Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Loose Change

Perhaps it's just the way the light falls, but everything looks like a target to me....Come on, motherfucker, let's throw down. -- Clutch, Binge and Purge

One of the more tedious campaign conceits is the increasingly empty theme of "change". It has been mostly characterized (until the last month or so) by the skilled extemporizing of Barack Obama, and rightly so -- whether you buy into all of his rhetoric or not, he is an undeniably compelling speaker.

Indeed, were he not running against the former First Missus, Obama would be more aptly compared with Bill Clinton Himself in terms of oratory prowess, as BC's first blip on the political radar was the notorious stemwinder at the 1988 convention, perhaps (but likely not) upstaging to some degree the punctilious, monochromatic cadences of Michael Dukakis.

And "change", technically defined, is certainly in the offing, thanks to the constitutional firewall that prevents the current tumbleweed-chaser further access to the levers of power, access which we'd like to think had heretofore been granted to responsible adults. But genuine change should mean much more than merely the ceremonial dusting of the figurehead's chair, obviously. And that's where the promises for change (especially those that came from the Republican side of the fence, inbred fucktards to a person, none of whom planned to change anything more than perhaps the weapon with which the nation and the world are to be gutted and flayed) ring most hollow.

To know what must be changed is, to be completely pedantic about it, know something about how things work. And it is not news even to the duller quintiles that Americans are famously averse to knowledge in general, and useful knowledge in particular.

The hopeless paradox is that people who actually read and understand things are petrified at the situation of halfwits who literally cannot find any strategic Middle East country on a map or a globe pontificating about foreign policy verities, yet that is where we are at. We hope that Susan Jacoby's story about Upper East Side corporate vipers, presumably educated past the third grade, talking about the Vietnamese bombing Pearl Harbor, might be apocryphal, yet deep down we know better.

In part, she lays the blame on a failing educational system. “Although people are going to school more and more years, there’s no evidence that they know more,” she said.

The problem is that knowledge has been irretrievably commodified, repackaged, repurposed, directly through the educational system, especially the higher educational system. Colleges are every bit as happy, probably more, as public schools to simply process paying students through the system. The network of loan financing, grant writing, scholarships, and other forms of institutional blandishments make it in their direct interest to simply accept as many paying customers as possible and move them through the basics of the curriculum.

There's no shortage of such stories from disgruntled professors forced to deal with students who should never have graduated high school. Speaking for myself as a student, it was a refresher course of sorts in earning my degree recently, encountering more than a few people who were presumably studying and trying to better themselves, but had tremendous difficulty writing competent sentences, much less stringing them together into logical paragraphs and narratives.

This is not entirely their fault; higher education has transmogrified into a sort of boutique vocational school. People are not paying out to expose themselves to new ideas and such, they're trying to enhance their viability in the job market. Given the circumstances, that's understandable. If you can parlay a sixth-grade vocabulary into a BSBA, and thence to a cushy $60K middle-management job at some shithead HMO, more power to you. Beats slaving at the local Kwik-E-Mart. But large scale, it undermines and blurs important distinctions: between "knowledge" and "information", and in discerning the important from the trivial.

More often than not, even that last is a matter of having the patience to realize that useful knowledge is but a part of a framework, built piece by piece. In an era of instant gratification, that simply doesn't fly; if I don't need to know where the country of "Hungry" is now, or that Budapest is its capital, then I won't need to know it later, implicitly goes the reasoning. It is much easier for hungry, ascending powers like India and China to catch up and encircle us when so many of us have no fucking clue where they hell they even are on a map, much less actually know anything useful about those countries.

Ms. Jacoby also blames religious fundamentalism’s antipathy toward science, as she grieves over surveys that show that nearly two-thirds of Americans want creationism to be taught along with evolution.

Actually, anarcho-syndicalist misanthrope that I am, I almost welcome that educational devolution. It will allow my kid(s) that much more of an opportunity; what better job market to swim in than with a bunch of inbred closet cases who would rather belabor the lunacy that the Grand Canyon was created in a day, than just enjoy and experience it for what it actually is? My only hesitation is that, unlike them, I actually care enough about my country that it doesn't continue to devolve into a western Russia -- fat, bloated, drunk on insularity and internal aggression, continuously failing at any genuine innovation, unable to deal with its contemporaries in any but the crudest of terms.

