The 'dumbing down' of the American media consumer

by William P. Muhammad

As the United States continues to tout itself as the world’s only remaining superpower, a casual observer might at the same time expect Americans to be counted among the world’s most informed and enlightened people. However, with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and the expansion of on-line communications, the supply of the trivial and inconsequential has unfortunately surpassed the intellectual edge mass media has made available to most Americans.

Proportionate to its growth and development, an escalating trend among commercial mass media emphasizes that which is superfluous to the edification of the American electorate. Deflecting attention away from the corporate interests that seek to influence the legislative process and by media outlets that beat the drums of war through pseudo-patriotic packaging, the ability of the American people to sustain a cogent response to continuous media stimuli is increasingly doubtful.

During his farewell address from office in 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the public to be wary of what he called ‘the military industrial complex.’ He warned in part that: “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals….” Although the peacefulness of American policy objectives since that time has been at best questionable, Eisenhower’s late call for Americans to remain ‘alert and knowledgeable’ was nevertheless an important appeal to reason.

While nearly 49 years have passed since that historic Oval Office speech, today, the average American has difficulty defining and becoming fully aware of what is truly in his or her own best interests. With an emphasis on sport and play, and through the melding of news and entertainment into one package, consumers of American based media are being herded away from the cerebral experience. Placing emotional stimulation and shortened attention spans over the intellect, commercial media has become more of a self-serving tool for public relations than it has for educating and informing the public at large.

Commercial media is not a pillar supporting corporate America; the major broadcast networks, print and cable companies are corporate America. Whether owned by media moguls, major entertainment companies or by parent companies that earn hundreds of millions of dollars as defense contractors, to those paying close enough attention, corporate media’s political and economic ambitions are clear.

With their focus being the making of money and the establishment of self-serving international agendas, corporate controlled news media appear interested in gaining the trust of a public that remains oblivious to their backroom intents. General Electric, a major player in the defense industry and the parent company of NBC, Telemundo (a major Spanish speaking network) and a myriad of other mass media holdings, influences the thinking of their consumers through television and movies throughout the Americas. Capturing tens of millions of viewers from throughout the Western Hemisphere, is General Electric similarly capable of helping to shape domestic and international policy at the governmental level?

Regardless of the answer, the defense industry is not the only corporate conglomeration of which the public should be mindful and alert. The investment banking, agribusiness, energy and pharmaceutical industries, each of which competes within their own domain for larger market shares, have commercial ties to corporate mass media as well. Each benefit from the distraction of an American public too preoccupied to consider their behind the scenes maneuvering and each has the resources to saturate the public with propaganda for or against whatever government, movement or leader they may like or dislike.

In the meantime, as the influence of corporate mass media continues to expand, its consumers are increasingly being subjected to a fictitious and substitute world. As opposed to focusing on the real, where real-life decisions yield real-life results, mentally, socially and politically speaking, the media consuming public is literally being driven to distraction.

The “dumbing down” of the American public will persist as long as the people continue to tolerate the cajoling and manipulation of their collective psyche. As information and entertainment have combined to create “infotainment,” and emotional appeals continue to replace intellectual analysis, the public will never be able to extricate itself from the twin webs of corporate interests and media propaganda.

Now, as both have become nearly one and the same, it appears that President Eisenhower’s warning has finally come full circle. With corporatism apparently molding, if not trumping, the concept of so-called American democracy, the will of the people appears to have become nothing more than a speed bump in the face of corporate agendas. What it will take to reverse this trend, no one really knows, but one thing is for certain, a “dumbed down” electorate cannot sustain a great nation for long.

A prerequisite for the ideal Black community

by William P. Muhammad

As we approach the end of the millennium’s first decade, it is clear that many of history’s lessons from the twentieth century have gone unheeded. With America embroiled in two wars, unemployment in the double-digits and a population divided over the policies of America’s first Black president, Black Americans have still found themselves “the last hired and the first fired” while clinging to increasingly outdated social, economic and educational paradigms.

As middle management is cut in the name of flattening tall organizational structures, profits are coming at the price of increased worker output as job positions are both downsized and eliminated. Employment opportunities that were previously long term, leading to pensions and retirement, are now becoming things of the past as the dollar loses its value and economic uncertainty continues.

