At any given time, but especially in recent weeks when Israel’s conflict with Hamas has been front-page news, a perusal of the comments under any story involving Jews almost inevitably devolves into some variation on the theme of Jewish control. It is notable how frequently, even in 21st-century Canada, Jews are depicted as manipulating the media and puppet-mastering the powerful, like the United States.
The advent of the electronic age has brought the phenomenon to even greater levels of intensity. We are now all broadcasters. We are all publishers. We are all curators of the news.
A few years ago, the vast majority of North Americans gathered their information from the same couple of sources. While every city and town had its own newspaper, these mostly received international news from the same few press agencies. On television, Canadians were offered CBC or CTV. We now have access to hundreds of English-language TV stations and millions, if not billions, of other sources for whatever information we seek. News, which was once a staid medium, has morphed into infotainment, in which beheadings in Iraq mingle with Kardashian marriages.
Time was, one could count on the fact that most of the people at your dinner party would have heard what Barbara Frum had said the previous night or would catch the reference to a Wayne and Shuster skit. Now, if you don’t “get” the references, an electronic device will promptly be provided so that you can watch the original source of the reference itself.
There is certainly something democratizing about this panoramic access to information. Yet there may be something contra to healthy democracy in this situation, as well. The underpinnings of a successful civil society rest partly on a shared foundation of knowledge. As we have become more individualized in our choices of what we know or ignore, those shared foundations are crumbling. That a great number of young people get their news from sources like Jon
Stewart’s The Daily Show is slightly reassuring in the sense that at least they’re getting some knowledge of world affairs, similar to the transition in the 1960s when attitudes changed from viewing comic books as something akin to pornography to a resigned attitude that “at least the kids are reading.”
It is true that social media has helped young people – all people – take up causes and devote themselves to social change if they seek to do so. One of the greatest examples was this summer’s ubiquitous Ice Bucket Challenge, which has raised millions of dollars for ALS research and advocacy. Still, there is a diminishing of comprehensive, shared, reliable news and information upon which all people form their opinions.
In a democracy, everyone has the same voice at the ballot box. But a democratic society is not formed only on one day every four years. A thriving democratic society requires the engagement of an informed population every day. From that perspective, democracies risk losing an important element of viability and vibrancy when a huge proportion of the population is choosing the garden channel over Newsworld, TMZ over the New York Times.
For centuries, there has been the conspiracy theory that a tiny minority somehow controls knowledge and everything that goes with it. In a strange way, this myth may be approaching reality. But it is not Jews who are the elite increasingly controlling what transpires in the world – it is the diminishing number of people who are actually paying attention.
This is not, like the conspiracy theory, the effect of a minority seizing control from the masses. It is the opposite: it is masses of people abdicating their right and responsibility to be informed, active participants in democratic society. And, as more people look away from the uncomfortable realities of the world, a smaller and smaller elite – those who choose to remain informed – will have an outsized influence on public opinion and what governments do worldwide.