Here are a few videos that I thought worth posting… along with some of my own commentary.
We need to have more public debate about generations. Demographics are destiny. We have lived through a time ruled by Boomers and part of the shift we’re experiencing is that of the younger generations gaining power.
By the way, not all or even most Boomers were hippies. The fundamentalist backlash and the culture wars were also products of Boomers. Bush is the perfect example of a Boomer.
I’ve heard that some Washington politicians were aware of the Fourth Turning theory back in the 90s when the book first came out. What if some of these politicians decided to use the theory for the purposes of social engineering. The author said that Obama hasn’t been very successful in using the crises to create change, but maybe that isn’t the agenda in Washington. There are definitely those who’d like to avoid change and re-establish the status quo.
I’d point out one factor not considered. The clowns (Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert) are all GenXers. If you’re familiar with the generation theory expoused by Strauss and Howe, you wouldn’t be surprised that GenXers play the role of clowns. GenXers serve two purposes: 1) to push the system over the edge into the Fourth Turning; and 2) to act as leaders to the young generations as we shift into a new era. Whether or not they play their role well is a whole other issue.
Their viewers don’t get their news from Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert. Their viewers are mostly young and mostly liberal, both demographics getting more news from alternative sources than any other demographics. On the other hand, older conservatives are more likely to trust mainstream media which is why they are so uninformed compared to young liberals. The difference might be that viewers of satire realize the entire mainstream media is comedy.
Here is Thom Hartmann stating the obvious, but I’m of the opinion that the obvious can’t be stated too often. Simply going by the known facts, Beck’s message and view of the world is the complete opposite of everything that Martin Luther King jr fought for.
The other day, I wrote a post about the rightwing assertion that the US is a republic and not a democracy (US: Republic & Democracy). The basic confusion is that rightwingers are using a narrow definition of democracy that was used by some of the founding fathers.
“Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths… A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.” (James Madison, Federalist Papers, the McClean Edition, Federalist Paper #10, page 81, 1788)
What the founding fathers meant by republic is what modern scholars mean by representative democracy. When you get right down to it, rightwingers don’t like ‘democracy’ because it shares the same letters in the same order as the ‘Democratic’ party. Anyways, it’s obvious that the founding fathers weren’t arguing against the democratic process of voting and representation. I don’t think most rightwingers are arguing against that either. So, it all comes down to semantics.
There is no inherent conflict between a republic and a democracy. To clarify, here is the Wikipedia definition of a Republic:
A republic is a form of government in which the people or some portion thereof retain supreme control over the government, and in which the head of government is not a monarch. The word “republic” is derived from the Latin phrase res publica, which can be translated as “a public affair”
I noticed someone even dedicated a webpage to this issue, titling it: The “Not a Democracy” Gnomes. The author states he has noticed this rhetoric going back to 2000, but I’m sure it goes back further. It’s just the internet (especially in its growth this past decade) has been a useful medium for popularizing and spreading such viral memes. Here is the first point the author makes:
The Gnomes Rely on an Absurdly Narrow Defnition of “Democracy”: as absolute, direct, simple and immediate majoritarian authority on matters of policy. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, they find problems with “democracy” so defined. They then depend on the reader to assume that their narrow definition of democracy matches the much broader common definition of democracy, and that therefore their criticism applies to that broader definition.
That is the same argument I’ve been making. These rightwingers use a definition so narrow that they make it seem ridiculous. Meanwhile, they ignore the long history of democracy in the real world. It reminds me of a conservative I once debated about the meaning of ‘socialism’. It turns out that this person had such a wide definition of ‘socialism’ that it involved all forms of government. Since he was a anti-statist conservative, it was convenient for him to define all state government as socialist. This is a weird way to win an argument, either over-simplifying or over-generalizing the terms of the debate.
Like me, the author goes on to give the actual, rather than imagined, definition of ‘democracy’:
The ridiculous nature of that argument is clear with the knowledge that a republic (the gnomes’ contrast to democracy) is actually itself one variety of democracy. Let’s look at the Oxford Modern English Dictionary definition of the word:
democracy. 1a) a system of government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives. b) a State so governed….
A “republic“, which provides for governance indirectly through elected representatives, is covered as a possibility under this definition.
The definition of “democracy” stretches back much further, of course, to the Greek, in which demos refers to “the people” and “cracy” to rule or authority. The broadest definition of “democracy” is therefore simply “the rule of the people,” the ideal of a citizenry engaged in civic life and enfranchised to take part in some meaningful fashion in politics, the exercise of decision-making in a sphere of authority (see Oxford here as well). Now why would some parties have a problem with this democratic ideal? Any ideas?
And the second point the author makes:
Proponents of democracy recognize it is an ideal. We do not live in a full democracy, since it has not yet been achieved. Especially after the latest election debacle, we’re all too aware of that. But the pursuit of the democratic ideal in the United States is a righteous quest with a long history, involving an ever-broadening emancipation of citizens. It is an overwhelmingly popular quest, and one which, in my opinion, should continue.