For years Black people in America have been made to believe that the key to socio-economic advancement has been in getting an education in order to find a job. While such thinking has been the traditional model for upward mobility, it is fast becoming an outdated plan of action within the context of both wealth creation and long term economic security.

Going to college to find a job may be desirable, but graduating from school in order to create jobs is much more in tune with the time in which we live. Receiving a true education that stresses math and the sciences, and frees the mind to seek out and accomplish self-interests, is superior to that which trains prospective employees to fit into an increasingly obsolete workforce.

In an economy that continues to streamline itself by sending manufacturing and service industry jobs to cheaper labor markets overseas, Black workers are increasingly compelled to compete against a labor force that earns only a fraction of the American wage. Within this context, additional stress is placed upon both individuals and communities as jobs disappear and workers are left behind.

Building Community

Since it is unlikely that vibrant and dynamic Black communities will emerge from the hard work of others, our social scientists, business professionals and urban planning experts should consider new models for our collective advancement and success. With the aim of breaking the counter-productive mindsets of ignorance and dependency on others, for those bold enough to try, new ideas will open the doors of opportunity.

With the goal of building communities that are “safe and decent places to live,” a meeting of the minds, focusing on properly training, guiding and supporting our people, could make technological innovation, the skilled trades and college level education into a means of breaking the mold. With finding employment after graduation only a stepping stone toward independence, matriculating for the purpose of doing for self will help to create a new economic paradigm.

Nearly every ethnic group in America has built an independent community that manifests its social, political and economic interests. Through building businesses or by exercising cultural assertiveness, these groups also educate their children to continue their legacies and to build upon their collective successes. Whether Asian, South Asian, Latin, or European, these groups have immigrated to America with a tradition of doing for self, building for self and establishing institutions that serve the interests of self.

Black people have already proven a capacity to build according to our self-interests and in the face of opposition we have also shown an ability to rise above the circumstances in our lives. No one will build a Black community but Black people, and it is only when we take ownership of the fruits of our labor that we will have the wherewithal to maintain and safeguard “a piece of this earth that we can call our own.”

To build a community that is productive, respected and relevant, Black people must consider the importance of transformation. Changing the aesthetics of a rundown neighborhood by planting gardens, cleaning up trash and painting over graffiti is good, but transforming our people through a new “educational paradigm” is better. An assertive people with pride in themselves take pride in their communities and proud communities make for stable environments where men, women and children can live in peace together.

In order to build schools, factories, hospitals and enter into international trade and commerce for the good of ourselves, our families and our people, we must resurrect the do-for-self work ethic that had proven so effective among us in the past. We must also be about the business of leaving a legacy of which our children will be proud and allow for them to build upon it. The window for taking decisive action is fast closing and there isn’t much time to lose.

Uncovering the Thanksgiving Myth

by William P. Muhammad

As we approach that venerated time of year when Americans sit down to enjoy their ham and turkey, some time should be taken to reflect upon the impact European settlers had upon the original inhabitants of the “New World.” As Native Americans today barely number two million people inside the Unites States, questions must be asked about the effect of genocide from the first days of the Caucasian’s presence in North America.

Adopted as an American myth by the 1800s, Thanksgiving has been introduced to the public and to the world as an example of goodwill between the “Indians” and White Europeans. Missing from the official narrative, however, is the voice and testimony of the many Native Americans whose suffering has been downplayed and ignored since the arrival of the first English colonists.

Thanksgiving, traditionally rooted in autumn harvest festivals, but identified as having its American origin on Plymouth Plantation in 1621, could not have taken place without the life-saving intervention of Native Americans there. Teaching the English colonists how to survive the harsh winters of the American Northeast, the actual facts regarding the true relationship between the European and the “Indian” has been lost to both time and historical interpretation.

For instance, it is a known fact that European adventurism into the Western Hemisphere came at a high price for the “New World’s” indigenous populations. From Spanish and Portuguese conquests of the Caribbean, South America and portions of North America to the Anglo-Dutch exploits of the Atlantic seaboard, in what is now called the United States, long established civilizations were wiped out within the span of a few hundred years.