The commodification and repurposing of information and knowledge has gone hand in hand with the same tasks performed on perception and reality itself. There is literally almost no discontinuity between the two phenomena, as Neil Postman observed twenty years ago, as technology since then has made them practically symbiotic.

I've seen dozens of examples of this phenomenon throughout my career: for every one television news anchor who truly understood the material that was going into his or her head and subsequently coming out of his or her mouth -- or took part in the assembly of that material for that matter -- there were five who didn't have a goddamned clue what was going on in the world, or in their own newsroom, that wasn't placed in their teleprompter by a 22-year-old, six-dollar-an-hour writer. Yet, when the queries and suggestions from the audience came, they came addressed to the face on the screen rather than the people who were actually responsible for the gathering and dissemination of the information in question.

Exactly. Perhaps it was Magritte who most adeptly envisioned this a century ago; indeed it was not a pipe, but a picture of a pipe. The imagistic qualities have become inextricably blended with the intrinsic qualities of practically any object or person who can be viewed on this or that interchangable channel. Thus the blur of images, be they Barack Obama or some QVC paste necklace peddled by someone who was on some show thirty years ago, become empty vessels for our dreams and desires, or what we think our dreams and desires are supposed to be. Those too have been commodified and repurposed.

The "serious" cultural niche has long labored under the pretense that their analyses and divinations have the most import, that unlike the bewildered herd, they are not addled by trivial blandishments, tethered to the various shiny buzzy electronic leashes we race to purchase for ourselves. Their institutionalized inbreeding and self-congratulation allows them the vanity of singing their own praises and crafting clever monuments to themselves.

But as it turns out, they are every bit as debauched as the unwashed they decry. Look, in what other line of "work" can a dipshit like Jonah Goldberg get a book contract? Where else can a tedious hack like Lee (A Flock of) Siegel get caught smoking his own pole and still get write-ups in major newspapers and appear on The Daily Show? Where else can someone spill a thousand-word handjob and get paid for it (really, anyone who needs an explanation as to what this blog thing is isn't interested or conscious in the first place, at this point) than in the "legitimate" publishing world?

And the media have proven all along that they are no better, and couldn't care less. How many news cycles of this Jeremiah Wright bullshit do we have to endure? People are going under; they're walking away from the homes they can no longer afford, commuting to jobs that barely got them by in the first place with fuel and food shooting up double-digit percentages in the last few months. Their government has been using military shills for its own agitprop, but who besides the Times has mentioned that in the ten days since that story broke? Yet they can't get themselves enough of that Jeremiah Wright. Talking about the Times story would just iterate their own complicity and/or dupery. The only news there would be the tacit admission.

Here's what the Wright "controversy" proves, so far as I can tell:
  • Black preachers are subject to different rules than white preachers, as any number of incendiary, spiteful public comments from televangelists and popes demonstrate.

  • Whitey likes moving the goalposts on uppity politicians and their associates. Obama could bust a cap in Wright's ass on live TV, and ofay motherfuckers from Sean Hannity to David Shuster would be wondering why he didn't do it ten years ago. They are never satisfied; there's no conflict to peddle in that.

  • Whitey also has no sense of humor about himself, and is in fact notoriously thin-skinned about anything that might impact his self-identification. Aforementioned ofay motherfuckers are secretly, constantly petrified that other people are judging them, their houses, their wives, their cars, and most importantly, their peckers. And Wright's right that most white people are hilarious when they try to clap. They always do it on the ones and threes. Twos and fours, you dipshits! It's called rhythm. Look into it. Hint: it involves knowing how to count.

  • Obama needs a Sistah Souljah moment alright, but not the one the media ankle-biters are telling him. Instead of kneecapping someone who has been a friend to him for most of his adult life, he needs to look at the people who are baiting him, people who don't know him, people who will move on to the next bullshit story in a week. Obama needs to learn how to tell them "fuck you", to challenge them on their complete lack of priorities, the absence of rigor and consistency, their lazy analysis and buffoonery, their total indifference to things that matter to anyone outside their little asshole clubhouse. Repudiating a close friend in the service of these screeching weasels doesn't earn their respect -- it perpetuates their antagonism. Now they know you'll capitulate, which is the bully's cue to attack.

