Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The continuation of politics by other means: Part I

Embedded deep within our mass culture is the desire to see itself destroyed. Mostly unacknowledged, it is the desire to destroy the monolithic, unipolar structure (which the social and political aspects of mass culture are manifestations) that is the slowly accumulating more power. In consolidating power down to a singularity, it has subsumed all forms of rebellion up to the ultimate rebellion: death. These conditions have created a monolithic culture that is essentially committing suicide in that the only viable avenue of rebellion is both symbolic and incomprehensible in terms of the non-marginalized discourse. It is symbolic in that the acts of rebellion are not in themselves merely acts of rebellion, but they are terrorist acts, acts that by virtue of the mass culture’s monopoly on the discourse of rebellion require Others (outsiders, those who have been marginalized [either in perception or in reality – are these separable?] and are excluded from any other form of acceptable discourse) to change the rules, change the nature of the discourse of rebellion. So far, this seems to be achieved by the embracing and utilizing of death and the embracing and controlling the image-event.

Because we are unable to accept death in any form, but specifically when young men and women are sent to die in foreign countries (this is, among many other things, part of the scarring done by the Sixties and Vietnam), we find incomprehensible when men or women (children even more so) choose to use their deaths as a weapon, to make their individual deaths symbolic. We want a clean war, a war where we die as little as possible, where we are absolved in the end (which is quite often accomplished by victory). Our ideal is a war of technocratic superiority where cities are destroyed and death rains down from above, where we commit as few people as possible to the traditional concept of war where combatants meet on a battlefield and engage each other to the death. So, as everyone who has engaged in warfare since time immemorial, we have sought to use modern technology to limit our losses in the field, but we still hold that the enemy must meet us on this field, where we might show up after the “theater” has been “softened” from afar. Our enemies have taken to integrating themselves into the communities that we ostensibly seek to liberate in the vain hope that it will provide some safeguard, that we will not destroy “civilians”. What they do not realize is that the civilians are also the Others and that we do not care about those who are killed purposefully or inadvertently, which I suspect is due to a latent suspicion on our part that they are all guilty anyway. (Intuitively, I would guess that this feeling arises both from cultural and geographic distance [they are guilty for not being born here, they are guilty because they dress, eat, walk, and sing differently] and because they are necessarily the Other [non-Christian, non-Capitalist, non-White].) Still, the images of their deaths are limited as well; we accept that other people are dying as long as it does not interrupt the image-events, as long as we do not have to see it and therefore have some degree of culpability. We have made this problem of culpability a non-starter by removing from mass culture the reality of death and replacing it with at best simulacra and at worst image-events that allow for easy abstraction, digestion, or indifference.

It seems that we look upon all broadcast events equanimously, for they are not real, but are instead images of spectacles, which incidentally have become the inter-subjective agreement of what is real. This deluge of image-events through mass culture is rendered less concrete by their transience; no sooner is one exhibited, then it is replaced by another. The image-events are all morally equal: whether it is the “fiction” of cinema or television or the “reality” of broadcast news and print media, they occupy the same moral space as long as we are removed far enough from the spectacle. A friend of mine was living in Brooklyn on 9/11. He awoke as the planes where crashing into the towers. He turned on his television only to realize that he could see the event (the second plane crashing into the tower) occur outside his window. I have to wonder which view felt more real to him: the event framed by the window (much in the same way the event was framed by the television) must have been surreal, incomprehensible, or the view on the television made intelligible and thereby real by the ticker tape and captions to carefully lead him through the event. The view from the window afforded him no such luxury. It must have been an odd feeling to have an experience where one could choose between an unintelligible live event and a quasi-intelligible image-event. Ultimately, I think that we would choose (not only in this circumstance, but in most) the image-event and the simulacrum over the first hand experience of the event. If this is the case, then whoever controls the image-events controls inter-subjective agreement, social discourse, and ultimately, our shared reality.

We are all Germans

The thing that surprised me most about the concentration camp at Dachau was not that I was visiting a place where tens of thousands of people were murdered, or that I was confronted by throngs of teenagers, undoubtedly out on school trips (we did the same when I was young, except we visited museums commemorating the internment of Japanese and Asian Americans during WWII), or the ovens and how serene the setting was, or how one could walk along a wooded trail and come across plaques marking where people were lined up against the wall and executed. What surprised me most, and today I still have the hardest time reconciling, is that the city of Dachau comes right up to the walls of the concentration camp. In the shadow of these walls are townhouses and small yards with children’s toys not unlike ones you would find in Federal Way or any other suburb, the notable difference being the knowledge that on the other side was the most efficient concentration camp of the Holocaust: Dachau.

