San Francisco’s iconic progressive image in the American mind has made the city a prime target for critical conservative commentary. In conservative media, California and the Bay often function as a symbol of liberal or Democratic policies. For example, a Fox News investigation (2019) of the unhoused in the city illustrates the San Francisco-as-dystopia symbolism in right-leaning mediaspheres. The investigation’s partisan lens is explicit: “to chronicle the toll progressive policies have had on the homeless crisis.”
The Fox journalist details the problem of those forced into the streets by inflated housing costs and inadequate social programs. How the story is framed makes all the difference. The investigation underlines the problem with anecdotes from the perspective of frustrated business owners and visitors appalled or frightened by street encounters with the poor, drug-addled and mentally ill. To Fox’s credit, the wealth gap exacerbating the issue becomes clear in interviews with Bay Area residents. All fair points about housing policy failures aside, the Fox piece frames the issue in two significant ways:
The unhoused is a problem for visitors and the middle class who wish to use the city without the inconvenience of poverty-battered bodies in the street;
A failure of “Democrats” and the progressive ideology SF has come to symbolize in the American imagination.
The report only lightly touches on inflated housing costs resulting from capitalist housing market dynamics and the wealth gap in the state. Instead, the story focuses the reader’s attention on arguments that a soft-on-crime agenda was central in creating the crisis. The report appears to be a piece on public policy. However, it becomes clear that the emphasis is on “failures of liberal programs” rather than an earnest journalistic exploration of proposed solutions to housing crises.
In public discourse, filtered through the business model of cable news, San Francisco is a means to a partisan end. In stories like this, the city is used as a symbol of progressive policy failures. The city is a character in a narrative that confirms the correctness of conservative politics. Comments on stories like these seem to confirm how the framing pits city progressives vs. non-city conservatives:
The historical context for the emergence of these partisan news frames is important. The origins of conservative media city-bashing are rooted in transformation from a more unified, low-choice world of media of the 20th century to our current high-choice and politically fragmented environment.
Until around the 1980s, American media was a low-choice world. The media system was “low-choice” when TV news, for example, was produced by three or four mainstream networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) with roughly similar ideological perspectives. By the 1990s, Americans found themselves in a “high-choice” media environment.
The low-choice media environment had its flaws but it likewise had the benefit of putting Americans on the same page about the major problems we faced as a nation. Scholars and journalists of the 1970s could identify something like a mainstream public debate. The high-choice media world (after cable then satellite then digital and social media) made more perspectives available, but it also fragmented the public. Over time, the public’s use of media took shape around preferred news sites, guided by confirmation biases, selective attention and information “bubbles.” The diversity of available perspectives was supposed to be more democratic and empower citizens with access to information, but the high-choice media environment paradoxically allowed us to insulate ourselves from opposing views and the people who expressed them.
These gradual changes to the media system enabled new business models to specialize in partisan content. The introduction of Fox News in 1994 is a popular illustration of this late 20th century business model, but digital platforms also followed suit with the right-leaning Drudge Report (1995) and the liberal Daily Kos (2002). Today, Breitbart news, One American News and a number of other media start-ups are targeting these partisan audiences and competing for audience market share, often by expressing ever more partisan frames on American politics. Facebook’s leaked internal research has confirmed this trend. The leak shows how digital media companies profit when “core parts of its platform appear hardwired for spreading misinformation and divisive content.” For these companies, the civic decay stemming from this ideological war is a gold mine.
The way technology and business models have exacerbated partisanship in American politics challenges classic tenets of journalism. It has also disrupts the traditional function of news. Where 20th century journalists could think of news as a sort of schoolhouse, offering information to foster educated voting and self-governance, the 21st century has cultivated new functions of news in public life. The schoolhouse metaphor has given way to another functional metaphor: the church. Americans increasingly use news as a way to endorse a common ideological faith. Conservatives look to Tucker Carlson to confirm the evils of Nancy Pelosi and commiserate about the dangers of “creeping socialism.” MSNBC viewers tune in to see if Trump will be indicted for his role in the Capitol riots following Biden’s election. In many ways, our choice of news is a choice of a dramatically illustrated world view. The faithful, after all, don’t go to church to learn something new about what happened to Jesus. They go to participate in a community of shared values and fellowship.
Partisan news and the reorganization of the public into news communities of faith helps explain the fragmentation of the public and the use of San Francisco as a symbol for conservative news audiences. Liberals can wonder why the farmers of Kansas vote against their own economic interests. In each case, the cultural chasm widens as news media marshal cities and places as symbols of difference and antagonism rather than one people working as a larger collective.
The year 2008 was important to understand RT’s evolving purpose in world affairs. After relative obscurity following its 2005 launch, RT began countering American and NATO news regarding Russian intervention in South Ossetia, Georgia. RT offered a counternarrative: Russian intervention was defensive and humanitarian, and Russia as a benevolent actor in world affairs. Most importantly, RT framed itself as an underdog in a battle for truth in the murky world of global politics and war.
A profile of RT in The New Statesmen in 2013 noted how “Russian journalists fought back” by aggressively portraying Russia’s humanitarian intentions and citing examples of American news stifling or suppressing Russian perspectives:
Some western channels, particularly Fox News, were hardly less biased in covering the war. RT repeatedly aired a Fox interview in which two South Ossetians from California tried to thank the Russian government but were cut off by the anchor. Fox’s many detractors could watch the take-downs on YouTube, which started carrying RT in 2007. Simonyan’s channel began to win a whole new audience.
