Cultism – The Media Are The Message

America no longer is a Nation of Immigrants as JFK wrote more than 60 years ago.  It’s instead a Nation of Cults.

A cult is a group defined by its religious, spiritual, philosophical, racial, political and/or conspiratorial beliefs … or by a fanatical fervent attachment by its members to a particular person, personality or objective.  Although most often used pejoratively, “cult” is a shorthand expression for a specific set of practices or beliefs held by obsessively-dedicated individuals who immerse themselves in the cult’s avowed – though unproven and generally discredited – alleged certainties, rejecting the realities that exist outside of cult doctrine.  Cultists can believe in the imminent end of the world or in terrorism as the solution to societal problems or in polygamy or the divine right of kings or the infallibility of a cult leader or … anything congruent with the unassailable validity of their belief system.  A well-known 20th Century American cult was the People’s Temple founded and led by Jim Jones.  When Jones’s abusive leadership was threatened by a visit to his Guyana compound by U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, Jones’s followers murdered Ryan.  Jones and the members of his cult then committed suicide.  1,000 people died.

The Jonestown mass suicide in which cult members drank Flavor Aid laced with cyanide gave rise to the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid,” which refers to group acceptance of a fringe idea or a group belief in the powers of a person or a cause despite evidence of its invalidity.  Cult followers who fervently believe in the pronouncements of their cult leaders become Kool-Aid addicts, closing their eyes and ears to contrary evidence.  They continue to drink the Kool-Aid, disdaining freely available information and knowledge, rejecting out-of-hand evidence of their cult’s fallibility inconsistencies.  Stephen Colbert referred to such a fanatical belief system as seduction-by-Truthiness:  “The belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts” (discussed by TLR here).  Truthiness is a cornerstone of cultism.  Colbert’s Truthiness label describes the essence of 21st Century communications …, or, more accurately, communications carried by the media:  The Media Are The Message.

Marshal McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in the 1960s, writing that “all media work us over completely.  They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences, they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”  That is even more true today.  21st Century media’s pervasiveness fosters frequent individual, multi-contextual contacts that lead to attachment and loyalty, both to specific media outlets and to the arguable truths – or Truthinesses – purveyed by those outlets.  Those attachments and loyalties have been magnified by the breadth of multi-media empires that multiply and reinforce messaging, garner large audiences, and foster deep-seated loyalties.  McLuhan’s conclusion 50 years ago was that individuals would become ever-more bound-up with media, invested not solely in their communication mechanisms – addicted to chosen media –, but also as devotees of the messages they convey.  Each personal choice of media becomes the messenger – and consequently determines the message – for each individual.  The message therefore necessarily becomes integrated into the individual’s persona as he or she fits – or is enlisted and molded – into the medium’s culture …, the template for the establishment and growth of a media-led or media-supported cult.  It is in this way that individuals find like-minded cultists with whom, and often only with whom, they consort whether of the same color or the same religion or the same ethnicity or the same philosophy or the same political view.  Media extend human senses and entice individuals into their subjective media-realities.  The inevitable outcome that McLuhan predicted was that media would bring humanity to an industrial analogue of tribal mentality.  He was right …, and America has arrived.

In McLuhan’s lexicon, television is a “cool” medium – it invites increased involvement and decreased description.  Social media are “hot” media because they decrease involvement and increase description and therefore are more easily, and more readily, digested … and therefore more easily accepted without thought or analysis.  Television in the 21st Century has become somewhat “hotter” as media empires have integrated and sought to broaden acceptance by integrating a wide array of media cross-references … as a form of cult promotion.  Television now reinforces the messages it mines from social media, reinforcing social media themes and thereby attracting more eyeballs.  Media in the 21st Century have “heated up,” engaging people at a variety of sensory levels … and coordinating that engagement.  The multiplication of synchronized 21st Century media links has made for more like-minded-personal engagement, accelerating clanism cultism the previously-mentioned “industrial analogue of tribal mentality” and integrating messaging in ways that enhance the fracturing of society.  This is a contrast to using media as a tool to overcome such fracturing (as China does through state-managed and coordinated media).

Cults most often attract disgruntled individuals who disbelieve in a world that, in one way or another, has failed them.  Cults therefore flourish in difficult times …, and Americans today are living in difficult times.  Covid-19, economic hardship, easy access to prescription drugs, and political and social instability provide fertile ground for the propagation of clans tribes cults that thrive on giving their members, and potential recruits, what they want, be it “news” to fit their facts (“fake news”), conspiracy theories to explain away their difficulties, or an alternative reality that meets their need for escape.  “People and politicians are now at each other’s throats to a degree greater than at any time in my 71 years,” Ray Dalio recently wrote, noting that disorder is rising in and between an uncomfortably large number or countries.  “How the U.S. handles its disorder will have profound implications for Americans, others around the world, and most economies and markets,” he added.  This highlights the crucial role of media in America.