The democratic quest requires for its support a thoroughly educated and informed public, a tolerance for the questioning of authority and the spirit of community. For those who are opposed to these conditions and to their ultimate end, sending out the “not a democracy!” gnomes is a pleasant diversion. But the more educated, the more questioning, and the more civic we become, the more clear it is that the gnomes’ verbal minuet is trivial and therefore irrelevant.
I was wondering about the origin of this rightwing ploy to dismiss democracy. It sounds more like rhetoric than an argument. Somehow it’s being spread which makes me think it’s either a talking point in the rightwing media or else some particular group is using it for an agenda. Whatever the origin or motivation, there is certainly a memetic quality about this simple idea.
I suspected that one source would be Glenn Beck or someone like him. I was correct.
That isn’t surprising, but Glenn Beck isn’t the originator. What Beck preaches has been preached before by many others. So, I wasn’t surprised to see a video by the John Birch Society arguing against democracy.
I also shouldn’t have been surprised to see a video making the same argument in an interview by Alex Jones (interviewing Aaron Russo).
I did find it interesting that Milton Friedman was also spreading the same rhetoric.
If I had to guess, it’s probably the John Birch Society (or other similar groups) who have spread this rhetoric the most. The John Birch Society has been around for a very long time. As I recall, Cleon Skousen had some connection to that group. And, of course, people like Glenn Beck have been heavily influenced/inspired by the tradition of thought that includes Skousen and the John Birch Society. It’s the same tradition of thought that included the KKK back when it was a part of respectable society. This tradition of thought includes very specific beliefs and attitudes: patriotic nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiments, traditional family, white culture/supremacy, and Christian fundamentalism. These are the people who argue that America is a Christian nation. Instead of a democratic republic, they’d prefer to have a theocratic republic.
[…] the society we have which remember is not a democratic society and wasn’t intended to be. If you take a course in political theory here, I’m sure they’ll teach you that the United States is not a democracy. It’s what is called, in the technical literature, a polyarchy. […] Polyarchy is a system in which power resides in the hands so those who Madison called the ‘wealth of the nation’, the responsible class of men; and the rest of the population is fragmented, distracted, allowed to participate… every couple of years, they’re allowed to come and say ‘yes, thank you, we want you to continue another four years’ and they have a little choice among the responsible men, the wealth of the nation. That’s the way the country was founded. It was founded on the principle, explained by Madison in the Constitutional Convention, that the primary goal of the government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.
Reading the Wikipedia article on polyarchy, it’s not clear to me why Chomsky makes this distinction between democracy and polyarchy. Apparently, the originator of the term ‘polyarchy’ didn’t define it as excluding ‘democracy’. In fact, polyarchy would seem to be a specific form of representative democracy. As an anarcho-socialist libertarian, I understand that Chomsky would prefer a more direct form of democracy. It’s interesting that, for different reasons than the rightwinger, Chomsky also wants to narrow the definition of democracy. Whatever the reasons for Chomsky’s argument, Gore Vidal makes a similar assessment about the motivations of the founding fathers (On Europe and why the U.S. is not a democracy):
Many of us are descended from Cromwell’s men. That’s how we became to be such vicious Protestants. Well, if you want to see any of the founders, read the federalist papers. Any one of them looks like he’s near apoplexy, he’s about to have a stroke when he’s talking about the people. They hate the people. They want the people out of government. Their idea of bad government is Pericles in Athens. And that’s just, you know, forbidden country for our founders. They were Republicans, and they wanted a republic based on Rome, secretly based on slavery and based on imperial progress elsewhere in the world.
So from the beginning, we’ve been imperial. From the beginning, we’ve missed the whole point of the republican effort to create a republic in this brave new world.
People argue against the US being a democracy for various reasons. Some, on both the far right and far left, argue that the founding fathers didn’t intend democracy. Others might argue against our government being a democracy but that it includes democratic processes. Some counter that the democratic processes are failing or never existed.
Let me give my analysis. I would argue that our political system is either a type of democracy or, if you’d rather not call it a democracy for ideological reasons, it certainly contains democratic processes going back to the beginning of the country. Yes, these are imperfect, but the point is that they exist even if only in minimal form. I would, furthermore, argue that we don’t need to defend our republic against democracy. There are dangers in both republics and democracies, and I think the two systems balance eachother. I truly doubt it would be possible for a republic to exist entirely without any democratic elements and vice versa. Using the general definition of a republic as being other than a monarchy, a direct democracy would be the most extreme form of a republic. A direct democracy can and has existed on the local levels. Many communities have formed based on direct democracy, but a community would have to remain very small to maintain direct democracy. As an absolute ideal, direct democracy is an abstraction (and so is republicanism).
