Wikipedia, like YouTube, can be a place of great learning, but also an abyss into which you can easily fall, filled with videos of goats yelling like humans, articles on Nea Morin, the apparently famous British rock climber, and other assorted oddities. The things, people and objects you find in the abyss have no use, really, other than maybe being able to impress dinner guests with your thorough knowledge of King Size Dick, the German rock singer who sings in Kolsch.
Every once in a while, though — the key words being “once” and “while” — you stumble upon something so fascinating, so thought provoking, that you think to yourself, “Hey, maybe the hours and days I’ve frittered away sitting sedentary and growing paler in front of this screen were worth it.”
My discovery of the Cymothoa exigua, discovered while looking into Red Tide, an algae that infects certain marine animals and the humans who eat them, was one such “something.”
The Cymothoa exigua, a crustacean found in many different parts of the world, is notable for this: a male and female enter a fish through its gills and, after latching onto its tongue and draining it of blood, cause the tongue to atrophy. What happens next is the fascinating, disgusting, scary part: the crustacean then seats itself where the tongue used to be and becomes the fish’s new tongue. The fish, apparently, notices no difference, but there is now a parasite doing the work — collecting the dividends of the tongue.
At this point, you’re probably wondering, “What, exactly, does this have to do with anything?” In literal terms, nothing. The Cymothoa exigua is harmless to humans. But on the metaphorical level, the tiny crustacean is a powerful symbol of the danger of the Fourth Estate, media.
Media arose first as a sort of representative institution, to promulgate the messages of equality, freedom and civil rights monarchs would rather the people not hear, but the people were dying — quite literally — to hear. The advent of the printing press allowed Martin Luther to spread his anti-establishment message — what would become Protestantism — to an audience he previously would have been unable to reach. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said, “Without a free press there can be no free society.”
The next line of Frankfurter’s quote is the crux of this piece: “Freedom of the press is not an end in itself but a means to the end of a free society.” In other words, press does not ensure freedom. The people must make the press make them free.
How? By ensuring through vigilance that the free press is just that — free. And while in the past, newspapers have sprung up to spread politicians’ messages, they were counterbalanced by the proliferation of independent-minded, independent-speaking newspapers across the country.
Today, it’s a different story. That’s not to say there is some great conspiracy, that the government is using the media to cover up the fact that, say, it carried out the Newtown shooting. Cause, c’mon. That’s just silly. It’s not even to say that partisan media is making a partisan society.
No, reality is scarier. Words, as Orwell’s “1984” made famous, control what we can and can’t think about. Without a word to pinpoint a concept — justice, say, or autonomy — how can we think it, how can we strive to achieve it?
By foregoing vigilance, by contenting ourselves with spoon-fed education — as in “I want to read some news, let’s go to CNN.com” — we allow our minds to be sculpted. And you’ve got to believe it’s a conscious sculpting, just not on our part. If all we know is what is fed to us, and we don’t know, really, who’s behind the hand-feeding, are we really being serviced by the media at all? Or are our minds instead being shaped by them? Judging by the cyclical nature of political debate in this country, in which one day abortion is the big thing, the next it’s Wikileaks, the next it’s immigration or the fiscal cliff, then *poof,* it’s gone from the headlines, we’re well on our way to Orwell’s dystopian state.
We can’t forget that the media works for the people, not the other way around. Look around. If you’re unhappy with something, say something. Use your voice. We, the people, have one. Don’t be too lazy, too apathetic to give it up … because if you do, someone will silence your tongue and start doing the talking for you.