Julenka asked me this question in a response to one of my posts [#1 is a Bullet] … “…how the hell has it all managed to turn upside-down like this? I mean, fascism, psychopathy, weakening the people through distracting them and cultivating the ignorance.. all of that is kinda obvious now, right? But how did we get here?”
Given my age (45) I guess I can have some perspective on how we got to the pathological state that our society is in now. Someone older than myself probably has an even clearer perspective, but just in the past thirty years I have seen enormous changes in our society in terms of our attitudes and of course our political and social climate. I can make out several of the ‘culprits’ that deserve most of the blame for the decline of our civilization.
Things were hardly perfect thirty years ago but we were probably at our best in the early-mid seventies. The seventies culture was about expanding one’s mind and relating to nature and the environment. I remember seeing used bookstores everywhere. In some neighborhoods, there were two or three of them on every block. The oil shortage and the discovery of the Greenhouse Effect made people turn in their big gas-guzzling cars for tiny, fuel-efficient cars. People began jogging (and streaking, which is a whole other story!). Folks became less interested in dark, cavernous steakhouses with big leather booths and four-Martini lunches. Restaurants began selling healthy foods and even (gasp!) ethnic foods. Movies were at their very best in the early-mid seventies. They were about real people with flaws, and they were adults (ironically, during that period when I was a teen, there were practically no movies featuring teenagers, which I consider a wonderful thing). Even the genres of legend such as Westerns were completely deconstructed; the line between the good guys and the bad guys became extremely blurred. We no longer relied on the fantasy of pure good and pure evil; we accepted that humans are more complex (which in IMO why those movies were so exciting and challenging!). It was also a time when movies and TV began to finally acknowledge people of ‘other’ races, and pay attention to the poor and working class. Because shows like “All in the Family” ridiculed ignoramuses and racists, bigots had to go into the closet (yay!). We stepped out of the fantasy that everyone in this country was white, middle-class and fully functional. We fessed up to our dysfunctional families and dysfunctional society and dysfunctional selves. Things probably got a little too far what with all the self-help books and self-improvement seminars, but at least we weren’t living in an illusion anymore. We at least were searching for something tangible and meaningful instead of scavenging malls in our free time or vegging out in front of the TV.
Back then, there were only eight channels on TV, and there was no broadcasting between 1:30 AM and 7:00 AM. With ‘so few’ channels, people had to either spend their time doing other things, or picking from programming that offered at least some sophisticated or challenging shows. Up until the early eighties, PBS offered excellent programming. They actually had numerous adult discussion programs on issues both topical and philosophical, and every viewpoint no matter how radical was allowed to be expressed. They showed foreign films weekly, as well as great plays staged for television. As for the music culture; if people wanted to see musicians, they went to concerts. They didn’t really get to see the performers unless they were very close to the stage because back then there were no giant viewing screens -but that was okay; the vibe from being there with other maniacal fans was what really mattered! The news broadcasting on TV began its decline in the early seventies but compared to today, there was still some journalism and – as we know from Watergate – a press that wasn’t afraid of asking hard questions to politicians and digging wherever it needed to dig in order to find the answers. The Vietnam war made us shy away from all forms of militarism. It seemed as though no one would ever consider war to be glorious or adventurous again! Religious fundamentalism didn’t exist in the media save for radio and TV stations in the ‘bible belt’ part of the country, and it was almost never brought up by politicians in a national forum. I suppose I needn’t add that the seventies was also when abortion and homosexuality became legal, and the possession of small amounts of marijuana went from being a felony to a misdemeanor.