The founding fathers feared both monarchy and direct democracy…. or, to put it another way, a political system where the select elite has most of the power or a political system where the masses have great power. The founding fathers weren’t against the elite having power as they saw themselves as the elite, but they just wanted to guarantee that the power was evenly or meritocrously spread among all of the elite. They intentionally didn’t want to guarantee the average person (non-whites, females, working class, etc) had access to political power. Mostly, power was held by rich, white landowners (plutocracy). They believed in meritocracy and they assumed, as many Republicans do today, that the upper class men have earned or otherwise deserve their power. You have to at least give them credit for believing the idealistic role of disinterested aristorcracy that they saw themselves playing.
The founding fathers were scared of the average person for good reason. The French revolution demonstrated that the average person was a threat to rich people like them. I think similar reasons explain why modern Republicans are also afraid of what average Americans would do if given political power through direct democracy. It’s obvious, of course, why rich, white males continue to fear democracy. Beyond that, whites in general no longer hold the monopoly on political power they once had and whites are quickly losing their majority position. If you’re someone who identifies with being white and/or identifies with ‘white culture’, then democracy is a very real threat to you. Yes, just like you, the founding fathers were white. Many white conservatives like to take credit for what past white people did and claim the problems of society today are the erosion of traditional ‘white culture’. If you’re a conservative white person who fears what is becoming of the country, it is only natural to idealize the founding fathers who were white and idealize early America when whites had absolute power. It’s true that, if it weren’t for democracy, whites would probably still have all the power.
Over time, the pejorative connotations of “democracy” faded. By the 1830s, democracy was seen as an unmitigated positive and the term “Democratic” was assumed by the Democratic Party and the term “Democrat” was adopted by its members. A common term for the party in the later 19th century was “The Democracy.” In debates on Reconstruction, Senator Charles Sumner argued that the republican “guarantee clause” in Article IV supported the introduction by force of law of democratic suffrage in the defeated South.
As the limitations on democracy were slowly removed, property qualifications for state voters were eliminated (1820s); initiative, referendum, recall and other devices of direct democracy became widely accepted at the state and local level (1910s); and senators were made directly electable by the people (1913).
Women can vote. Non-whites can vote. The working class can vote. Not only can all of these people vote but they can also hold political offices. For our modern standards, a democracy where only rich, white men can vote and be elected doesn’t seem like much of a free society. Even most conservative white males who defend the good ol’ days have to admit that such a state of affairs was far from ideal. But, to be honest, that is exactly what a republic was prior to the increase of direct democracy. Democracy is messy and inefficient. It’s much easier to have a republic without democracy. Most fascist and communist governments are technically republics and many of them even identified themselves as such, but the founding fathers understood that having at least some democracy, however limited, was a good thing even for rich, white males such as themselves.
In conclusion, I’ll let Thom Hartmann have the last word. I’ll share a video where he argues the founding fathers were truly seeking egalitarianism and so were actually betraying their social class . It’s a much more positive vision of America’s beginnings. After the video, is a transcript from Thom Hartmann’s show. He summarizes perfectly the issue of republic vs democracy in American history.
If you want the most technical term, our country is aconstitutionally limited representative democratic republic. Our form of government, the constitution limits the power of government. We elect representatives, so it’s not a pure democracy. But we do elect them by majority rule so it is democratic. And the form of, the infrastructure, the total form of government, is republican, it is a republic.
In the early days of this country, James Madison basically created a distinction that didn’t exist before this, and this was in 1787. The, it used to be, if you look at dictionaries pre 1787, the words democracy and republic were interchangeable. The Roman republic was referred to as a democracy, the Greek democracy was refereed to as a republic. The words were interchanged. And in one of the Federalist papers, and I forget which one it was, I think 14 maybe, but it’s been a long time since I read them, in one of the Federalist papers in an effort to, which were put into the newspapers by Hamilton and Madison, and John Jay wrote a couple of them, to sell the constitution to people, because we were operating under the articles of Confederacy in 1787.
To sell the constitution, Madison created this artificial distinction. And what he said, basically, was that democracy, that we weren’t creating a democracy in the United States, and in a technical sense it is not a pure democracy, because like Greece, you had to have at least 6,001 people show up for a decision to be made. It had to be real majority rule. And so Hamilton, excuse me, Madison made the point that democracy could arguably be considered a form of mob rule, whereas a republic imposed, you know, an infrastructure of laws and prevented mob rule.
Now, what he omitted, intentionally, because he was trying to sell the constitution, he was trying to basically reinvent language, what he omitted was that we democratically elect our representatives. And later in his life, in the 1830s, after his presidency was over, keep in mind this was in the 1770s or 1780s, in the 1830s when he was an old man, when he was writing his memoirs, he came out and said, and there’s a whole, if you go to buzzflash.com and look at my book reviews, the very first book review that I ever did for BuzzFlash, which was like five years ago, it’s the oldest one on the list, is all about this topic, or it has several chapters on this topic. And I forget the title of it now, but it’s a great book and it’s written by a guy who’s a constitutional scholar [“How Democratic Is the American Constitution?” by Robert A. Dahl.] And Madison in 1834 said, you know, after all these years, we can, you can use the words interchangeably. And that was about the time that the Democratic Republican party that Jefferson created dropped the word “republican” from its name. And that was about the time that Madison, who was one of the early founders of the Democratic Republican party started again using the word democracy.
