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Privatized Suffering

Americans are buying into politicians like Hilary Clinton, despite their moral transgressions.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout; Adapted from: sakura love / flickr)

“And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him.”

-Karl Marx

“Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human. This distortion occurs within history; but it is not an histori­cal vocation. Indeed, to admit of dehumanization as an historical vocation would lead either to cynicism or total despair”.

-Paulo Freire

I have been thinking on the way the vast majority of the U.S., at least the majority of white and educated (even if badly) people seem unable to think in any terms but those of the most simplistic and reductive. I am always, for example, stunned that ANYONE, could feel anything but repulsion toward Hillary Clinton. From her earliest days as a Goldwater girl, to young and only semi competent lawyer in Little Rock where she defended utility companies and Coca Cola, to her final grotesque incarnation as assassin. Her gleefull cackling on CBS TV when the topic of assassination came up is among the more chilling public displays of inapproprate visible sadism in US political history. And still…and still, the ogre marches on and in her toxic wake swim countless female voters shrieking defense of ‘bad ass Hillary’. Now, is this just the product of watching TV news, and news-tainment, and Hollywood film and TV? I think largely it is. But there are other things at work.

There is a race divide I suspect (I’ve not looked at poll numbers) with regard to Hillary. There is something lurking within the Hillary phenomenon that links directly to white quasi-feminism, the sort that never gives a thought to the mothers and daughters in Iraq or Syria, or Haiti or Venezuela. The narrative of U.S. politicians as war criminals is suppressed. It is, effectively, censored. A culture now tells itself stories about conquest, and revenge. Revenge even for small offenses. And those who extract revenge are applauded. I used Hillary Clinton to start a discussion of this topic because she is obviously an emotionally unwell person. I remember how George Bush pere used to have that strange habit of de-linking what he was saying from his gestures. If he were saying come here, he would be waving goodbye. Hillary has something like that in her the odd cadences of her extemporaneous speech. Her laughter (cackle) is never timed right, as if these laughs and smiles were spasms of some sort, not genuine amusement. But that American politicians are pathological should be fairly obvious, and yet it is not. John Kerry? John McCain? Susan Rice? Joe Biden? Obama? Tom Coburn and Mario Rubio?. Step back and look at these figures as human beings. They look unwell. Not physically sick, but emotionally. They look actually insane.

One of the more surprising things encountered in day to day life is how so many Americans retain a default belief in institutional authority. In other words, the tendency is for people to believe what they are told, if the voice is institutional, or already a voice of authority. The sense that, well, its the New York Times, they couldn’t just, you know, *lie*. Where does this come from? This belief in authority. In institutions. One might say, well, most people who have to work learn quickly to distrust their superiors. Yet that logic rarely extends to elected officials, even if, in a seperate conversation those same people will say, oh, well, all politicians lie. There are these wide compartmentalized belief systems, and they dont interface. The narratives of power, in news, in Hollywood, are about structural integrity. If someone does something corrupt, they will be punished. Eventually. Still, often the idea of punishment is not the driving force behind these narratives. It is the pleasure of identification with power. If, if if only *I* could powerful one day! So on the one hand, a populace cynically expresses how corrupt politicians are, and at the same moment defend the greatness of their country, will go vote for Hillary, or Mitt, or whoever, and will argue until blue in the face why Kerry is better than Bush, or Obama better than Mitt. How do these contradictions co-exist? Well, part of it is the distance now created between the images on screens, on computers, plasma tv, movie theatres, and iPhone, etc. That is one world. A world in which a narrative is played out. The real world (sic), the non screen world, is one of shopping and branding and lifestyle choices. On the screens, “important” political figures do important political things. They burn up brown people, saving them. They burn up black and yellow people, to save them. The arrest poor people, to protect society. They *lead* the backward people of Africa, and Asia and South America toward prosperity. And now, of Eastern Europe, and in these global screen narratives crowds will appear. Crowds only appear to fight oppression!! Cheer the crowd. Cheer cheer. I will support their right to fight oppression. What does it mean to say “support”? Means little more than I will watch this crowd more than that crowd, on one of my screens. At home. At home where I have shopped wisely to create an effective brand-of-self.

Gilbert Mercier wrote recently:

“Politicians, especially the heads of state, are marketed and sold to the public like big-ticket items. Most citizens have become consumers of political products. As in advertising, political campaigns are tested on focus groups. Once a political brand is established, consumers develop a relationship to the brand either of trust and fidelity or hostility. In the United States, Bush, Clinton and Kennedy are well-known political brands. In France, the brand Le Pen is trending strongly. The symbiosis of politics and marketing is symptomatic of this age. Once addicted to a brand, the political consumer will keep buying it (voting for it). In Orwellian times, branding is king.”

