Via Media

4 Jul

I was once asked to comment on a paper called “How to Subvert Democracy: Montesinos in Peru” in law school.

Montesinos was the Head of Intelligence in Peru in the ‘90s, when Fujimori was in power. Via SIN (how’s that for evocative language?), he bribed his bosses’ way into power. He paid off parliament members, judges, newspapers, and news television channels – this last he paid the most money of all. The authors provide several  explanations:

  • Television channel owners are generally richer than the average politician. In an endemically corrupt system, they get box seats.
  • Channels  influence public perception more than individual judges and senators do.
  • He had to buy all the news channels in order for his control to be effective, while he just needed “enough” judges and politicians.

Finally, they argue the fourth estate — gagging the press amounts bypasses democratic institutions, and thus a democracy produced a dictator. All fine points that miss something basic. Fujimori wasn’t a dictator.  He was formally elected, and not by a banana republic margin, even if he did wrangle himself a third term in power.  Once Peruvians found out about the scandal, he obligingly ran away. Besides, tyrants don’t pussyfoot around buying off television channels. They kill offensive journalists.

The capture of the media isn’t something Montesinos dreamt up, and it isn’t a symptom of corruption. It is a symptom of governance in sufficiently “evolved” societies. It undermines democracy, but that’s only relevant if one separates the idea of democracy from the working of democracies. Fujimori wasn’t a dictator, he was Eco’s Man from Television, an early model Clegg or Obama.

This is a president intent on charming the pants off the gullible, and the tragedy is that so many of these people exist. Democracy was to free us of the personality cult and encourage debate on policy. So where did all the skeptics of the liberals’ fond imagination go? Where are all those American people who should be wondering right about now why their country has such mystifying foreign policy? Why aren’t there more? Cos they’re all watching Gossip Girl and Survivor: Tiny Island. What about all the Indians who should be wondering why our government puts people into ghettos? We, too, are watching Gossip Girl, but then we live within an empire, so ’tis to be expected.

For decades, people like Guy Debord have warned us of the difference between spectacle and symbol, of the inhumanity in being an audience to suffering. I won’t go into the whole capitalism-alienation-apathy argument here, but surely tis evident that the mass media isn’t geared for a thinking citizenry. If a thinking citizenry is what democracy demands, we doom ourselves to failure. This isn’t subversion of democracy, it is annihilation, and it happens everywhere.

I spot some holes. Surely there’s a difference between an apathetic public and a state where even the enterprising few who seek real information are prevented from doing so?  The argument is one of access, somewhat like saying that an equal right to work automatically implies that all women will be self sufficient. But if one agrees with the broad point: that a free media is one where people say what they want to, even if no more than a handful can read it, then I think Fujimori’s lack of dictatorial cred. becomes relevant. So either Fujimori was a really inefficient dictator, or he wasn’t one at all.

We none of us live in utopia, so let us stop theorising on its presumptions. We live in varieties of obfuscation.  If the Gauls weren’t afraid of anything but the sky falling down on their head, most netizens are afraid of our own shadow (as anyone who watches Law and Order marathons would be). So when the sky does fall down on us, we think it an acceptable (logical?) solution to bomb cities out of existence and “liberate” or “claim” territories.

Why? Do we lack the judgment to figure out that if you inject more fear and desperation into a beleaguered people, sooner rather than later they’ll get really vicious? Don’t we understand that to lose a home, a child, a limb, hurts equally wherever in the world it happens? Or is our judgement clouded by the novelty of watching bits of burning buildings falling in our cities, while buildings burning in Iraq or Afghanistan or Kashmir is numbingly familiar? The media today is stretched out on a lot of front lines. How is our populace so inured to wars? Even the Russians, those last awful imperialists, understood the suffering war entails. Those of us in modern empires read about it constantly, watch it  in “real time”, so we know “what it’s like”. Is this the arrogance of the ignorant or the ignorance of the arrogant?

Which brings me to the televised debate I endured — “National Security: A New Framework of Criminal Justice?”

It was panel of four people- an anonymous activist, parliamentarians from both sides of the fence, and Kiran Bedi, who was militant about the need for “strong measures” to combat “terrorism”. The activist, roundly ignored all around, argued that we have draconian laws aplenty, and it might be a good idea to consider other means to combat terrorism- such as not beating up everyone we deem to be a terrorist to secure convictions. The two parliamentarians- lawyers both- then had a heated definitional debate- would this new law/policy (as yet a mystery) affect people who burn churches as much as people who burn police stations? Arun Jaitley: “The law that should apply will apply”. Well, yes, but, break.