So from the 1830s, so from the founding or in the mid 1780s until the mid 1830s we referred to America as a Republic. From the 1830s until the modern era we referred to it as a democracy, but then when Joe McArthur came along he started, he and some of his advisors, and Karl Rove really got on this big time, said, “wait a minute, calling this a democracy sounds too much like the Democratic Party. We should call it a Republic because that sounds more like the Republican Party.” And so the talking point on right wing radio has been, and Limbaugh’s been pushing this for 20 years now, has been that we don’t live in a democracy, we live in a republic, and that you shouldn;t call it a democracy, it’s a republic. And the reason why is because they like the word republic because it sounds like republican and they hate the word democracy because it sounds like democratic. And … that’s the bottom line, we live in a democratic republic.
“Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched.”
~ Blaise Pascal
Walking through the cemetary last night, my friend mentioned the movie District 9. It turned out we both had watched it this past week, but my friend didn’t finish watching it because he didn’t like it. So, we discussed the merits (or lack thereof) of the movie as we walked among the headstones.
For some reason, I was reminded of the movie Falling Down. I told my friend that I wanted to see that movie again sometime and he asked me why I thought of it. There were two reasons.
The first reason had to do with the similarity between the District 9 bureaucrat (Wikus van de Merwe) and the Falling Down businessman (William “Bill” Foster, aka D-FENS). Both are pathetic ordinary guys. They lived their lives playing by the rules. All they wanted was the normal mediocrity that was guaranteed to them as boring middle class white guys.
The second reason was more generally about where my mind has been focused lately. I think I might’ve seen Falling Down used as an example in something I was reading lately. Anyways, it made me think of Glenn Beck being inspired by Howard Beale’s “Mad as Hell” speech in the movie Network. Howard Beale is another example of the middle class white guy being forced out of his contented stupor. So, it seemed to me that Beck would be similarly inspired by William Foster of Falling Down.
Bill Foster: I’ve passed the point of no return. Do you know what that is, Beth? That’s the point in a journey where it’s longer to go back to the beginning. It’s like when those astronauts got in trouble. I don’t know, somebody messed up, and they had to get them back to Earth. But they had passed the point of no return. They were on the other side of the moon and were out of contact for like hours. Everybody waited to see if a bunch of dead guys in a can would pop out the other side. Well, that’s me. I’m on the other side of the moon now and everybody is going to have to wait until I pop out.
Falling Down largely puts this into a class context with obvious racial tensions. It’s not just the ordinary guy refusing to take it anymore. It’s the middle class white businessman refusing to take it anymore, the middle class white businessman who is the ultimate symbol of the American normalacy we all are supposed to strive towards. This middle class white businessman is frustrated, but his frustration doesn’t cause him to feel sympathy for all of those who have been frustrated their entire lives. No, he sees the poor and the minorities, the gangsters and other dregs of society who have refused to play by the rules, as the source of his frustration. Even the Korean shop owner is seen as an enemy simply for the perceived insult of charging too much for a soda.
Why should these poor people and these minorities be allowed to get the better of good Americans? All the hardworking middle class white businessman wants is to be a good American and be rewarded for playing by the rules. Yet, he realizes that life isn’t fair and so he seeks retribution for this perceived loss of moral order. What he doesn’t realize is that life never was fair (even when it was personally benefitting him in the past), that life isn’t fair for anyone.
Bill Foster: I helped build missiles. I helped protect this country. You should be rewarded for that. But instead they give it to the plastic surgeons, you know they lied to me. Sergeant Prendergast: Is that what this is about? Is that why my chicken dinner is drying out in the oven? You’re mad because they lied to you? Listen, pal, they lie to everyone. They lie to the fish. But that doesn’t give you any special right to do what you did today.
Howard Beale, at least, realizes that they’ve been lying to us all… and not just to middle class white guys. Beale’s speech evokes populist discontent and righteous anger. Beale is portrayed as noble in his standing up and speaking out. Foster lacks any such noble qualities. In District 9, Wikus could’ve gone down the path of Falling Down, but eventually his sympathetic side wins out. The difference is that, where Foster clearly holds himself above all those he condemns, Wikus is literally turning into one of the aliens he had previously treated, in his role as a heartless bureaucrat, as being below him. Foster dies never doubting his own righteousness towards others and Wikus risks his own life in righteously defending the Other.
It would be too simplistic to portray Foster’s anger as mere racism. Foster has no more love for the rich white guys on the golf course than he has for the Latino gang. It’s the rich guys like them who fired him without any care for his fate. You’d think this might make him feel sympathy for all the people who have been likewise screwed over by the wealthy elite, but that isn’t what he feels. As I see it, Foster is mad not because he doesn’t believe in the American Dream of the good life but because he does believe in it and believes he deserves it. On the other hand, Beale and Wikus seem to come to some understanding that the good life they had known is not real or not worthy and so they don’t look for easy targets on which to project their frustration.
