The Age of Pundits
Posted on 1-August-2016
Television, a mid-twentieth century invention continues to be an important means of information, education and entertainment in spite of the internet and of social networking sites. Its visual appeal gives it its potency. The danger is that its power can also be misused. Television news, as indeed news disseminated by older mediums such as newspapers, can and often is, slanted with the purpose of guiding the opinion of its audience along desired channels. Satellite communications have brought with them 24-hour news broadcast which not only overstuffs people's minds with information but also numbs the sense of discrimination of its audiences, making them all the more susceptible to manipulation. Thus for example, if a nation goes to war, as the USA, the United Kingdom and now France have done in the Middle East and North Africa television news along with the modern invention of journalists embedded with army units is used to mould opinion in support of the war--such has been the case with printed newspapers also but television's impact is immediate partly because of the concentration of its presentations and partly because television news is simplified and neatly packed.
About as ubiquitous as television news is the phenomenon of talk show. One kind of talk show in which the anchor interviews one individual over, say half an hour, still allows for some depth in the discussions. But there is another, more popular variety, in which a number of people with claims to some expertise in the subject being discussed, are asked to express their views on some matter of topical interest. An--usually narcissistic--anchor guides the discussion, allowing each expert not more than one or two minutes at a time to expound his views, on any matter or sometimes even less if the participant's opinion is inconvenient for the line of argument the show is designed to promote. The experts are all set in their views and no participant ever succeeds in persuading other participants to his point of view and the summing up by the anchor follows a pre-determined line. The expert, the pundit, gets his exposure to a large audience. But on many issues the pundits have rarely anything new to say. Thus if there is an event of terrorism, as in the nightclub in Paris earlier this year, or an eruption of popular anger in Kashmir valley last month the pundits express the same views as they did when there was a similar event earlier. Most pundits fail to propose concrete and specific solutions to the problem being discussed. Pundits appear not only on television shows but write columns in newspapers, organise and participate in symposia or form discussion groups. Whether it is an act of terrorist violence committed in London, Paris or New York, atrocities against dalits in India, or global warming, they would criticise, analyse with authority and suggest a new approach, often without defining what that new approach should be or repeating panaceas others before them have prescribed. There are so many different voices in the land of pundits, that they either cancel each other out or rather than educate their audience, they confuse them. Voices emanating out of punditdom are in the end a very loud cacophony. Yet there is always an audience. In the next three months or so leading up to the greatest political sport in the world--the US presidential election--pundits will come into their own, explaining the meaning and impact of words uttered by the two main candidates, about which approach will go well or badly with which category of voters.
Not all that the pundits will say will affect the outcome of the US elections. Some might predict the outcome of the elections and if they are proven right, they will establish their reputation for knowledge and prescience. In the real world pundits, as opposed to people of genuine learning, hardly find solutions to problems of life, society or politics. They talk and they can talk impressively. Yet there is a market for them just as there is a market for news as a form of entertainment. For the average educated man of our days, following news, watching television talk shows and reading newspapers are in most cases mere pastimes. Perhaps purveyors of news and views know that. Juvenal writing in the first century AD said a liitle sneeringly about the poor of Rome that all that they wanted was bread and circuses. It is likewise for the average modern educated man--he wants his entertainment: spectator sports, cinema and television and he wants his gadgetry and his other necessities for consumption from a wide choice on offer in the market. If he cannot pay for these he can borrow for procuring them. The pundit is part of the modern man's entertainment. Ruling elites can sit easy if they can ensure that the average educated modern man has his kind of bread and circuses. His faculties thus blunted he has neither the patience nor the time to think of problems such as growing inequalities in society or of impending environmental disasters.
Television, newspaper articles, facebook, even more so twitter, have no room for quiet, detailed and thorough discussion of issues. What is preferred is glibness under the garb of brevity or of wit. The average modern educated man, his senses bombarded every moment of his life by so many images, so much of marketing, so much of noise has no interest in long discourses requiring him to strain his mental faculties: he wants his information in an attractively packaged can. This is why our age favours the pundit more than the real scholar.
I have talked of the man who watches television and who reads his newspapers. I have talked of the average modern educated man. In other words such people can be described as middle class. What about the poor who do not have television and who cannot read newspapers? Sadly the the poor do not count, not now, nor ever in the past and nowhere. Ruling classes take notice of the poor only when they rise up in revolt. Those living in extreme poverty not knowing where their next meal will come from have neither the energy nor the will to revolt. They remain invisible until some pundit writes about them. Then they come temporarily into focus to disappear once again. In India for example there have been a few recent cases of atrocities against dalits, setting the pundits talking. Some time later when the din has gone, the pundits will talk about other things equally newsy. The dalit will remain where he has always been.