Killing Us Softly

“Ease Your Pain”

The other day I was in the grocery store waiting to check out, with my local newspaper in hand. The front page carried a graphic photograph of a United States Marine breaking down a door in “a house-to-house search for weapons and insurgents in Fallujah, Iraq” (Chicago Tribune, 13 April, 2004, p.1), where American occupation forces were conducting a murderous exercise in imperial over-retaliation. This noble operation has killed a large number of unarmed civilians, including many children. Shuddering at the racist U.S. savagery funded by my tax dollars, I glanced at the large number of “self-help” and lifestyle magazines positioned around the store’s cash registers to see the following headlines: “Eat to Live Longer,” “Attract the Right People,” Your Body, Your Skin,” “Let’s All Get Over Our Body Issues, Now,” “Great Looks On Any Budget,” “The #1 Way to Look Prettier Instantly,” and “Ease Your Pain: 57 Remedies for Quick Relief.”

What sort of “quick relief,” I wondered, does that last article’s author recommend for the latest American GI to lose a limb for George W. Bush’s stupid imperial adventure or to the latest Iraqi family devastated by U.S. “pacification”? What advice does the “body issues” article give to the new crop of amputees that chickenhawk Bush has brought into the world? What sort of New Age diet will permit soldiers and noncombatants to “live longer” in the hell that is occupied Iraq?

From Big Brother Bush to Fraiser and The Donald

Upon returning home, I flipped on the television to happen upon Bush’s terrible Tuesday night press conference. Beyond the chilling ineptitude of the president’s performance, Bush’s comments were loaded with toxic political and policy significance. As David Schipani – a fellow Chicagoan who follows U.S. policy and overseas developments with a clear and steady eye – pointed out, Bush’s conference was a “disaster” (for anyone concerned to end the terrible cycle of bloodshed in the Middle East) in which the president (Schipani, “Thoughts on Bush’s Press Conference of April 14,” April 15, 2005):

“Made no acknowledgement of Iraqi outrage of civilian casualties in Fallujah and offered no change in our siege tactics, which are rallying even previously uncommitted Sunni and Shi’ia against us.

Equated the insurgents with Hamas and Hizbollah ‘terrorists,’ putting us in the role of the Israelis, Fallujah in the role of Jenin, and the resistance in the role of the Palestinians.

Made pathetic half-assed attempts to appeal to Iraqi nationalism by portraying the U.S. response as a way to restore law and order, showing no understanding that Fallujah has become a symbol of nationalist resistance to the occupation.

Made pathetic half-assed attempts to appeal to Iraqi’s desire for personal security, showing no understanding that our year-long unconcern about rampant crime and violence is a leading reason Iraqis have turned against us.

Announced that we have no plan for the June 30th handover and are just waiting passively to see what the United Nations tells us to do, so that Iraqis will believe that we are just stalling to retain control of the country – as many believe that we welcomed the unrest and crime as pretexts to keep our troops in control.

Announced that we have no plan for a real political process, the only thing that can head off the insurgency before

things spiral permanently out of control.

Held his press conference on the same day that Sharon arrives to receive a U.S. stamp of approval for his de facto annexation of large chunks of the West Bank, as though to permanently cement our identification with Israel in Arab eyes.”

Bush also identified his miserable, half-baked designs with his Christian God, something certain to accelerate the loss of “hearts and minds” in Iraq and across the Arab world. He repeatedly pushed the panic button, telling Americans in essence that terrorists may strike them dead at any moment (a lovely little point that Karl Rove thinks will bring the president back for a second term). He staked American “credibility” upon unquestioning pursuit of his moronic policies and was horrifyingly unable to think of a single solitary mistake that he might have made on his bumbling, blood-soaked path to the current predictable (and predicted) quagmire in Iraq.

Bush’s juvenile presentation aside, this was heavy stuff. How strange it felt, then, to be transitioned within 5 minutes (by NBC) from this menacing imperial harangue to the inane personal melodramas of America’s beloved fictional prime-time navel-gazer, “Fraiser Crane.”

One minute you’re looking into the contorted face of Big Brother Bush, moving the world closer to the deadly “clash of civilizations” that Osama bin-Laden lusts for and which appears to be the goal of our “messianic militarist” (Ralph Nader’s excellent description of Bush) president. The next minute you’re watching silly Kelsey Grammer/”Fraiser” being set up for a date with his ex-wife by an attractive blond at an upscale espresso bar. Surreal.

