Joe Bageant, Phil Rockstroh & John Steppling
(Swans - February 28, 2005) As a fan of Joe's, I asked if he wanted to participate in a cyber-conversation with Phil and myself. We purposely avoided any pre-determined topics or rules -- this was meant to be just a friendly talk about the condition of the world (a pretty wide topic, that). Maybe what we all wanted was the kind of afternoon conversation that one used to be able to get at coffeehouses (pre-Starbucks) or bars (pre-Monday Night Football) or even on subways and trains.
So, here it is, from the last booth at the Swans Café...
John Steppling, Krakow, Poland
February 14, 2005
John Steppling, Joe Bageant, Phil Rockstroh:
John Steppling: Well, I think we can take a look, post inauguration, at the state of the American psyche. You two are southerners, one exiled to NYC and the other still in the South. I am a Westerner, who fled around five years ago, to Europe. We are all, to one degree or another, autodidacts; I find that pretty interesting and sort of think we can talk a bit about that, too. At the same time the general populace seems less and less curious-and more and more addicted to various forms of distraction. People don't read much anymore. They don't notice that libraries are closing. I mean, christ, I spent half my youth in public libraries. What are the mechanisms for this de-culturing? Why don't they read? One obvious explanation is mass media and another is the business of publishing. The pre-conditions for reading are disappearing. I think people feel there is less and less time for such unproductive activities, and in a sense they're right. Control of the populace requires they be kept busy. I keep feeling that a culture that has turned its back on nature must suffer the consequences. And by nature I don't mean that warm fuzzy tree hugging Bob Redford kind of crap. I'm talking about the time to take your dog for a long walk or stand staring at a river flowing past. When you sit and watch the river something happens to how you experience time. Time stops being regimented and calculated. One merges with something beyond oneself, which is of course an aspect of all art. Reading takes one to another place as well, one which I am pretty sure cell phones and TV do not.
Anyway, where are the working class intellectuals of former times? And what are the ways by which Americans keep solidifying their ignorance?
Joe Bageant: Regarding being self-taught and our being auto-didactic, I know what you mean, and feel it all the time. One of the good things about growing up poor was that my family had no idea what college was about. Nobody in my family had ever been to college or even cared to finish high school in most cases. So years later as an adult when I got a chance to study, I was still under the illusion that I was supposed to improve my mind and understanding of life. I studied what I wanted to and pursued a rather eccentric, off-again, on-again non-program according to whatever personal pull I felt toward various subjects and ideas. I don't think vocation or future employment even crossed my mind once in the process. Working at the car wash and writing poetry and staying up all night rappin' the cosmic blues. The point being that I was having a helluva good time, was absolutely exhilarated with learning and with escaping the intellectual darkness of my Appalachian childhood. Anyway, that spun me off into an orbit and an intellectual trajectory that I consider uniquely mine, one I feel that I really own, one that fits me like a good pair of shoes. The Sixties experience made me a child of the self-realization hippie generation. There were a lot of us. I don't know if that is even possible today. Do you? The only people I am meeting who have grown their own consciousness and intellectual lives to their own specifications did it while studying in prison. Do you have to go to prison these days to get a real education?
John Steppling: It's true that an awful lot of the best thinkers I know today are ex-cons, and I'm not being facetious. I certainly was influenced by criminals I knew as a young man. Also by mad artists and anarchist drug addicts. I started out wanting to be educated, which in my mind meant, I guess, some vague notion of a classical education. I scored a set of The Great Books of the Western World -- that University of Chicago collection -- and I just thought, well, hell, I'll start at start and read through them. And I did. I read fucking Galen for christ sake. Not that I could figure out what I was supposed to be getting from it. But I will say that I developed a sense for the authentic. That was my introduction to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Freud. To Dickens too.
Then when I first got to NYC I fell in with, via my cousin, an actor, a whole group of crazy thinkers and writers....Mednick, Sam Shepard, the now dead Terry Ork....and this was a huge influence. At no time did it occur to me I should go to school. Going to school seemed like an interruption in my education. So I worked as a dish washer and at book stores, and even lied about having a degree and taught at a couple schools. I drove a taxi for a couple years too before going back to the west coast. Then drugs took over and more serious interactions with the authority structure, but that's another story.
In any event, I read the whole time. That was a priority. I worked night shifts as a security guard (got that job from a guy I met in jail actually) and I read. Worked a porno movie house-another graveyard shift-and read. Read Joyce as I recall. Read all the time, all the time. Extra money went to books.. If I had no money I went to libraries. I loved the old Hollywood public library....which isn't there anymore. A great building and not a bad library. One could have some pretty fascinating conversations there with speed wracked transvestites and old dope fiends...and yeah, ex cons. So what is it today? Why do I meet so few young people who have this curiosity? It's a strange generation-one so afflicted with technology. Addicted to gadgets, which is so passive in a way. Afraid of nature, of the night, of different kinds of people. Of course education couldn't be worse, even at junior high level. Nothing is taught. I am constantly amazed when I run into Americans over here, amazed at how jaw droppingly ignorant they are. They don't travel really, not to explore. They vacation. They cling to notions of privilege. They increasingly show open contempt for other cultures and peoples. They seem to take this superior attitude....there is no humility, no desire just to be a student of the world, of life.