This period in RT’s development illustrates how a war over framing international conflict led RT its unique style of international journalism: flashy, daring, brash, anti-establishment, populist, etc. But RT also made the battle over news narratives a part of their coverage. The channel’s turn to media criticism appealed to the growing suspicions of media bias and offered RT’s coverage as a way to escape corporate media.
Was the Georgian war a turning point for the coverage and tone of RT? Perhaps. By challenging the coverage of Western news media giants, RT tapped into the growing suspicion of American news media. There was a market for those suspicious of mainstream journalism. Much like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes filled a market for conservative opinion with Fox News a decade earlier, RT saw an audience they could develop by portraying the channel as the uncorrupted truth-teller in a world of insider politics and patriotic stooges . . . all while thumbing their nose at authorities. Russia has continued to play media critic, self-righteously dressing down UK regulators for violating RT’s right to broadcast after complaints.
By portraying itself as the “anti-Fox,” RT made the meta-turn to commentary on news as an extension of the critique of America and American leadership. By the 2010s, RT had embraced the anti-establishment tone reminiscent of a sarcastic teenager rebelling against the overbearing father. The host of RT’s TheResidentroams the streets of New York, interviewing passers by about their suspicions of media. “Special reports” have a cynical edge as the reporter reviews the considerable number of U.S. military and intelligence officials on MSNBC’s payroll for news commentary.
For a bulk of the 20th century, professional broadcast journalism organized public opinion guided by “professional” standards of newsworthiness and neutral reporting (Hallin 1994; Schudson 2001). Professional, neutral reporting was well suited to the needs of journalism of the network and early cable era. U.S. networks wanted to speak to mass audiences and maximize advertising revenues. As a business model, it was best not to offend any region of the country. Informative, factual news about matters of broad interest was a safe bet for these networks. Walter Cronkite intended to speak to and for a nation.
Though producers have moved online, the demand for neutral reporting remains, somewhat like a vestigial tail. The cultural expectation of neutrality and objectivity that underlie common public criticism of newsrooms works well for RT. The expectation has outlasted the conditions that made it possible during the “gatekeeper” era of professional news. I’m reminded of Max Boot’s concern over conspiracy theory in the digital age:
“The online world is a post-truth space where there are no undisputed facts, only competing narratives, and even the most deranged claims (e.g., QAnon) can aggregate an audience.”
This is when RT’s motto makes the most sense as effective branding: Question More. The network doubles down on this outsider credibility in both branding and self-referential reporting. When regulators or critics accuse the channel of bias in coverage, RT’s apologists can reasonably retort that all media are biased. That all news is framed in narrative. But this sidesteps the real question . . . Is RT offering criticism of journalistic failures or a merchant of doubt availing itself of the ultimate unmooring of truth in public discourse? How might Russian interests be served by a post-truth American public?
Letters of recommendation can be a crucial part of applications to jobs and graduate schools. A detailed letter from a former instructor is particularly helpful in applying to graduate programs. Requesting letters involves a few steps that let the potential writer know who you are, where you are going and why you deserve a recommendation.
Each potential recommender may have specific needs to write for you, but here is a general guide to requesting letters.
Prepare documents that will support the recommendation (statement of purpose, cover letter, Resume/CV, research interests, career plans, a paper composed for the instructor). These help the potential writer identify your strengths and academic/career direction.
In your initial request, briefly detail the programs to which you are applying and remind the potential writer of relevant experiences in their class (e.g. a piece of work you’ve done for/with them).
Ask potential recommenders if they need additional material to write for you. Some recommendation writers request descriptions of the programs to which you are applying, for example. Offer links to the programs to which you are applying.
In large classes, reach out to your GSI (Graduate Student Instructor) or TA (Teaching Assistant) for the recommendation. Strong recommendations reflect deep familiarity with the student, and the lead professor may not have enough experience with your work to write the kind of letter you will need. A GSI or TA with whom you have a good relationship can offer such details.
Ask about and use the letter-delivery system preferred by the potential recommender and/or admissions committee (Interfolio; direct emails from the institution, etc.).
Many professors advise that you waive the right to see the recommendation. Doing so gives the letter more credibility in the eyes of admissions committees.
Give your writer 6 weeks notice before the recommendation due date.
The first email to your potential recommender should be fairly brief (1-2 paragraphs) and offer enough information for the instructor to recall your work as a student. A link to major papers or projects you did for the course is often useful for both purposes. The reminder of who you are could also be a brief reference to a particularly memorable conversation during office hours or other unique experience with the instructor.
The point of the recommendation letter is to make you stand out from other applicants. Your recommendation request should do the same. Additional guidance from Cal’s career center can be found here.
Rioter from Knoxville: I got maced [wipes away tears, breathlessly]
Interviewer: You got maced. And what happened? You were trying to go inside the Capitol?
Rioter from Knoxville: [Indignantly] Yeah! I made it like a foot inside and they pushed me out and the maced me!
Interviewer: What is your name and where are you from?
Rioter from Knoxville: My name is Elizabeth; I’m from Knoxville, Tennessee!
Interviewer: And why did you want to go in?
Rioter from Knoxville: We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution!
