Search the archives of any left-of-center website and you'll find no shortage of prose extolling the importance of "getting the message out there." If only the huddled masses could consume something more than a steady diet of corporate propaganda...so the story goes. For example, try to imagine Ralph Nader being included in the presidential debates. What a wake-up call that would be, right? Well, not so fast.
Over the past 12-15 months, both Ward Churchill and William Blum -- two men with impeccable radical credentials -- have unexpectedly been thrust into mainstream consciousness: Churchill all over Fox News and Blum interviewed on CNN, MSNBC, etc. (Note: Joshua Frank, author of Left Out: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, believes Churchill and Blum have "in large part been on the defense" and thus their 15 minutes was "a far cry from seeing a guy like Nader in the debates.")
All this lefty exposure has fortuitously taken place during a time of electoral fraud, blatant lies leading to war crimes, the abandonment of New Orleans, and many more events that could theoretically lead the "Average Joe" to question our (sic) system. Thus, in what seems like an ideal climate for spreading the word, I'm looking around for any indication that this recent exposure to Churchill, Blum, and their ideas is having a palpable effect. Do we have more progressive perspectives on TV? A growing, broader-based movement for peace and justice? Media types now seeking out alternative sources? Here's the specific question I posed to some colleagues: Does/can mainstream exposure to progressive ideas really make a difference?
"How can we tell?" was Howard Zinn's response. "Most actions/events, if they make a difference, make it imperceptibly," he says, "and it's only the accumulation of small differences that may occasionally reach a critical point and be identifiable as having been effective."
Joe Bageant, author of the upcoming, Drink, Pray, Fight, Fuck: Dispatches from America's Class War, sees things differently. "Jesus Christ, fella," he told me, "I love ya, but don't you see that both of those people (Blum and Churchill) are completely unheard of by the majority of Americans? Ninety-nine percent of Americans have never heard of either one of them. You gotta be an Internet political freak to know who they are."
So, Joe, I take it you don't think there'll be much impact?
"The short version," says Bageant, "is that until Ward is on Oprah nobody will care except those who make so much political mileage from him, both left and right in the newspapers, which, if you will remember, the average family out here no longer gets or reads. The rest of America is mowing their yards because it's spring."
"The exposure that Churchill and Blum got was because of a sensationalist incidental event," says Michael Parenti. "Churchill talked about the Eichmanns killed at the WTC -- so outrageous it could not be ignored. It was a hot story. Blum got a plug from bin Laden, same buzz. Where in the major media are Churchill and Blum now? Do they have their own talk shows? Are they regulars on panels? Back into oblivion."
William Blum took exception with how I phrased my inquiry. "You're really stacking the cards against the question," he counters. "I spoke to tens of millions of people who had never before heard of me, and I said lots of things they were very unaccustomed to hearing. The result of that can't be seen or measured as easily as your questions imply. Who's to say what the long-term effect of that will be? I assume -- and it's only an assumption -- that it will be positive, as one element among many of recent years of the left getting the message out. It's only the total effect that may have significant meaning."
Greg Elich, author of Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem and the Pursuit of Profit, wonders why the effect -- if there is one -- must automatically be deemed positive. "For most viewers/listeners, the [left-of-center] ideas are likely to come across as being from another planet, so markedly different are they from the usual perspective presented in the mass media" says Elich. "In such a context, the presentation of radical ideas requires a long exposition to first challenge a whole set of assumptions underlying the corporate media viewpoint. Without that, the ideas are too easily dismissed by most viewers/listeners. The problem, of course, is that media are notoriously disinclined to allot significant time to the discussion of ideas, preferring the 'sound bite' treatment."
"Exposure does not help very much because we are trying to expose a population that has been brainwashed through years in the schools," declares advocacy journalist, Rosemarie Jackowski. "When that kind of thinking contaminates the educational process it cannot be counteracted with the few (in comparison) books such as Zinn's. The other side wins because of its volume. And once they have won in the schools they then spread the propaganda in the media. For meaningful change to occur it will take more than just exposure to a different set of facts."
"It is not realistic to expect that media exposure of radical ideas will have a lasting effect with even one out of a thousand viewers/listeners," concludes Greg Elich. "For all that, I still think the effort is worth making, on the rare occasion when opportunity presents itself, because no battle is lost until one ceases to fight."
Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at: www.mickeyz.net. His latest book is 50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism (Disinformation Books, 2005).
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