American men seem deeply insecure. Like they suffer testosterone shortage, and hence over-value what they have. There is either this witless mouth breathing kind of young fascist type, or the flaccid paunchy young guys who want to be the studly fascists. And in both cases they love George Bush. Maybe it's back to education, I don't know. There are some good University programs...but not many. When the marketing machine makes fun of intellectuals (look how often Hollywood villains are cerebral) and promote the honest stupid Forrest Gump type...which is Bush in a weird inverted way...then one can start to understand what we are faced with. It's also this lack of community and any sort of genuine tradition. Young men have no guidance, no elders, which is total disaster. At least in jail and in the military you have older guys explaining shit to you. I suspect real resistance may well come from ex-soldiers, men and woman who have gone through something, and survived and learned the truth. They learned who is lying and who is not.
Phil Rockstroh: I was struck by John's insight regarding the manner in which the forces of corporate hyper-control have damned up and stemmed one's sense of the flow of our internal rivers of time.
When friends visit me in New York City, I often take them on walking tours of the city. We cross the Westside Highway and walk the pedestrian path along the Hudson River, or cross the East River by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. The effect of these small sojourns on people is often profound...the combined elements of the elemental beauty of the rivers and vastness of the city's architecture and the scope, clamor, and the dense interweaving of traditional customs and ad hoc social codes of New Yorkers often opens visitors' awareness to larger realms...The freeways of the contemporary mind (conditioned to be constantly engaged in hurling, frenzied motion -- or stalled in a frustrating standstill) are replaced by the exigencies of life at street level. Novel realities must be negotiated. The possibilities of life seem more proliferate. The crimped eros of insular suburban thought loosens before the city's intricacies and expansiveness.
Not that all, or even many, New Yorkers live in this state of being. Few can live by Rilke's resolve to "make every moment holy." Life here easily gets grotesquely distorted...High rents...the deification of success...There's so far to fall. One's sense of awareness becomes clamped down again.
Contemporary life renders one with the feelings of powerlessness one experiences upon a visit to the dentist. In the waiting room (it seems nowadays as though we're constantly waiting for something...in traffic, in retail lines, for our work shift to end, for some semblance of gratification to come from all our meaningless work and habitual consumption) we flip through a few magazines (or surf the internet) to ease the anxiety and tedium. But there's no time to make a start on Moby Dick, or even the short stories of Raymond Carver. (Of course, we've quit reading...we can't concentrate; it all seems so futile...an energy draining time-suck.) And we're anxious because we have no more control over life than we do when secured in a dentist chair. The only question that remains is: Will there be enough anesthetizing agents available to numb out the pain?
So we give up the reading of poetry and literature.
Another reason might be that such reading requires empathy and, again, eros. The rising of the cosmic johnson of joyous excess and potentially depth-engendering intimacies -- not the spurious dick of Thanatos that corporatism wags in our faces. Death has always been with us -- though in recent times he's hired a PR firm to disguise his age-old agenda. The mere sight of his true face depresses sales potential in nearly every demographic group. You see: The sight of too many flag draped coffins will ruin the profit potential of a very lucrative war. Too much reading of poetry and literature could destroy the pharmaceutical industry. What would Paxil do to Bryronic yearning...to Whitmanesque eros...to Blakean numinosity?
And of what use are any of those things to me, anyway? How would experiencing such intangible things keep the creditors from my door? So maybe, I'll check out what Rush Limbaugh is off on, today. Damn liberals want to take from me what I've worked so damn long and hard for, take the things I've spent my life acquiring then give them to Welfare Queens and faggot artists with government grants to piss on Jesus.
Such feelings seem linked to the seemingly ineluctable time-suck of the demands of daily life -- that dental chair powerlessness. I often think such feelings, the helplessness before inhuman power are the metaphor at the core of those "missing time" stories, proliferate in the popular imagination, in which forced medical examinations are performed by aliens.
Of course, those stories seem ridiculous, but, at least, they're not dangerous in contrast to the life-negating fantasies of Christian fundies, who proffer the truly toxic delusions that life's messiness can be banished, that the world can be scoured of sin, that a seemingly sexless, yet utterly eroticized Heaven (the total merging with Jesus and the other saved in what sounds like some sort of celestial orgy) will be made manifest. That is, if we only kill enough Muslim sand monkeys to, at last, satisfy the insatiable bloodlust of Jesus' perpetually pissed-off daddy in the vengeful sky.
All these desperate, grotesque fantasies arise because the Christian-Judaic metaphors are threadbare...are inapplicable to our current corporatist era. The Gods of the consumer age should be endowed with multi-arms like Eastern deities for shopping. They should be endowed with gaping mouths of insatiable hunger (an appetite for their young, like Goya's representation of Saturn). They should possess an unforgiving wrath regarding the sins of one's credit history. Because now we are worshippers in the crackhouse temple of consumerism. On the temple walls should be inscribed Eric Hoffer's: "You can never get enough of what you really don't want."
Hoffer's dictum resonates because what is desired isn't over-priced athletic sneakers, and wide-screen TVs, and fat-ass SUVs, and bloated MacMansions. What is desired is desire itself...Eros rising again, in his multiplicity of forms...Yes, of course, in eroticism...and also in an Eros of imagination...not the gelded Disney version, mind you -- but one that stirs our inchoate longings for engagement with the world...the perennial stiffy of the soul, if you will.