At this point in my discussion with my friend, I was reminded of A Scanner Darkly (of which I’m often reminded). In Scanner, the protagonist Bob Arctor remembers (or else has a vision) of once having lived the good life, of having had a nice house with a perfect family. It’s in that scene he realizes he didn’t ultimately hate the momentary pain of life’s events but rather he had felt hate for how his life had once been, the life that wasn’t real and that hid the deeper pain of a world without meaning or wonder. Arctor hated what that dream of the perfect life represented. The perfect family and home weren’t as perfect as they appeared. Society and human relationships are filled with endless deception. No matter how comfortable the fantasy, it’s not enough. The realization that the dream is fake is a good thing because only in knowing what isn’t real can one then seek out that which is real.
Foster is deluding himself that if he can just get back home that the world will somehow be put right again. By tightly holding onto his dream of normalacy, he ends up hurting almost everyone he meets. As portrayed in Scanner, facing reality isn’t always pleasant… even so, there is something worthy in it. The key element is the willingness to self-sacrifice. Foster instead chooses self-destruction that achieves no end other than self-righteousness. Foster is shocked to discover that he is seen as being the “bad guy”, but he doesn’t ask for forgiveness for the destruction and suffering he has left in his wake.
I thought of one last example of this narrative: American Beauty. Lester Burnham is yet another middle class white guy who had been living the American Dream and found it lacking. When confronted with this situation, there are many possible responses. At first, Lester responds by becoming infatuated with his daughter’s friend. So, he turns from the fantasy of career to the fantasy of youthful desire, but something stops him from following through with this infatuation. He sees the young girl as a real person and not merely an object of his desire. He seems to realize that he doesn’t want to harm another simply because he himself feels hurt by life.
Interestingly, both A Scanner Darkly and American Beauty end, after everything going wrong, with a vision of beauty. Quite differently, Network and Falling Down end on a note of almost pure cynicism. District 9 just ends with self-conscious movie cliche silliness.
However it ends, I find it a compelling story when the middle class white guy is thrown out of his middle class white world. But why is it compelling? Should we pity the middle class white guy who has been forced to face the everyday suffeing most of humanity faces all of the time? Should the middle class white guy feel sorry for himself because he has lost the sense of comfort that his socio-economic class normally provides? Why, as a society, are we obsessed with telling (and being entertained by) stories about the struggles of middle class white guys? Is it compelling because the middle class white guy as the collective symbol of normalacy represents our collective sense of self? If the middle class white guy loses his direction, will our whole society collapse? Is the middle class white guy the moral compass of modern Western Civilization?
I could leave it on the level of social criticism of middle class white guys and our fascination with them, but there is another context I wanted to throw in. The theme of the superficial normalacy of American culture has been explored in Film Noir and Neo-Noir. Starting with the first Philip K. Dick adaptation (Blade Runner), Science Fiction has become a popular form of Neo-Noir. Like much of Philip K. Dick’s work, A Scanner Darkly also has Noir elements. Important elements of Noir and Neo-Noir are memory and identity. None of the movies I’ve discussed are specifically Noir, but for all of them identity is the most central element in that the characters have their identities shaken to the core. In Arts of Darkness, Thomas S. Hibbs discusses American Beauty (p. 193):
Not technically a noir film, American Beauty does overlap with noir in a number of respects: in its use of flashback and voiceover; in its focus on a character who is already dead (D.O.A.); in its assumption that the source of American alienation is somehow connected to the infiltration of consumerism into the very heart of intimate relations; in its theme of a doomed quest; and in its setting of the final, crescendo of violence at night in rain. American Beauty is also a deeply, if not entirely coherent religious film that, according to at least one perceptive Christian film critic, can help viewers see “the world as it truly is: resplendent and suffused with a radiant, implacable love that shows itself in the exquisite beauty of the very fabric of the created world.
Hibbs, a few pages later, points out an important insight (p. 199):
A more consistent critique of capitalism as source of brutality can be found in Wendell Berry’s essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.” Berry argues that giving free reign to capitalism wipes out local communal life, leaving individuals isolated and powerless in the face of large, impersonal forces. The proper, mediating role of the community is lost and individuals, liberated from local traditions and communal expectations, are increasingly subject to the whims of national bureaucracies and international markets. One of the problems with the “family values” espoused by conservatives is that it often leaves the nuclear family to itself, isolated amid an increasingly hostile economic and social order. Family values are also quite compatible with what Tocqueville identified as one of the great vices of modern politics: individualism. Tocqueville contrasted egoism, which elevates the satisfaction of one’s own desires above all else, with individualism, which is a “a mature and calm feeling” that disposes each person to “draw apart with his family and friends” and ” willingly leave society to itself.” The consequence of this sort of individualism, according to Berry, is the loss of the sense of marriage as anything other than a contract between two isolated individuals: “If you depreciate the sanctity and solemnity of marriage, not just as a bond between two people but as a bond between those two people and their forbears, their children, and their neighbors, then you have prepared the way for an epidemic of divorce, child neglet, community ruin, and loneliness.”
