A few observations from the events of the last week or so:

(1) Tsunamis happen. When they do, in a globally media-connected world, they bring us all a little closer together. (Not all of us; those who don’t wish to be brought closer may drift further apart. But, to risk getting overly psychoanalytical, those who’ve had a reasonably loving upbringing, or those whose instincts and/or the influences they were exposed to helped them overcome a loveless upbringing, will drift closer together — because empathy works on, with, and through them, and the images and thoughts of tragedy resonate.) This is something new in human history, and it gives me cause for hope.

On the ecological question: If the tsunami is linked to the political ecology of fossil-fueled industrial capitalism (i.e. if it carries a global climate change “signature”), that will eventually become evident. A social body saturated in empathy will be much better prepared to deal with climate change than one that isn’t.

(2) Political battlefields rework old themes in new ways. The question is always when to fight back (and how), and when to cut your losses, regroup, and try to remake the playing field instead.

In the U.S. today, a resurgent right wing — an alliance between moneyed free-market libertarians and white social/religious conservatives — is attacking what remains of the public interest institutions put in place by the Fordist compromise of welfare state liberalism: collective bargaining, public media, public education, public health, and so on. The best way for supporters of these values and institutions to fight back is to use the methods that are working elsewhere: to get out into the streets like Egyptians, tweeting and facebooking and sending out images of democracy in action; to catch the offenders’ at their own game, using the ‘sting’ techniques that right-wing pranktivists have used successfully against NPR and ACORN and others, without descending to the levels of dishonesty that the latter have; and so on.

Alternatively, however, we might consider that history is shifting to different playing fields, and that the higher stakes are found there: in global activism and transnational alliances, ecological solidarity, and the building of public institutions — the building of a “public interest” — at the global level. I’m not sure exactly what those institutions will look like once they’re built, but I have a couple of hunches.

  • Al Jazeerah is the most important global news network today, or at least it has been over the past few months, with its coverage of the Arab revolutions to Arab audiences and to the rest of the world. U.S. media conglomerates don’t allow U.S. citizens to watch it (they have been censored off of the main cable outlets). But they are available online, as is so much else. Like all private media organizations, they cannot ultimately be trusted to do what’s right, but they signify a leveling of the global playing field, and that’s not going away anytime soon.
  • Wikileaks, whatever one may think of its founder, represents the tip of an iceberg that will render secrets nonexistent. Governments’ efforts to squash Wikileaks will not affect the others who are following closely behind and are organizing their efforts in more decentralized, and ultimately more sustainable, ways.

When we all have cameras, we can all surveil, monitor, and communicate with each other. When tsunamis happen, this can spread empathy, help people locate those who need assistance, and send them that assistance.

When political tsunamis happen (or fail to happen when they ought to), a camera-armed and media-savvy socium can expose corruption, share information, send ripples of affect across borders, and spread democratic revolution.

A bad week, but ultimately not such a terrible week.

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Related posts:

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  4. SCMS Media & Environment group
  5. Whitehead & media theory
  6. Environmental media: call for curators