Joe Bageant: Whew! Nice language! As my sainted redneck daddy would have said, "You're one of them fellers who goes all the way around his asshole to get to his thumb." Which is the point of art of course and something he would never have understood -- the leisure and ease of the soul and indeed the inclination to do what is not necessary or useful. To create art or at least be artful.
As for the modern inability to relax and read and grow aesthetically and spiritually, intellectually, I think that one is over for Americans, and eventually the rest of the world. Big American Capital Moloch be draggin' out the dental chair and everyone gonna git strapped down in it and shot up wif de biggest ole needle you ever seen: digital-cortex-television-viagra-football-nuclear-tipped-teen-sex-blonde-boob-blast.
Goodbye literacy. I can tell you the working class ain't gonna miss it. They never had it in America anyway. They been a'strugglin for a couple of centuries and the big shot of soma in the state dental chair looks pretty good to them. Me too, in fact. What is intellect when you can have couch potato mind sex meld in cyberspace? Hell, I'll never bother to read a book again, if they ever perfect it. But right now the chemistry isn't good enough. They are going to have to come up with something at least as good as peyote before I sign up. Until then I'm an enemy of the state.
Phil Rockstroh: Growing in the south, at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s, I heard a variation of Joe's sainted daddy's sediment daily, although not with the penetrating concision of his hillbilly haiku, mind you.
You see, I've always spoken this way...even as a very small child. I've always had an addiction to words and languages, as well to altered states of consciousness. I'd get my ass stomped on a regular basis...probably even for using the word "consciousness." There wasn't a lot of that going around in Birmingham.
What you had there was ceaseless toil and brutal necessities. And those harsh realities made the people hard and mean. "Bombingham." The city was owned and run by Yankees, the so called "Big Mules," steel and coal bosses from Pittsburgh, who came and copped labor on the cheap.
Birmingham was one hateful little colonial outpost. If a white man complained about low wages and poor working condition, the bosses told him, "If you don't like your job -- there are ten niggers who will take it for a fraction of your pay." It's self-evident why Birmingham was not exactly known as a beckon of racial harmony.
Or an accommodating place for a punk kid, like myself, who was already a fledgling, little autodidactic gasbag. I'd hear the refrain, constantly, "You're not from around here, are you? You must be from New York: why the hell don't you get your narrow, useless ass back there?"
So (after a time) I did and rarely have I looked back...that is until recently, when it occurred to me that the whole damn country is changing into the sorry-ass Birmingham model, into a place where economic exploitation is as common as mosquito bites at sunset and denial is lodged as deep as the iron ore within Red Mountain and anger seethes like fire ants from a trampled bed.
The world witnessed what Birmingham was capable of when its sense of self, place and order were disturbed by the Freedom Riders, Dr. King, et al. Now Americans are inflicting the same sort of mindless brutalities on both a national and global scale. The process of colonization renders folks ruthless and violent, even into successive generations. We're only seeing the beginning of the misery.
Joe Bageant: Phil, I have never heard it put better. I try to tell my liberal New York Jewish book editor the same thing you have said here and she doesn't quite understand. I told her that the hard-working life makes a person mean and conservative and she ask me to explain why. I tried but finally came to the conclusion that if you haven't lived around the laboring-class life you probably cannot know the brutality of which ordinary blue collar people are capable. And that goes for towns like mine, here in Winchester, Virginia, which even to this day is an example of the Birmingham model. It's just not as blatant as it used to be, racially speaking. I look at the inherent meanness in my working class Christian fundamentalist relatives, and the cruelty of my community toward homelessness and poverty...the arrogant belief in their own racial and religious superiority and their willingness to kill abroad...and I am stunned. The saddest discovery of my late adulthood was that my class of people are, on the whole, the first to become Good Germans. You don't need to wear a jacket and tie and work on Wall Street to be one of what Ward Churchill calls the "Little Eichmanns." Yes, American capitalism is inflicting misery on a global scale, but it also inflicts a discipline upon its own people, or uses the threat of misery to keep them in line, to keep them working against one another and against their own interest as we saw in the last election. See, I truly believe we are becoming a sick and dangerous people, but of course, that is not a very popular notion inside the U.S.
Phil Rockstroh: Why are the pathologies of southern culture on the ascendancy in the current American zeitgeist?
I think the cultural repercussions of the loss of the War in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Era, and the revelations of the Watergate scandal have had a comparable effect on the collective psyches of the American populace as did the crushing defeat in the Civil War and the humiliations of the Reconstruction Era had on formation of the southern character.
The wounded pride engendered by defeat can fester into a host of vile contagions. An effluvia of displaced rage and roiling resentments envelopes the mind. Jim Crow laws not only reestablished de-facto slave labor in the south, but also reinforced and in reality codified, the pernicious narrative of white racial superiority as a compensatory canard to mollify the fragile pride of poor whites. "I might be poor white trash but at least I work hard all day and I work and work until, by the time evening comes, I feel there's nothing left of me. And tomorrow -- I gotta get up, before dawn, and do it again. BUT, at least, I ain't no shiftless, lazy nigger. I might have nothing for all my labors, but I got more than a nigger. And no nigger better try to make me look bad by ever having more than me like when them bastard Yankees ran things during reconstruction...ran things for the benefit of niggers, just like liberals do today."