Attendees of Trump’s rally-turned-riot stormed the Capitol at the direction of the president. They attempted to stop Congressional certification of Joe Biden’s electoral win and the peaceful transition of power that has defined American government for centuries. But many rioters seemed unprepared considering the scale of their ambitions. The apparent surprise of the rioter from Knoxville at law enforcement’s response suggests many involved were animated by visions of revolution different from that of their flak-jacketed comrades. For rioters like Elizabeth, January 6th was a genteel, candy-coated revolution, closer to carnival than coup. She and others were Revolution Tourists.
To be sure, many Capitol rioters were prepared for violence. Video footage shows the Capitol steps packed with men “kitted up” in tactical gear. They came in flak jackets, clutched zip-tie hand restraints and assault fashion reminiscent of Call of Duty. White men between 18 and 50 can be seen kicking doors down, busting windows and beating a fallen Capitol police officer because they believe conspiracies of election fraud promoted by Republican political leaders and far-right media.
Others storming the building, by contrast, seemed more prepared for festivities than ferocity. Live scenes at the Capitol had a jamboree atmosphere of Revolution Tourism. Amused and casually dressed middle-aged men took selfies with fellow rioters and Capitol officers. In plumes of tear gas, a well-dressed woman carefully lifts her stylish purse through a shattered window frame. A group of twenty-somethings scurried up and down climbing ropes like outdoor enthusiasts on a sporty weekend getaway. Once inside the building, many who had forcibly entered the broken doors of the building then formed orderly lines as they meandered through Statuary Hall within the velvet roped walkway.
These Tourist Revolutionaries were not dressed for violent insurrection. Nor were they happy patriots there to admire institutions of democracy, as Republican apologists have suggested. They were dressed for a Trump rally, and it is not clear that these festival-goers fully understood the gravity of their choices on that day. This does not make them less culpable. It does, however, make their actions more frightening. Elizabeth from Knoxville’s view of revolution speaks to the privilege and ignorance underlying the danger of a shallow and mythical version of the American Revolution and American politics in general.
Elizabeth became a meme after complaining to a reporter that she was maced when trying to break into the Capitol complex. The preposterousness of a “revolutionary” expressing indignation after being repulsed triggered the usual mockery online. Georgia Aspinall at Grazia has cautioned against such mockery. “The sheer delusion of this woman, so bold in her conviction that this was necessary, so confused and upset that police stopped her from attacking the US democracy . . . is terrifying.”
Aspinall is right. Beneath the easily mocked sense of entitlement is a deeply confused sense of American history and politics. Yes, the premise of election fraud that animated these crowds in the first place was a lie. The more pressing issue Aspinall sees is how Elizabeth from Knoxville was unable to recognize the difference between democratic and anti-democratic political action.
What should we make of the throngs who were not participating in a sort of serious-minded coup attempt like their flak-jacketed comrades? The insurrectionists in piano scarves and colorful tailgate facepaint suggest that these tourist revolutionaries saw the trip to DC (from New Jersey, Knoxville, Arkansas) as a symbolic performance of American independence and a rejection of elites cartoonishly painted for them by reckless political rhetoric and a post-Truth media ecosystem that greedily amplifies that which inflames.
The misunderstanding of American history that animated rioters is at the root of the conflict. Tourist Revolutionaries, energized by the symbolism of “1776,” confuse the tyranny of the monarch King George with the compromises of democracy and shared self-governance with fellow Americans. The carnival sense of patriotic revolt allowed rioters to happily pose for photos in the act of theft without a sense of the criminality of stealing. The carnival version of 1776 paints revolution as revelry and confuses protest with sedition.
If Elizabeth from Knoxville’s shock is genuine, it suggests that many of the rioters cannot understand that they have broken laws. In their minds, they should have the privilege to trespass because the Capitol is public property, their property. Elizabeth may have wondered how patriots could be on the wrong side of the law.
Rioters like Elizabeth have a mythical and sanitized understanding of American history, one that has lost the gritty and horrifying elements of revolution. The amputated limbs. The slumped bodies after British soldiers fired into an angry Boston crowd. The newspaper editors who were jailed for insulting colonial governors. The tyranny of princely rule without representation. These dirty and gangrenous parts of the American Revolution are missing from Elizabeth’s version of American history. As a tourist, Elizabeth understood threatening lawmakers as an extension of patriotic citizenship.
Tourist Revolutionaries on display during the Trump riot were engaging in a symbolic act that reenacts a mythical history of the country. Like visitors to a Renaissance fair or audiences at Medieval Times Dinner Theater, they did not expect authorities to respond to illegal occupation of Federal buildings with force. Her indignation speaks volumes about how symbols of political rhetoric can obscure the very real danger of “doing revolution.” Being met with force is surprising to those participating in Tourism Revolution. They complain of injury as if slapped by Goofy at Disneyland.
This was a symbolic act for a substantial number of Trump supporters who were misled by President Trump to believe they were fighting for the preservation of America rather than the subversion of electoral democracy to prop up the president’s personal ambitions.
Tourist Revolution performs a celebratory but incomplete understanding of American history, one all Americans share at Fourth of July parties and fireworks displays standing in for the red glare of actual warfare. The symbolic rhetoric that brought Elizabeth and others to the nation’s capital became literal, but it is not clear that many rioters understood the difference. This should come as no surprise in a political-media system unable to sort myth and symbol from reality for citizens. As these symbols slip from protest speech to seditious action, we can see that our fractured media is not just a quirk of social media. It is a threat to democratic governance more menacing than any pitchfork or pipebomb.