As the NYRB blog article demonstrates, the calcified substrate of this legit pub hackiverse simply hasn't internalized how the immediacy of blogs has dispensed with an awful lot of chaff, from how (actual) knowledge is processed to the pretense of "civility". That last is especially important, because all forms of mainstream media, being commercial to the very core, are far more concerned with not pissing off the wrong group with the wrong buzzword, than they will ever be about things like facts, accuracy, observational integrity, intellectual honesty, genuine institutional legitimacy.

Put more simply: it is much easier for them to talk about Jane Fonda saying "cunt" than why Dick Cheney is a psychopath; it will always be more expedient for them to frown on vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggerses than to acknowledge their own corporate water-carrying in the run-up to a strategically catastrophic war.

Given all that, where would you like to start your Change, Mister 'n' Missus 'murka? Even amongst the self-selecting cognoscenti, the expectations they have of their legislative avatars are, shall we say, a tad unrealistic considering obvious exigencies. They marginalize one another for this or that heterodoxy, real or perceived, while remaining willfully ignorant of the larger picture.

And the conditions of unsustainability that led us into Iraq in the first place continue domestically, because the cultural underpinnings of consumerism continue unabated. Consumerism is derived from -- indeed, is dependent on -- violating the last two biblical commandments, the ones enjoining the sin of covetousness. The consumerist/service economy requires engendering the inchoate, continuous drive of desire, of feeling that you must have what you do not yet have, whether or not you need it. Need, after all, is merely a function driven by synapses compressed by the unavoidable penetrations of the all-encompassing public-relations industry.

And then there's torture. People do not think about
torture, insofar as it pertains to them, because their very perceptions about why torture is wrong are corrupted. It's as if they never heard of Voltaire precisely because they haven't. It's a nation of Kellie Picklers, blissfully unaware of anything and everything but their own peculiar reach for their brass ring, awash in objectively malignant solipsism.

Maybe we just need to get what we can, while we can. That seems to be the guiding philosophy, even though the problem -- whether with fuel, food, health care, education, or wealth -- has never been availability, but distribution. For now, anyway; availability is going to become a much greater problem if things keep going the way they are. If they do not change.

Look, people who genuinely want change understand that at best, even if Barack Obama is perfectly sincere in his most florid talking points, all he can be is a facilitator of change. Change occurs when people finally internalize that the cost of not changing is greater than the cost of changing, when they drive smaller, smarter, and less frequently, when they buy food from local producers, when they live within their means, and forgo treats and toys once in a while. We find individual ways to disengage from the system, starve the predator where possible. It can happen in simple, consistent steps, rather than abrupt revolution. But adaptation is no longer an option, simply an imperative, not by government fiat or bureaucratic imposition, but gravity.

A guy like Obama can probably initiate a lot of good things, if he is not dragged under by abject stupidity, but he can't smack the stupid out of stupid people. It's not him; it's not even the media. It's us, and people either mean what they say about desiring change, or they just like to be seen clamoring for it, meta-cheerleaders at a meta-rally for meta-change.


thedevilzone said...

This is such a tour de force that commenting is really just superfluous. However, it doesn't seem right to let it sit there with a big fat zero underneath it, so I have to say something, if only to let you know that all the obvious time and work put into it are appreciated. Especially when you could just spend the day posting "Deep Thoughts" that are anything but while getting hundreds of lemming comments - all while getting paid enough for doing so to earn a living and buy a house! It just ain't fucking fair. Anyway, let's see what I can contribute:

Duly noted: any post that starts of by quoting the mighty Clutch is a great one.

Whitey also has no sense of humor about himself, and is in fact notoriously thin-skinned about anything that might impact his self-identification. Aforementioned ofay motherfuckers are secretly, constantly petrified that other people are judging them, their houses, their wives, their cars, and most importantly, their peckers.