As Seamus Milne points out:

“From Ukraine to Thailand and Egypt to Venezuela, large-scale protests have aimed at, or succeeded in, ousting elected governments in the past year. In some countries, mass protests have been led by working class organisations, targeting austerity and corporate power. In others, predominantly middle class unrest has been the lever to restore ousted elites.

Sometimes, in the absence of political organisation, they can straddle the two. But whoever they represent, they tend to look similar on TV.”

And how they photograph is keyed to their brand.

“From the overthrow of the elected Mossadegh government in Iran in the 1950s, when the CIA and MI6 paid anti-government demonstrators, the US and its allies have led the field: sponsoring “colour revolutions”, funding client NGOs and training student activists, fuelling social media protest and denouncing – or ignoring – violent police crackdowns as it suits them.”

The poor in the U.S., are increasingly deprived of education, and increasingly are targeted for arrest and punishment. The poor distrust authority. The working class tend to be aware of the danger of interaction with the police. However, for many poor, the only opportunities existing are police and military. The pathologizing of the poor, the unrelenting assault both psychic and phyiscal, has left poor youth with their own contradictions. Join the Marines, maybe be killed or maimed, and get free education to train me for jobs that don’t exist. Wow, sign me up.

Perhaps this suggests something of an unconscious (and often conscious) desperation.

Now, these narratives, pegged by class, run concurrent with the basic catastrophe that is capitalism. Take plastic and packaging as an example. One sees vegetables, increasingly in fact, wrapped in shrink-wrap, or pliable plastic wrap. Countless studies for twenty years almost have proven that carcinogens are leeched into the vegetables. But, nobody seems to concern themselves with this. Its not a tiny bit of carcinogen, its rather a substantial amount. The packaging industry is behind only defense and pornography/prostitution as the biggest industry in the world. Blister wrap, blister packs, polystyrene tubs, bubble wrap, styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, and all outer pliable plastic coverings make up close to half of the plastics industry production. All of it non-essential, and all of it contributing to cancer. We have increases in childhood cancer, increases a thousand fold in prostate cancer and breast cancer… and the oceans are literally suffocating from floating islands of swirling plastic debris. The narrative goes like this…plastic wrapping of vegetables keeps these foodstuffs clean. Clean from what? The dirt they grow in? In fact, obviously, plastic packaging doesnt keep anything safe and clean and hygenic. But its the third largest business in the world, so you think these people will let the narrative get of hand. Hardly. The narrative is related, additionally, to racism. For from what are we keeping our vegetables safe? From what FILTH and DISEASE? From the handlers. For we all know the poor are filthy. Most poor are dark skinned (and even if that, in many places is not literally true, its always metaphorically true) and the white housewife or househubby feels better, just below that conscious threshold, if their food is protected from black and brown and mixed yellow splotched race scum.

This is, in one sense, what Brad Evans describes as “insecurity by design”. The American brand, “individualism” is now yoked to survival. As Henry Giroux says:

“The catastrophes and social problems produced by the financial elite and mega corporations now become the fodder of an individualized politics, a space of risk in which one can exhibit fortitude and a show of hyper masculine toughness.”

This is the privitizing of suffering. Everything in the master narrative is now, at least in part, driven by a destruction of collective purpose. Nothing ever really changes in this new master narrative. It is adjusted and fine tuned to produce a dead *now*, a constant zone of alienated activity that is absorbed and neutralized. Protest and dissent are either criminalized and punished, or rendered invisible. The narrative reproduces itself regardless, and the distraction of ersatz crisis serves to obscure real crisis, and all of it is homogenized in screen time to deliver a strange difuse and passive state in the population. Contradictions are called conspiracy. Adjustment to contradiction is valorized as maturity. Social media and electronic engagement is under suveillance, and a constant hum of paranoia and dread accompanies each waking moment.

The dead *now*, the post modern zone of simulcra in which language is reduced to either specialized jargon, or instrumental vocabularies of tecno expertise, or just sentimental expressions of false emotion, has resulted in larger and larger numbers of people the inability to recognize their own emotions in minute to minute daily life. A young woman once said to me, a couple years ago, “I don’t know when I’m sick, if I am really sick or not”. She said, I have to go see my shrink more often. Not trusting your feelings, even feelings of pain or illness, suggests a terminal collective. The energy devoted to burying anxiety today has left people exhausted. Both physically and psychologically.

