Friday, June 12, 2009

Notes on Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival

We connect with words so rarely that when it happens, it sends our perceptions careening out of control. Such was my experience today while reading, during a wait for a doctor's appointment.

What remains of democracy is largely the right to choose among commodities. Business leaders have long explained the need to impose on the population a "philosophy of futility" and "lack of purpose in life," to "concentrate human attention on the more superficial things that comprise much of fashionable consumption." Deluged by such propaganda from infancy, people may then accept their meaningless and subordinate lives and forget ridiculous ideas about managing their own affairs. They may abandon their fate to corporate managers and the PR industry and, in the political realm, to the self-described "intelligent minorities" who serve and administer power (Chomsky, 2003, p. 139).

The preceeding paragraph describes the pervasive sense, in which the agency that so many of us hold as sacrosanct only exists in the commercial realm; beyond that, we exist as automata. It is the nightmare realized to awaken in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, wherein the most sober among us are relegated to the role of the savage. Pop culture is relentless in its banal march, through which social illusionists redirect our attention away from the men behind the curtain. Through attrition, our surrender is a given; it doesn't matter how hard we try to filter out the distractions: sooner or later we will succumb, until the wildness has been wrung from our minds. As automata, we awaken drugged and conditioned, quelling the savage again and again, until we indifferently brush past our own dangling corpse of agency.

Rock and Roll is replete with legends of rockers who "sold their souls" to the devil for success. Indeed, struggling musicians often refer to established acts that become wealthy and famous after years of struggle as having "sold out." And so they have; for even as their struggle brought them face to face with a reality that connected deeply with their fans, the success they worked so hard to achieve took them out of the smoke-filled dives and run-down, cockroach-infested flophouses--which inspired the words and music that their audience related to in the first place. How can the millionaire who jet-sets around the world and employs trendy clothing designers relate to their fans--who knew them as poor people, like themselves--through the tinted, bulletproof windows of limousines and the army of security that "protects" them from "the crazies"?

And yet, this very kind of isolation from everyday people, whether they patronize a merchant's store or buy a musician's records, is the very measure of success in a capitalist society. For the rest of us (the patrons), there is a sense of both failure and futility. We drag ourselves to work, make posts related to generally unimportant news and events on Facebook or MySpace, and sound off in the comments segment of online "news" stories.

I am troubled by the notion that dissent for many is a limited resource. At what point does the savage surrender for good to the flickering images, awarding his body and what is left of his mind to the corporate managers, business leaders, propagandists and administrators?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Be Careful what you Ask for

Below is an AP video of a 72 year-old woman being tasered. As a dissident, I expected to see another out-of-control cop brutalizing an elderly woman. That's sort of what happened:

(Click here for video if you're reading this on Facebook)

The video also shows the woman being abusive, daring the officer to "go ahead and tase me. I'm a seventy two year-old woman." Referencing her age multiple times during the encounter, it seems as though she expects the officer to defer to her age, in spite of the fact that some of her remarks are so explicit that they need to be edited. At the same time, the officer clearly has issues related to his temper. The obvious question here is, why didn't he just let her sign the ticket, once she agreed to do so?

My analysis is this: the taser gun is a wonderful law enforcement device--for sadists. The primary argument for its use is its capacity to non-lethally subdue those who violently resist arrest. That arguement loses ground amid news reports that a 32 year-old Utah man, Brian Cardall was killed by tasering in Hurricane, Utah on Tuesday. According to an article in New Scientist, one study by the University of California, San Francisco, indicated that taser guns were associated with a sixfold increase of sudden deaths of persons being held in police custody during their first year of use.

Perhaps those critical of the liberal nature of University life in general and of San Francisco specifically are unconvinced. The study has been accused of a sampling bias. However, this notion isn't exclusive to the home of hippydom. William Elliot, the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has expressed to ministers in Parliament that the taser is a potentially lethal device and has stated that its use can only "be justified where there is a threat, either to our officers or members of the public." Even in cases of active resisance--as was the case with the cranky 72 year-old in Texas--Mounties are no longer allowed to tase you, bro.

Civilized, free societies should recognize law enforcement as a necessary evil, one that we should only grudgingly endow with just enough power to preserve the rule of law. The propaganda of film and television glamorizes violence in police work, such that there is a perception, among police and the public alike, that it is the duty of cops to punish offenders. This was clearly the case in Texas, since an unarmed, elderly woman, is no match for a brawny, corn-fed bubba with a badge and a gun.

72 year-old Kathryn Winkfein has since hired an attorney and is threatening suit. Given how this thing has gone viral, I'm laying odds on her receiving generous settlement from Travis County, Texas. Whether or not she deserves it is another matter. Obviously, if this were my mother or grandmother, I would take a more absolutist position. But she's not my mother or grandmother. The fact that she dared the cop to shock her should count against her, and I think that the judge, in the event that this suit actually does make it into civil court, should make a point of telling Winkfein to act her age. Regardless of level of dimorphism between Winkfein and the officer (Chris Bieze), her continued challenge for him to "go on and tase" her, places part of the responsibility on her.

In the end, I think that Americans have to change how we think about law enforcement. Dirty Harry and John McLane are great movie characters, but if they tried to pull me over, I'd make them follow me all the way to the ACLU.

