Dear FO° Reader,
Umberto Eco is a serious and thoughtful writer. His contributions to semiotics and literary theory — beautifully expressed in his 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose, — have earned him the respect of authors the world over. So, we take his concerns seriously when he says something like this, as he does in Travels in Hyperreality:
If the communications media, as means of production, were to change masters, the situation of subjection would not change. We can legitimately suspect that the communications media would be alienating even if they belonged to the community.
This is a problem for Fair Observer, since we make it our mission to liberate journalism from the agendas of investors and owners. Now, Eco tells us that even without the owners, journalism would still not be free.
Maybe your first instinct is to say, “Bah. Here you go talking about ‘alienation’ again. Why should I listen? It’s something only leftists would care about. Let me read something else.” But alienation is a concern for everyone, not just the Left. Take a moment to consider its meaning. In the words of no less of an anti-Communist than Pope John Paul II:
[Alienation] happens in consumerism, when people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications rather than being helped to experience their personhood in an authentic and concrete way. Alienation is found also in work, when it is organized so as to ensure maximum returns and profits with no concern whether the worker, through his own labor, grows or diminishes as a person … He is considered only a means and not an end.
So, whether we identify with left, right or center, we should be concerned when systems of organization take humanity out of work, separating work from people as a product over which they have no control.
Clearly, having a boss who commands journalists to write things that they do not believe or that are not even true is alienating. But if we liberate ourselves from bosses, writing for an independent, crowdsourced journal, aren’t we free then? Not so, says Eco.
What makes the newspaper something to fear is not (or, at least, is not only) the economic and political power that runs it. The newspaper was already defined as a medium for conditioning public opinion when the first gazettes came into being. When someone every day has to write as much news as his space allows, and it has to appear readable to an audience of diverse tastes, social class, education, throughout a country, the writer’s freedom is already finished: The contents of the message will not depend on the author but on the technical and sociological characteristics of the medium.
Yes, it is true. No one is so perfectly free that they could write without any constraints. I suppose that in order to communicate with no constraints at all, we would have to transmit our thoughts telepathically to one another, without the constraints of the written page. And, it is true, FO° does have a daily publication cycle, and we do need to edit our articles so that they can be read and understood by a very broad, international audience. But does that mean that we do not really say what we mean to say?
Aristotle might say that we are confusing our causes here. Writing is a material cause; it is the physical medium in which we place our thoughts, and every medium places some limitations. You can make a good ax out of steel, but not out of gold. Yet human intelligence knows how to select and to shape the material causes that it uses. What is really paramount is the final cause: what we are doing it all for. The blacksmith wants to help the woodcutter cut wood. So, the blacksmith selects steel, and he forges it through force and craft to impose human purpose on it. And the tool does the job we want it to.
Credit: Anton Malkov / shutterstock.com
Let’s not confuse circumstances and constraints with the loss of freedom. Even within the confines of external limitations, the human spirit can still strive for truth. The real alienation arises when we allow circumstances to change our purpose. When the purpose becomes making money or currying votes, then journalism dies. But as long as we keep our eyes fixed on the truth, and we bend the material limitations of money and physical media to our purpose, we remain the ones that are in charge. It is human intelligence that speaks, not material conditions.
This is what Fair Observer does. Of course, we have to keep the reader in mind, so we cannot always say what we mean in the way that we want to say it. But, we can say what we mean in another way. With shorter sentences and more hyperlinks, of course. And we cannot always do what we want to do with limited financial resources. But you will be surprised what people who care — people like you — can do when they put their intentions together and work towards an authentic goal. Who does Fair Observer belong to? It belongs to you. And, if we keep our eyes on the goal, that really is what matters.
Anton and Roberta
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