As someone who likes keeping up-to-date with news and current events, one of the biggest adjustments I have had to make while studying in Cuba has been dealing with the fact that accurate, timely news is very hard to find. To use the internet I have to wait in line for anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour to use a computer at a government-run internet café and I can only use the internet for an hour at a time before I have to get back in line again. On top of that, each hour of internet costs me about seven dollars, so I don’t spend too much time browsing the web. As a result, my only viable sources of news are the newspaper—either La Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party of Cuba, or La Juventud Rebelde, a publication of the Union of Young Communists—or the television, both of which only cover events outside of Cuba and/or Latin America in a perfunctory and less-than-objective fashion (much like most American coverage of Cuba and Latin America). This means that I only have a vague grasp of the biggest headlines in the US: I know that we almost attacked Syria before being talked out of it by Putin; I know about the government shutdown; I learned the other day that the NSA has been spying on Angela Merkel (wtf?), and that’s pretty much it. I don’t hear anything about the smaller scandals and controversies that take up so much of the airspace in American media coverage. No racist Paula Deens, no ex-congressman’s wieners, no victim-blaming Dr. Phils; the overwhelming majority of information I consume is either directly experienced or directly relevant to my daily life.
While this was a difficult transition at first—during the Syria crisis I would constantly ask people for updates about the situation and I quickly became frustrated by the vagueness and uncertainty of the information I was getting—I’ve now found that I don’t really miss it that much. With the Syria scenario, it became pretty clear to me that very little actually changed on a day-to-day basis, much less on an hour-to-hour or minute-to-minute basis. I began to put things in perspective. There was very little I could do about the whole situation—even if I wanted to go protest or something, I’m in Cuba; there’d be no one to protest to—and while I care a lot about anti-imperialist politics, the whole thing acquired a very abstract and irrelevant character in my consciousness. By being unplugged from the media, I feel like I’ve been given a reprieve from the spectacular machine of politics that I spoke about this past summer; I can think about bigger questions, like the kind of world I want to live in and what must be done to make that world a reality, instead of becoming mired in the controversy-du-jour and losing sight of the big picture.
It’s not that I don’t care about what’s going on; it’s more that with fewer distractions it’s easier to see things in their own light. Whether the US intervenes in Syria or not, or whether Congress reaches a compromise on the shutdown or not, it doesn’t really make a huge difference. Yes, both issues impact a lot of people’s lives in significant ways, but both are really just superficial crises that don’t actually represent any meaningful change in the fundamental structural relations of American or global society: the rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer; large imperialist powers in the West (like the United States) will continue to bully and subjugate smaller and less powerful nations in the developing world; the hegemony of the ruling classes remains unchallenged.
I’m not advocating a politics divorced from reality or a stance of apathy towards the news; I just think we should see things for what they are. For instance, the George Zimmerman verdict, while inarguably unjust and a manifestation of the racism inherent in the criminal ‘justice’ system, doesn’t really mean that much on its own; the criminal justice system would still continue to perpetuate racial hierarchies and economic exploitation if the verdict had happened to go the other way. This isn’t to devalue the efforts of (for instance) the valiant protestors who occupied the Florida state capital demanding a reevaluation of Stand Your Ground; rather, this is simply an argument that in order for change to be meaningful, it has to be radical; i.e. it has to grasp the problem by the root of the matter.
The news media present issues as isolated events, fleeting stimuli for the masses to react to; it never reveals their relation to the functioning of the system as a whole. The status quo is always taken as a given, never as something subject to change and contestation. In this manner, the news media is complicit in policing the bounds of what is considered politically possible and providing apologia for the existing order of society. By dividing the public over superficial and fleeting controversies the media forecloses any critical analysis of, say, the fact that the United States is the world’s premier superpower and uses its military power with little regard for the sovereignty of other countries or international law, and even more profoundly, any discussion of the objective conditions of possibility that make the question of whether or not we should invade Syria relevant in the first place.
On a recent trip I took to the eastern part of Cuba, I stayed in a hotel with cable television in all of its rooms. Eager to catch up with news in the United States, I flipped the channel to CNN. The lead story highlighted random acts of kindness performed by ordinary citizens during the government shutdown. After about two minutes I turned off the television in disgust. While the Cuban news media is often barely distinguishable from propaganda, it at least doesn’t shy away from admitting that it has an agenda. American media, on the other hand, rabidly defends the status quo while wearing a mask of objectivity and neutrality. When faced with such a state of affairs, what’s the point in “staying informed”?