“Climate skepticism has become a tenet of populism — a revolt against elitist scientists and liberal politicians seeking excuses for social and economic control. The denial of climate change has become a cultural signifier, the policy equivalent of a gun rack in a truck.”
“I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ . . . What they hear is we’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”
-Paypal co-founder and Trump supporter, Peter Thiel
Political polarization has shifted how Americans self-identify, and much of this recent transformation stems from symbolic forms of civic engagement. The political animosity that has a stranglehold on politics – harbingers of civil war for a worried few – suggests Americans are increasingly reliant on politics of symbols to frame our personal identities and interpret power in 21st century American life.
This is frustrating for journalists who wring their hands over “fact-free” discourse or new media misinformation. And it’s understandable given journalism is ostensibly a fact-based profession. But the mainstream press may have a problem of being naively literal in an increasingly symbolic political world.
Much of the journalistic marveling, some quite condescending, is in response to Trump’s voter base. To understand the disconnect between professional journalists and Trump’s base, we should recognize how a marriage of entertainment and political culture fueled his political rise. Television fandoms from the entertainment culture -The Apprentice, World Wrestling Entertainment- took the small step into the public sphere. As Trump’s familiar face from entertainment media moved into political media, the 2016 campaign drew on that television audience.
But it did more than draw voters. It also imported the logics of reality TV. Ratings took on heightened importance. Crowd size became worthy of debate. The political theater took on the carnival atmosphere of a wrestling arena in which voters could organize around the symbols of heroism and villainy. Entertainment culture colonized the political realm and imported the energy and emotion of reality TV.
Part of the entertainment-politics melding is a fuller shift of political reasoning from a messy world of policy details to a clean and easily understood world of symbolic narratives in which moral assertion displaces analytic nuance. The preference for the digestible world of symbols over factual debate precedes Trump but reached new proportions with his presidency and will likely continue beyond it.
It might be wise to more fully recognize how American politics has become a game of cultural signifiers. And yet, elite newsrooms are unable to recognize the symbolic language of American citizenry. For many, American politics is a game of bipolar brinkmanship dealing in mythic symbols that funnel debate into an either/or dynamic of the two-party system.
We can hear it in casual conversations among the politically like-minded: “I could never date a Republican.” Or in how we regard politically mixed marriage: “I wonder what it is like at THAT dinner table!” In modern America, fathers are more likely to object to daughters bringing home the political opposition than a love interest of a different race. As Iyengar and Westwood put it, “party cues exert powerful effects on nonpolitical judgments and behaviors.” A politics-first identity has subsumed other social roles, and we can see it in reports of estranged family members and politically severed friendships.
Viewing political orientation as a deal-breaker in our romantic lives and wondering at “political miscegenation” underscore how partisan identities have taken a more central role in our broader social lives. Though the democratic ideal says we “should” vote according to tangible identities of self-interest (a small business owner or cancer survivor or blue-collar worker) we increasingly rely on artificially binary identities crafted by a symbol systems of commercial media and political elites.
Today, we are less likely to participate in politics as ourselves. Instead, we participate as “real Republicans” or “true progressives.” We act as representatives of packaged ideologies rather than individuals directly voting for a better life through self-governance. I suspect the “symbolification” of political culture is both a symptom and a cause in this process.
Reporting QAnon: a symbolic politics
What are the consequences when American politics, already prone to partisan theater, embraces an affective world of symbolism? To what degree do polarized cultural identities in the political realm necessitate the conversion of policy battles into symbols or battles over mere symbols?
These are ponderous questions, but I can map out some potential fallout.
First, the increasing power of symbolic communication in high politics has consequences for traditional understandings of democratic politics that are built into professional news frames.
Symbolification distances public debate from the actual machinery of government. Instead of addressing the confusing details of healthcare or the tax system, symbols stand in with broad caricatures of the issue and the political agents that represent them. Symbolic politics offers a cast of evil-doers and heroic figures fighting for politically vague but symbolically meaningful goals.
The degree to which policy debates devolve into symbolic representation is a fair approximation of the degree to which citizens directly control their government. A shallow symbolic system can replace details of party platforms or voting records. As a result, citizen judgement is one step removed.
Second, importing the symbols of entertainment culture may exacerbate partisan divisions. As differing symbolic systems ensconce and separate American subcultures, unifying themes of nationality weaken. Participation in politics through symbolic representations allows the public to address very different worlds with little hope of solving the very real social problems facing the nation. A common creed that has historically shored up American identity fragments along the fault lines of confirmation biases. The symbolic center cannot hold.
Finally, the reliance on symbols to navigate American politics plays into the vagaries and smoky mysticism of conspiracy mongers. Why would an American raise doubts about the American moon landing? Taken literally, the claim is absurd. Taken symbolically, it captures a broad suspicion that government is deceitful and so power-hungry that it would orchestrate a grand public deception to achieve “its” goals. The specific theory that the moon landing was faked does not itself need to be true as a symbolic representation of a calloused, elite government manipulating the public. The conspiracy is “true” even if Lance and Buzz actually took that one small step.