Then – sigh! – came the eighties and Reaganitis set in. His was a culture that embraced good ol’ fashioned meat-and-potatoes Ozzie and Harriet family values. He fully embraced the Christo-fascists, which is how the wheels started turning there. I also think he used Orwell’s “1984” as a primer as he turned doublespeak into an art form, and he created new lows in logic reform (remember his remark about how trees cause pollution?). Cable turned television into a one-hundred-channel fairyland complete with home shopping and 24-hour news and sports. Not that one could tell the difference between the news and sports; they both used the same glitzy graphics and music, the same kinds of announcers, and the same length of soundbites. Since each administration picks the president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS began to replace their cutting edge intellectual fare with constant reruns of classic movies like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and shows featuring great places to eat and shop. Music turned into a totally visual medium (MTV). Movies went back to being mythic and bigger-than-life, with clear villains and good guys. Rib joints, ‘surf ‘n’ turf’ and retro-diners replaced healthy restaurants (ironically, ‘real’ old fashioned diners were replaced by franchises like ‘McBurgerCluckBucks’… bleh bleh bleh…). Independent stores were replaced by malls. Supermarkets were replaced by megamarkets like Walmart. High-priced, hi-tech gyms replaced jogging. Cars and houses became bigger. While blue-collar jobs began to be outsourced by the millions and family farms were bought out by huge corporations, social programs and college tuition were seriously sliced in budget cuts. Almost every program in Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ was either decimated or destroyed. Crack cocaine was introduced to the ghettos. The nuclear arms race with the Soviets heated up, we went to war wherever we could get away with it (Grenada, Panama, & ultimately Kuwait), and funded wars whether we could get away with it or not (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among others). It was a shitty decade; bookended metaphorically with great irony by the assassination of John Lennon in 1980 to the suicide of Abbie Hoffman in 1989.
I don’t know why the population as a whole allowed all of those events to happen, but I think the media is mostly to blame. They were bought up by corporations more and more, thus they created the climate of ‘don’t worry be happy’ and ‘shop til you drop’. The only reason all the movements in the sixties were able to make so many positive changes was because we had a free media then, and protest movements were far more romantic and photogenic than every other tepid thing that was being broadcast. Also of course, the news actually showed us what war really looks like! But after the war, TV viewers didn’t get as worked up over issues like the environment, education and ‘no nukes’. Those protests weren’t considered as dramatic or ‘sexy’ as war, so they weren’t considered ‘good television’. It gets me extremely mad when I hear younger people say that all the hippies sold out after the sixties. They only disappeared from TV screens. Most everyone that was dedicated to social change remained – and still remain to this day – dedicated to ‘the cause’. Gil Scott Heron said ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ but in our society today, if it ain’t on TV, it’s not real.
Fantasy has replaced reality and that is why the nation (well, most of the nation) mourned Raygun for over a week when he died a couple of years ago. He delivered us from reality and structured the world once more to fit into that comfortable myth of ‘good and evil’. He made us proud even though we had very little to be proud of. He gave us permission to be selfish instead of selfless. He made it okay to use poor people and women as scapegoats again. And most of all, he found a way to get millions of people to vote against their best interests and love him for it; by saying that he – and they – were on the side of God. So fantasy is also to blame for our downfall.
Anyway, what free press we had has either been replaced by corporate-press, or it’s drowning in the ocean of static made by something like 400 TV channels. And man, this corporate press knows how to spin! Yesterday while we were driving around, I saw 2 giant billboards that said “Say ‘No’ to Monopoly! Boycott Time Warner! Order Your Direct TV Satellite Today!”. Now it’s true; Time Warner has taken over all of the cable companies in LA. But Direct TV is owned by Rupert Murdoch for christsake!! The guy owns half the media in the world! Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. I’m too lazy to count what he owns, but those who are interested can look here. Of course, most idiots in this city don’t even know who Rupert Murdoch is, so his PR people have done a ‘Karl Rove’ on the population of our fair city, making them believe that they are actually doing something to combat the big bad corporate guys by … unknowingly supporting the big bad corporate guys. I hear poor George Orwell rolling in his grave.
So ‘spin’ is also to blame.
