branded his identity, and not as a man of ideas. He may read and write but there is little sign of this. His school records are, like his tax returns, blocked from public view. He has given up reading anything of length, if he ever did, and taken to tweet bursts in which whole sentences are rare, paragraphs demand coherence and continuity of thought are not part of the tweet, and in general the English language is abused.

In all of this, the President is where his constituents are. Social media and cell phone texting have released us from the ancient binds of unity, coherence and continuity as requirements in our expression of our thoughts. Now, a connection between leader and people lies in their mutual desire to “tear it up,” not only our system of checks and balances, the reliability of our intelligence community and our press, but also our language.

For Trump to appear as an incendiary, an insurgent out to take down a Deep State working against the Everyday American, he must destroy language and meaning itself. He must make critical interpretation a tool of the Everyday American’s oppressors, de-authorize all credentials, even those of science, and put understanding of anything at the disposal of each individual’s personal determination.

The country was totally ready for this. A deep strain of anti-intellectualism as well as a deep affinity to the illusions of personal autonomy and no boundaries to personal freedom and choice were all active in the American mass psyche before Trump came along.

All intellectual authority at the country’s beginnings was European. That was not anything American independence and developing “frontier spirit” could tolerate. The present failure to learn anything from Europe, even as to the Covid-19 pandemic, represents this intolerant swagger, an obtuseness that is killing us.

If, as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have argued, the grounding problem to be fixed concerns our chosen economics, then what we face is a very difficult homework assignment being assigned those who will substitute anything to avoid doing their homework.

I think it’s clear that racism is baked into hyper-capitalism and all injustices and inequities coming from this would be greatly decreased if the economic engine was defunded. Right now, however, this connection is being sidelined.

Following our financialized finagling sort of capitalism is like entering a doorway to the esoteric Kabbalah. The computer has enabled quant style nano second investing, currency exchange, buying, selling and packaging loans and investments never so packaged. In short, the algorithms of Wall Street are designed to be mostly opaque to us. And this is an opaqueness that our social media, the places we go when we want to get ourselves informed, is too chaotically insane to make anything clear. Rational transmissions regarding lobal warming, the Coronavirus pandemic, and the megalomania of Trump can’t break through.

The greatest tragic result of our collapse into a discourse idiocy is our failure to locate what’s destroying us, namely, our hyper-capitalism.

Standing loyally behind our economic system, aka free enterprise, was the number one priority demanded by the Tea Party, the “populist” response to Obama, who apparently was both a Fascist and a Communist. That loyalty has not diminished because it is invested with a patriotic fervor. It is certainly not “Life, Liberty and Capitalism” declared in the Declaration of Independence but “the pursuit of happiness.” It’s an understatement today to say that we see our hyper-capitalism, regardless of how wild and renegade it gets, regardless of how many lives it throws on the trash heap, as the way to pursue happiness.

When a clear, reliable critique comes through the mosh pit of our online brainstorms, a critique such as Bernie Sanders’ indictment of our economics and the remedies proposed in The Green New Deal, they are at once, by both parties, quarantined because they upset our “Free Enterprise” fervor. Our hyper-capitalism is the apple you cannot eat. Every other evil society comes to discover, even if it’s been around forever, can be consumed and co-opted without injury to our “free-enterprise.”

The oppressed and disadvantaged continue, right up until today, to want the tumors that have diseased our economic system to be removed and return this system to health. Minorities don’t want the system of winning to be done away with once they are able to freely and equitable compete. Feminists, for instance, decry the patriarchal tumor but not the economics of privileging. Women didn’t want the world of competition to end just as they were about to enter the arena. That would be worse than deconstructing the path of reason at a time women were being professionalized and were making their case for equal representation.

Blacks and browns want the opportunity to compete without being discriminated against. They, like women, want a fair shot at the prizes. Why abolish winning and great wealth, even though no case can be made that billions were earned by one person, just now people of color and women have a chance to have billions? Why tax multi-millionaires when one is striving to become one oneself?

Like Trump then, the Everyday American wants to make a deal, one in which they can get the oppressors off their back and wind up in a place where they can make a lot of money to buy a lot of toys. If, of course, our hyper-capitalism wasn’t cherished as the way to pursue happiness, i.e. a lot of money, someone might get a chance at pointing to hyper-capitalism as the well springs of our diminished happiness state. And the rub is there, where we began, with the pointing out which right now is done to the satisfaction of too many on social media.

By “too many” I mean that it’s populist for too many to find their path of knowing on social media, populist have enough power in the U.S to elect and stand behind Donald J. Trump. We have a spin factor sponsored sense of populist, different both from the tyranny of the majority and the soft despotism of government. We are populist in our descent to the quality-free, intellectually vacuous bottom of everything. And it’s there we have found @realDonaldTrump, both accommodated to the country as a reality TV show.

The viral power of social media can be brought from the control of its tech wizard founders to the same place traditional publishers are regarding their responsibility for what they publish. However, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The assumption is that these platforms are immune because they provide a neutral public forum. Neutrality is certainly not present in this fractured society and it is not achieved within these platforms by a point counterpoint dialectic. Instead, what we have are impassioned explosions fueling the already existing passions of a society engaged in a civil war of online armies.

We could also presume that neutrality is maintained by platform owners but what these owners do is the opposite. An unrestricted flood of users does not reach a state of calm neutrality, but such flooding drowns out the scant amount of studied interpretation and understanding that this society so desperately needs.

Facebook’s rules, which Zuckerberg has cited in defense of not taking down Trump’s call to violence — “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — are Zuckerberg’s rules. When he allows Holocaust denials to be posted, he argues that Facebook gives people a voice, even when they get things wrong. However, he goes on, what causes “real harm, real physical harm” is taken down. What’s objectionable here is an obtuseness regarding the viral power of words causing “real harm,” and the positioning of himself as arbiter of when people “get things wrong.” He enjoys the proprietary privilege of ownership but as his is ownership of a publishing enterprise his privilege is not beyond law.

There’s much farce in seeing the privilege of Twitter ownership running head on into the privileges our president awards himself, which yearn to be what Putin awards himself.

It’s arguable that Trump would have such a hold on his admirers without Twitter. No Twitter, no Trump, or at least a Trump showing up on Fox every hour as well as doing Bund rallies like daily gigs. Not content with his Twitter success, Trump’s incredible ego is now at war with Twitter because they dared label his tweet glorifying violence as glorifying violence.

The vile power bombarding us from social media has done much to keep us in an angry state of divided passions as well as providing a megalomaniacal autocrat on the march with his own channel to the dark devils of our human nature. Both have broken beyond the controlling power of a democratic electorate and continue to draw us away from a reality in plain view.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Dark Affinities, Dark Imaginaries: A Mind’s Odyssey .

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