This is why literary semiotics may be a better tool for understanding American politics than political science or a burst of polls calculated, correlated, crunched and recrunched. The role of symbols in movements inspired by QAnon illustrates how current tools of of professional journalism produce blindspots in political analysis.
QAnon: reading conspiracies as semiotic politics
“. . . conspiracy theory [is[ an entertaining narrative form, a populist expression of a democratic culture, that circulates deep skepticism about the truth of the current political order throughout contemporary culture.” (Fenster 1999, pg. xiii).
Politics is rather boring in the details. That’s why C-Span is not a ratings hit. Watching senators argue policy in front of an empty chamber is mind-numbing and, frankly, uninformative for anyone but DC insiders or beat reporters.
By contrast, online corners of conspiratorial thought like QAnon give gripping narrative structure to the sense of powerlessness in modern America. From the electoral college to tax policy, American democracy has features that are glaringly elite. QAnon merely gives a narrative to a fundamental truth felt by many Americans: powerlessness.
What is QAnon? The group is known for its wildest assertion that a cabal of Satan-worshipping elites control key government and media operations. This secret organization is engaged in child sex crimes at a massive scale. In some versions, these elites consume children’s blood to extend life or otherwise sustain themselves.
QAnon researchers have found no coherent, single narrative that defines the movement. Under the umbrella of QAnon, there are factions who have “different ideas about who the cabal is and what their ultimate goals are . . . but they are united in the belief that everything is a lie and the order needs to be destroyed.” It is more a patchwork of unorthodox explanations of power in America.
Taken literally, the conspiracy movement fails tests of evidence required by professional journalists as well as classrooms and the courts. If we de-emphasize the narrative specifics and read these beliefs as metaphor (don’t take it literally but take it seriously), the basic structure of the theory is true. As metaphor, the narrative is a archetypal story of the powerful preying on the weak.
In fact, wealth gaps and power divisions do define modern America. Two-thirds of U.S. senators’ net worth exceeds $1 million. As Pew researchers note, income growth in recent decades has tilted to upper-income households and the middle class has shrunk. Nearly three-quarters of all employees live paycheck-to-paycheck in 2020. The popular vote often fails to elect presidents, defying the public will for arcane legalistic reasons. Given these conditions, the myth created by “Q” can make sense emotionally even if it fails intellectually.
We can understand the more outrageous conspiracy theories as a consequence of America’s crippled ability to recognize class conflict. If a group of people don’t have a language of class-based oppression -e.g. “haves and have nots”- they turn to alternative explanations for the inequality they feel. Pedophilia stands in as a morally charged symbol for victimization.
On the other side of this growing economic disparity, the investor class buys and sells holdings according to the logic of financial capital. If their children don’t earn admission to prestigious schools, the elite bribe their way into East and West coast schools.
This is why QAnon functions a redemption narrative comparable to Christian religious movements. It involves faith in something deeper than facts show us and belief without clear evidence. However far-fetched, conspiracy paints a symbolic picture that explains the sense of powerlessness felt by many.
At once, “Q” offers a way to resist that oppressive force. It provides comfort by painting a world of stark good and evil in which clear heroes work to save the faithful and punish the villainous. Adherents decode and scrutinize the meaning of Q’s pronouncements like ecclesiastical priests engaged in Biblical hermeneutics. Retweeting Q or interpreting Q’s “drops” becomes an act of defiance by speaking truth to nefarious but poorly understood power in America. The congregants evangelistically hope to reveal the truth to nonbelievers and instigate a “great awakening.”
A symbolic analysis of culture might produce more useful maps for navigating this strain of American politics, and it certainly reveals more than the quantitative approach taken by poll-obsessed news networks that treat elections like horse-races. As symbolism displaces more direct citizen engagement with matters of government, the assumptions of political journalism become less reflective of actual political processes and opinion formation in American life.
The growing wedge between mainstream news and parts of the American public stems from these divergent epistemologies. Traditional journalism functions as a gatekeeper, filtering the non-factual out of public discourse. The growing part of the American public who engage with politics though symbolic narratives see this realist epistemology as censorship and oppression. News perpetuates a fiction that numbers are an accurate representation of reality. Journalists, true to their professional training, dismiss counterfactual political thoughts with a myopic literalism.
But the political class only shoots itself in the foot when it dismisses symbolic discourse. New York Times columnist, David Brooks, argues that “personal contact” is the way to “[reduce] the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it.” Journalists may not be able to personally reach out to the alienated, but newsrooms can certainly pay greater attention to the symbolic dimensions of political culture and better understand the reality buried in the myths that shape the “paranoid style” of American politics.
Symbols have and will always play a role in political movements. Just look at the flags arrayed during the Capitol riots. It is uncertain, however, if 21st century journalism can develop analysis that both maintains fact-based discourse and productively accounts for the emerging centrality of symbols in political life. But a wholesale shift to symbolic public discourse threatens to unmoor democratic participation from meaningful self-governance.
James Carey’s most famous work is a criticism of Communication Studies’ over-reliance on a social science view of communication. Early social science on mass media tended to rely on a model of communication that was pretty mechanistic.
For the scientifically-minded, communication was information transmitted between a sender and a receiver. The classic formulation was who said what to whom with what effect. Social scientists, skeptical of those claiming media was fundamentally reshaping society, designed studies to get at that last part about the effects. Did propaganda win wars? Could violence in films make a population more aggressive or criminal? The quantitative research they conducted found surprisingly little evidence that media had direct, powerful influence over individuals.
