Today's commentary:
http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2002-05/01cromwell-jarlov.cfm

==================================

ZNet Commentary
Shaping The Public Good June 16, 2002
By David Cromwell and Mia Jarlov

A popular view today - that is to say, the prevailing view held by
those
in
positions of power and influence - is 'that contemporary Western
society
and
more especially, the "American way of life" corresponds to the deepest
needs
of human nature and that adjustment to this way means mental health and
maturity.' Thus warned the psychologist and social critic Erich Fromm
in
his
classic 1955 book, The Sane Society.
A cursory examination of the
popular
media today reveals that the same prevailing wisdom reigns supreme.
Immediately following September 11, the public were being urged by Bush
and
Blair to get out into the malls and high streets and consume like never
before.

All of this is no accident. The current BBC2 series, The Century of the
Self, examines how the bending of social psychology to state-corporate
imperatives has disciplined the public mind rather effectively. Edward
Bernays, the father of what is euphemistically termed the 'public
relations'
industry - in reality, a powerful engine generating propaganda that
enables
the 'engineering of consent' - put it bluntly: 'intelligent minorities'
should 'mold the mind of the masses', thus 'regimenting the public mind
every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.'

And the result? As Erich Fromm warned, our perceptions have thereby
been
moulded to regard the world as 'one great object for our appetite, a
big
apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers, the eternally
expectant ones, the hopeful ones - and the eternally disappointed
ones.'
Therein lies the necessary basis for the rampant success of global
consumer
capitalism.

The myth that capitalism and democracy are interlinked is again a
success of
the power of propaganda. The liberal journalist Walter Lippman - along
with
Bernays, a member of the US Committee on Public Information in the
1920s
-
revealed his true colours when he wrote that the general public are
'ignorant and meddlesome outsiders' who should be mere 'spectators of
action', apart from periodic choice among the 'responsible men'. The
dangerous tendency of participatory democracy, in which 'the masses
promised
to become king', could thus be overcome by a system of representative
democracy, in which 'responsible men' take the important decisions for
us.


The humanist theologian Albert Schweitzer once warned that what passes
for
public opinion 'is maintained by the press, by propaganda, by
organization,
and by financial and other influences which are at its disposal.' Any
debate
that purports to address the 'public good' but that does not recognise
the
factors that shape how the public good is defined, has so skewed the
terms
of discussion that it runs the risk of rattling around in a vacuum.

This was the fate that befell the Royal Society-sponsored public debate
that
took place this March at the Tate Modern in London on 'Art, Science and
the
Public Good'. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one on the panel was able to
define
satisfactorily what was meant by 'art' or 'science' or 'the public
good',
far less elucidate the links between them. The destructive role of the
mass
media, shaped by elite state-corporate interests and thus characterised
by a
systemic incapacity for informing the public of the true state of
society,
was completely overlooked.

Some sharp points were nonetheless made. One of the panellists,
Guardian
columnist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot, reminded us of
the
controversial decision by Nottingham University in December 2000 to
accept
3.8m from British and American Tobacco (BAT) to open a centre for
'corporate social responsibility'. It was a classic example, he pointed
out,
of the systemic corruption of corporate funding.  Science and society
are in
crisis. A gradual narrowing in the scope of scientific research could
render
science as the 'guard dogs at the gates of perception', warned Monbiot.
'Scientific research could be the quest for seeing "what we might be",
rather than just "what we are".  It could be the casting of a line into
the
abyss, where lots of different bait must be used simply because there
is
no
knowing what kind of fish are out there.' Monbiot concluded:  'An open
quest
for knowledge would need research to be free of preconceptions and
constraints.'

The influence of funding - attached strings, expectations, social
context -
inevitably causes a bias, sometimes even a corruption, in research
priorities. US historian Howard Zinn explains it thus: 'To work on a
real
problem (like how to eliminate poverty in a nation producing eight
hundred
billion dollars' worth of wealth each year) one would have to follow
that
problem across many disciplinary lines without qualm, dealing with
historical materials, economic theories, political obstacles'. Zinn
continues: 'Specialisation ensures that one cannot follow a problem
through
from start to finish. It ensures the functioning in the academy of the
system's dictum: divide and rule.' He provides a potent example: 'Note
how
little work is done in political science on the tactics of social
change.
Both students and teacher deal with theory and reality in separate
courses;
the compartmentalisation safely neutralises them.'