In the case of Vietnam, most Americans, like southerners with the Civil War, could not face the reasons why the war was fought and lost. And African-American social and political advancement only served to compound their sense of humiliation. Some are "Little Eichmanns" indeed, Joe, and some are outright Little Himmlers, Goerings, and Goebbels in the same manner that the Nazis' message resonated with those Germans whose sense of racial superiority had been shattered by their defeat in the First World War and the punitive treaty of Versailles.
The preposterous vision of the diminutive, rodent-faced Hitler clad in the armor of a Teutonic Knight is equally risible as the image of privileged, preppy George W. Bush, portrayed as a six-gun wielding, white hat donning cowboy Christian crusader. But, for a people whose cherished beliefs (in truth, deluded cultural fantasies) have been shattered, when the fragments are reassembled, from the broken perspective of a people whose self-image has been shattered by defeat, and whole parts of their psyches have been occluded by denial, those fragmented images appear as unbroken reflection of themselves (even if the image to outsiders may appear to be simply a heap of broken reflections, with a lot of pieces missing). The shards of a fever dream. We dream Hitler and Bush as Hitler and Bush dreams us...dreaming...
Hence, a raving, grandiose, war-traumatized, little corporal like Hitler and a stammering, mean-spirited, grandiose, self-inflicted by cocaine head-wound case like Dubya can enthrall the populi of their respective nations by becoming the very embodiment of the people's twisted, inner selves.
Hitler reflected the German people's fury at the loss of their grandiose sense of cultural supremacy. Bush mirrors American's rage and resentment spawned by their thwarted sense of entitlement. And in a system rigged for the advancement of only a privileged few, yet encodes within people's minds from birth onward the notion that if you're not constantly rising economically and socially you're just a pathetic waste of skin, then the levels of rage and resentment are going to be massive.
Torch light processions through the streets of Nuremberg won't cut it. As the fulmination of twenty-four a day right-wing hate radio talk won't suffice in our time. The Rhine must be crossed; Jews must be subdued under the jackboots of their racial betters.
And by the same token the verbal demonization of liberals can only carry one so far; after a time, we must bomb Babylon to rubble and ash so that our superior system can be established for a lesser people. But the fury within still burns and will not cease until all liberals are detained and deported, not until all queers are forced to recant and admit how they've sinned against us all. Then maybe the world will be set right and I will get what's rightfully mine.
And John, this relates to one of the many reasons why television and popular mass media, in general, is such an insidious force, not in the way a glimpse of that chemical ball facsimile of a female breast provided by Janet Jackson's cosmetic surgeon as seen on nation-wide TV during the 2004 Super Bowl is an alleged danger to us, but in the manner in which television fosters and incessantly reinforces criteria that creates a sense of entitlement and a concomitant sense of resentment among viewers. The working and perilously positioned middle classes are rankled by being made to feel like losers, by the feeling of being excluded from a great party transpiring somewhere just outside the range of their constricted lives.
But if they blame those who are truly responsible, the corporatist classes, they'll find their ass bounced to the gulags of the American Empire -- the streets, homelessness.
Perhaps this is why you, John, have received wisdom from the outcast classes of our society, from criminals, druggies, and street trash; it would be of no benefit for them to believe the comforting lies of the ruling elitists. They tried that and it drove them to madness and to the committing of self-destructive acts.
Many dopers, street people, and criminals are hyper-individualist. They've internalized the mythos of America and built empires of one within themselves. They are America, our true face. Why do you think we can't cast them out to the street, and incarcerate, and execute them fast enough? If we Americans were to look into their faces for any length of time we would see ourselves.
Joe Bageant: Absolutely beautiful! Absolutely right!
About the only thing I'd disagree with slightly is that you give the national psyche perhaps too much significance. Much of it is simply attributable to the innate smallness and rat-like cruelty of ordinary men. Our plentitude and ability to mass replicate goods and information has merely provided a theater of operations for a particularly macabre act of the ongoing drama of civilization. I mean, after all, this would be downright interesting, laughable even, if I were watching it from the outside instead of being smothered inside its maw.
John Steppling: Well, I think I might try a small defense of the working class here. Not that what either of you say is wrong -- endless brutal humiliating toil tends to make people mean and defensive. However, I know that my experience varies, both in Europe and in America and at different times historically. People who have never struggled, never had to get up early in the morning and go to work, even when sick, are people who usually show rather a lot of contempt for others. I've never trusted people who didn't have to work, who have had everything given to them. That struggle matters, I believe. You can see it in someone's face. That's why I so dislike folks like Nicholas Kristoff and the rest of the elite liberal wonks out there. From a position of privilege they pass judgment on the poor. Of course Bush and Cheney have contempt for the poor, too. In the U.S., the phenomenon you both speak of is undeniable. The nasty, punitive, angry, resentful person who has been beaten down and made callous and unfeeling. How that got coupled to such bigotry is another question. Americans are mean. I wonder how humiliation plays into all this. Someone will tolerate being beaten or starved or treated unfairly. But humiliate them and they will never forget or forgive (wonder about that Abu Ghraib policy, huh?!). My bitterest memories as a young man are all linked to feelings of humiliation. All of them. Joe is right that we are becoming a dangerous and very sick people. Look at our having almost seven million in prison. Look at our record with capital punishment. Theresa Whitehurst had a nice piece recently on how overt the bigotry and lack of compassion has become. It's a badge of honor to be intolerant now. Arrest those queers and commies and dope fiends. Pass laws to disenfranchise the poor even more. Lock up spooks and spics too....and for damn sure lock up those fucking towel heads. Of course fear excuses all this -- the war on terrorism. People desire those enemies.
