|Via David Seaton|
We are taught in school, and have it endlessly drilled into our heads lifelong, that America is a nearly perfect democracy dedicated to promoting the general welfare of its citizens. Perhaps though, in reality, it is a nearly perfect regime dedicated to promoting the interests of tiny, deeply entrenched, oligarchy and no matter how obvious that is, it appears that nothing will ever change, that an endless chain of presidential Tweedledees and Tweedledums in various sizes and colors and campaign fund starved legislators will make sure that the interests of that oligarchy are always efficiently served.
How does that work? How did that happen? How did America turn into a regime?
We the people in the United States are entrapped in a series of mental mazes, each more devilish than the last. We are also hopelessly atomized from one another. As you are probably aware, there has been a battle raging in Wisconsin pitting capital against labor. That labor is fighting back is heartening. However, it is galling that many average American workers observe the condition of the unionized worker, believes they are paid more, enjoy better benefits, receive greater respect from management, have better job security, and concludes that the solution is to strip that worker of his union rather than get one of his own. If my neighbor begins practicing a new discipline that has led to noticeable improvements in his physical and mental condition, my impulse is not to stop him from continuing, but maybe to check it out for myself and see if I can derive similar benefits.
So it’s really fucked up to see these polls where a still sizeable percentage of Americans are hostile to or resentful of labor unions. What exactly are they thinking? Hold on master, those soft sole shoes aren’t hurting me so bad, here are a pair of steel toes boots and – I have to confess - I stuffed a pillow in my shirt to soften the blows. Let me take that out for you. Yes, to answer my query, that is their mindset. According to them, 'everyone' is sacrificing and suffering, so why do these union goons have it so easy? Everyone is not everyone, of course, because some people are taking ever larger shares of the American pie, something we unthinkingly laud as gains in productivity.
How did we get here? Seaton mentions the groundbreaking work in social engineering and propaganda advanced by folks like Bernays and Lippman at the turn of the last century, what they referred to as engineering or manufacturing consent. The dominant medium of information exchange in our time has been television, of course, and the techniques developed by those visionaries have done much to get us to our current state of affairs. To borrow a bit of thought from Mcluhan, the subtext of the television as a medium transmits far more powerful messages than whatever is being said on any given air wave.*
*At this time, I should mention that if there is one book that Noam Chomsky has written that is essential for one's intellectual self-defense, it is Manufacturing Consent, which provides a powerful model for understanding how this debate takes place. If you find his writing difficult, I'd say that this is one book in his canon that is worth the trouble. Keep in mind that the book was written before the telecommunications act of the 1990s, which led to much tighter consolidation and an even more corporate news media landscape.
The air waves are ostensibly in the public domain, of course, but access or licensing to those airwaves is reserved for media corporations. Those corporations have a similar business model as other forms of media; they earn revenues from advertising. Another way of putting this is that they are selling our eyes to other corporations to get us to buy their product. Our national dialogue, as broad a brush stroke as that is, is entirely told from the perspective of that same narrow group of elite interests who have been hoovering up the nation's wealth. This is partly how you get people barely holding on slagging unions as drags on our economy.
There is an outstanding question that is often left unasked in any institutional critique; do we need reform or abolition? Mainstream liberals tend to come down on the side of reform, which actually makes them implicitly conservative. This reform mindset can often result in absurdities. The liberal will first seek to reform an out of control institution. If that task is hopeless, then direct opposition is out of the question, so their next option is to create a new institution to act as a counterweight. One of my favorite examples of this is Dennis Kucinich's proposal for a Department of Peace as a counterweight for the Department of "Defense."
Or consider the liberal critique of the news media, as found in organizations like Media Matters, FAIR, Daily Kos, Huffington Post, or any number of writers. The conventional framing of news media analysis is within the left-right spectrum of American politics and all of the above pushes back against the media within the terms of debate set by those same media. There is a meme for egregious errors in fact found in the media started by (I think) former Clinton Administration underling and economist Brad Delong, which asks in exasperation, "why oh why can't we have a better press corps?" When a newspaper publishes a shoddy article, you often hear acid drenched commentary along the lines of, "This is why newspapers are dying." Liberal and conservative critics alike argue that this or that talking head, show, or network is biased to a liberal or conservative point of view, and nothing ticks off a media critic quite like a bozo on television giving an opinion that is obviously contradicted by fact.