Over time, these findings accumulated and became known as the “Limited Effects” school of thought. Social science methods found minimal influence of media so consistently, one researcher proclaimed the field of mass communication research had been exhausted. Everyone could hang up their clipboards and go home.
But many researchers were not satisfied mass media had been fully understood. The relationship between media and society seemed more complicated and the effects more profound than quantitative research could reveal.
Offering the “ritual” approach as an alternative, Carey sought to explore new angles on the role of media in human life. His perspective is rooted in history and asks us to consider the communal aspects of communication. Perhaps media are more than information transmission. Instead of viewing humans as information receptacles, perhaps we can focus on how media brings people together, how it can bind a nation and create communities of shared belief.
As a word, communication shares roots with other words like community and communion. Its Latin origins meant both to impart and to share. While most communication and media scholars were focused on how information was imparted or “transmitted,” Carey focused on the idea of sharing. Sharing, after all, is how culture is created. Carey wanted us to examine the idea of shared culture and media’s role in it, as did a generation of cultural theorists who followed him.
Carey was skeptical that social science was able to effectively study this role of media. The transmission view of social science ignored some of the most important functions of media. Carey was a religious man, and careful readers can sense this in his writing. He sometimes speaks of communication in nearly mystical terms. Communication’s role in forming communities, he suggests, is ritualistic in a fashion . . . not unlike church.
In mainstream Christian churches, the congregation reads a common book (the Bible). Reading the Bible is a way to confirm an ordered worldview and share that with a community of belief. Very few church-goers are there for the information about Jesus. They are there not to learn new facts about the life of Jesus as much as to hear familiar stories and share in a narrative about their lives. They share faith, not information.
Carey argues that the newspaper of his time (and the news sites today) perform a similar function. In America and other Western nations, reading the news is to “subscribe” to a democratic worldview. When we think about the news, we engage in a collective enterprise and endorse shared values. Congregants become worshipers when in church. People become citizens when reading and talking about the news. What insights about media can we gain by seeing communication through the ritual lens rather than mere transmission?
This “communion” function of media goes beyond news. Communities taking shape around a variety of cultural identities. K-Pop stans, gardening enthusiasts, comic-book collectors . . . the internet has allowed almost any identity to find a group. Media make these identities possible. That’s what Carey find so mystical about communication. It is the basis for shared culture. It is how “the miracle of social life is pulled off.”
The cultural approach advocated by Carey, British cultural theorists and others also called attention to the role of media in distributing social power. Representation, they argued, was instrumental in structuring multicultural society by portraying cultures, race and ethnicity. Often, these portrayals positioned some groups as outsiders, threats and deviants. They are positioned as “others” in contrast to a “mainstream” constructed for the viewing audience.
Scholars in the cultural studies tradition have looked at film and television as sources of knowledge about the world for audiences. Examples of work on media representation are now near as prominent as the social science tradition. Shani Orgad (2015), for example, says the “new visibility” in global media means various identities compete for social power by managing how the group is represented in media. Studies of media portrayals fill journals, populate conference panels and appear in popular news. The Media Education Foundation alone features dozens of documentaries addressing the representation of Arabs in early cinema, Black Americans in television, and women in advertising. The study of media and identity is tied to culture and, as culture changes and forms of representation multiply, identities will be created, maintained and adjusted in too many ways for cultural studies researchers to keep up.
If Carey is right, media play a significant role in shaping the shared reality we call culture. Shaping that reality, it also influences the unequal distribution of social power along class, gender and racial lines. Analysis of how symbolic processes construct these identities and hierarchies will be of enduring (if lamentable) value if we are to better understand the relationship between media and society.
“It’s the Superbowl of things on C-SPAN at Eight-thirty in the morning.”
Robert Mueller and media critic Neil Postman have something in common. They are skeptical of television. Truth, for Postman, was fundamentally shaped by the medium of expression. In the old-timey age of print (i.e., Lincoln-Douglas debates), Americans thought in longer, more contemplative ways. How a society debates what is true and right, Postman claimed, is fundamentally shaped by the dominant medium of the time.
Under TV, our access to truth passes through a technicolored prism. Postman was concerned that we would lose the kind of thinking that made democracy work. TV’s flurry of sound bites and images threatened to shallow the American mind. Mueller’s testimony shows the special counsel’s own Postmanesque preference for the printed word as a means to determining truth.
What we call “watching television” is supposedly on the way out. TV viewing has declined by 3 to 4% per year since 2012, according to the Reuters Institute at Oxford. At once, our use of online video has increased dramatically. This begs the question: Have we stopped watching or do we simply access TV in different ways?
Of course, how we watch TV has changed considerably since Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 1980s. TV beams from smaller screens. It’s more individual. We watch it in office jobs, on the train and on demand. But the basic practice of “watching TV” remains unchanged. We still rely on sound bites, rapid images and visual narratives to understand the world. In many ways, TV just got small enough to come with us when we left the house.