The expression of collective and collaborative feeling is udermined by the near hegemonic colonizing of language by kitsch psychology, in which the favoring of *I* and *self* results in conflicted dialogue, and raises almost imaginary tensions to levels of importance, and this loss of a grammar of community is reflected as well in the heightened defensivness I find throughout western society. Defensiveness that breeds sarcasm, and more, a fear of sincerity and a fear of real love if its not either sentimental or genital/sexual. Desire is cheapened culturally. Desire becomes more brand loyality, a group think of shared opinions. The organizing of thought in collective terms is constantly undermined by all these factors. Cooperation is mediated by a colonized vocabulary of self, of individualism, and the creation of a new language of community dissent and collective culture is vitally important.

In another sense, this goes back to what I posted recently about Harold Ramis, and the effects culturally of the Reagan revolution. The birth of snark. “There you go again”, may end up the political birth of attitude. Reagan registered as the acceptable stand-in for Manifest Destiny. The growth of prison population, the changes to sentencing laws, the re-labeling of foreign policy (as an adjustment to Viet Nam’s marketing failures) and the re-introduction of race animosity. Reagan’s welfare mothers trope haunts daily life even now.

In foreign policy, the demonizing of religions (Islam mostly, but not exlusively) and of races and cultures (Arab mostly, but not exclusively) is linked to the ratification of authority domestically. Today, city and county police departments operate with close to total impunity. They exist outside the law. They kill and beat and sexually assault innocent and guilty alike. And guilt is a fluid concept these days anyway. In the U.S. today, the poor classes grow up in what Giroux calls “zones of social abandonment”. Schools are simply holding tanks for the young. And what precious little education that actually does take place is geared to test scores and the training of future workers. Critical thinking is almost totally absent. High school and even junior high students must pass through metal detectors, accept CCTV surveillance, security guards, and pat downs. For “security” is the all inclusive buzz word for 21st century America. Life is defined as ‘high risk’.The white ownership class, who rarely has to suffer these insults to person, disbelieve the reality of the poor — it is experienced as an anomaly somehow, or, they might admit, sure, in inner city ghettos full of drug crazed AKC armed drug dealing gangs….well yeah, sure. Because all these factors are linked. The white ownership class, the affluent educated 20%, which is more like 15% now, have been taught to fear the inner city. Fear black teenagers in hoodies. Fear black and brown people, and especially black and brown men. And more, young men. The white class identifies, even self defined liberals, far more with white Republican values of golf courses, first class air fare, expensive cars and more expensive educational privilege, than they do with the working class. The working class today is the working poor. If you work for an hourly salary, or even a monthly salary, if your labor is pegged to time increments, you are the working poor. If you dont live off inheritance or investments, you are the working poor. And finally, you are disposible. So this is an important culture feature; the white liberal who will vote for Hillary as President, will tell themselves its a sign of progress that a woman is President, but really, they are voting for the exact things Reagan stood for, and Goldwater, and back through to those WASP white elite that created the CIA, and has run defense ever since WW1. They are voting for the continuation of their own privilege.

The white liberals today are defending Obama and Hillary because they don’t recognize their own dead zone and because they really dont care about the poor anymore than the ruling 1% do. They don’t care about the targeted abuse of the poor, espcially black and brown, and they are able to provide expensive education for their own children, so they don’t care about the absence of education for marginal classes. And that same expensive education is the one that trains people for shopping, for compliance to authority, and to think just like they think. The reproduction of a dead *now* is by design. Liberals are not in conflict with Reagan values, they only tell themselves they are. This is intellectual three card monte.

Education cannot be simply the providing of historical facts because even when that happens, it is ignored or insantly forgotten. Oliver Stone’s admirable history series on TV is just compartmentalized, stuck off on a shelf out of cognitive awareness, another piece of information amid a tidal swell of data, none of which is given unique importance.

Corporate domination is felt at every level of daily life. Family owned businesses and the personal contact with owners of these businesses has been replaced by corporate anonymity and less and less responsivness to individual greivances. The corporate ownership of media and domination of cultural expression has suffocated creativity. Spiritual pursuits are routinely ridiculed, and even daydreaming is now being pathologized as a symptom in need of pharmaceutical treatment. The difficult questions of existence, of mortality and meaning are treated with sarcasm and snark. The most significant accomplishment of today’s system of domination has been to eradicate imagination. Imagination and curiosity and creativity. People do not trust their vision for change. They cannot really find the cultural expression for transcendence, for transformation. Today, imagination is just a variant of ADHD. To dream is to be sick.

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