Media critics are elites in a sense, most people do not have the time or inclination to keep vigilant watch over the news media. Compared to the average man on the street, a media critic is probably better informed of national and international events, familiar with the major players in our political and media landscapes, and at ease with meta-discussions about the media. But they've only escaped the first mental trap of television to enter another. The unexamined premises of their criticism holds that the news media exists to inform the citizenry and that only recently have they begun falling down on the job. When the media publishes an easily refuted set of facts, or shaky opinions, what is needed is to provide them with the correct information. Talking heads who say something wrong headed just need to be made aware of some set of facts, while for those heads who are incorrigible , what are needed are appeals directly to their employer, who just needs to be made aware of their 'incompetence'.
The best informed among us cannot - or will not - break free of a normative framework for understanding power. Here, for instance, is Alex Kain on the Palestine Papers,
"The release of the "Palestine Papers," Al Jazeera's leak of thousands of documents relating to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, is creating space in the American mainstream for this central truth: it is Israel's fault that there has not been a peace agreement with the Palestinians....While this initial coverage is just a start, the release of the "Palestine Papers" should, and has to potential to, upend U.S. media's understanding of the conflict.
No, it is not. There is no space for that discussion. This is misguided thinking that rests on the false premise that the American news media has simply been unaware of the facts all this time, despite their availability, and now that they are out, as they've always been, that will change the tenor of discussion. The way that the Israel Palestine conflict is discussed in America is easily explained; one side has a powerful voice in the American political system, and the other side has virtually no one arguing on its behalf. The tenor of the discussion has nothing to do with information. Given the disparate power of the two factions, we would expect an extremely biased, tilted, contra to available facts perspectives to dominate that is impervious to information. Now, to substitute subjects here, consider that we have a similar dynamic with respect to wealthy, middle class, and poor interests in the United States. One group has a powerful, dominant voice and access to the many levers of power in our society, the other groups do not. All efforts to make the powerful aware of new information are mostly wasted. What is needed is not another petition to a Congressman or talking head (or blog post), almost worthless gestures, but direct engagement with the community and a conscious refusal to allow one's mindset be co-opted by the powerful.
The highest paid members of the media are duly compensated for doing a job, not the job the liberal thinks they should be doing. The liberal conceit is that this or that institution or individual exists for normative reasons that exist only in national mythology. Circus clowns like Glenn Beck are highly paid because his antics sell a lot of eyeballs to Fox's advertisers.
A class based, rather than a left-right, approach provides a more insightful understanding of the news media. It can be demonstrated that this or that news media tilts left or right in their reporting, but the left-right spectrum of American politics reflects a set of minor disagreements of priorities among America's ruling class. The ruling class also happens to have a monopoly of access to the medium by which we discuss issues in this country, a medium that implicitly puts the viewer in a subordinate role and accepts no feedback from them. Our political debates are almost always an exercise in the fallacy of false choices; should we cut social security by a little, a lot, or abolish it altogether? Are unions completely parasitic, or just mostly parasitic? There are no other options permitted for debate. What is important when witnessing whatever issue is under discussion in the media and political arenas is to ask why this issue is coming up now, and as importantly, what issues are not on the agenda. To drill down further, suss out the range of options and consider what is unthinkable or laughed out of the discussion if a guest brings it up. The option to cut the military budget in half (and re-allocating to programs that more directly benefit the population) on the grounds that it is unsustainable is never considered when creating a Department of Peace represents the most extreme criticism possible (and Kucinich is routinely ridiculed and considered a kook.) Meanwhile, social safety nets are constantly under assault because those entitlements are pushing our country into bankruptcy.
Consider that we spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined, and our social safety nets are threadbare compared to other industrialized nations; a reality that can be seen in graphs like the one topping this post that I ripped from David Seaton.
If I suggest that we abolish the CIA to most people, they would look at me like I had two heads. This in spite of the fact that the CIA has fallen on its face time and again, as I've pointed out, but as we are again witnessing in the Middle East, when our vaunted intelligence agencies whose ostensible* job it is to know things and keep a finger on the pulse of the world were gob smacked by the revolutions roiling through the middle east, their failure to prevent 9/11, their surprise at the Iranian revolution of 1979, their abysmal failure to learn or communicate that Iraq had no WMDs, and their vast overestimation of Soviet strength during the Cold War and inability to see the Soviet collapse coming. Liberals are uneasy with the CIA, but their prescriptions are always reform based.
* Very intentional word there, 'ostensible' as the CIA's real job is to act as an unaccountable paramilitary for our government's designs on the rest of the world.