For example, on December 4, 1619, after claiming nearly 8,000 acres of Indian land about 20 miles north of Jamestown, Virginia, Captain John Woodleaf led a service of Thanksgiving in accordance with the Charter of the Berkeley Hundred which stated in part: "We ordaine (sic) that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon (sic) in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept (sic) holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."

Perhaps viewed in the context of a divine right, the 38 persons staking claim to the land did so without consideration for those who already owned the land, laying the foundation to greater conflicts that would follow. While the European historical record in 1622 cites massacres led against the English by Indian tribes, these attacks were obviously fomented in retaliation to European encroachment upon yet more Indian land, where wanton attacks upon Indian villages led to homes being burned and crops being destroyed by Englishmen.

Setting the backdrop for yet more conflict, the interactions between the Indians and the English was actually that of Europeans coveting, and by force taking, the assets of North America’s original people. A paradigm established through the slaughter and destruction of America’s indigenous populations, the circumstances under which colonial expansion evolved, eventually becoming a doctrine of manifest destiny, revealed the violent nature of what would become American self-interests.

Today, the indigenous nations within the United States suffer from the highest infant mortality rates, the highest suicide rates, high alcohol and drug abuse rates and a continued erosion of tribal sovereignty that was originally guaranteed by treaties with the United States government. In addition to this, after family separations, generations of forced assimilation and a life relegated to reservations, the spirit of North America’s original people has been subjected to trauma and abuse through acts commission and omission.

By taking Indian land, forcefully removing its people and miseducating the American public to the country’s true history, the uphill battle of America’s native people for freedom, justice and equality remains an arduous one. As the Native American fights for his rights and stands for his beliefs, the European American should contemplate the impact of one of America’s original sins.

This year, as the country observes Thanksgiving, time should be taken to reflect upon the heavy price the Original people have paid in the formation of this nation. If the holiday is to live up to its name, for the giving of thanks, then it is only proper to recognize that American people stand upon a legacy soaked in the blood, sweat and tears of those who were not originally counted as “true Americans.”

Whether Black, Brown or Red, the descendants of the Original people must be respected and remembered for the suffering they endured in the establishment of the United States of America. If no one else will reflect upon these facts during the Thanksgiving season, we should at least remember this for ourselves and never forget.

To build our community we must first start with self

by William P. Muhammad

It was 14 years ago that nearly two million Black men stood on the mall of the U.S. Capitol pledging before the world, to each other and to God that it was time for a change. Black men from all walks of life came to Washington D.C. on October 16, 1995 to atone, to reconcile and to accept the responsibility to become better men for the benefit of self, our families and our people.

An unprecedented sign of unity, and the catalyst for other marches using the “million man theme,” the march was a unique display of brotherhood that captured the imaginations of literally millions of people from around the world. Opinions of the Black American male changed instantly, and those believing that Black men were a burden upon society were forced on that day to take a second look.

A sign of what is possible when we decide to put our hearts and minds toward a given endeavor, the march still inspires those who witnessed the power and unity of that day. From Black child adoptions to voter registration and the rekindling of a new assertiveness, the march showed a side of the Black man that for years had been hidden beneath stereotypes, media propaganda and ignorance.

An entire generation has been born since the Million Man March and those who were only children at the time are now adults. Though, today, we grapple with many of the same issues the Black man faced 14 years ago, answers to these problems can still be found in the “Eight Steps of Atonement” that came out from the march.

For example, when an offended party “points out a wrong”, if the offender takes the grievance to heart, a second step calls for an “acknowledgment of that wrong.” Once accepted and subsequently “confessed,” an act of “repentance” or contrition can lead to “atonement,” the step where repairs are made and reparations for damages are offered.

With efforts having been made to restore that which was harmed, the stage is then set for entering into the process of “forgiveness.” Though difficult, once the offended person or persons learn to overcome their feelings of resentment, it is through the seventh step that “reconciliation” begins to replace discord and enmity.

In order to engage in conflict resolution and move toward a more “perfect union,” parties accepting the eight steps will find the process both a liberating and empowering force that builds rather than destroys. The self-hatred that manifests itself in jealousy, envy and so-called Black on Black violence can perhaps be overturned in favor of unity and brotherhood. When the eight steps are internalized and carried into practice, a peaceful environment emerges and the principles of atonement, reconciliation and responsibility allow for new ideas and opportunities to arise.

