[Reflections on the meme of "is U.S. a 3rd world country?" - Part I]
Buenos Aires – Back in South America, I remember immediately upon picking up the local newspaper how journalism here frequently serves as a vehicle for communication among elites rather than informing the public. Our own educated citizenry is shrinking rapidly, but most countries on this continent never made much effort to create one, so the nation’s affairs are largely handled by a tiny slice of the populace. This explains how a newspaper article can begin with this lead:
Eight days after the conflict and just as the 10-day time limit set by the Airport Regulatory Commission expires, the CEO of Lan Airlines, Igacio Cueto, travels today to Buenos Aires to meet with authorities for talks to try to reach an agreement.
If you don’t know 90% of the information behind this mysterious story before opening the newspaper, you can’t make much sense of the text. Careful reading of what follows might give you an idea of what it’s all about, but there is little attempt to help you get there. That’s because no more than five or six thousand people in the two countries involved in the dispute (Chile and Argentina) need to know about this episode, and they’ll be up to date. The rest of the population doesn’t need to know, so why go to any particular trouble to explain it to them? They can be left in the dark like medieval parishioners sitting through the Latin mass: the priests know what they’re saying, and the rest of you just repeat-after-me.
Latin America has been doing somewhat better economically, and the politics are generally stable in contrast to the terrible days of military dictatorship. So we hear little about the continent and don’t realize that despite ‘growth’ at respectable levels, the class structure of most L.A. countries remains as congealed as ever. Slight improvements in income at the bottom have not translated into the incorporation of a broader sector of the citizenry into the nation’s social and political life, except as spectators. Despite hard-fought electoral campaigns, the same family surnames occupy most of the high-profile posts and legislative seats of the major parties, and the usual suspects recycle themselves endlessly in the administration of policies that deviate only marginally from the elite consensus.
Is the U.S. moving in a similar direction? One way to tell will be through observation of how news is transmitted to us by informed writers (not to be confused with celebrity gossip or TV shoutfests). Is there an obscurantization process underway by which the average reader is left mystified? For example, is the Wall Street Journal’s admirably clear style evolving into insider-ese with jargon replacing standard English usage? If not, then some aspect of our political culture is surviving and can be resuscitated eventually when conditions permit.