I think Phil makes good points about the psychological blowback we find today. Civil rights, gay rights, feminism...the average white man starts to feel an assault is underway. The Rush Limbaugh types -- terrified. They have no process to grow up. No process, socially, to mature. This is that critique we spoke of earlier -- no rites of initiation. Limbaugh is so obviously a scared little man. Scared and striking out so he can feel powerful....sound powerful. Bush and Cheney are like this, too. The real material forces that drive all this can't be forgotten, however. The working class has no union protection anymore and they get paid less and less, and they simply have fewer jobs on hand.
The hyper-militarizing that is going on is a way to both make and spend money. The system needs war and destruction. To have war you need someone to be at war with, Presto! "Terrorists!" The terrorist threat is minimal to non-existent. But everything is criminalized.....the weather (killer storm approaches), the poor (gang violence), Arabs certainly (Islamo-fascism), etc. Nobody talks about history. Nobody talks about colonialism and poverty and global warming. Certainly nobody talks of state terrorism. The American psyche is now just a stagnant pond of rotting refuse. It has no natural movement, no outlet.
Consumerism is not an outlet. People have no reason to feel pride in what they do. Consuming provides no pride, no feeling of accomplishment. It breeds anger and frustration. The privileged classes, at least the upper middle class, are even more toxic, though. More apathetic and ignorant. They really are. They possess sound bite knowledge of a few things.....they could find Iraq on a map, but probably don't know anything about its history. They can explain the latest state department memo, but are unable to form an independent opinion about it. They don't want to be disturbed. They will drive their SUVs to the suburbs, and watch Brokaw or Jennings or some other quisling corporate lackey, and then tsk-tsk their way to bed....wondering what the Democrats should do. How to get a Bill Clinton back. It's a world of appearances, not of reality. They donate at Christmastime to the poor. They might even think the war is bad.....Kerry would have been better....but they ruminate about bringing troops home too soon. We broke it so we have to fix it. The wife will complain about the use of the word "bitch." It demeans women she'll say. The hubby will agree. He'll say he finds the "revolution" in Ukraine to be a cause for hope. They both reiterate that Junior needs good grades so he can have a "Pac-ten" experience. Then they'll go to bed without fucking, because they haven't done that since the last kid was born -- eight years ago. He has a job and feels more or less secure. She does too, and those kids are left alone with a lot of video games (and anti-depressants) -- things about car jackings and planetary annihilation. This couple's knowledge of the rest of the world is close to nil. Deep down they think people in Muslim countries are, well, you know, kind of dirty. It looks so dusty. And Eastern Europe.....such ugly housing blocks. Ugh. The entire system is fetid and poisoned and dying. Americans -- you can see it in their bodies -- have no vitality and no life. Ever fatter and more moribund and spiritually dead.
Maybe I am suggesting that we have no real place for people to discover their own potential and value. The work one is asked for is even a step down from alienated factory labor. The electronic age of total alienation. It's close to a coast-to-coast warehousing of the populace. Medicated and static with endless distraction in the form of NASCAR and TV and franchise steak houses. No genuine community where you earn a place by what you do.
Here in Krakow there is a vet I go to. A spectacularly smart man, and he treats everyone's pet and if you can't pay, well, that's ok....pay next time. He is respected. He is not just a service that is purchased. He, as an individual, is respected. I saw his small son in the waiting room one day....at the end of the day.....and he said to the mother/wife, "dad is fixing that dog, isn't he?" And the mom said yes. The boy was so obviously proud of his father. This is a simple thing, but it's all but disappeared in the U.S. When profit is ALL that matters, a people becomes emotionally distant and shrunken. You cannot respect a father just because he makes millions in stock portfolios. You respect courage and strength and compassion and achievement. This boy could already see how people looked at this father. He felt pride. That is so significant. So we have a country where nobody respects anybody or anything. A country where we all focus on making money. Period.
"A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude. To make them love it is the task assigned, in present-day totalitarian states, to ministries of propaganda, newspaper editors and schoolteachers..." --Aldous Huxley, foreword to the 1946 edition of Brave New World
Joe Bageant: We no longer have a country, just the hologram of one. We have a global corporation masquerading electronically and digitally as a nation called the United States. The corporation now animates us from within our very selves through management of the need hierarchy in goods and information. Sure, there is flesh within the machine, but its animating force is a viral concept run amok. Capitalism.
John Steppling: I was thinking about what would happen if, by magic, television were to get shut down. Just one day, it doesn't work. What would be the effects? First day? First week? First month? I am guessing people would go barking mad. I tend to think there is no real great dental chair (much as I too have dreamed of one) in which the big fix is administered. Because as Burroughs used to point out, there is algebra of need. You get high and then, later, you come down....and come downs are a bitch. All of this culture's substitute gratification is wearing thin. That's the feeling I get. People may actually be starting to think, "Hey, I remember this ad campaign....last time they used it for Cheetos....now it's for a new truck." You can only recycle this stuff for so long. On the other hand, even if this is being recognized, I wonder if it matters. Dick Cheney was just in our fair city, helping shut it down for hours yesterday in the middle of a heavy snow storm. Old ladies had to be helped home when the trams and buses stopped running, the better to get the new Imperial class to the Sheraton. Gandhi rode third class on the trains. A reporter asked him why and he answered, "because there is no fourth class." Why doesn't Dick fly coach to Krakow? Have to sit next to a fat shower curtain salesman from Pensacola. "Listen Dick, you mind if I call you Dick? Listen, what I'm getting at, you know, is, well, all this WMD bullshit....I mean, come on....I won't tell, ok? Level with me, you guys knew this was a load of crap, right?"