The building of a true community requires more than just bricks, concrete and steel, it requires the inclusion of people who have recognized their full potential and are striving to fulfill it. The ideal community recognizes the gifts every individual brings to the table and incorporates them into the whole of its make. Not unlike the cell of life which together with others makes tissues, organs and organ systems, properly guided individuals, united in purpose, make for the dynamics behind strong families, communities and nations.

The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan teaches us there is nothing wasted in the growth and development of the human body, and likewise no human being should be wasted in the growth and development of a community or civilization. While the Black man has been taught he holds little value in this world, as he awakens to the time and what must be done, his emerging consciousness will renew his faith in himself and bring forth a new reality.

If “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not yet seen,” then faith is the basis upon which our community must be built. More than just a church, a mosque or a synagogue, our community must encompass all facets of life where all of us, regardless of land, language or label, can live in peace together. A community that is at peace with itself is a community that has been empowered to grow. Since “self-improvement is the basis of community development,” in order to build, let us now take a close look at self and rise to the occasion.

Do Black voices count in American discourse?

by William P. Muhammad

Regarding the discourse between the Black masses and the politically connected elite, speaking truth to power has long been a method for airing grievances. From voicing principled opposition to making one’s displeasure known to government, the freedom to speak one’s mind is perhaps the most important component to so-called American democracy and the exercise of its stated values.

Although most politicians and pundits extol the virtues of free speech, depending upon the importance and weight of the subject matter, there is often a price to pay in exercising that right. While often times dismissing as illegitimate ideas that run counter to either corporate agendas or the ambitions of the privileged few, within the context of defying boundaries set by the establishment, proponents of new or popular ideas are often marginalized by way of dismissal or distortion.

Through the power and influence of commercial news media, reports and broadcasts often reflect the fears, agendas and aspirations of corporate interests. From international issues to domestic concerns, in many cases, the American public is offered news favoring the wants of the few over the needs of the many.

For instance, when Libyan leader and African Union Chairman Muammar Gadhafi, in a recent address to the UN General Assembly, blasted what he identified as injustices inherent within the UN Charter, he was ridiculed and condemned by major American news outlets. Without regard to the merits of his arguments, the media focused its attention upon him as a personality as opposed to the issues he raised. Therefore causing its audience to shift their attention, American corporate news media was successful in distracting from an issue often raised by many of the world’s developing countries.

Regarding the Black community in America, this tactic is also nothing new. For as long as there have been newspapers in the country, perspectives of the White elite have more often than not trumped those of Blacks, other ethnic groups and the poor. Although today reporters of color may be the face on a broadcast or the name on a byline, it remains true that editors, producers and in some cases even advertisers have the last word on the nature and content of a given story.

After the urban uprisings of the mid and late 1960s, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Commission) recommended that media require “a greater level of sophistication than they have yet shown in this area—higher, perhaps, than the level ordinarily acceptable with other stories.” While the Kerner Report was specifically referring to the media’s handling or urban unrest and violence, questions nevertheless remained over the aim, purpose and accuracy of news reporting in the Black community.

With more than 40 years having passed since the release of the commission’s report, contemporary news stories regarding youth violence are raising questions as to whether or not the young “urban male” is salvageable and worth the effort of saving. While the tragedy of senseless violence should spark earnest discussions over causes and solutions, the suggestion of writing off an entire generation opens doors to potentially dangerous interventions on the part of government and society.

Nevertheless, when workable answers come from those whom “mainstream media” have painted as controversial, they make it difficult for themselves to acknowledge the works and deeds of respected individuals. With editors then choosing to leave tried and tested solutions on the cutting room floor, the perceived lack of a solution is then compounded by the act of omission. In other words, ignoring all solutions but those deemed appropriate by the handlers of corporate media, the problem of urban violence appears to have no end in sight.

The continued marginalization of Black voices reflects a problem within so-called American democracy. If the “fourth estate” will only validate and recognize persons, organizations and movements deemed appropriate by the elite, then the corporate media is actually an institution of control and regulation. Unless and until we are able to speak with one voice, the problem of media overlooking substantive input from Blacks will continue. Corporate media will go on in positioning our leaders, organizations and movements as they see fit, and we will continuously appear as being reactive rather than proactive and one step ahead.