TV in the 1980s shares at least one feature of its more mobile version today. TV always prefers to trade in spectacle. A medium focused on satisfying visual needs of passive audiences relies on spectacle. The problem for Postman and his bookish devotees is that spectacle only gets at certain truths: those that can be abbreviated and visually dramatized. Postman feared that the transition to a televisual society meant making everything “silly.” The loss of print culture, he reasoned, meant losing access to the forms of truth only available through the deliberation of reading and writing.
Which brings us back to Mueller.
The Special Cousel’s testimony revealed more about his faith in reading than the misdeeds of the president. Channeling the grumpy spirit of Postman, the Special Counsel refused to even read aloud from his own report as if the truth of the report could only reside in the printed word. Mueller referred committee members to the written work of the Special Council’s office at least 20 times. He welcomes the public to read the report, but he would not willingly act it out for television audiences.
Mueller’s stonewalling was frustratingly beautiful. He knew he was being displayed to an American audience. Predictably, partisans would try to coax out a visually anchored statement about Trump’s guilt or innocence.
He was painfully aware that his questioners, particularly Democrats, wanted to move the information in the 400+ page print report to modern American television, from inert and colorless words on a page to more vivid descriptions directly from the investigators face.
Clearly the former FBI head is trained to avoid partisan warfare and would not “perform” the report for a 24-Hour news channel industry. But, Mueller’s preference for the written version of his report ran counter to the hope members of the House had for his appearance.
These attempts to spread the Mueller Report from print-based audience to television-based audience indicate how much influence the political class believes TV to possess. The plan seemed to be to televise the report targeted a non-reading public with the hope that reproducing the same information in a visual format would reanimate public discourse and foster public discussions that undermine Trump’s support among swing voters.
Camera ready Republicans and Democrats were trying to enlist television’s storytelling power. They wanted something concisely stated before a camera. They want punch. They want the six-second sound bite. Mueller knows this, and you can hear it in every reluctant stutter of his testimony. The printed word should speak for itself.
Democrats needed to sway non-reading, politically active swing voters that have a reasonable likelihood of either voting Democrat or staying at home on election day. But the strategy also relied on a camera-friendly hearing that animated the sins of the presidency. For better or worse, Mueller’s print bias did not allow politicians to use the abbreviating power of TV.
It remains to be seen if print can still capture the American imagination or if Postman was right and the American public, atrophied by decades of spectacle politics, believes only what it sees.
I interviewed Ali to get a sense for the kind of life Iraqis experienced after US armed forces forcibly removed Saddam Hussein from power and installed the Coalition Provisional Government. The big moments of Ali’s early life offer a glimpse into the violence and uncertainty that defined Iraq during this period.
Ali’s story paints a picture behind the headlines on American news and the history of recent US involvement in the Middle East.
The US intervened in Iraq in 2003. The Bush administration had warned Americans that Saddam Hussein possessed and planned to use weapons of mass destruction. The invasion was called Operation Iraqi Freedom. After the invasion, US forces and independent inspectors failed to find WMD, and the rationale for invading Iraq shifted. Hussein, pro-war US officials now reasoned, was a ruthless dictator who endangered his people and deprived Iraqis of basic human rights. But in the wake of Hussein’s death and the end of his Baathist regime, Iraq seemed to spiral into even greater peril. Sectarian violence erupted as suppressed tribal and religious division in the country competed for power.
Many questions still linger in discussions of US adventurism in the Middle East. The war in Afghanistan, by and large, had broad support. Al Qaeda had operated in Afghanistan to launch the attacks of September 11th. But the invasion of Iraq met greater public skepticism. WMDs were unconfirmed. Our goals for Iraq, vague. Controlling the country’s vast oil reserves seemed to be the only plausible rationale, though no American official would admit this.
Did the US intervention help the Iraqi people? What kind of country did the US help to create by removing Saddam Hussein?
In 2007, the year Ali and his family escaped Iraq, 26,078 civilians would die. Between 112,017 – 122,438 civilian died from violence by March 2013. Other estimates put the number at 174,000 deaths. Researchers at Johns Hopkins put the total number of war-related deaths at 650,000. Regardless, it is clear that the removal of Saddam Hussein increased sectarianism and, according to Ali, produced a political extremism fanned by a media system no longer under Iraqi government control.
Ali’s memories of nightly bombs and gunfire, the threats to his father’s life for having worked with the Americans, Ali’s time under a false name as a refugee in Syria and Jordan and his eventual move to America in 2008 are stories worthy of a biopic. America ultimately became a place of refuge for Ali and his family, despite occasional slurs, like the time someone asked Ali felt about his Uncle Bin Laden dying. Still, America provided Ali with a safer environment and educational options. But, as an American, I can’t help wondering what role “America” had in forcing the Muksed family to flee in the first place.
At times Ali’s story is harrowing; at others it is a powerful illustration of what it means to be displaced by violence and political conflict. Above all, Ali’s is an immigrant story. And one that ends happily, by and large. Though American foreign policy may have made Ali a refugee, America also gave Ali a place to grow and improve himself through higher education. But the details of Ali’s story also raise questions about the changes in Iraqi life brought about by the $2 Trillion dollar Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Here is Ian’s audio interview with Ali, an Iraqi refugee attending college in Midwestern America.
Ian spoke with Ali to better understand the experience of those living in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s removal from power in 2003. The political instability and partisan media that followed had a profound impact on Iraqi society, triggering mass migrations from conflict zones. Ali’s family was one of thousands displaced by the chaos in the wake of US intervention.