I keep thinking how far from this fantasy of democracy our current situation is. Bush is the new Louis the Fourteenth. The new Pharaoh. It's like we elect a new God....vote, win, and you are the King. These people NEVER SEE real humans. It's amazing. Democracy is an illusion....as Marx said, in class based society, all this election stuff is just nonsense.
Ok, where was I? Right....cutting off TV. I really think the emotional cutoff is close to total...as Joe suggests. And electronic media and the marketing apparatus is a big part of this. The compulsion for consumption, creating "need" for this or that, and then creating yet another need. Of course nobody needs any of it. Coupled to this is the lack of real education. How come Harvard doesn't hire Joe to teach Cosmic Blues 101? Or Phil, who could teach River Watching 101....or Advanced Gasbag. Seriously, I know artists who can't get work because they are outside the loop. Outside the institutions of higher learning. Even if admired, they become too threatening. An old socialist woman I know in L.A. had a daughter who married an ex-con. He went back to prison after stealing from this woman. He did his bit and got out, and this woman, now in her 70s, invited him to stay in her spare room, which is where he is now. I find this amazing, and I think it's quite rare these days. Someone asked her how she would feel if he stole from her again. She said she would feel very sorry for him because he would feel very bad about himself. Amazing. Now she should be teaching ethics....or Socialism for that matter, because she has something worth sharing. Just being around such people is a learning experience. Ok, well, the snow is back....better go walk the dog before it's waist deep.
Phil Rockstroh: Collectively, we Americans have allowed ourselves to be bamboozled into brainlessness by the self-serving machinations of our elitist overlords who have created for us this empire of spurious Eros and manifest Thanos, a place where black magicians of marketing have conjured a pervasive, life-defying narrative, a ceaseless mass-media phantasmagoria whereby empty imagery deluges authentic apprehension and our consciousness are whirled within in a virtual-reality vortex that drowns out resonate experience. The Virtual States of America.
Presently, as we've been discussing, so much of the criteria of our lives is comprised of long work hours, rounded by tedious, time-decimating commutes to and from our places of employment. All the while, our awareness is incessantly permeated by electronic media distortions, creating a psychic landscape suffused by ceaseless, empty distractions and accumulated debt, a system where we live indentured to corporatist bosses and to our own consumerist compulsions. We have come to exist within an Aldous Huxley/Sinclair Lewis-like synthesis of the company town and a virtual reality theme park. Call it: Six Flags over George Babbitt.
Only a few marginalized voices (the indomitable Joe Bageant and the indefatigable John Steppling, among them) are attempting to chronicle the rise of corporate hegemony and the concomitant psychic carnage it has wrought. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a single area of daily life in contemporary America untouched and unaltered by its ascendancy. From the spreading waistlines of a populace, bloated by junk foods, to sprawling suburbs decimated by overdevelopment, from the disappearance of public space and the fading of the general public's knowledge of civic life and it responsibilities, to its replacement by a guarded gate "community"/shopping mall archipelago where the burden of debt and over-extended credit have trumped the obligations of citizenship.
Ugly and banal as a polystyrene sign shilling for a strip mall, the corporate simulacrum of life has penetrated us so deeply it has become internalized and now dominates our interior landscape. In the manner that light pollution washes out the nighttime sky, so much of our day-by-day existence has lost its depth and majesty, having been subsumed by constellations of commercial images.
Is this why, in an age when so much is at stake, why so many Americans are possessed of an all-consuming rage for the blown blood of military adventurism and so readily accept the proffered piffle of corporatist media distraction?
Perhaps the autocratic, hierarchal American workplace has left a large percentage of Americans unable to envisage the concept of freedom and how it fits into the scheme of our existence. To do so would be irrelevant to the necessities of our lives, if not out-and-out detrimental to our abilities to function within the present paradigm.
Many have an inchoate awareness of the problem: the pale facsimiles of freedom employed to market "off-road vehicles" and the palliative relief offer by the proliferate use of anti-depressant drugs are manifestation of an internalized crisis. In this manner, the yearnings and sorrow inherent to freedom have been distorted and manipulated to serve the short-term interests of the ruling elite of the present order. Within the closed system of corporate rule, depression and anxiety are natural responses to its relentless manipulation and exploitation, but are twisted into opportunities for the further colonization of the interior life of the public at large.
Now pharmacological imperialism dominates the once teeming, chaotic republics of our psyches. The prevailing corporatist culture can ill afford to permit its subjects to experience the honest emotions -- unease, rage, and despair, the whole litany of miseries -- engendered by the feelings of powerlessness of those who languish within the confines of a dehumanizing system.
