The intersection of art and politics is one of the topics of this blog. And one way in which to approach the topic….which is obvious….is to explore the master narratives and the master discourse, as its constantly being recreated and reproduced by the culture industry and by (especially) the US state department.
An obvious example of political theatre is the US presidential election campaigns. There is a jaw dropping mind numbing hypocricy at work with a majority of the US public. It’s hard to know how many, and I can only point to my own experiences, really, and also to sort of project out from the tiny amount of real surveying that has gone on regards this. It’s easy to forget that only about half the US population even bothers to vote. Such rejection of the electoral circus is routinely described as apathy, which it isn’t at all. Still, clearly, millions of people have embraced the election cycle as a matter of life and death importance. The drama is laid out with good guys and bad guys ( which is which depends which side of the split you reside). For liberals, there is a startling level of hypocricy, actually far worse than a lot of reactionaries. The reactionary simply has ingested the narrative without question. Obama is an evil Marxist from Kenya, an almost Manchurian Candidate whose birth has been obscured because, I guess, he was born in a test tube in a Stalinist work camp or something. And who is out to betray *America*. They believe the US is the greatest and best country in the world. They believe in white supremecy — and some even admit it — and in Empire. They are driven by a nostalgia of middle class happiness, or at least equilibrium, that never was, that they certainly never took part in, even in their dreams, and they feel justification for wars and conquest because, somewhere in this twisted logic, its all for the good of those being conquered. The reflexively hate communism, though rarely have any idea what the term means. They think in simple jingoistic terms of patriotism and the nobility of wage slavery. Like the general population on both sides, their personal narrative has grown ever more truncated and simplified.
For liberals, the hatred is for bigotry and mysogyny and this same jingoism. However, the liberal doesn’t really believe the narrative that the reactionary believes. They are too sophisticated for that. There is a very high level of narcisissim in liberals. And a good deal more racism than they would ever admit (after all, they LOVE that a black man is President). What they don’t like to consider, and this is the real core of the blindness, is that they are terrified of the poor, and terrified of losing their positions of privilege. They find affirmitive action totally supportable, but the Prison Industrial Complex is not to be even looked at. They like liberal cultural product, created to flatter themselves (The Blind Side, all of Speilberg, and shows like Girls or West Wing) and they tend to admire their own education and station in life. Now, I am aware of my generalizing here. But I want to get to a couple things I see as significant in terms of what these liberal revisionist narratives are doing and saying.
Today, police violence, if possible, is at an all time high. But more germane to this discussion, is the culture of punishment which liberals have by default embraced. A culture of mass incarceration. One in one hundred US citizens is in custody. Most are there for drug offenses, yet only 1 in 5 are in for dealing, the others are in for drug possession and most have no other criminal history, let alone a history of violence. The US has ten times the prison population of any other country in the world, and the highest per capita in the known history of man. California alone is the largest prison system in the world.
As Rachel Herzing writes:
“Through its reach and impact, the prison industrial complex helps secure the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other structural privileges (e.g. White people, American citizens, people with property, people with money) by defending current power distributions. It benefits government and industry, as well as those individuals who already hold power in our society.”
More than two million people are in prison in the US, and almost six million total if you add those under some from of custodial supervision (parole, probation, etc). The war on crime, dating back thirty years, or more actually, saw a redefining of what is “criminal” — criminalization — the process by which the state determines what is a violation of the law, and what new acts or behavior can have laws written in order to prohibit them. In the US the targets were primarely the poor, with sub catagories such as youth of color, drug users (with a steep spike in female drug users), non US citizens, the homeless and the mentally ill. There is an obvious credibility gap in due process here, in how laws are enforced, and increasingly, how they are actually written. The other componant in the escalation of the war on crime was harsher sentencing guidelines. But to return to the narrative in play; the cultural product of Hollywood and network TV cop shows as well as news, has reinforced certain themes and most indelibly certain images and by extension memes. For studio film, the inner city —black faces, young black or chicano men, equals the heart of darkness. It is a place of menace and violence and hatred of white people. A place to avoid…but, a place that serves as fodder for the voyeurism of the liberal class. Now, this is a topic that requires exhaustive analysis, and I’m not doing that in this blog entry. But what I am trying to do is point out the mythologies that allow for such flagrant cognitive dissonance, such naked hypocritical willfull blindess in so many people in the US.
If you enjoy your privilege, its understandable you don’t want to give it up. However, just how much does the privileged white liberal really enjoy his relative advantages? I’m not sure. I think also, the topic of compassion in our financialized empire of resentment is worth discussing. And I want to be careful about demonizing film and TV here. For they both create and reflect the values in play of the society at large. I also want to keep focus on the narrative sub plot of the moment — the US elections.