And the culture wars are to blame. Most people are too lazy to pick up a book or a newspaper, so they can’t tell you in any detail about the complexities of war or the economy or any of the dozens of pertinent problems this country is facing. But they do know how they feel about people who eat Brie, or people who wear tattoos or – on the other end of the spectrum – how they feel about people who eat Velveeta or who go to church regularly. I remember Jesse Jackson’s speech at the 2004 convention being about how Democrats are the ones who are helping the folks who live on Kool-Aid and peanut butter sandwiches. And John Edwards went on forever about taking his wife to Wendy’s for their anniversary. This stuff is what wins them votes; not what they have to say about the war or the economy. It didn’t used to be like that. Conventions are highly organized circuses now. They used to at least be a cross between organized circuses and real political discourse! But the media has helped spin the issues away from politics to lifestyle, making those who live a certain way, love a certain way, look a certain way, and even eat a certain way the cause for society’s ills – it has nothing to do with politicians or the corporations and the lobbyists that own them. These spin-masters are smart. They know we’re always in competition with each other and watching to see who’s better or worse off than ourselves. This can be clearly seen in the mid-eighties when the great Phil Donahue Show, which daily discussed important issues with studio audiences, got run over by shows like Oprah or Geraldo, which focused on our personal problems and ultimately, our dirtiest laundry. The message became clear; ‘don’t concern yourself with what your government is doing. Just pay attention to what your neighbor is doing’.
Government secrecy is another big issue. Secrecy in the name of security has always been good to keep ‘we the people’ at bay. Nixon was the first big culprit at that when he created a ‘press room’ for the press at the White House (previous to that they were allowed to hang out in the lobby where they could view and even approach any person who passed through). The lobby to the WH has gotten smaller and smaller over the years. The last nail in the coffin of our ‘free press’ was when the Bush administration delegated Helen Thomas to the back row during press conferences. That was not only a ploy to stop the one reporter left who was asking hard questions, but a signal to any other reporter that they’d better ‘behave’ or be pushed to the back of the room themselves. And of course, we have censorship of every kind, including a war with no dead civilians, no dead soldiers, and no coffins or graves. The press has colluded in this hypocrisy. They’re afraid that they will be charged with exploiting the war if they ever actually covered it. So the press is also strongly to blame.
Ultimately we have to take our fair share the blame as well – all of us as a society. In the late seventies – early eighties for example, there were two fantastic free weekly newspapers here in LA that had some of the best journalism in the country. But a free newspaper can’t afford to stay free without giving in to advertisers, and by the mid-eighties, The LA Weekly basically became a magazine featuring ads with a few good op-ed pages scattered through, and the LA Reader was eventually bought up by conservatives and then died. Lifestyle replaced life. Advertising is everywhere, in schools, in cinemas… I’ve heard that they even have ads over the urinals in men’s restrooms! And these ads are designed to sell us ‘feelings’ not products. For some reason, we eat it up. Well I don’t, but most folks do and certainly this commercial bombardment in every facet of our lives dictates what we value. We no longer value trying to understand ourselves as individuals or as a society. We only value what we can purchase. I’ve heard countless numbers of people who have said that they don’t like museums (which BTW, were free up until the mid-eighties!) except for the gift shops because it’s no fun to just look at stuff. We have to show people how cool or rich we are by showing it all off.
But … even though we are in deep shit, I’m not totally pessimistic. There are more activists in America today than there were ten or even twenty years ago (and in other countries they seem to really be flourishing!). People in this country are now (finally!) paying serious attention to environmental issues. Hollywood is still mostly run by social liberals (when the Christo-fascists take over Hollywood, we can kiss America goodbye forever). And… it is sometimes the paradox of life that when things become so horrible and miserable and hopeless, people rise up and say ‘no’. In a way, this administration is helping the world get better, simply by doing so much to destroy it. One of my favorite quotes is from the series “I Claudius” when old Claudius who has seen the empire sinking into a virtual snake pit, says over and over, “let all the poisons that lurk in the mud, hatch out”. He had to let the imperial dynasty destroy Rome in order to bring back the republic. I only hope we won’t have to watch the world burn the way Rome did in the years that began its downfall!
The one thing that always keeps me going is a line in one of my favorite movies “My Dinner With Andre” (a ‘must see’!), when Andre talks about how throughout the centuries – even in the Dark Ages – there have been little pockets in every society that preserved the light; that kept us connected with nature and creativity and human kindness. Perhaps just writing in these silly little blogs, we are keeping that light alive. We may not be saving the world, but we’re keeping that light alive in some minuscule way, like Winston Smith, scribbling away in his diary just out of the eye-view of Big Brother.