Kapil Sibal bangs on about how POTA didn’t really get as many convictions as one would like. Jaitley:  “no major terrorist crimes have been brought to book without it”. Again, the activist suggests that POTA catches the wrong people, that it’s a dragnet law that puts vulnerable people in jails where the police duly tortures them. Which means all you get is little fish confessing to big crimes. Under POTA, police brutality and “disappearances”- never a cosy statistic in India- skyrocketed. He is roundly ignored.

And so the panel proceeds- endless blather about the need for “stronger measures” to “battle terrorists” but with “safeguards” (what safeguards?). This went uncontested, and no one explained why the current law lacks ferocity. These are questions, according to the lady cop, for the experts. But who are these experts, if lawyers and policemen and activists aren’t?

At this stage I started watching Mick Jagger videos on VH1. MTV India and Channel V now air reality television with women in short shorts that climb hillocks: “independent women” carrying out “challenges” to impress men. Spectacle, it seems, dogs us.

The debate staggers on, but I doubt I miss anything that might aid the vigilant citizen my democratic nation demands I be. But if I wanted to find out what the latest schoolgirl brutally murdered in Delhi wore, or who Rani Mukherjee didn’t marry, the ticker tape proved most helpful. This is the new media: disparate bursts of censored material, with little analysis and no logic. This is the free media?

No wonder India sleeps while Kashmir burns, while Gujarat burns, while the north east is destroyed.  We comfort ourselves that we confront the horror because we watch it unfold on television.  In India we wage war upon ourselves, as any well-behaved colony must. We fragment, we disappear, we lost sight of what hurts us as a people.  That the media has let this come to pass, this is our capitulation. McMillan and Zoido point out Peru’s, Chomsky points out America’s. But these are all democracies. India and America are even hallmark ones. So if we are all “subverting” democracy, the time has come to question one of the two words. And to remember that democracy is a word, not a mantra.

All paintings in this post are by Nayanaa Kanodia, save the last (beh Bruegel).

A List for Today.

Icarus, Tarot Seven.

Eight ways to get around

Dragons. Along with elves, probably the most overused tropes in spec fic. Unlike milksop elves, this is because they are so fucking cool. The best dragons are no one’s conveyance. Obedient dragons are pathetic shadow-dragons (I’m looking at you, Eragon). But then there’s Cordelia, the baddest ass in hell-LA. S/he adopts Angel and takes on Illyria.

Spaceships. There are all kinds of spaceships in fiction. The coolest of all time is, of course, The Heart of Gold. The smallest of its virtues is a transmogrifying whale. Generation-ships freak me out, or the sentient ship in Dust might come a distant second. As it stands, Serenity is probably the shoo-in for second place, mostly because she’s dragon-like. She competes with the ouster biospheres from Endymion; though they are technically generation-ships, they have flora, fresh air, animals, and all the other benefits of terra, as well as exotic mutant-humans. I was not a big fan of the Hyperion sequence, but the tree-ships and the ousters have stayed with me long after I forgot the messiah lady’s name and angst.

The Floo Network. The idea of brooms induces chafing in body-parts I’d sooner leave alone. I’m not including apparation and teleportation in this list, because technically you don’t go between places with such measures. You just hop across, which always felt like cheating to me: what about the whole journey-is-the-destination shtick?

Warrens. Roughly, portals channelled through any given aspect of space or spirit, carved out by magic. They shorten paths and increase danger. Read Malazan for details, which are many and wondrous. Heck, read Malazan anyway. The Ogier Ways were WoT’s sloppy shady version.

Velocipedes. Bikes by another name sound so much more fun.

Talking Magic Carpets. In-flight entertainment can make all the difference. Though I don’t remember where I read about loquacious weaves. (din, 2011: Calcifer!) Alternately, floppyhat recommends giant boomerangs and frisbees hoisted around by giants. With boomerangs, you parachute down to your destination, but the return trip is free.

Hot Air Balloons.  picnic baskets, rolling vistas, soothing breeze.

Wings. Duh. Preferably not wax.

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2 Responses to “Via Media”

  1. Kinkartavyavimoorh July 6, 2010 at 11:19 am #

    You missed out naming Temeraire!

    [No, I don’t really ever open this address. But you don’t allow anonymous comments.]

    • chaosbogey July 6, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

      I can see why don’t open it- how do you even spell it? Also, I considered temeraire, but I haven’t read the book yet (I know, I know) and one should aspire to a limited honesty. 🙂

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