I got the same creepy feeling two nights later when I tuned into NBC (owned by the leading defense contractor General Electric) once again. I was one of 28 million Americans watching the arch-narcissist real estate tycoon Donald Trump make his much-awaited hiring choice on the popular “reality” show “The Apprentice.” For those of you who missed it, “The Donald” hired Bill largely because Bill’s competitor Kwame momentarily “lost” a hot new diva (Jessica Simpson) on her way to a Trump-funded concert. Actually, it was Kwame’s devious assistant Omarossa who misplaced the new pop vixen. It was quite a story “and real too,” but I found the luxuriant opulence and self-important corporate careerism that predominated throughout “The Apprentice” hard to process as I reflected on recent images of misery and mayhem in Iraq. I don’t know how many U.S. GIs and/or Iraqis died violent deaths on the day the Bill struck it rich, but it’s safe to assume that Iraq’s soil was watered with fresh blood as Trump’s big infommercial moved to its glorious climax.

Thought Control, Hard and Soft

When reflecting on the critical role that modern media plays in manufacturing American consent to U.S. empir and inequality, left political commentators tend to focus almost exclusively on what might be called the “hard” side of the corporate communications empire: news and commentary. In reality, the “soft” – entertainment and commercial – side plays an equally significant role in “taking the risk out of [American] democracy” (to use the excellent phraseology of the late Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey). It does this partly by diverting people away from meaningful matters of real and often unpleasant public concern, transporting them to politically harmless states of childish amusement, personal preoccupation, and narcissistic fascination. Such was the essential role that official mass culture played in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – a dystopian novel that provided inspiration for the late culture critic Neil Postman’s influential book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (NY: Penguin, 1986). As Postman noted, the “hard” side has itself been permeated by the Huxlean entertainment ethos, so that television newswomen are now expected to look like models, presidential candidates try to elicit guffaws on Leno and Letterman, and the outcome of “The Apprentice” was the first 10 o’clock “news story” on a day when Donald Rumsfeld was compelled to admit the empire’s need for more troops and Osama bin-Laden made his “truce” offer to Europe.

At the same time, however, the entertainment industry is itself richly ideological in ways that transcend distraction and amusement. It is laden with establishment-friendly messages, including the notions that personal experience and success are the appropriate chief focus for effort and concern, that such success is best expressed in the acquisition and conspicuous consumption of revoltingly massive personal wealth (the lead-in to “The Apprentice” shows Trump cavorting with his limousines and other toys and asks, “what if you could have it all?”), and that parasitic, super-wealthy “elites” like Trump deserve to possess unimaginable fortunes in a world where 2 billion people live on less than a dollar per day. The basic rightness of these and other such brutal inequities is a powerful and recurrent theme – all the more powerful for commonly laying in the background – in “our” corporate-crafted “popular” culture.

You don’t need a doctorate in post-modern culture studies and the dialectics of deconstruction to pick up these and numerous other reactionary ideological codes beneath the soft seductions of corporate entertainment. And it’s not difficult to notice that entertainment personalities who break those codes are often punished in hard, Orwellian ways by corporate communications authorities, who have been known to target such horrible “thought criminals” as the Dixie Chicks. This reflects the authorities’ understanding that mass entertainment culture carries rich political and ideological significance.

Getting Real About Unreality

Left political commentators could use some of that understanding. We are right to push against and around the corporate-state media’s Orwellian blockade on hard news truth – the real, uncensored facts – about society and policy. This is the axiomatic moral responsibility of genuinely public and democratic intellectuals. But we would do well to reflect on the sorry fact that vast swaths of the Americans populace possess relatively little capacity or desire to engage with our considerably more accurate kind of news and commentary. There are a number of reasons for this, but a critical one is the constant mind-softening and heart-hardening assault that corporate entertainment and commercial culture makes on our ability to think, feel, identify, and care outside the narrow moral and ideological parameters of authoritarian doctrine and sensibility. If only it was just bout tearing down the hard news corporate embargo and getting the real story out for all to see.

This can be a depressing topic, which is part of why it tends to be shunned by leftists outside the selective, incestuous circles of the academy. But “the truth is always revolutionary,” as the great Marxist culture analyst Antonio Gramsci once said and the growing movement for democratic media reform can only be enhanced by developing the most comprehensive analysis possible of how “our” media has become an awesome weapon in the masters’ war on democracy, the social contract, and a genuinely public life.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of “Politics and Entertainment I,” ZNet (October 29, 2003), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?Section ID=21 &ItemID=4423. He will speak on corporate media, the FCC and media reform at the Self-Publishing and Media Reform Fest/WLUW Record and Zine Fair, on Saturday, April 24th, at 3:20 P.M., at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse (1419 W. Blackhawk), in Chicago, Illinois.

Leave a comment