In addition, drug companies rake in huge profits by promulgating the fiction that discontent is a biochemical illness. It would seem that, in the present age, a sense of unease and foreboding, or perhaps even a full-blown panic reaction, would be an appropriate response. If ones hears the rumbling approach of a runaway train, why should one's panic be lessened by the knowledge that the engineer, conductor, crew, and passengers abroad the train are well medicated, and, as a result, are all models of self-esteem and self-confidence, are imbrued with glowing good cheer, and are at peace with themselves and the world?
Ergo: If one is sitting high above the roadway inside of an SUV, with a mind brimming with anti-depressants, a belly stuffed with high fat, high carbohydrate "comfort food," the climate in the vehicle controlled with air conditioning, the surrounding landscape and architecture comprised of a repetitious, soul-numbing sameness (that somehow manages to be simultaneously garish and bland) -- how is one to envisage the perils of Global Warming or to empathize with the plight of world's downtrodden and dispossessed? You might as well be canvassing for the principles of altruism in a crackhouse.
And if you cannot afford to live within the privileged confines of our Huxley/Lewis Pharmatopian Empire...if instead of driving an SUV from your insular suburb to your soulless work cubicle you sit sodden with despair on public transportation, as you're being trundled to some sub-subsistence wage job, or if there is no possibility for you to attain the comforts of climate control because you presently crouch homeless, roiling with rage, on some city sidewalk, then incarceration is the system of mind control provided for you, the so-called underclass. Prison is the Prozac dispensed to the poor. High concrete walls, razor wire, and confinement in a small, dingy cell should serve to calm your wretched ass right down. Or: at the very least, and of greater importance, it will serve to erect and maintain the illusion of an inviolable comfort zone for the privileged classes.
The business of prescription drugs and the construction and maintenance of jails and prisons are boom industries in the empire. There's growth in containment: Gitmo, guarded gate communities, automobiles constructed in the style of military vehicles, sealed government records, the perma-sealed, laminated mind of Condoleezza Rice -- a cultural cordon sanitaire for a people plangent with paranoia. Now if we could just do something about the unfortunate detail that closed systems create negative entropy.
Gigantism is often a prelude to species extinction. Witness: Giant corporations lumbering across the over-burdened globe while the over-confident leaders of our over-weening empire over-extends its blood and treasure in wars sold on over-blown assertions (alright, out-and-out lies) to fuel our over-sized motor vehicles occupied by over-weight passengers with over-sized senses of entitlement who clutch over-sized portions of junk food while stranded upon over-crowded roadways. It's my guess that corporatism is the human equivalent of the earth-altering, species-eradicating Cretaceous-Tertiary Comet.
And if anyone out there thinks I'm overreacting -- please tell what it is about the ever-increasing possibility of an impending global economic and ecological collapse that I should find reassuring?
John Steppling: Well, I keep returning to education, to what it means now; what does society think is its purpose? All these institutions of higher learning tend toward being, in the end, factors of control. As a people, Americans know very little. They know little of the world or of other people, and they especially know little about how others endure suffering and hardship. Joe coined the term "institutionalized hubris." I love this. Let me give you another quote....."Hubris is the insolence of irreverence: the brutality of strength. In one form it is a sin of the low and weak, irreverence; the absence of Aidos in the presence of something higher. But nearly all always it is a sin of the strong and proud...it spurns the weak and helpless...and is the typical sin condemned by early Greece."(Gilbert Murray, The Rise of the Greek Epic, London, Oxford University Press 1907).
As Edward Edinger says, Hubris is the human arrogance that appropriates to man what belongs to the gods. The modern form of hubris, as exhibited by Americans, is fused with a kind of implacable ignorance. The trust of Americans in their own strength is, of course, an illusion. I've not met a weaker or more fearful people than modern Americans. Such is the world of appearances....of illusion. Universities simply, or rarely, ask people to think. Criticism has come to seem almost subversive.....that is, criticism of any kind (the "theory" debates in academia point this up) and with the likes of Bill Bennet one sees how conservatives have made this push for anti-intellectualism. This is the age of information (as Phil pointed out somewhere, now a quaint sounding notion) and as such, a trust in facts and data is pervasive. Institutions systemically are going to avoid a process that might eventually endanger them. Teaching of anything creative is usually a process of setting limits, tacitly, so that the young artist fall in line, be groomed as a professional in his field, and then get a job at, yeah, another University. Same with philosophy. We don't have departments dedicated to original thinking, to big questions and ontological questions....except in the narrowest most predetermined ways. Many have written about cultural studies and "lit-crit." I am hardly the only one making these observations. Paul Bove wrote on it and even Adorno back in the sixties, toward the end of his life, saw the trends coming. This is too complex a subject for this context; but clearly real autonomy in thought and creative life is discouraged. Couple this to the hubris mentioned above and you have a self-satisfied arrogant and ignorant people, intolerant of change and intolerant of anything threatening their place in the great spectacle. Bourgeoisie art is over, as we understand it, I suspect. The gallery owners and museum curators and University professors have all ceded authority (as Anna Kuros put it). That elitism allowed for rigor and in its place we have the wrong kind of democratization of cultural output. The politics of culture is a huge subject, and a much neglected one I believe, but today, cultural product serves little purpose beyond killing time.