To take another example, suppose I suggested that the U.S. government should provide a guaranteed job to anyone who wants work. It would pay a living wage, and would entail doing various jobs for the community, to be determined by local administrators. Think of the various jobs prisoners do now, but actually paying people for it. We have the money for this, and the dollars would be recycled into the economy immediately so it would result in very little drag on our economy. Yet, this is an unthinkable proposal because consider what would our nation look like absent the fear of homelessness and hunger by losing a job. The citizenry would be far more independent, less fearful, harder to control and manipulate. What if there is not enough work to keep them busy and these people are allowed to just lay about, drawing a paycheck for doing nothing? Well, there is always some litter to clean up, a road to repair, or some other such task, but granting the point, this is the state of affairs we currently have minus the paycheck to keep people from starving or laying their heads on a concrete pillow at night. Others may object that this is a nice idea in theory, but in practice would breed a permanent underclass of people content mooching off of welfare - as opposed to our current permanent underclass taking part in black trades and rotating in and out of prisons (note that we are already paying for our underclass with oppressive measures like prisons.) Ideas like this expressed to most people, people who have these same fears, have an almost allergic reaction. Imagine that this was the world we existed, however, and that a reformer came along and suggested that instead of putting anyone to work who wanted to work, we simply allow them to go hungry and homeless or lock them up in prison. But to all objections about how unworkable, impracticable, or un-American this idea is, I say, we have a jobs program almost exactly like this - called the U.S. military.
We are all living with a complex, interlocking set of systems that act as a powerful form of social control - hence you have out of work or underemployed people railing against unions in Wisconsin and public workers instead of the wealthy fucks who are currently liquidating America's assets. I repeat myself,
"In the future, there will be a wealthy, globe-trotting elite funded by hordes of wage slaves at the bottom that are too busy fretting over the possibility that their neighbor is buying milk and bread with food-stamps and sympathizing with his landlord that the eviction process has too much red tape to take stock of the situation beyond that.That sounds familiar enough to me already, how often do we hear others complains that those damn teachers/ plumbers/ bus drivers/ etc. make too much money and have to take a hair cut. This is a country where you can get 16 years in prison for stealing a candy bar, and - at worst - a golden parachute if you steal a few billion dollars.
This brings me around to the push-back on this harshly limited national dialogue, primarily in the form of organizations like Wikileaks and the many groups it has inspired. One important function these organizations are providing is in exposing how limited our national debates are and how warped the agreed upon perspectives may be. A lone person watching CNN may find themselves imaging a range of options not allowed for discussion, and then wonder if they are crazy and dismissing their thoughts out of hand. Wikileaks and other outlets are providing concrete examples of these alternative perspectives; exposure to this is more important than whatever overt message they convey. One of the most dangerous things that can happen, from the elite perspective, is that people start saying themselves, "Maybe the idea that a nation as wealthy as ours shouldn't have so much insecurity, anxiety and hardship trying to fulfill their basic needs while a precious few get to fly on personal jets, live in gated and guarded mansions, and sail private yachts isn't so crazy."
Bob Dylan once sang that "Advertising signs they con you into thinking you’re the one that can do what’s never been done, that can win what’s never been won, meantime life outside goes on all around you." Once you break free of the normative trap that has ensnared so many liberals, another awaits; that of despondency, resignation, and accommodation. Though I can't speak with any authority on the texture of other abolitionist movements and dissenters, we seem to have a lot of people who believe the status quo is insurmountable, and that belief, in turn, results in a cynical resignation. Everything's fucked, so why should I care? You can't change it. This trap is, again, another product of our consumer culture, the individual is king, master of his own fate, idealist or activist, all of which can be expressed by buying a products that indulge our inner surreality. We are taught to seek individual glory and acclaim. Any action taken that does not result in instant gratification is dismissed as a waste of time. Buy a handbag or pair of shoes and feel good about yourself. Of course, the work required to affect systemic changes, to fight for human rights and higher standards of living and push back against an aggressive, greedy elite requires the cumulative efforts of thousands of people, efforts that will take a long time to yield results, and the majority of those efforts and people will remain anonymous.
To get back to Seaton's question, consider how much it took to push the Egyptians (or Tunisians, Libyans, or whoever) over the edge. They accommodated themselves to horrible, violent, repressive states and an economic system that had them fighting for the smallest of scraps for decades before pushing back. I'd guess that by way of comparison, we still have a long way to fall before skirmishes like Wisconsin are direct confrontations that result in tangible gains rather than rear guard actions that limit losses.