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If citizens don’t pay for what they read, someone else will
Are independent thinking, intellectual integrity and credibility overrated?
Healthy democracies rely on informed citizenry. The more versed the citizens, the better informed their choices of representatives and policies become. At times, decision-makers go awry, either by following popular sentiment even when they know it is wrong (populism), or by putting their personal interests ahead of public good (corruption), or by doing both.
To become informed, citizens usually rely on intellectuals, who — for their part — use mass media to offer independent thinking and comment on the worthiness of officials and policies. Acting as a public institution that speaks truth to power, taking the side of citizens, and keeping state officials in check, all gave the media its epithet: The fourth estate.
America’s founding fathers were top intellectuals whose debate helped shape the nation, but it was a debate by thinkers whose income did not depend on their opinion. Had the founders lived in our day and age, they would have had to worry about whether their honest opinion might have depressed their businesses, and would have had to modify their positions accordingly. President George Washington’s retirement, at a time he could have certainly served a few more terms, set the best precedent on how public servants should always put country before personal ego and interests.
Over the past century, there were times when America’s mass media served their role as fourth estate. By monopolizing the ad business, newspapers, radio and TV could afford to print independent opinion, even if unpopular. But as TV channels mushroomed, each focusing on a niche, entertainment won the bigger chunk and left the news with little revenue. Hence news media started competing for eyeballs through scoops and coverage of controversies. Sensationalism turned American politics into an ongoing competition of mudslinging, with newspapers and TV channels taking sides.
Hyper partisanship swept the market as different businesses started catering to different tribes. There are pillow companies whose owner appears in an ad wearing a cross, and there are pillows that market their climate-friendly production. Pillows have become Conservative and Liberal, and so have grocery chains, TV networks and almost everything else. By allowing for the creation of mega eco chambers, the internet and social media made separation between tribes — and animosity — easier.
Hyper partisanship kills independent thinking. When each media outlet, think tank and university is jockeying for partisan consumers, intellectuals are forced to pick a lane because there is clearly no space left for unaffiliated thinkers.
Your truly is fiscally and socially Liberal. Capitalism is the best economic system, but like every other system — including democracy — has to have checks and balances, or else, it can go rogue and hurt people. That is why I believe that government should use progressive taxation as a tool to (slightly) redistribute wealth and to (slightly) narrow socioeconomic gaps. I believe workers should be unionized, or else maximum profit will suppress labor wages to the maximum. Owners have the power and influence of their capital to keep the bigger chunk of revenue to themselves, and it is only fair for workers to use the power of unionizing to fight for a a fair chunk of the same revenue.
As a believer in liberty, I think government should not police what people believe or not believe, who they marry, or how they lead their private lives. The government should, however, intervene to neutralize public space as much as possible to make it welcoming for everyone, theists or non-theist alike. It is true that America borrowed from Judeo-Christian traditions, but that does not make the nation Judaic or Christian, nor it makes it Muslim or Hindu.
In this time and age, my fiscal and social Liberalism means that I should automatically hold White European Man as the source of all evil, both domestically and overseas. But I do not. I think civilizations live by the same rules of evolution and natural selection. Throughout human history, advanced civilizations dominated less developed ones, as both the dominant and the dominated borrowed from one another. European ascendence, over the past five centuries, was not an aberration in human history, but the norm, and such ascendence gave the world its best organizing principles so far.
Individual freedom, aka liberty, and equality are European concepts that enlightened the oppressed — especially the enslaved — and made them demand equal treatment. It is like the Biblical story of Adam not realizing that he was naked until he ate the fruit of wisdom. Before European concepts of equality, each civilization believed that it was God’s favorite, and perceived of other races as inferior. It was the European concepts of liberty and equality that made the enslaved believe in their own worth and equal rights. In other codes, such as Islam, slavery is still permissible until today.
It is unfortunate that the concepts of European enlightenment have yet to sweep the whole world. Until this happens, most of the world will live on older codes that do not believe in democracy, liberty, equality or human rights. As long as this is the case, the globe will continue to live by older rules, one that think “might makes right.” Evil in the world is not because of White European colonials, but because European ideas, which were themselves a distillation of millennia of cross-civilizational human thought, have not yet reached every corner. As long as the world is not as democratic or free, democracies will have to play by the prevailing global rules, and will thus have to maintain a superior military power. Otherwise, enlightenment itself risks being trampled under the feet of autocracies like China, Russia or Iran.
So while I am socially and fiscally Liberal, I am hawkish on foreign policy and opposed to Critical Race Theory and identity politics. This combination puts me at odds with all the available political lanes, and thus, it becomes hard to maintain independence and forces me to do like everybody else: Pick a lane, or change career.
When I was younger, I was taught that the intellectuals’ most important asset is their credibility, an advice that I still take to heart. But because my positions are always at odds with someone, I have always tried to explain my thinking process, and to especially recognize my errors. I thought when people see through your eyes, they will understand where you come from and thus become less combative.
Unfortunately, however Americans and the rest of the world are not interested in the thinking process, but only in results that confirm their own biases. They take arguments that support their conclusions, and use them as firepower against the other tribes. They trash arguments that disagree with their conclusions, not by counter arguing, but by shouting, fighting and calling for boycott of, and punishment for, the intellectual they disagree with.
With the space for independent thinking shrinking to a maximum, writers like me have tried to use social media to rescue some of their independence. This morning, Substack emailed me that I should expect $3.8 in my account. That’s subscription money for my page whose revenue stands at $180 a year. Substack deducts some 20 percent, so my net revenue comes down to $144. Flipping burgers would be a much higher-paying job, especially that in manual work, I do not have to spend on books that I review or media subscriptions to stay on top of the ongoing debate.
When I started my Substack page, I was thinking that the more subscribers it attracts and revenue it generates, the more independent I can become in arguing my points. What I got instead was a flood of free subscribers, and only three paid subscriptions. If readers do not pay for what they read, someone else will, and reader citizens will be goaded in directions that may not necessarily be in their interests, but more in the interest of the media sponsor.
Perhaps intellectuals should turn into politicians and solicit grass root donations to fund their work. But politicians are — by definition — wily, and will say what it takes to bring in donations. If intellectuals go down the same route, like mainstream media has already done, they will become just what they are trying to avoid becoming — propagandists. Perhaps independent thinking, intellectual integrity and credibility are overrated?