Monday, February 28, 2011

Making it not so

In That Iraq Feeling, Paul Krugman reflects on the "virtual blackout" of US news media coverage of the on-going direct action in Madison, Wisconsin, including the rallying of more than 150,000 people on Saturday-- supported by tens of thousands of solidarity rallies across the US:
What that makes me think of is January-February 2003, when anyone watching cable news would have believed that only a few kooks were opposed to the imminent invasion of Iraq. It was quite spooky, realizing that hundreds of thousands of people could march through New York, and by tacit agreement be ignored by news networks whose headquarters were just a few blocks away.

And it’s even more spooky to see it happening all over again.
Krugman's post resonated, a bit, with Gary Younge's piece for the Guardian, Wisconsin Is Making the Battle Lines Clear in America's Hidden Class War, which suggests that the direct action is a result of reality having overthrown the dominance of perception for many people in the US. I first heard that the Reagan White House had an "Office of Perception Management" while reading the Tower Commission's book of Iran-Contra documents in the late 1980s. (As I recall, Oliver North's gang of thugs was heavily involved.) In the 25 years since then, perception management has become more extensive and effective than probably even those guys ever dreamed it could. (In the mid-80s, Fox News, obviously, couldn't have been even a glimmer in Oliver North's eye.) When 20 years later Donald Rumsfeld announced that the Bush administration wasn't bound by reality and facts, he was simply making the brazen assertion of the supremacy of perception management for legitimizing whatever he wanted to make happen.

Here's Younge on some of a few of the gaps between reality and perception that allow the Tea Party to get its way:
Polls last year showed that in the US 61% think the country spends too much on foreign aid. This makes sense once you understand that the average American is under the illusion that 25% of the federal budget goes on foreign aid (the real figure is 1%).

Similarly, a Mori poll in Britain in 2002 revealed that more than a third of the country thought there were too many immigrants. Little wonder. The mean estimate was that immigrants comprise 23% of the country; the actual number was about 4%.

Broadly speaking, these inconsistencies do not reflect malice or wilful ignorance but people's attempts to make sense of the world they experience through the distorting filters of media representation, popular prejudice and national myths. "The way we see things is affected by what we know and what we believe," wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. "The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled."

When it comes to class, Americans have long seen themselves as potentially rich and perpetually middling. A Pew survey in 2008 revealed that 91% believe they are either middle class, upper-middle class or lower-middle class. Relatively few claim to be working class or upper class, intimating more of a cultural aspiration than an economic relationship. Meanwhile, a Gallup poll in 2005 showed that while only 2% of Americans described themselves as "rich", 31% thought it very likely or somewhat likely they would "ever be rich".

But trends and ongoing events are forcing a reappraisal of that self-image. Social mobility has stalled; wages have been stagnant for a generation. It is in this light that the growing resistance to events in Wisconsin must be understood. The hardline Republican governor, Scott Walker, has pledged to remove collective bargaining rights from public sector unions and cut local government workers' health benefits and pension entitlements.

As the prospect of becoming rich diminishes, many are simply trying not to become poor. Inequality of income and wealth has been more readily accepted in the US because equality of opportunity has long been assumed. The absence of the latter raises serious questions about the existence of the former. This tension brought thousands to the streets in all 50 states to support the Wisconsin unions last weekend.
Of course we feminists have been aware of the gap between reality and perception for all our lives. Sometimes it feels like a losing battle. Ya know?


Nancy Jane Moore said...

Re: the feminist awareness of the gap between perception and reality: Like, say, the perception that women are overrunning the place in any situation where they comprise, oh, maybe 25 percent of a group?

Timmi Duchamp said...

Yep. That was one of the very perception gaps that I was thinking of.