If the opinions, suggestions and ideas of 40 million divided Black people really do not count in American discourse, then it is time to try unity. When our voices become united, there is no telling how far we will go as a people. It is long past time to try it and for the sake of our unborn generations, it’s time to do it.

Overcoming “economic apartheid” in the West

By William P. Muhammad

In the epilogue to the 1980s televised mini-series Shaka Zulu, advisers to Great Britain’s Queen Victoria are quoted as saying: “the colonial office suggests that we constitute within the Zulu kingdom a progressive destruction and dislocation of the military and economic system. In so doing, we feel that the Zulu people, deprived of central leadership, will revert to the state of innocuous bliss that they enjoyed before the… conditioning of Shaka.”

While this mini-series was indeed a fictional portrayal of an historical set of facts, it remains true that by the early 1880s the British did destroy the military and economic systems of the Zulu people. Anglo-Dutch machinations in southern Africa, which lead to the eventual establishment of the infamous apartheid system, created such negative conditions among Black people that its effects are still felt to this day.

The 1880s also marked a trying time for Black people in America, in the form of the post-reconstruction era approximately 16 years after the Civil War. Southern Blacks, no long protected by the presence of Union troops, suffered under conditions of racial terrorism, state sanctioned political repression and extreme racism. Forced to either do for self or face additional hardships, those suffering under southern racism, in order to survive, made do with what little they had.

Later leaving the south because of crop failures, unemployment and racist oppression, the early twentieth century brought with it The Great Migration to the North, West and Midwest. Searching for a better life and the opportunity to start anew, Blacks sacrificed much in order to reestablish themselves educationally, economically and politically.

Eventually leading to three schools of thought: accommodation (Booker T. Washington), elite integration (W.E.B. DuBois) and independence (the Honorable Marcus Garvey), the leaders of these ideas achieved limited success. While each had the best interests of their people at heart, where they failed was in the recognition of one another’s merits and subsequently the potential of mutual cooperation.

Backed by whites (with the exception of Garvey) yet divided against one another, each attempted to bring to the table unique ideas toward uplifting their own constituencies. Not unlike three separate tribes competing over limited resources, the failure to unite their ideas slowed the speed of collective progress. Had there been an amalgamation of the intellectual and pragmatic within the context of a Black economic base, there is no telling how much farther along Black people would have come.

However, the old concept of “divide and rule” affected much of what the three attempted to build. Whether from the government’s breaking of the Garvey movement, to conditions placed upon the use of philanthropic dollars or through the threat of withdrawing institutional support, in the name of white benevolence, the Black American was once again forced into a status of dependency.

Not exactly an “innocuous bliss,” the dissatisfaction of Black people soon led to yet more attempts to establish themselves as free and independent people. In the midst of the dominant White culture, the desire of Blacks to assert themselves soon led to two general schools of thought, one of total integration and immersion into White society, and the other of creating and building an independent Black society.

Failing again to establish operational unity between the two ideas, the Black community was once again played off against itself. Through assassinations, government machinations and media propaganda, Black organizations were left either leaderless or in disarray.

With the introduction of drugs, the closing of Black businesses and the subsequent inability to provide for our own goods and services, Black people were again deprived of an economic infrastructure and the means to protect it. Like a nation without an ability to police itself, the chaos that ensued led to communities in disrepair, high crime rates and yet more dependence upon outside interests.

Today, overcoming the intentional undermining of Black people in America will require more sacrifice and dedication from those seeking to build and establish the Black community. “Taking responsibility to build our communities” requires more than lip service and agreement. It requires the merging of diverse ideas from diverse Black organizations and their leaders, keeping in mind that physical freedom is found in the form of land, access to capital, ownership of the means of production and control of distribution.

Furthermore, freedom requires the willingness and ability to qualify oneself for the future positions that may be waiting. Disciplines needed for mastering agriculture, economics, management and technology require a solid education with the aim and focus of graduating to create a job rather than looking for one.

Freedom requires that we take a seat at the table as equals “with the best in civilized society,” even if it means we must build our own chair first. For the sake of ourselves, our families and our people, we need to be about the business of building the Black community to twenty-first century standards. Time is running out and there is no time to delay.

Brother William P. Muhammad is an author and a graduate of The University of Texas at El Paso. Post comments at: