Outside the Asylum
--Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed
Brutal changes have been made in American culture over the past forty years. I say this with no implication that American culture was free of brutality before that date. But nearly every change that has been made since 1980 has been an ugly one, as if someone made a list of everything valued by humanists and targeted each for demolition, regardless of the consequences to the culture at large. Kindness, community, civic responsibility; debate, analysis, honest research; intellectual freedom, investigative journalism, human rights; untrammeled creativity, innovation, and invention; education, arts, letters, and even the kinds of science that don’t translate immediately into machines that can be sold at a profit: all have been diminished or distorted, defunded or made the target of a hostile takeover. (For a glance at how one can accomplish a hostile takeover of a cultural event or concept, look at the excellent article "The Perils of Liberal Philanthropy," by Karen Ferguson. You can find it here: https://jacobinmag.com/2018/11/black-lives-matter-ford-foundation-black-... ) The natural world and human civilization alike have been abused, in a manner befitting a death cult. And, arguably, late-stage capitalism is a death cult. At least, the knowledge that the pursuit of maximal profit is currently killing people, and will end up killing most of the human race, seems to suggest to the powerful no reason to alter their course.
They say you can’t kill an idea, and they are (mostly) right. So if you want to shift your culture away from certain ideas and toward others, the best you can do is to take the idea out of currency. It’s like altering the algorithm of a search engine; when people’s minds search their culture for ways to interpret their experience, you want the idea you’re trying to destroy NOT to come up as one of the top ten search results. How do you do this? Far too simply for my taste. Control the media, and you’re a long way toward controlling people’s expectations, and if you control their expectations, you are likely to control their perceptions. You can even get people to believe total nonsense against all evidence to the contrary. As George Lakoff once said, frames trump facts; people’s fundamental assumptions will blot out from their sight facts that do not fit. (I am not as certain as Dr. Lakoff that this is the way the human brain can work, or respond to the incongruous, but I'm willing to accept that this is the way the human brain works:)
If, in addition to controlling the media you also control public education, you will be most of the way toward your goal. Critical thinking can have a prophylactic effect on perception management, and you don’t want that ability at large amongst the populace.
America, in 1980, was an easy target for the brutal propagandists who wanted to change it (“We will move America so far to the right it will be unrecognizable,” said the Nixon staffer on the way to jail.) We were, and are, over-reliant on our mass media and our celebrities (including politicians) for our concepts of what our culture and people are like. This made the right-wing media consolidation of the eighties and nineties horribly powerful. Why were we so reliant on television, movies, and radio to tell us who we were? Because our communities, and our ability to make community, were in a state of progressive, systemic decline. They were being assaulted by a reconceived, and profoundly predatory, American economy, and in subsequent decades, the situation only got worse.
The economic environment required, and expected, frequent relocation in pursuit of work. A simultaneous de-industrialization demolished the economic infrastructure of the country, destroyed small towns and even small cities, often making it necessary to leave in search of work. Small farms and small banks were targeted, put under economic pressure, and often became part of large corporate entities which were emphatically not local (most large corporations act like they are local to nowhere). Most importantly of all, the basic social contract around work was altered; the wage scale was shifted downward again and again; promotions were de-coupled from real raises in pay; positions were reconceived as “contract positions,” meaning that benefits such as health insurance and vacation time became tenuous at best. This is all well documented, but what people often don’t notice, because it’s beneath mention, is the effect these things had, not just on people’s ability to own homes and get medical care, but on their ability to form lasting relationships and communities. If everybody’s at work (or commuting) most of the time, and nobody knows when they might have to move because of or in search of work, it’s going to be exceedingly difficult to make community.
Creating a world in which people can rarely afford to take time off from work—where, indeed, they might lose their job if they did take time off—exacerbates this problem. Whether you’re planning a music festival, a climate change rally, or a visit to old friends, you will need time: time to travel, time to spend in community, time to spend with friends. The American economy was restructured to deny ordinary people that time.
Into the vacuum where our communities used to be stepped the mass media, in particular the broadcast media. They were the ones to tell us what America was and what Americans believed. Social science still existed, and not all of it was corrupt; it’s possible, even now, to find a study that was done honestly and derive some conclusions about America from it. But the mass media is the one who tells its viewers what these studies mean. It’s a rare person who investigates further, looking into the data itself, analyzing the structure of the study, because it’s a rare person who has the time and energy to do so. It’s also a rare person who received the kind of education which would make them think of doing it.
This large-scale attack on communities was able to proceed without much opposition largely due to America’s tendency to valorize profit, “work,” and the business world, and despise all that is not practical, material, and easily measurable. Emotions are categorized as weakness, intellectual pursuits not oriented toward profits are categorized as waste. Work done for its own sake is, at best, foolish; at worst, it might mean you’re a decadent aristocrat with “privilege.” Therefore, if I “work” on learning how to play guitar for ten years, that’s not real “work” (neither is cleaning my house or taking care of my child). Speaking of children, all relationships outside the nuclear family are entirely dispensable, and we know in our hearts that if our economy dictates it, the nuclear family too will too be put on the chopping block. All priorities other than those dictated by the profit machine can be rescinded at any time.
We could all join with Yaphet Kotto's character in Alien when he says: The goddamned company. What about our lives, you son of a bitch?
The arts, humanities, and culture itself are treated like decorations—pretty, but inessential. Culture is the framework of our lives with others, so viewing it as decorative rather than essential or functional is a destructive attitude in itself; but that view also enabled attacks on the culture to proceed unnoticed, or embraced in a spirit of resignation. From the “practical” point of view I’m describing, it would be nice to have a culture in which we could spend time with each other, give our children an excellent education, and have time to reflect on the current condition of our country and our world, in the same way that it would be nice to have beautiful weather for a picnic. If, instead, you have a downpour which ruins the picnic, people do not organize against it; they sigh, and go on with their lives—or, more accurately, go on without large portions of their lives.
Many years ago, Mark Slouka wrote an excellent essay on the problem of an economy, and a concomitant culture, that denies us time. In "Quitting the Paint Factory," he said:
--Slouka, "Quitting the Paint Factory"
These two factors—the predatory economy perfected in the 80s and 90s, and the prejudice toward profit that encouraged us to accept these changes as inevitable, made us particularly vulnerable to media manipulation, propaganda, and cultural engineering of all kinds. Changes in media narratives of all kinds, from the news to Netflix, hit us harder because we lack enfleshed referents and experiences to provide alternative data and interpretations.
Slouka, "Quitting the Paint Factory"
And thus, the predatory economy also becomes, intrinsically, a tool of political authoritarianism.
I promise I will get to concrete examples next.
How are you all this morning?