This brings me back to my social criticism of the white middle class guy who is the symbol of our consumerist society. He is the head of the nuclear family and the traditional breadwinner. The role of the individual has become so constrained, so narrow that this role takes on ultimate significance. When the white middle class guy loses his job or family, the center can no longer hold. There is no larger community for him to turn to, there is no other respectable role he can take up. However, at the same time, this role that gives him the only meaning he knows also confounds any search for greater meaning. It’s what Thoreau described as “lives of quiet desperation”.
This “quiet desperation” is often portrayed in the form of bureaucracy. In Falling Down and American Beauty, the protagonists just lost their important positions in large bureaucratic companies. In District 9, Network, and A Scanner Darkly, the protagonists are caught up in the machinations of bureaucracies. This mind-numbing, soul-killing bureaucracy is what Max Weber called the Iron Cage. From the Wikipedia article:
Iron cage, a sociological concept introduced by Max Weber, refers to the increased rationalization inherent in social life, particularly in Western capitalist societies. The “iron cage” thus traps individuals in systems based purely on teleological efficiency, rational calculation and control. Weber also described the bureaucratization of social order as “the polar night of icy darkness”.
[ . . . ] Weber states, “the course of development involves… the bringing in of calculation into the traditional brotherhood, displacing the old religious relationship.”
Modern society was becoming characterized by its shift in the motivation of individual behaviors. Social actions were becoming based on efficiency instead of the old types of social actions, which were based on lineage or kinship. Behavior had become dominated by goal-oriented rationality and less by tradition and values. According to Weber, the shift from the old form of mobility in terms of kinship to a new form in terms of a strict set of rules was a direct result of growth in bureaucracy and capitalism.
[ . . . ] Because of these aforementioned reasons, there will be an evolution of an iron cage, which will be a technically ordered, rigid, dehumanized society. The iron cage is the one set of rules and laws that we are all subjected and must adhere to. Bureaucracy puts us in an iron cage, which limits individual human freedom and potential instead of a “technological utopia” that should set us free. It’s the way of the institution, where we do not have a choice anymore. Once capitalism came about, it was like a machine that you were being pulled into without an alternative option; currently, whether we agree or disagree, if you want to survive you need to have a job and you need to make money.
[ . . . ] “Rationalization destroyed the authority of magical powers, but it also brought into being the machine-like regulation of bureaucracy, which ultimately challenges all systems of belief.”
I first learned of Weber’s ideas about bureaucracy from the book The Trickster and the Paranormal by George P. Hansen. In that book, Hansen describes the eternal conflict in our society between the forces of bureaucratic order and the forces that are beyond control. The Trickster archetype can never be entirely removed or entirely protected against. It’s the role of the Trickster to explode the alien chemicals in the face of Wikus in District 9. It’s the role of the Trickster to create such confused self-deception in A Scanner Darkly. If nothing ever went wrong, there wouldn’t be any reason to tell stories. No satisfying story ends exactly as it begins. Some learn to accept the role of the Trickster and they hold less tightly onto the story they were telling themselves. Those who do try to hold onto their self-justifying stories typically become tragic anti-heroes like in Falling Down and tragic anti-heroes have tragic ends.
Yes, “they” are lying to us, but it also must be understood that “they” are lying to everyone… including to themselves. We are all caught up in a system of lies. This relates to Weber’s Iron Cage or, to put it in the light of gnosticism, what Philip K. Dick called the Black Iron Prison. Ultimately, we should worry more about the lies we tell ourselves than the lies that others tell us. Most of the time, we believe the lies of others because we want to believe them, because we have internalized some fundamental lie that our society is built upon. If you must, scream out the window that you’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. Then, after doing so, take a look at yourself in the mirror.
Let me end this with the context of real life.
I mentioned Glenn Beck in relation to Network. I find that fascinating considering that Glenn Beck idolizes a fictional character who ends up being assassinated for speaking out against the powers that be. What is sad about Howard Beale, and hence what is sad about Beck, is that he looks outward trying to find the source of the problem. As I recall, Beale doesn’t come to any grand realization as does Bob Arctor and as does Lester Burnham. Both Beale and Arctor are possessed by paranoid visions which isn’t the problem in and of itself. Their paranoia correctly detects real conspiracies and real deceptions, but there is a difference that matters. Arctor, through profound self-questioning, transforms his paranoia into a spiritual vision.