In biology, political ideology has played a part in directing research
agendas away from key concepts such as symbiosis, or even whole
subjects
such as ecology, towards a narrower vision of research into the 'vital
processes' of life - those relating to genes. In a new book, Liaisons
of
Life, biologist Tom Wakeford shows how the powerful influence of the
world's
biggest funder of biological research, the New York-based Rockefeller
Foundation, 'has created a generation of senior bio-scientists most of
whom
have little idea of the organismical, ecological, social and political
contexts in which genes work.'

On the same day as the Royal Society debate at the Tate, The Times
(London)
usefully revealed that 'smokers enjoy their cigarettes more, with a
drink'.
The report entitled 'Nicotine plus drink a double pleasure', described
new
research at Howard University in Washington DC showing that when
alcohol
and
nicotine are taken together, the amount of the pleasure-inducing
chemical,
dopamine (released by the brain when stimulated by alcohol or nicotine)
is
released in enhanced quantities, more than would be expected simply
from
their cumulative effect.

It is thus now a scientific 'fact' that smokers enjoy double the
pleasure
when having a cigarette with a drink. But what is the funding public to
make
of this? Should we feel secure in the knowledge that combined drinking
and
smoking is a synergistic phenomenon, in which the whole is greater than
the
sum of the parts? Do the research findings somehow 'legitimise' smoking
and
drinking (how convenient for the manufacturers concerned). Or should we
relegate them to an amusing fact to tell our mates down the pub only
for
them to retort: 'They didn't need to fund scientists to the tune of
thousands of pounds just to tell me something I knew already!' In other
words, how does such research benefit society if it is neither of
practical
use nor intrinsic interest? And why waste valuable newspaper space to
tell
us? Is it not all a distraction from the real issues that a newspaper
would
routinely cover in a healthy and dynamic society?

If the mission of biological research is 'to improve human and animal
health', as Clare Matheson of the Wellcome Trust put it in the Tate
debate,
then why are animals still being tortured on factory farms, when
research
has shown that they do indeed feel intense pain? A defining feature of
modern farming methods, according to campaigning group Compassion in
World
Farming (CiWF), is 'intensive husbandry systems [which] frustrate
animals'
behavioural needs and often lead to serious physical disorders and
pain'.
For example, battery-farm chickens are typically kept five to a cage,
unable
to walk around, build a nest or even spread their wings. They often
suffer
broken bones in the cramped conditions. Pig rearing is little better:
most
pigs never see the light of day nor have access to fresh air, and are
packed
together in barren, concrete-floored pens.

One of the most distressing examples of cruelty to farm animals is the
selective breeding for faster or larger growth, which 'has led to
painful
leg problems in chickens and degenerative hip disorders in turkeys and
to
cows carrying such huge udders that their back legs are forced
outwards,
causing lameness'. According to John Webster, Professor of Animal
Husbandry
at the University of Bristol, 'the chronic pain suffered by millions of
broiler chickens [reared for their meat] must constitute the most
severe
example of man's inhumanity to another sentient creature'. CiWF
summarises
with an understatement: 'It is difficult to give general approval to
any
system of husbandry that relies on painful mutilations to sustain the
system'. As George Monbiot once wrote: 'Agony is the resting state of
the
modern dairy cow.'


And why in the west is there more and more human suffering from stress,
anxiety, depression and ill health?  Is it not our mission - as
scientists,
artists, indeed as members of 'the public' - to change the world for
the
better, to reduce human and animal suffering? If the answer is 'yes' -
as it
surely must be in a truly thriving, mature culture - why are so few
people
seriously addressing the pressing issues of global climate change,
social
injustice, exploitation and death by curable diseases (to name but just
a
few key topics)?

The hint of an answer can be found every day in the newspapers.
Consider
another article in The Times on the same day as the debate at the Tate;
a
'news' item that tempted the reader with the headline: 'Isle of Wight
find
is a monster clue to Europe's past'. The report described a bird-like
predatory dinosaur (accompanied by artist's impression) 'which lived
120
million years ago; its presence in Europe was unknown until now'. This
is
intrinsically interesting, even fascinating. But there are surely more
urgent findings that should be addressed in a daily newspaper. Even to
raise
this topic - of why particular stories make the headlines, while others
don't - is to lift the lid on our 'free press': our valiant 'watchdogs
of
democracy'.