That role has not been to teach, educate or inform.  Media don’t thrive on truth … or fact … or righteousness.  Media thrive on profits.  They thrive on  their audiences, and audiences in 21st Century America have become less and less discriminating of fact.  “News” today is not your grandparents’ news.  People care little about what goes on outside their immediate neighborhoods, counties, and States.  Internationally?  Few care at all.  As a result, prescription drug addiction kills Americans in West Virginia …, but that matters little to rural Arizonians.  Rural west Texans dying of Covid-19 because of inadequate medical care possibly serve as an alert to Missourians to take greater care of their own safety measures, but otherwise matters little to them.  Turkey is ethnically cleansing Kurds.  That matters to Americans of Kurdish descent …, but matters little to most other Americans.  What does personally matter is for sons and daughters in the armed forces to return from foreign wars.  Whether that affects America’s national interest matters little to most Americans … if at all.  If “news” doesn’t affect an individual American, the media today pays little attention.  Media are not arbiters of American values.  Shouldn’t they be?

For “news” to sell, it must be provocative.  It must draw viewers, listeners, friends, and comments.  It must attract an audience because audiences translate into profits.  Wacky by definition is provocative.  The wackier, the better.  Wacky draws not only morbid curiosity-seekers …, it draws fellow-wackers, media followers prone to accept whatever their media sources convey.  All they require is reinforcement of their pre-existing fears, prejudices and beliefs … and to join like-minded others who profess the same desire to be led from the wilderness … or to be explained why they’re the chosen ones, the more-deserving ones …, or are those who’ve been taken advantage of by the rich, or the intellectuals, or the whites, or the Jews, or the Deep State, or Satan-worshipping pedophiles….  Seeking a villain, even if there is no villain, is provocative.

Hard news – fact – once mattered.  Not so much today.  Information used to be difficult to find.  Fact even more so.  In the latter part of the 20th Century, media thrived by digging up information and ferreting out fact …, and on the accurate reporting of conclusions.  Inaccurate reporting meant ridicule, legal problems and failure.  Woodward and Bernstein dug deep into the Watergate break-in and filtered their facts carefully.  They were lauded for doing so.  Today is different.  Information is accessible by everyone and, as a result, facts are readily findable …, as well as faked.  It would take time and effort for members of the public to distinguish between the two …, and cult members have no incentive to make the attempt.  Media no longer staff news bureaus.  They get their news from the Web and hire newscaster-entertainers whose job it is to attract audiences, not ferret out facts, not search for truth.  The result is that facts are often fabricated and distributed online by influencers … to hundreds of thousands, or millions, or tens of millions of followers … on Twitter, Facebook, etc.  Related media outlets then echo those facts … or alleged facts … or falsehoods, often representing them as self-evident truths.  For all most many members of the public, facts are a matter of faith.  Why bother to independently distinguish truth from falsehood when the “facts” are coming from a reliable media source that shares its audience’s values, beliefs and worldview?  The Media and the Message are synonymous …, which is especially true today when Covid-19 and the threat reality of political, social and economic instability have created fertile ground for the propagation of fake news by the lying members of other cults.

Axios recently reported that a Chinese intelligence operative had worked to ingratiate herself with Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell.  The operative targeted a number of politicians, including Swalwell, and she fundraised on his behalf.  In 2015, FBI officials alerted Swalwell, who immediately cut ties to her.  Senior members of Congress were briefed in 2015 about suspected Chinese spies trying to infiltrate Congress.  Axios reported that U.S. officials don’t believe that Swalwell divulged any classified information and he has not been accused of wrongdoing by intelligence agencies.  Donald Trump Jr. nevertheless has tweeted that Swalwell “was literally sleeping with a Chinese spy.”  House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy last week told Fox News that Swalwell should be “removed from Congress” and Retiring Republican Representative Jim Sensenbrenner has asked the House Ethics Committee to “immediately open an investigation into the allegations” that Swalwell had been compromised by a Chinese spy.

What is news and what is newsworthy?  Are you a closet cultist?  If so, have you asked yourself whether the beverage you’ve been drinking is Kool-Aid?

Finally (from a good friend)

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