Rachel Herzing again:
“Surveillance is vital to the prison industrial complex in targeting specific individuals and groups of people and legitimating the criminalization and punishment tactics employed against them. Surveillance, particularly electronic surveillance is also touted as an effective “crime fighting” tool. In fact, no relationship has been established between use of surveillance and lowered crime rates.
The use of surveillance as a tool of law enforcement highlights the unequal distributions of power and wealth upon which the prison industrial complex is based. Who gets watched, who is understood as suspicious, and who gets swept into the prison industrial complex as a result of that watching all contribute to the fear that is so crucial to legitimating the centrality of the prison industrial complex in “solving” the problems generated by these inequities.”
After 9-11, and the subsequent PATRIOT ACT, there was an exponential rise in surveillance. Since Obama took office, there has been a second spike in police powers of, and use of, surveillance. Add to this the monies spent to militarize domestic police departments, and the logical blurring between police and military that followed, and you have an increasingly Orwellian public space within the US.
Now, the reality is that unemployment is high, jobs won’t be returning, or if they do, they will be sweat shop jobs, and I think that is possibly right around the corner. Union protections are gone, as only 9% of the workforce belongs to one. But more importantly, the most distinct feature of the master narrative as it is played out today, is about the military. The War on Crime, the War on Drugs, the war on whatever, are all modeled on a military metaphor. The War on Terror is a unique example as the metaphor works backward, actually. It’s a real war, but against a completly abstract enemy. But what does the white liberal class imagine when they read these phrases and hear discussions about them? Well, they think about whatever the media has trotted out as the distraction du jour. Pussy Riot, Chik Fil A, or gay marriage, or Republican bigotry or Mitt’s offshore accounts. The actual extra legal assassination by drone, the actual *collateral damage* –i.e. dead bodies of women and children, is NOT thought about. Women’s rights matter to liberals, reproductive rights, but the rights of the dead women in Yemen or Iraq seem to almost never matter.
The American Dream, given a spatial metaphor with home ownership, and auto ownership, and with a pension and savings account, has managed to live on in spite of its utter disconnect from daily reality. People will bemoan foreclosures, will suffer the loss of their own home, and of the burdens of refinancing, and they will complain about working longer for less, but none of this seems to encroach on the master narrative. The reality of US foreign policy — the anti communist hysteria of the cold war years, which was always a blanket over the interests of big business, is ignored almost totally by today’s voters. If you lay out the names of Batista, and Mobutu, The Shah, and Rioss-Montt, of Pinochet and Papa Doc — usually one is met with defensive stares, or bordering on just blank. This is a culture of self interest. Ayn Rand has already taken over concsciousness….even of liberals, though they would argue with you. Most liberals I know dislike Chavez, call him a strongman, an authoritarian, and of course they hate Castro. when Oliver Stone made a flattering documentary on Castro and Cuba, it never even got shown in the US. The liberal wants to believe in his or her own compassion, without having to actually feel compassion.
There was mild outrage at Troy Davis’ execution. But it pales in comparsion to Pussy Riot or Romney’s latest gaffe. Or to the recent stupidity and mysogyny of Congressman Akin. How much compassion was expressed about Chavis Carter or Reika Boyd? How much, really, did anyone care about the Anaheim Police Department letting attack dogs loose on Chicano familes, on mothers with small children in strollers? I always ask myself, why the liberal Obama supporter doesn’t expect the President to comment, at the very least? Why do they not want sanctions against Cuba lifted? Why does the President not organize a real investigation into NYPD’s cold blooded gunning down of Darrius Kennedy in Times Square? Why is it alright for a former Monsanto executive to serve high up in the Obama administration? I have seen facebook postings protesting Monsanto, and from the same person, hours later, a VOTE OBAMA posting.
The narrative matters, and there are structural relationships between corporate produced film and TV, and even *high brow* literature, and the durability of State Department propaganda. There are themes that emphasize a manufactured “realism”, one which emphasizes that compromises have to be made at the high levels of government, and of business. Being an idealist is seen as being childish —while the actual infantilization of the society is seen as simply part of “entertainment”…or militartainment or newstainment. Obama is a celebrity and in that sense no different at all from George Cloony or Sean Penn. No different from Angelina Jolie or Snooky. Celebrity is its own justification. Kim Kardashian and her sex tapes, her bogus wedding to a sports celeb, is interchangable with Prince Harry’s wild party in Vegas or with Obama’s jump shot, or with Ann Romney and her horses. Its ALL THE SAME. It reproduces the same subject, the same audience is manufactured in the same set of dynamics and through the same process. Would it be hard to imagine Joe Biden making a guest appearance as himself on West Wing? Would it seem hard to imagine Snooky at the next white house press briefing, or of Kim Kardashian interviewing the next Supreme Court Nominee? Not really.