Bad cop. No donut.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Wasteland

T.S. Eliot, a mild-mannered bank employee and American expatriate in England, wrote some of the 20th century's greatest epic poetry. He was a conservative, a royalist, and had a better public school accent than Winston Churchill. He was also a pessimist. Anyone who's taken an English lit class or two has probably read Eliot's magnum opus, The Wasteland. In navigating the flourishes in German, Latin, French and even Cockney, one quickly gains the sense that Eliot is talking down to us.

That's because he is.

Scholars have argued that the point being made in The Wasteland was that so many people are talking, but no one understands language anymore. Whether this is what Eliot intended or not, the premise is a correct one. Even as English has come to be the dominant language spoken throughout the world, our ability to understand one another has diminished. Educated people once were fluent in multiple languages and almost always were fluent in Greek and Latin. This was because understanding doesn't come from reading a translation. To explain this another way, if you want to understand trigonometry, you'll first have to have a firm grasp of the concepts, methods and mechanisms of algebra. Likewise, if you want to understand class nuances in Lyermontov's Caucasus stories, the English translations will miss the point entirely; you simply can't capture the deference and condescension inherent in the Cossack/Russian dialectic in the same way that ты and вы express so elegantly.

I've thought a lot about The Wasteland of late. It seemed that after the election we were no longer working toward a dialogue. But it's more than that. We no longer understand each other and no longer care to. And it's not just everyone's favorite dichotomy--Democrats and Republicans--the "right" and "left" if you will. The Republican party is besieged from within as the radio entertainers, the religious right, business conservatives and civil libertarians battle among each other and the moderate forces of the party--including those in the press--for the soul of the GOP. The Republican party going the way of the Whigs, perhaps?

Not likely.

Talk on the left is equally tone deaf. Democrats no longer speak to labor or progressives--if they ever did; they certainly don't speak for them. The "liberal" media" (i.e. MSNBC) has a script they're following, not unlike the one followed by the rightist media (i.e. Fox News). Both are looking for knee-jerk reactionists. Both follow the talking points remarkably well.

Will Obama's health care plan make us healthier? Will Republican promises to cut government spending make us more prosperous? In other words,
what's the observable difference from up here in the cheap seats?

Abortion? Republican majorities in both houses never tried to pass legislation outlawing it during the 12 years they were in power. Assessment: no one in the GOP cares about abortion. It's simply a wedge issue to help them get elected by people with a genuine ambivalence to the practice. It's worked brilliantly ever since Reagan. Why would they kill their golden goose?

Health care? It's become to liberal rhetoric what 9-11 was for Guiliani's: a verb, a noun and National Health Care. Like most social programs, it has one of two means to be accomplished: levy higher taxes on the middle class or place criminal consequences upon those who can't afford it. Again, it's a Holy Graille; deliberately vague and unachievable, countervailing the Republican promise (with crossed fingers) to outlaw abortion.

The assassination of Dr. Tiller in a Wichita church has been a watershed moment in American politics. Roe v. Wade, though it remains firmly the law of the land, has been virtually nullified through a violent war of attrition that has included the assassination of abortion providers, the bombing of clinics, and any number of other acts that should at once draw howls of laughter at the mere mention of the euphemistically named "pro-life" movement. Those who quickly spoke out to justify his murder as, the victim simply "reap[ing] what he sowed," can no more be labeled as supporting the human right to life than an Antebellum planter could have called himself "anti-slavery."

At the same time, the need for some on the left to have this murder defined as an act of terrorism is disturbing. While it can be argued that demagogues have shown a depraved indifference to human life by lighting the fuses of people that they know to be emotionally unbalanced, this is not the same thing as shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. For my part, O'Reilly's constant repetition of "Tiller the baby killer," in concert with his characterization of him as an unprincipled capitalist (see video below; click the link if you're reading this on facebook) elicited eye rolls the few times I happened to catch it out of the corner of my eye at the gym. There can be no question that O'Reilly and others, who played on the visceral reaction that people naturally have when someone tells them that some maniac is out there slaughtering infants, are responsible for Tiller's murder. Whether or not these reckless demagogues will be held financially responsible is for the civil courts to decide. But as much as I loathe them, I find the idea that they could be legally defined as terrorists horrifying.

At issue isn't what's being said in the media, but why. Why does Bill O'Reilly repeat over and over "Tiller the Baby Killer" like a broken record? Why does Rachel Maddow want the leftist pundits on her show to back up her assertion that the assassination of Dr. Tiller amounts to terrorism (which none of them would)?

Allow me to return to our original discussion about T.S. Eliot's Wasteland. We've lost the ability to communicate. Not just in the languages of the educated; we've lost the ability to accept dissenting opinion from our own. Television and internet has built up an industry that talks at us. And we talk back, even if we know no one is listening. Who reads the comments at the bottom of op-ed pieces on the web, besides the armies of the duopoly, fresh from their latest pep talk by Keith Olbermann or Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow or Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh?

I am convinced that the blogosphere is that Wasteland where there are too many voices and no one can understand one another. Don't like the liberal bent someone is taking? Call him a socialist baby killer. Is she criticizing Obama? The racist bitch!

Our fifteen minutes of fame is coming to an end. The current economy doesn't give a rat's ass which side you're on or what you have to say about it. It might care who's listening.

That is, if everyone else weren't so busy trying to get you to listen to them.