The Media & the Importance of History (Essay)

The Media & the Importance of History

Emanuel Pastreich


August 4, 2013

China has a tremendous tradition of history. The study of history, the compilation of history and the ethical reading of history were considered the most important action for the intellectual and the consideration of history and precedents were seen as the essence of good government and responsible citizenship. Such remarkable figures as Confucius and Mencius   asserted that the pursuit of accurate history was an essential part of the ethical life, and the only way to avoid tyranny. The famed historian, and progenitor of historiography in China, Sima Qian, suffered tremendous humiliation in order that he would be able to write down history in an accurate and compelling manner for the sake of future generations. He chose castration and life in a manner that was considered demeaning in order that he could complete an accurate historical record of recent history.

Traditionally, Chinese empires placed great emphasis on history and its accurate compilation and transmission. Each dynasty made tremendous efforts to collect and edit the essential documents from governance so that they could be used when it was necessary to compose an accurate history in the future, presumably under the orders of the next dynasty. That process of preparing for an accurate record of the events of the dynasty, one that would be written by future generations, was not only important for maintaining the historical record, it was also essential to creating a mood of ethical action within the government. To the degree that government officials felt that their actions were being observed by future generations, and that they would be subject judgment beyond the perspectives of their families and immediate superiors, their work was suffused with significance and a moral imperative. That is not to suggest that all action was moral, but rather the emphasis on the judgment of history checked the raw use of power.

But that role of the historian has disappeared in China, and in most countries around the world. Although information piles up in greater and greater amounts, there is no historian to analyze it in an ethical sense or make judgments as to what that data means in terms of useful to future generation. In the absence of an office for the compilation of the historical record, the functional guardians of what we might call history have been reduced to the media, to intelligence and to a variety of private firms handling creation of images on a paid basis. None of these institutions has any commitment to rendering history in an ethical sense. Increasingly all of them are driven primarily by the potential market value of information.

There is essentially not effort to find valuable institutions in the past, or to consider how the good or bad policies of previous rulers can be of service today. History has become, tragically, irrelevant.

The media digs up sensational stories and highlights those parts of those stories that will grab the readers’ attention. Thus stories are reduced to the sensational and the melodramatic. The complex and contradictory tales that make up actual human experience cannot be related within the format of an article because they would confuse readers and slow down the process of immediate gratification and emotional response that is required by a for-profit publication. As a result, citizens almost never get a complex and balanced perspective concerning even the most serious of issues. And it would be fair to say that the readers of the media never get analysis that is based on long-term institutional change, as opposed to snap judgments about individuals.

As readers become accustomed to reading the tiny fragments of history that they are fed by the media, their patience and tolerance for in-depth analysis plummets and they have neither the capacity, nor the inclination, to try to puzzle out the true causes behind the phenomena that they see. In the media it is much easier, and profitable, to make a single figure into the bad guy and to let the reader consider himself to be a helpless victim. Although the media may expose terrible crimes, it does nothing to encourage ethical responses.

The very process of creating entertaining narration rules out the possibility that an individual can make moral choices, as small and as subtle as they may be, moral choices that could slowly alter the course of events. The loss of that potential to make moral decisions that is common in the stories we are presented by the media results in a decline in the individual’s perception of his potential to act. The consequence is a mysterious paralysis in which people cannot figure out how to respond even to the most serious of problems, and no leaders emerge except those who pander to accepted truths. The Fukushima Daiichi crisis was just one example of such a failure of media and of history.

The media is also a medium of forgetfulness. If history is concerned with remembering and tracing patterns of behavior and governance over time, the media is but a brief flash of light that quickly fades away. Media articles are assumed to have no value after a few days, or even a few hours, yet we find that the issues that these articles treat, corruption and dishonesty in government and business, are in fact constantly repeated. It would be more useful to write one essay on the historical and structural factors underlying these trends than to write a thousand articles decrying corruption. Yet we just get more articles repeating the same sensationalist content. The priority in journalism has become the speed with which the article can be released, not its ethical efficacy.

Information produced by the media is judged on the basis of its ability to grab the attention of readers and the degree to which it helps to sell products, ideas and concepts. What the historical lesson of an event, or the complex background that produced that event are not even mentioned.

Although we cannot simply go back to the past, I would suggest that the institution of an office something like official historian (which does not have to be a government position, and could be held by several scholars) combined with a team to collect the essential details about the age that can be used to put together a future history would have an extremely positive impact in our current society. The very presence of such an effort would bring a new order to the manner in which we treat information and suggest higher standards for journalism. By creating an independent office to handle history itself that is entirely separate from both the government and from corporations, we would be reestablishing a commons wherein the historical record can be preserved. The primary goal of that effort would be to provide information for future generations and future historians who will make judgments, not based on the politics of this era, but on the basis of larger ethical standards.

In the larger ecosystem of information in this digital age, the mere creation of a space for objective recording of history would, through its very presence, start to alter the behavior of those in the media and in the government. A new awareness of events in this larger historical context might emerge that would lead to a more serious attention to duty rather than to appearance.

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