Because his father assisted US authorities after the war, Ali’s family fled sectarian violence to Syria and, eventually, the American Midwest. Ali’s early life offers a more intimate view of the conflict than the occupation captured by US news. His childhood, marked by nightly gunfire, lawlessness and migration, highlights the human costs of American wars.
Since 2016, mainstream news has fixated on technological explanations of political extremism. Article after article foregrounds technology to explain political change and, specifically, the rise of the American right. However, when we focus on technology as a cause for social change, it becomes easy to lose sight of the social world we wanted to explain in the first place. This is especially true of current debates about rightwing extremist in the US.
As violent and hateful politics in the US become more visible, the internet has also taken root as an instrument of popular communication. Given the seismic change introduced by information technologies, it makes sense to ask what role new media play in the spread of the alt-right or neo-Nazi thought. The editorial board of TheNew York Times recently took up this tech-as-catalyst narrative, pointing to social media as an agent of negative social and political change. The board argued that . . .
the fundamental design of social media sometimes exacerbates the problem. It rewards loyalty to one’s own group, providing a dopamine rush of engagement that fuels platforms like Facebook and YouTube, as well as more obscure sites like Gab or Voat. The algorithms that underpin these networks also promote engaging content, in a feedback loop that, link by link, guides new audiences to toxic ideas.
There is certainly some truth that media have a role in creating group identity around ideologies, but blaming the technology for the appeal these ideas shifts attention away from more obvious spurs for social change.
Let’s break down the argument. According to the Times, impersonal agents of the network (algorithms) lead a child-like citizenry (audiences) to ideas that are not good for them or the society in which they exist (toxic). By this reasoning, removing the communication tools that link the radically-minded would undermine the spread of rightist ideologies if not rightist movements themselves. The problem is that this tech focus does not adequately account for the social anxiety that these radical beliefs seem to answer.
An analogy to online advertising helps make this point. Innumerable cookies and web trackers follow us online and collect behavioral data to create predictive consumer profiles. Thus, a woman between 16 and 34 who searches lotions for stretchmarks has a higher probability of buying, for example, prenatal vitamins. The algorithm serves the woman the “Superbaby” vitamin ad. Though she did not intend to buy the vitamins, the targeted marketing works and she puts the item in her cart. Here we see algorithms at work. But did the algorithm prompt the woman to buy the vitamins or did the technology facilitate a preexisting need? Like pregnancy, the social problems that allow extremism to make sense to online audiences similarly preexist the technology that serves it up.
This is why I argue we need to correct the technology bias in addressing the relationship between extremism and online communities. We can do so by inverting the implied causality in arguments that blame new media. Did technology lead to the rise of rightwing extremism or did rightwing extremism seek communication tools to link the like-minded into communities? The NY Times editorial board seems to believe Gab and Voat fell from technology heaven fully formed. In reality, Gab’s creator was all-too-human. Social conditions created the technology to meet a political need that preexisted the technology. If we want solutions to American radicalism, we need to pay more attention to social conditions that make extremism a legitimate option rather than the secondary question of how it gets around the internet.
The focus on tech is not without merit, but the questions social researchers take up should ask why such toxic ideologies have appeal. “The algorithm did it” is insufficient and, in fact, undermines finding clear answers. Furthermore, technological explanations for why people hold political beliefs may function as a sort of optimistic fairy-tale about the inherent goodness of the United States. Taken to a logical conclusion, technology arguments about extremism assert that if not for Facebook, Americans would be more tolerant, less anxious about change and more trusting of government. The focus on technology allows us to believe that Americans are only temporarily “off course.” American neo-Nazism is a mistake that better algorithms and artificial intelligence can correct.
This is a predictable mistake when technology dominates our search for answers to social problems. Excessive focus on a technological explanation suggests that Americans are not fundamentally xenophobic, anti-Semitic or tribal. But this may not be true. In reality, the mélange of conspiracy theories (Soros is a hidden political puppetmaster; an Islamic center is an effort to institute Sharia law in the US, etc.) stems from a sense of social powerlessness and a loss of local American communities. Technology only offers the idea. The social context makes far-fetched or conspiratorial explanations of that powerlessness attractive.
Blaming the algorithm can also function as a sort of ignorant optimism. It can become a story about an American population misled by technology run amok. But this explanation of American radicalism too quickly pushes aside obvious explanations for the growing rejection of the status quo. Middle class incomes have stagnated for decades even as US gross domestic production has grown. American wealth, in general, has become concentrated in the hands of not just the 1% but the top 0.1% of citizens. Healthcare in the US is the most costly in the developed world while for-profit insurance companies avoid taking on sick customers and pay out as little as is legally required. Racial, religious and political tensions undercut the unifying story of American society, what David Brooks called the “American Creed.” Globalization has restructured the national economy, prompting the collapse of entire communities and ways of life, leading to misdirected anger at immigrants and ethnic minorities. The focus on technology can obscure these traditional triggers for extremism and tribalism.
In short, revolutionary dissatisfaction with life in America does not need an algorithm. At best, the technological explanations illustrate how ideologies circulate according to the network logics of the commercial companies that profit from their circulation. At worst, they distract us from actual reasons such ideologies are growing. To understand why these ideas take root in the minds of people, we must focus on the lived experiences of Americans that give such “toxic” ideas traction.