There is a mountain of pain and anger in America about the way the vote to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court turned out.
With the Senate making it official today, the swing vote on the court is now in the hands of a justice who just displayed to the world overt partisanship and a remarkably uneven temperament.
We can’t change that. But we can learn from the pain, which contains an important lesson about confusing highly visceral media moments with real social change.
Getting caught up in a TV hearing and typing a hashtag about it is not the same as putting your body on the line in a protest march to do the hard, gritty, daring work of social revolutions.We have come to believe too much in the power of media to change our lives without the work, risk, pain and sometimes suffering it takes to actually do that, whether that’s marching in the streets or knocking on doors to register voters.
Because millions of us were emotionally rocked by one-half day of credible, deeply-moving testimony seen on TV screens a little over a week ago, we thought it was going to change the arc of Kavanaugh’s nomination, the misogynistic president’s support of him and the bone-deep patriarchy of the United States Senate itself.
Seeing something on TV like the brave testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and then riding the social media wave of support for her alongside the condemnation of Kavanaugh that immediately followed made some of us feel good — like we were part of a movement of change toward a better, more equitable, righteous America. But it was only a media mirage when it came to wresting real power from the hands of the kind of men who have been holding it since the dawn of this Republic.
Ask the people of South Africa what it takes to get such hands to surrender what they hold. Hell, ask those still living who marched in Mississippi in the 1960s for voter rights what it takes. Voter suppression is still going on all over this country.
How did we get to this state where we confuse media moments with real change?
Despite the fact that I have written dozens of times since the earliest days of the declines and falls of Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes that patriarchy is Old Testament old and won’t end overnight, I am part of a tribe that deserves some of the blame.
Since the late 1960s, many media analysts and some media studies professors have been oversimplifying our social history in part to inflate the importance of their field. They attribute major political and social change almost exclusively to media moments when, in truth, there are many forces responsible for such changes.
This mighty-media version of our national past includes narratives like this:
One day, CBS and NBC News sent their camera crews into the South in the early 1960s where they filmed police officers in places like Alabama and Mississippi turning fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful civil rights marchers. When decent, fair-minded Americans sitting down to supper in the north saw the attacks on the evening news, the civil rights movement was forever changed. Righteousness was on the rise and racism was in retreat with President Johnson pushing through the Civil Rights Act in response.
Or, if Republican candidate Richard Nixon had just shaved on the night of his TV debate with John Kennedy in 1960, used a little makeup base and powder to cover the furrows and frown, he would have been president, and the nation would have been spared the trauma of assassination in Dallas in the ‘60s and Watergate in the ‘70s.
And let’s not forget the legend that everything changed in the anti-war movement when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite came back from Vietnam and told the nation we were not going to win the war.
For a more recent great moment in the mighty-media narrative of American history, remember how the image of Anita Hill looking up at all those old, white, male senators as she came to testify against Clarence Thomas was going to change forever the way we understood the tremendous imbalance of power in the U.S.?
And there we were again last week, except the old, white, GOP men had a female proxy asking the questions of Christine Blasey Ford. They did that for the optics — much like they ran the five-day FBI “investigation” to try to calm the outrage being expressed on media.
But after all the change it felt like we were making under #MeToo in recent years, those men in the Senate still hold inordinate power, as they proved with the vote today. And, worse, this vote gives them another member of their tribe now controlling the most important judicial vote in the nation, a vote that can keep power in the hands of their aging regime long after they have the demographics to back them up as dominant culture.
And all our millions of media platforms can’t change that for us.
We need to quit believing that technology will save us, that our new media will expose bad politicians, connect good people to each other in opposition to them and magically carry a message of righteousness that will lead us to a better place. Remember all the stories about social media and the “Arab Spring” a few years back?
No, we have to do that. Media will not save us. I believe 100 percent in the power of media to change the world. I’ve bet my professional life on that. But not by itself; media is only a tool. We have to use it righteously to save ourselves. And now is one of those times when we have to rededicate ourselves to that mission.
Instead of sitting at our keyboards pouring out our rage on Facebook or Twitter to other people at keyboards who intellectually live in our same silos, use the keyboards to organize, to get people out to vote in the midterms. Forget trying to be nasty or clever on Twitter for the next few weeks, use your favorite social media platform to mobilize a rally or organize a car pool to get older voters to the polls.
We have become cyber citizens living too much of our lives in mediated space, whether it is all-day with a particular cable news TV channel or online with social media, while others have concentrated on holding power in places like the Senate, House, state legislatures and Supreme Court. We have let our media lull us into feeling like we are effecting epic change.
Today, while many of us rage on in social media, Brett Kavanaugh, Lindsey Graham, Charles Grassley, Donald Trump and other members of their tribe of elites celebrate their continued hold on real power.