Addicted to Distraction by Bruce G. Charlton, Buckingham, United Kingdom, University of Buckingham Press, 2014, 163 pp., £10
Among traditionalists, reactionaries, paleoconservatives and the rest of us who comprise what is usually called “the Right” it is customary, when the mass media is discussed, to maintain that it is heavily biased towards the Left. Our progressive opponents deride this claim, pointing to the television news channels, radio talk shows, and printed publications that offer an editorial perspective that is widely thought of as being “conservative”. In response we might point out that such media outlets offer a “neoconservative” perspective which is actually a form of liberalism – it is all about how democracy, capitalism and individualism are the hope and salvation of mankind, to be brought to the uttermost corners of the world by the force of the American military if necessary. A defense of actual conservative ideas and institutions, from a perspective that is critical of the modern assumptions that neoconservatives shared with the progressive and liberal Left is avoided by the media like the plague.
Recently, however, I encountered the following sentence which offers a rather different assessment of the relationship between the mass media and the Left:
Leftism is the Mass Media, and the Mass Media is Leftism, inseparable, the same thing: this of course means that Leftism (in its modern form) depends utterly on the continuation of the Mass Media (depends on itself!), stands or falls with the Mass Media. (bold indicates italics in original)
This remarkable sentence can be found on pages 26 to 27 of a fascinating new book entitled Addicted to Distraction. The author is Dr. Bruce G. Charlton, a physician and psychiatrist who is Professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham. He is also a Christian and a prominent blogger in that right-wing sector of the internet known as the “Orthosphere” in the broader sense of the term that includes not just the website by that name but various others with a similar right-wing, traditionalist Christian perspective, including Dr. Charlton’s own site, where the term was originally coined, and this one.
The quoted sentence would elicit from many, probably most, people the response that it confuses the distinction between that which is neutral – in this case the technology of large-scale communication – and that which is charged – the thoughts and words conveyed by that technology. This is a conditioned response, one which is made without much if any thought being put into it, and it raises the question of how valid this distinction actually is. Canada’s greatest conservative philosopher, George Grant, did not think it was valid and devoted much of his thought and writing to demonstrating that technology was anything but neutral. It was another Canadian of Grant’s generation, a pioneer in the study of media communications named Marshal McLuhan, who famously remarked that “the medium is the message” and it is from the launching pad of this insight of McLuhan’s that Dr. Charlton’s own reflections on the nature of the mass media take off.
This does not mean that the mass media that he equates with the Left consists merely of communications technology. Dr. Charlton distinguishes between two senses of the expression mass media. There is the technology itself – print, radio, television, internet, etc – and then there is the system into which all this technology is integrated, the “unified network of communications”. It is the latter which is the focus of his discussion.
Another important distinction he makes is between the Old Left and the New Left. The Old Marxist Left of the trades unions and socialist parties was revolutionary but it was also utopian and visionary. It sought to overthrow the institutions of the existing order but with the idea that it would replace them with a new order that would be a Paradise on earth. The New Left is the Left of “Permanent Revolution” or “perpetual opposition”, which Dr. Charlton describes as the idea that:
The true revolutionary – such as the avant garde artist or radical intellectual – was intrinsically subversive; and would always be in revolt against whoever was in power, changing sides as necessary to achieve this. (p. 18)
If the New Left is always seeking to subvert, oppose, and to overthrow then its agenda is entirely negative. It seeks nothing but destruction and is essentially nihilistic. This, Dr. Charlton argues, is also the essential nature of the mass media.
He describes several specific techniques by which the mass media subverts the good. For example, when Anders Brevik killed all those kids in Norway a couple of years ago the media initially reported that he was a right-wing Christian. Brevik was not a professing Christian at all but the initial reports that contained the falsehood created a far deeper impression than subsequent retractions. Dr. Charlton calls this “first strike framing”, a technique whereby the media subverts something positive – in this case Christianity – by creating a false association in the first reports of an atrocity from which the lasting visceral response is derived. (pp. 71-75)
The subversiveness of the mass media does not lie merely in certain techniques, however. Nor is it to be found in some cabal of conspirators who pull the levels of the media behind the scenes, Dr. Charlton insists, but in the very nature of the system itself. The mass media, as he describes it, is an integrated network of communications technology that has so permeated society that it envelops and surrounds us. It generates a pseudoreality of image and opinion that distracts us from the real world in which we live. The images and opinions it generates are subject to change at any moment and may completely contradict those that preceded them but are presented to us as absolute truths disagreement with which renders a person a dangerous, crazy, outsider. This combination of short-term absolutism with long-term complete relativism, Dr. Charlton labels “Opinionated Relativism”. By distracting us from the real world, common sense, and personal experience and bombarding us with dogmatic but ever-changing opinions and images it subverts our confidence in that which is true, good, and beautiful. His characterization of it as evil and demonic seems entirely appropriate.
So what do we do about it?
While Dr. Charlton does not proffer a plan as to how the mass media system can be defeated as a whole – he indicates that the system will have to collapse on its own before there can be a large scale return to reality – he offers some helpful suggestions as to how we can deal with it as individuals. We are addicted to the false reality the mass media presents us, he argues, and rather than try to wean ourselves off of it, for those who think that they can pick out what is good from the mass media are the most deceived and deluded, we ought to quit it cold turkey. While the process of “detoxing”, by which we stop seeking out, paying attention to, and believing the media and turn our attention back towards reality is one that will involve failure – for we are immersed in the media in societies where everybody is an addict – there is hope, he says, at least for the Christian, because reality is superior to the falsehoods of the media.
Addicted to Distraction is a short book but one that is packed with insights the surface of which I have only begun to scratch in this review. I heartily recommend it.