Thursday, February 9, 2012

"Redistribution as better than Utilitarianism:" The media's core assumption, which cries out for questioning

Philosophers like today's hot Richard Rorty, whom the New York Times called, "One of the world's most influential contemporary thinkers" insist we develop wise judgment by seeing have-nots' pain: films, reading, and, of course, through life experience.

But does that not lead society to irrational decision making? For example, even if a film ostensibly documents a real-life event, it hand-picks one that's extreme, designed to increase people's willingness to redistribute resources from those most likely to innovate, create jobs, etc., to those least likely.

Worse, most such films (and indeed much mass media news) are mockumentaries, selectively reporting and/or exaggerating the truth to obtain the desired audience reaction. And of course, in acknowledged fiction, whether on film or in novels, authors so often deliberately create situations specifically to manipulate the audience into behaving in that redistributive way.

That's not a problem if one accepts today's standard postulate among today's mainstream intelligentsia: that redistribution/egalitarianism is a fundamental truth, an axiom, the place from which one starts.

But what if a person's fundamental postulate is the currently out-of-favor utilitarianism: in which the world should be willing to accept inequalities to the extent that, net, the quality of life for the world's people is better.

Such people believe the post-modern position (as expressed by the likes of the intelligentsia's current rock stars Habermas, Derrida, Quine, Rorty, etc.) is immoral, resulting in far greater pain to the world. And those utilitarians are particularly annoyed at such movies and novels because they selectively report, create straw-man opposition, exaggerate, and even outright distort historical fact to manipulate their audience to buy that philosophy of how resources should be expended.

As we watch movies, read novels, consume "news" in print, TV or the Internet, shouldn't we question their usual fundamental postulate--that redistribution is an inherent good?

To explore both sides of this critical question, one could do worse than to read the two essays that comprise the slim book, Utilitarianism: For and Against.


Maria Lopez said...

In fiction one way to create drama is to give the protagonist fewer external resources than the antagonist.

This means that frequently the rich guy will be the bad even if no redistributionist message was intended.

Also since most movie goers will not have a lot of resources a relatively poor protagonist is created so that the audience will identify with them.

Even so, in a lot of movies, there is often no redistribution, though the protagonist becomes personally wealthy. For instance in Tangled and Twilight the heroines get or regain wealth but no money is distributed to the masses.

While this might not be so in movies like Time, which described by one reviewer as Marxist, I'm not sure such films are the majority or even the most influential.

Marty Nemko said...

Look at the most taught fiction (read by the upper class) in our universities: from Moll Flanders to Death of a Salesman.

And count the % of movies in which the rich are portrayed in a positive light versus the poor. It's tiny. Even though it's the rich that enable us to have everything from mayonnaise to every element that is enabling us to communicate by computer (or by phone, or TV, or whatever.)

Maria Lopez said...

There are a couple of other things that influence the portrayal of success in literature. One is that straight cheerleading is relatively boring. Someone having a straight shot to achievement seems a bit dull. For instance in Amadeus, Salieri is made into an antagonist when he wasn't one reality.

Another one is the fact that industrial capitalism is a fairly new way to make money. Go back two centuries and most fortunes did have a close connection to tyranny.

The other thing is that people with a great deal of personal vision is more interesting than someone doing well carrying out other people's direction. For instance the manager of the division of Kraft that makes mayonnaise will not have a movie made of his or her life whereas Thomas Keller might.

Finally there is the eternal argument between innovators and managers. In fiction, for example Iron Man or Atlas Shrugged, they are often the same person, in real life they often differ. For example, Steve Jobs didn't invent the mouse, a far more obscure engineer did. However, that doesn't necessarily mean he wasn't entitled to his wealth.

Also, I'm not sure that elite fiction matters as much as you think. While some members of the elite do read Moll Flanders and the early works of John Steinbeck avidly they also read popular fiction. Consider how many people know who Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker is compared to the number of people who know who Moll Flanders or Bigger homas is.

Marty Nemko said...


I invite you to look at the Academy Award winners for best films, the Emmy Awards for best TV shows, the Nobels for Literature, the Tonys for Best Play, the reading lists in college general-education literature courses, the angles taken in features in major media outlets, and then tell me whether there is not a ubiquitous message that redistribution is a core good if not THE core good.


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