Take the UN economic sanctions, maintained at the vigorous behest of US
and
UK politicians, that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of
thousands of
children
in Iraq. This is a matter of pressing urgency, and something
that
ought to be addressed prominently in the daily press. The media's role,
editors and journalists would have us believe, is to serve the public
and
provide information that allows individuals to make up their own minds
about
world events.  As Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of news, puts
it:
'we
believe that the provision of independent and impartial news is a
fundamental part of a free society and the democratic process.' Would
that
the BBC performed its publicly-declared aim! The public deserves to be
trusted with uncomfortable findings, especially where such findings
reveal
our own government's complicity in mass abuses of human rights.

And what about the art component of 'Art, science and the public good'?
Art,
claimed one member of the audience at the Tate Modern, can be described
as a
depiction of the world in which we live, with a philosophical
reflection
upon that world. This links art with science, as in both there are
preconceptions that are likely to determine the result: indeed, quantum
physics teaches us that the experimenter is part of the experiment. How
might publicly-funded science and art better 'serve' the public? What
is
the
'value' of scientific research and art, to the public? Don't both offer
a
valuable means of expanding perceptions amongst all of us: scientists
and
non-scientists, artists and non-artists: namely, everyone in society?
Doesn't contemplating both the Crab Nebula and Vincent van Gogh's
paintings
of a corn field excite the same sense of wonder and exhilaration that
expand
the sense of what it feels to be human? As Monbiot noted correctly,
both
experiences pluck the same 'heart strings'.

Instead, too much art today is self-knowing, sneering and superficial,
with
one eye on the marketplace and the other on fickle trends. David
Rodway,
a
lecturer in art and philosophy who was in the audience at the Tate
debate,
is one of a group of artists and academics 'protesting against the
shallow
and facile nature of contemporary art fashions, which, far from being
challenging and cutting-edge, unknowingly recycle the flawed values and
assumptions of capitalism and commercialism'. The group, known as
Action
to
Transform Art & Culture (ATAC), point to 'discoveries stemming from the
20th
century modernist revolution and its forebears [that] provide the means
to
develop the language-like potential of visual statement, and hence to
express sophisticated ideas and comment absent from present art
styles'.
These radical artists and academics cogently point out that the
'success' of
the global capitalism project contains, via endless growth on a finite
planet, the seeds of its own destruction: 'nothing fails like success'.
As
Rodway sums up: 'Only a fundamental paradigm change to an ecological
way
of
seeing, based on interdependence, not [Cartesian] division, can avert
global
catastrophe, and achieve a sustainable, emancipated and enlightened
world'.

Although the Tate discussion of 'the public good' was woefully
inadequate,
for the reasons mentioned earlier, there was a useful exchange on the
need
to link art and science to social science and philosophy: to utilise
challenging concepts from all these fields  in an attempt to expand the
hermeneutic horizon, rather than accepting passivity, compliance and
inaction through commercially directed art and research. Such ideas
have
a
long and venerable history. Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670), the Czech
theologian and educational reformer, emphasised that cultural life in
any
community is, or should be, a continuous path of learning. Art and
science
can undoubtedly teach us a great number of things about ourselves and
our
relationship with the wider cosmos, and have the potential to expand
our
horizons to new concepts and paths of perception. This has to be part
of
the
definition of genuine 'public good'.


Comenius believed in a 'Universal College' for the advancement of the
whole
of humankind. To recognise that behind the mask which every one of us
bears
is a unique human being, is a fundamental lesson for everyone. Comenius
hoped that wisdom and learning would bring peace and mutual
understanding,
and would ensure that all the members of a community have the freedom
and
opportunity to realise his or her intrinsic human potential. It's a
message
that bears repeating in this modern era of 'pragmatism', cynicism and
saturation consumerist propaganda.




Mia Jarlov is a freelance writer and a student of journalism. David
Cromwell
is the co-editor of Media Lens (sign up for free media alerts at
http://www.MediaLens.org) and the author of 'Private Planet' (
http://www.private-planet.com )