Phil has hammered away at the plastic and shallow, and Joe at the base and craven. And it's all true. I want to return, as we wind this up, to self education, where we sort of started. If I look back I can remember the big events for me; what books changed me (Journey to the End of the Night, Celine, Naked Lunch, Burroughs, Moby Dick, Ondaatje, One Dimensional Man, Marcuse, the plays of Beckett and Pinter and Brecht, and later, the Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and Blood Meridan, McCarthy)....this list is so partial as to be absurd....but also Pollack, Goya, Velasquez, Berg and Schoenberg...and the first real blues I ever heard....Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Later of course Blind Willie McTell (who I know Phil loves, too) and Muddy Waters. And then Ornette and Coltrane. I remember sneaking into the now gone Shelly's Manne Hole in Hollywood, sneaking in the back at the age of sixteen, to see Miles Davis. I was dumbstruck. I don't remember the music so much as I remember the man. This dark little man, so beautiful and hostile and intense. I went up to him at the bar and said something, I don't remember what, and he turned and looked at me. He wasn't angry or even curious; he just stared at me for a long moment and then turned away. He knew I was just a kid, and while he was anything but friendly, his look suggested wisdom, patience. This was like that Vedic notion of 'darhsan.' I took so much from that encounter. Where do you go now for that? LL Cool J? Justin Timberlake? Wynton Marsalis? Miles had earned that space. So education and marketing have taken us to this world Joe just described. A nightmare of knee jerk religiosity and backward bigotry, and to flaccid liberal masturbation. Sex- and pleasure-hating robots. Control control control. Prop up the status quo and don't make waves. Be reasonable, and don't get angry. Jesus, don't get angry? Like Democrats, right? Don't be a loser, be a winner. Win what? Win a lifetime pass on the zombie highway? Look at the naked propaganda of a film like Hotel Rwanda....and it just passes, it's a convenient fiction.
A generation brought up under the umbrella of total marketing is going to see itself as special. Marketing flatters you. It tells you that you are really special. You deserve it....whatever "it" is. You're the special type that should have a _____ (fill in blank) and it will give you new lifestyle choices. This shallowness and smugness is pure America these days. The world is experienced the way an advertisement is experienced. It's all pitch and hype and bullshit, but it makes you feel good -- feel, well, special. It's an ever more ill-mannered and self involved populace (cell phones, again, come to mind) and ever more pre-programmed. I wonder at the long term consequences of experiencing only marketed input? I mean beyond the obvious narcissism.
Thomas Carlyle wrote (quoting someone else, I think, but whatever)..."It is only with Renunciation that Life, properly speaking, can be said to begin." Not good marketing copy I am afraid.
Ok, well, there you have it. Joe and Phil.....the spectacle stumbles forward. Crank up the dispenser for the anti-depressants and mood elevators -- super size us for lunch -- remember they hate us because of our freedoms (pass the thousand island dressing, please) and like the new signs in the New York subway, "If you see something, say something." Snitch culture....control control control. Don't have sex, but buy buy buy. Shop till you drop.
Joe Bageant: Well guys, we sure have a lot in common, though we've never met face to face. Especially in our cultural reference points, the same approximate values, literature and so forth, not to mention that we are all so damned American in our intellectual style. We all read the same things, and we are of the last generation that got its most important information, its intellectual direction and bearings from reading. My friend Phil Beidler wrote an excellent book on it called What We Read: Scriptures for a Generation. What we experienced was a chain of text stretching back through the centuries which necessarily tethered us to the commonality of the human existence and its combined insights across cultures and time.
Now with the approaching death of widespread yeoman textual literacy, and the advent of technology driven quantum experience among our species, it is understandable that folks of our type are frustrated, anxious and depressed over what is ahead. Certainly the lush, funky, sexy, organic planetary experience as we have known it through human history is ending. The progression of technology is geometric, self-squaring, and what we are now witnessing is sort of a Doppler shift in which human perceptive experience approaches warp speed. The man becomes the holographic man, then the ghost in the hologram animated by the very mechanism he created, grown complex and labyrinthine and self-manifesting through man himself. Unintelligent, soulless, but self-manifesting nevertheless. I think too many idealists in our neurological caste (artists, visionaries, pimps, heart burglars, whatever) cannot grasp that the masses, the majority of modernized technical humans, find the hologram just peachy. They are made for it because they were created by it.
Meanwhile, for those of us who are of earlier mutations, the flesh and some inhabiting ghost within it that we feel is our soul or essence, howls for satisfaction in the old primal sense. The fleshy earthbound sense of pussy, cold rivers and the needle light of stars, pine trees, and the chicken soup smell/warmth of a nameless lover's bed in Tangiers... And we look at the next generation of the species passing overhead...human Ipods hurtling through commercial hyper-space...ecstatic and without an original thought. Given my own self-absorption and snobbism, my main objection is that it offends me, because it's all so tasteless and trite. Yet, maybe we are like the caterpillar looking up at the butterfly and declaring: 'They will never get me up in one of those things." My parents and grandparents said the same thing about me. And surely enough, my life has been less grounded in the holy natural matrix than theirs. Less blessed overall, perhaps.
Still, there is the proposition of the Bhagavad-Gita as to whether the dream is dreaming the dreamer. Well of course it is! So here I am, being dreamed as an old Southern gator laced with scars and growing old and fat, weaker and duller of tooth. Blinking and gurgling in the swamp, just waiting to roll over and splash out into that fine black void. No reason to get too damned worked up over our temporary little smear of biology on this wet rock we call home.