The world as village gossip

Submitted by Anon on 14 September, 2007 - 6:10

Will Kate McCann become another Lindy Chamberlain? The only reasonable answer is that we have no way of even making an intelligent guess.

But posing the question, and knowing that we can’t even guess the answer, tell us some important things about the mass media which saturate our world.

Lindy Chamberlain was sentenced to life imprisonment in Australia in 1982 for the murder of her baby daughter Azaria, who had mysteriously vanished one night in August 1980. The chief evidence was blood traces in the family car.

With further tests, it was proved more or less conclusively that Lindy Chamberlain had not murdered Azaria. She was formally cleared in 1988. Probably — though it is rare for dingos to attack humans — a dingo seized and killed Azaria.

It was not just that the court system miscarried. So did public opinion. As the case was pushed by the mass media into almost everyone’s daily conversation, most people, even liberals, democrats, and socialists, came to say that they believed Lindy Chamberlain guilty.

It was partly because Lindy Chamberlain was a strange and unprepossessing character, an adherent of Seventh Day Adventism (a fundamentalist Christian group who believe that the Second Coming of Christ is due any time soon, and insist on the Sabbath being Saturday not Sunday) and wife of an Adventist preacher.

Maybe Kate McCann, apparently a more “mainstream” person, will do better with public opinion. The point is we can’t know; yet we are deluged with pressure from the mass media to deal with the McCann case as with the Chamberlain case — as if we are village-green gossips dealing with a village drama in a society which has not yet developed “abstract”, objective legal procedures.

It is, I think, of a piece with the way politics is covered by the mass media. The media give us very little information on the real political issues which we can and must make judgements about. They give us a flood of personal information — or “information” — about Blair, Brown, Cameron, and the rest, of the sort that might be relevant if we were choosing between them as village elder in a pre-political society.

Probably evolution has hard-wired human brains to conceptualise things most readily on the model of the medium scale — village or clan sized human communities, objects and processes not too big or too small or too fast or too slow to be readily seen, touched, smelt, or tasted.

We can rise above our hard-wiring. That is why science exists. It takes an effort. That is why science is difficult, especially the science of the very big, very small, very fast, or very slow.

To understand society and politics in the proper terms — not as another soap opera, or episode of reality TV — also requires a scientific effort, too. It can be done. It has been done.

Yet there is constant counter-pressure from the mass media and the image-spinners of bourgeois politics. That counter-pressure gains ground in an era, like the present, where the mechanisms that allow for proper objective discussion among the working class of society and politics — lively, structured discussions within trade unions and working-class political parties, a lively working-class press which strives to educate — are shrivelled.

The primary job of socialists is to educate, and that includes educating ourselves to know when we do not know and cannot know.

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