It’s with this contrast between Beale and Arctor that I rest my own personal struggles. I can’t entirely blame the Beales and Becks of the world for ranting against injustice. I can’t even entirely blame the Bill Fosters of the world for going on their rampages. In the real world, Bill Foster in Falling Down is Joe Stack flying his plane into the IRS building. I understand how a person can feel overwhelmed by the frustration and hopelessness. The rug gets pulled out from under us (whether it’s losing your job or having alien chemicals sprayed in your face) and one is forced to respond. Most will try everything they can to make it go back to the way it used to be, but this inevitably fails. In place of what was lost, some latch onto convictions and others seek retribution. I personally prefer those who seek understanding and those who try to find a way to end the cycle of suffering. Such things as family and career won’t save you and neither will such things as politics and religion. My sense is that genuine salvation is much more personal and existential. Like Bill Foster, it’s all too easy to become the enemy that one wishes to fight against. Righteous anger is a dangerous drug which is highly addictive. I understand the allure of self-righteousness, but I’d like to believe there is some other option… beauty, love, compassion, self-sacrifice… I don’t know… something…
Nonetheless, whether or not we are able to gain something we deem a worthy exchange, it is undeniably clear that most often what is lost can never be regained. As Thomas Wolfe so famously said:
…you can’t go home again… back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love… away from all the strife and conflict of the world… back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
I do, however, hope that at least some semblance of truth can be found or else just the awareness of the edges of knowledge. I admit I’d love to experience a transformative vision or attain some gnosis about the world, but there is no guarantee about anything and I suppose that is the only truth we can rely upon. We can’t know what lies ahead and so that is why we try to hold onto past certainties. Still, I think Bob Arctor was lucky in having entirely lost his former self. It seems to me that it was because he had no past to weigh him down that he was able to see the world in a way no one else could.
“I saw Death rising from the earth, from the ground itself… in one blue field.”
I don’t know if I’ve posted the following video before, but I just came across it again.
It’s a very impressive analysis of Roger Ailes and Fox News. This is the only news show I’ve ever seen which mentions Roger Ailes’ “Orchestra Pit Theory”. Cenk is correct in this video that, what ever else can be said, Ailes is a genius… a genius without a conscience but still a genius.
I heard Michael Moore interviewed on NPR the other day. It was the best interview of him that I’ve come across. He spoke about his personal life which gave the background for what motivates him. He was raised in a politically active family, but fairly conservative. His grandfather was a Republican politician who taught him the values of conservatism such as conserving the environment. He grew up Catholic and still goes to church. He has been married to the same woman for something like 3 decades. He tries to be a good person and live by the principles that Jesus taught. Moore is one of those social justice Christians that Beck thinks are the worse of the worse.
I bring up Beck for a reason. Beck often uses violence as a theme in his show. One particular example was when he was talking about killing Michael Moore and he wondered if he should kill Moore himself or hire someone. I think that is an extreme statement to make on mainstream tv. Conservatives don’t seem offended by such hate-filled language, but if a liberal said something like that conservatives would go batshit crazy. Moore has never made a statement like that. Moore even said he wouldn’t even say he hated Bush even though he strongly disagreed with him. From Moore’s Christian perspective, hatred and violence aren’t Christian values. Also, he believes religion is a personal matter and shouldn’t be used as a talking point or a wedge issue. Moore chooses to live his values rather than righteously preach down at others.
Moore is considered by rightwingers as the most loony of the leftwingers. So, if Moore is the worst kind of liberal, that is a compliment to liberalism. Compared to the worst kind of conservative, Moore comes off as a moderate. Even if you disagree with Moore’s claims or arguments, at least he doesn’t threaten violence and spout hate speech.
This distinction isn’t limited to Moore and Beck.
There was an interview Buckley did with Chomsky. Buckley threatened to punch Chomsky in the face and it wasn’t the first guest he had threatened in this manner. It’s a rather odd response to have in a televised interview especially with someone like Chomsky who is as cool-headed of an intellectual as you can find. Chomsky is very easygoing and quite understanding of those different from himself. Chomsky even defended Tea Party protesters saying that they shouldn’t be criticized by liberals but instead that liberals should try to understand their perspective. Understand the perspective of someone you disagree with? Why does it take a liberal to point out that sympathetic understanding is better than righteous hatred?
Let me provide two other examples.
Compare Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart. Stewart is fairly easygoing although not the intellectual that Chomsky is. Like Chomsky, Stewart doesn’t come off as mean-spirited and always gives people the opportunity to speak and he actually listens to others. O’Reilly, on the other hand, often yells at people, tells them to shut up and talks over them. O’Reilly isn’t always that way, but my point is that he acts that way quite often and Stewart never acts that way. I truly doubt that Stewart has ever told a guest to shut up.
And compare Ann Coulter and Bill Maher. Maher also lets anyone to state their opinion. He has strong opinions, but he doesn’t bludgeon people with them. He for some strange reason even considers Coulter a friend of sorts and has had her on his show. Coulter is very different. She is the most rude and bigoted person I’ve ever seen on mainstream tv. She either intentionally makes offensive statements or she is almost entirely oblivious, but she doesn’t seem stupid enough to be that oblivious.
Obviously, this isn’t limited to the behavior of people on tv. I’ve discussed this topic before and I mentioned the differences between conservative and liberal activists. A clear example are the two sides on the abortion issue. Pro-life activists have committed decades of a wide variety of violence, but I never hear of violence by pro-choice activists. I’m not saying that all conservatives are violent. What I am saying is that the conservative mindset seems to make one more prone to violence. As a contrasting example, I like to bring up the Weather Underground which is considered the most violent liberal activist group in US history. The difference is that the Weather Underground never killed anyone nor tried to kill anyone. In fact, they went out of their way to avoid killing anyone.
