On Improvement

While cable news might perpetuate unsavory ideas, much of what Americans dislike predates these networks and would exist without them

Commenter Uncle Oswald offers this in the Jon Stewart thread:

Whatever the access problems are today, they're less significant than they've ever been. Wikipedia alone is an incredible step towards democratizing access to high-quality information. When I was a wee lad, most government publications (agency reports, congressional documents, court decisions) were, as a practical matter, inaccessible to people who didn't have a professional interest in them; today, almost everything is available for free online to anyone who cares. 

At some point, "access" stops being a useful way to think about the problem, because "access" implies an external constraint. The real problem is internal. It's who we are, how our brains are wired. We like team sports, rallies, and that delicious feeling of moral indignation we get when someone from the other side says something really outrageous. (And what a sweet feeling it is. That feeling --- savoring the evil-ness of the other side --- it's like the fifth-best part of being human, just above finding out your friend makes less than you and just below being drunk.)

This hints at something which I was talking about with a friend while watching the Cowboys get killed by the Jags yesterday: Surely there are aspects of humanity which are not pleasant. How do our institutions reflect that? Have we created institutions which look unseemly, but actually are addressing some deeply-felt need? In relation to football, what if we--as humans--have a need to vent aggression, even if only vicariously? And what if we do this through other people who will be richly rewarded for their sacrifice, but will also suffer tremendously?

I'm not as absolute in my feelings as Oswald, but I like the line of inquiry. To the extent I show distaste for attacking, say, Fox News, at a rally, it's because I already know what I think of Fox News. But the much more uncomfortable question--for me--is why people do people watch? Living in an era of relatively abundant access to information, why would a disturbing minority of people still believe Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim? I am not so much interested in letting Newt Gingrich off the hook, as I am to understanding those who "follow" him, and, more to the point, who precisely is following who.

Much of what we dislike about this country predates cable news. And it would still be here if cable news disappeared. How long have progressives been fighting for national health care? What nefarious conspiracy accounts for all the other decades before death panels and Fox News? I guess cable news makes it harder to solve those problems, but the critique feels incomplete. The same forces that spawned cable news also spawned Mad Men and The Wire, indeed spawned Stewart and Colbert (both of whom I still think are geniuses).

I confess that I have not fully worked this out, yet. I guess I'm just wondering the extent to which we've crafted our own chains. How much of this is just who we are? How much of it can be improved and reformed?