I remember last year, when race issues boiled up and over during the week of Don Imus and the Duke lacrosse players, being mystified at how so many crackers I know had obviously been nursing grudges over everything from Chris Rock to Dave Chappelle to White Men Can't Jump. Maybe I just don't identify with my whiteness enough to take offense. Maybe it's just realizing that given a mere forty-ish years since blacks began to be officially treated as full human beings in a large part of the country (leaving aside whether that translated into everyday, actual tolerance), I'm just glad things are rolling along as smoothly as they are. My maternal side is Eastern European, especially the former Yugoslavia. "Former", of course, because the idiots would still happily be killing themselves in a civil war over six hundred year-old grudges if given the opportunity. With that as the norm throughout human history, hey, I'm happy to be the butt of a few jokes if it helps stave off race war here.

We find individual ways to disengage from the system, starve the predator where possible. It can happen in simple, consistent steps, rather than abrupt revolution. But adaptation is no longer an option, simply an imperative, not by government fiat or bureaucratic imposition, but gravity.

And that about sums it up right there.

John O said...

Boy, was that good.

I wish I knew more people who would read it, and just a few that would understand it.

I have nothing to add, other than maybe build yourself a lifestyle that will survive some serious horrifying times. You're probably already doing that, though.

I know I am.

Heywood J. said...

Wow, thanks very much for the high praise. This post was more troublesome than most, like trying to write a song, and having solid riffs and a decent melody to start with, but having to dig deeper for the lyrics and arrangement to finish the damned thing. You just chip away a little at a time and keep coming back to it.

I agree that the Imus story has some common issues with the Wright story. I think that many media people have visible difficulty both talking to black people, and talking about black people to what is presumably a white audience. It's not racism, it's not even ignorance, I don't think. It's more that these commentators speak as if they think they are playing to the expectations and assumptions of their audience. Certainly American racial mores are at least more civilized and refined than in many places; as you point out, devilzone, the Balkans nurse grudges as well as anyone outside the Middle East. I grew up listening to black comedians and black musicians more than white ones, so maybe that's why this stuff rolls past me.

I also can't escape the feeling that Wright's most incendiary rhetoric has been cherry-picked for a purpose, and while the word "uppity" has yet to be thrown out there, it seems to hover over the proceedings of pasty white douchebags pondering the seriousness of it all. Christ, have a mint julep and call Wright "boy" while you're at it, guys.

And of course their main product is conflict anyway, so even in the case of Imus, it works out just fine. But as I said at the time, while everyone crawled up Imus' ass over some off-color riffing, nobody bothered to ask why anyone listens to him in the first place. I don't know anyone who listens to him, and the fuckin' guy sounds like a yokel sucking on a Jolly Rancher to me, so the voice is a non-starter anyway.

I understand why media people, when critiquing each other, would rather not move past their little meta-issues and simply ask point-blank what sort of market, say, Glenn Beck or Nancy Grace appeals to. What novel insight does Chris Matthews, who is probably a swell guy but a product of his current social circle, possess that enhances my understanding of the body politic? No one asks because they're all in on it, cashing in on that eternal news cycle, the industry of the constant campaign.

If I knew how to go about figuring out just how much ad revenue has been generated over the course of what will end up being a two-year campaign, I would. I'm sure it would explain the players' vested interest in keeping up appearances and stoking weekly rondelets of retard questions, rather than just asking one smart question and getting an intellectually honest answer.

I like John O's point about building a lifestyle. I think that's where the next decade or so is going to be for a lot of people, at least those of us who are further out from the cities and exurbs. It will be by necessity rather than choice; like I say, this is gravity we're dealing with here. But as with the problem of winnowing through media chaff, it requires a level of self-awareness that tends to escape most of the folks who were bought off with jet skis and giant flat-screens. I hate to tell them, but Deal or No Deal is not going to be quite as entertaining, even in hi-def, when the suitcases are stocked with things like food and gasoline vouchers instead of cash.

IOZ had a pretty good point recently that Americans don't know how to just be, so wrapped are we in exporting our values and buying distractions. The value of just sitting on the porch for a couple hours on a Saturday afternoon with a stiff drink and a decent book is not on the table anymore. It's going to very unsettling for people accustomed to constant stimulation to reacquaint with simpler joys.

Also, those damned kids need to get the hell of my lawn.