Another example is that of guns. Conservatives bring guns to rallies and protests. Liberals don’t. If asked, many liberals support the right to own guns or even carry guns. But, for whatever reason, the threat of violence bothers liberals more… maybe because the violence is typically turned towards liberals. And yet it’s conservatives who feel the most defensive when violence is used against the country.
There are many explanations for why this difference exists. I tend to favor psychological explanations based on personality research, but there are cultural reasons that could be considered as well. Anyways, the reason for this difference isn’t my concern in this post. I was partly just noting the difference as I just heard the interview with Michael Moore. But what ultimately concerns me or rather what makes me wonder is: Why do liberals notice this difference but conservatives don’t? When I’ve seen this brought up with conservatives they tend to explain it away. If a liberal used violence, even liberals would condemn it. But when conservatives use violence, conservatives often will defend it or try to find some kind of rationalized justification. For example, Palin said a conservative who killed some liberals wasn’t a terrorist even though the killing was politically motivated. Even a conservative politician can defend violence and not be held accountable.
As a liberal, I fear violence by American conservatives more than I fear violence by Islamic extremists. And my fear is reasonable. A large percentage of recent acts of violence have been committed by conservatives and often directed at liberals. It’s a fact of life in the US that conservatives are prone to violence. Maybe it’s a fact of life in all countries.
As usual, Glenn Beck is in the news for causing outrage, but I there is a difference recently. Many people, including myself, have predicted that it is inevitable that Beck would go too far at some point, if not entirely go over the edge. For the time being, he is still managing to hold onto his sanity, but he has steadily been losing support.
Advertisers have been leaving Beck’s show for a while, but Beck retains his corporate support because the attention he brings still translates into profit for Fox News in general. Plus, as long as he is serving the political purposes of the powers that be within the conservative movement, it’s worth supporting a show that isn’t justifiable in terms of profit. More telling is that recent articles have pointed out that there is dissent within Fox News. Some people working there think Beck is problematic for Fox News and for serious journalism. Management there have Beck on a short leash and so putting him on air is a calcuated risk. Is it paying off?
Certainly, Fox News became wildy successful during Bush’s administration for obvious reasons. They might’ve been fine if they had just coasted on that success, but instead they’ve pushed the fear mongering and hate mongering which has worked for them so well. The problem is that the public is finally getting tired about this kind of media outrage and frenzied bipartisanship… and this is Beck’s personal formula of success. At some point, Fox News will have to cut Beck free or else increasingly lose profits. I think they’ll keep him around at least until the next presidential election. Beck is the GOP’s big cannon. Also, it would be dangerous for them to let him go because then they could no longer keep him controlled and keep him on message.
At the moment, the real force of criticism against Beck is coming from the American public. He is just now getting to that point of going too far. Two issues recently exemplify this.
First, Beck had a recent show where he criticized some of the bastions of mainstream American culture including Bruce Springstein. Beck has become so paranoid that he sees Commies and Nazis everywhere. Many people have shared his general fear of some nefarious problem within our culture, but he will lose support when he pulls his attention away from politicians. Everyone loves to bash politicians. Bashing the Boss is, however, unacceptable. Springstein was for a long time seen as the voice of the working class, the Rock n’ Roll representative of middle America. Beck is treading on thin ice.
Second, Beck had another recent show where he attacked the Christian tradition of social justice as un-Christian. That is a very bad move. Christians are Beck’s base and this gives an opportunity for Progressive Christians to get heard. Jim Wallis once had hope that Bush was being honest when he campaigned on bipartisanship, but of course was disappointed. The GOP has no place for Christians who aren’t fundamentalists. Beck played off of this culture war that Bush ramped up, but people can only take so much of the endless outrage. In recent years, the right has been losing battle after battle in the culture wars. There influence is still great, but the influence of religious left has been growing. Even fundamentalists Christians are starting to question the role of religion in politics and starting to question whether the ends justifies the means.
Beck doesn’t really matter in the big picture. I’m increasingly convinced that he is just a symptom of a deeper problem. The American public isn’t well informed about most issues and they’re easily swayed by hate and fear. As long as that is the case, ideologues such as Beck will pop up whenever our culture becomes gripped by paranoia. It happens in cycles (Strauss and Howe claim it happens in predictable cycles). There was Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s ranting against the same scapegoat/enemies that Beck rants against today. As the economy improves and the memory of 9/11 loses its edge, Beck will lose his popularity and he will just be another dark blotch on American history.
On a less serious note, the best defense against Beck’s brand of fear-mongering is humor and parody. Along with Fox News, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert also rose to prominence during Bush’s administration. Liberals in general have taken note and people like Beck have been rightfully mocked. A high quality example of this is a recent video (link below) that demonstrates the inanity of Beck’s message. Enjoy!
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