Paris Hilton and her empty life is trotted out as a form of Schadenfreude (or an inverted version of it), and really, it reads the same as a cannibal on the causeway in Miami, with John Edwards divorce. Does the latest CSI Duluth episode seem any less real than the DEA’s actual shooting apart the wrong boat on the Mosquito Coast in Honduras?
The representation of anyone who lives or was born south of San Diego or Brownsville is edged with a deficiency — either an inherent criminality or just a simpleness. Or, if its governments…you get this:
Later that same episode, an inferred Chavez is on video link-up with Thompson. The depiction of Chavez is as a ranting loud and very stupid stereotypical Caudillo, Strongman, Dictator.
Now this is a “liberal” show. Why are liberals so reactionary about such matters? Well, because liberalism is really, as Adorno put it, handmaiden to fascism.
The forgetting of history is not accidental in the US. The destruction of public education was largely executed with a desire to first and foremost erase history.
Regarding the, then, Belgian Congo:
“To his Excellency the vice governor general. I have just returned back from a journey in land to the village of N’songo M’boyo. The abject misery and utter abandon is positively indescribable. A few months ago Monsieur Pile took his sentries there. A young woman, Imanega, was tied to a forked tree and chopped in half with a machete. Beginning at her left shoulder, chopping through the chest and abdomen and out at the side. It was in this way the sentries punished the woman’s husband. Another woman, Balumba, wishing to stay faithful to her husband, had a pointed stake forced in to her womb, and, as this did not kill her, she was shot. I found that, as in other towns, enforced public incest formed amusement for the sentries.”
– John H. Harris – Missionary. Letter to the Vice General of the CFS
This was repeated, in varied forms, on sugar plantations in the Caribbean. I recall almost no network drama surrounding this history.
Today, it would take all of half a minute to find a dozen depictions of corrupt African or South American leaders in mainstream cultural commodities.
Corruption, poverty, and violence. South America and Africa.
One expects the reactionary to embrace the demonizing of the ‘other’. But the truth is, liberal depictions are as bad, only liberals come save them and reactionaries gun them down.
One could go on and on and on about the erasure of history (Suharto, Mohammed Zia Ul-Haq, Trujillo, Duvalier, Mobutu, and then Saddam, The Sultan of Brunei, Bolkiah…and on it goes….). So….I digress, because this entry is about the narrative in place. And about willfull blindness. The gunning down of black teenagers, the stop and frisk policies and racial profiling, and the continued increase of surveillance and loss of privacy….leisure time is now just regimented forms of light work…its not autonomy. You cant step on the grass, you need a permit to get into that park. You need permits to go see that mountain and ski. You need permits to fish and you need permits to park. You need to pay to park at malls, increasingly, for the right to spend your money on junk.
The liberal will tell you he or she is happy. They will tell you Chavez is authoritarian and Castro a dictator and they probably wont mention the US supported Ian Smith in Rhodesia and tried to stop Mandela…who was labeled a terrorist. The CIA had Martin Luther King killed, believe what you like. They US has never allowed dissent. Obama is a more effective distraction because white people, well, white liberals want to believe in him….up to a point. Its the political version of The Blind Side…its a Speilberg script come to life. White men can bask in the integrity of Jeb Barlett on West Wing. They want to believe and do believe that the world is run that way.
Does the West Wing address that there are 1169 US military bases all over the world? Not counting secret military prisons of course.
Art is meant to awaken and to engage us, on any number of levels and in any number of ways, with reality and with history. Kafka, Melville, and Dickens. Shakespeare or Pasolini or Fassbinder.
The liberal wants Speilberg, and Aaron Sorkin.
They want to worry about Pussy Riot. Three girls who got a couple years. Not terrific when anyone gets time in my mind, but, ah, that’s not even the average time black kids get for a chicken shit pot bust. You can get a dime for criminal trespass, or for three joints, or for filming the police on your cell phone. If you catch a break and go to work camp, hope you are seen as one of those able “to program”…or you could find yourself sent to Corcoran or Pelican Bay. 24 hour a day lock down…prisons so nightmarish, Americans simply wash them from their memory. Pussy Riot…free Pussy Riot.
Remember……SIX MILLION people controlled by the US Prison Industrial Complex. Here in the USA…not Russia, HERE. Here in Obama’s America.
I would like to think art makes the viewer, the listener, more able to think for themselves. More able to distinguish the counterfeit from the authentic, the true from the false.
Narrative and its practice matters. Being able to tell a Genet or Pinter from a Neil LaBute matters.
The system now seems ever more disconnected from those it exploits and controls. Its more depersonalized. Its Orwellian and there is nobody to yell at. There is only a robotic voice on the phone, or there is silence.