I wondered then and I wonder now, how did they live there? How did they stay as the ash from the ovens fell over the city? Moreover, how do they continue to live there with its dark history? It is an easy question to ask, and probably an even easier question to answer. As I write this from my apartment in Tacoma, WA, I look out my living room window at Mount Rainier from which this city gets its name. Originally “known as Tahoma or Tacoma, from the Puyallup word tacobet ("mother of waters"),”[i] the mountain has since been renamed Mount Rainier. It reminds me that my hometown, which I am particularly fond of and that I have a misplaced affinity for its blue collar sentimentality, is here because of conquest, Manifest Destiny, and genocide. Succinctly, I am here because of a holocaust. I can sit here and unflinchingly sing the praises of a town built because of the eradication of the indigenous people while simultaneously criticizing the people of Dachau. Now, there is a longer timeline here, so I can make claims to that the collective amnesia has had more time to set in, but really as I type this I hear Jen and Nate in my head calling shenanigans. We do not need time for the amnesia to set in, we turn our heads and ignore atrocities as they are committed. Hence, the amnesia is virtually instantaneous.

If Iraqi Body Count and its lack of publicity (though the fatalites of our soldiers, currently around 2400, gets plenty of press when it hits the arbitrary marks) is not enough for you, then take a look at the estimated casualties from UN sanctions against Iraq from the first Gulf War until the second: “Critics of the sanctions say that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, disproportionately children, died as a result of them, [2] although certain skeptics claim the numbers to be less. [3] [4][5] UNICEF has put the number of child deaths to 500,000.”[ii] The now famous quote from Madeleine Albright that “we think the price is worth it” pretty much sums up our culture’s feelings on the subject. That we are willing to strangle another country so that the impoverished die from disease, malnutrition, and starvation, is indicative of the fact that we value “the abstract over the particular: of production over life; of economic…systems over living beings.”[iii] We are unperturbed by the deaths of these people, mostly children. Is it because they are brown? Is it because they live on the other side of the planet? Or is it because “every holocaust looks different, depending on the class to which the observer belongs.”[iv] To the class benefitting from such atrocities, do they even appear to be such? Can we distinguish these atrocities from the tide of history, from the progress of civilization where the conquered are subjected to the whims of the conquerors? Maybe for the class benefitting “(t)he holocaust will feel like economics. It will feel like progress. It will feel like technological innovation. It will feel like civilization. It will feel like the way things are.”[v]

We have sites like Iraqi Body Count because there is something of interest in Iraq: oil. We are not overly concerned about the conflict Sudan, AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, much less human rights violations in China (Ramsey Clark, attorney general during LBJ’s administration, stated that the purpose of US foreign policy is “to dominate for the exploitation of resources,”[vi] which is probably why we and/or the media are not particularly concerned with these places).

What strikes me when thinking about censorship in China is its heavy handedness. It seems to me that if you limit what people can read, say, or do, you create a black market for these things, you fetishize them. People will search these things out and eventually form a counterculture or resistance around what is banned. Whereas, if you hide them in plain sight, so to speak, then people are just as easily going to be unconcerned or unbothered by them. This is shown by our government’s making public record such things as Project for the New American Century, School of the Americas/Western Hemishphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or simply by the decriminilization of lighter drugs in Holland and parts of Canada. It is no longer as compelling for most people if it is out in the open, it becomes transparent so that it is no longer noticed. It is no accident that the current administration, while having the reputation for being one of the most secretive administrations this country has ever seen, has had leaks about such things as NSA wiretaps, the collecting of virtually everyone’s phone records, secret prisons around the world, falsification of intelligence that led us to war, and so and so forth. These things were not simply leaked, but the battlefield (being public opinion), was softened first, then we were made aware of these things. And, while the president’s poll numbers are significantly down, he and the rest of the people in power have yet to be held accountable for any number of illegal acts.

Joseph Goebbels, mastermind behind the Nazi propaganda machine, understood how to keep the masses in a perpetual state of agitated content: “His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”[vii] Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? What sounds even more familiar is this: “The broadcasting programmes need to be put together in such a way that while they still cater for sophisticated tastes, they are also pleasing and accessible to less demanding listeners [or viewers, I suppose]…They should offer an intelligent and skillful blend of what is informative, stimulating, relaxing, and entertaining. Of these, relaxation deserves special care…giving them a right to recuperate and refresh themselves during the few hours when they are off work.”[viii] Distract us with an enemy, placate (anesthetize) us at home with entertainment, and conceal in plain sight exactly what you are doing.

So, my question is, if there was something occurring right now that was analagous to the Holocaust, would we notice? Would we even care? When I go to work tonight at the bar, people are going to be more than willing to talk about the beautiful weather we are having, LeBron James hitting a game winning shot, The Da Vinci Code’s luke warm reception at Cannes, but are we, as they sip their $8 cocktails and as I mix them, really wanting, even if we are capable, to discuss the potential that we are all Germans living under the shadow of that wall?



[iii] The Culture of Make Believe, pg. 601, Derrick Jensen

[iv] ibid. Pg. 592

[v] ibid. Pg. 593-594

[vi] ibid. Pg. 577


[viii] The Culture of Make Believe, pg. 594, Derrick Jensen