A Critique of the Elite

This is an excerpt from a recent email:

One problem I have with your critiques is that they seem to project a society where the elite carefully construct the news and entertainment delivered by the mass media in order to keep the masses ignorant and distracted. I believe only a very small part of that. Certainly there are some elements of the media (e.g., Fox News) that are essentially right-wing propaganda machines, but I think most of the media delivers exactly what the public wants. Why do people watch Judy Judy, Maury Povich, American Idol, etc.? I have no idea, but many people apparently find them entertaining. I don’t think they’re brainwashed into watching this stuff, nor do I think the elite has a great deal of control over the choices the public makes.

I’m not at all surprised that you believe that – it’s the same belief the “journalists” themselves have.

Here’s the basic way it works:

Abuse the populace. This occurs primarily through economic policy and structures (neoliberal capitalism) and political structures whereby the vast majority of the American people have virtually no political power and also through key secondary measures such as the corporate media. One example of media abuse is the inane political debates that don’t deal with substantive issues, or when they do ask a reasonable question never follow it up.

After this abuse has been established and the populace is beaten down they become more receptive to additional abuse. The abuse becomes internalized. So, for example, one secondary measure of abuse by the elite is the extremely unhealthy food served in America. You might think – “that’s just the choices of Americans”. Not exactly. Even if Americans were being abused in any number of other ways the elite could encourage Americans to eat healthy. So let’s take two micro-factors – the vending machines where I work at Meijer’s and the counters where Meijer’s workers directly serve food (as opposed to food off the shelf). The vending machines serve horrible food – overwhelmingly high in saturated fat and high in sodium at ripoff prices. Just the prices alone prove that the corporation sees their own employees as nothing more than wage slaves. Workers like to buy food directly from Meijer’s workers (such as at the deli counter) since it serves a social purpose as well as a health one. These foods likewise are high in saturated fat and sodium and cost-poor, although not as bad typically as the vending machine food.

Meijer’s recently had an ice cream social, where they served cake, ice cream (where they offered a sugar-free option which was of course high in saturated fat), and pop.

Besides the social effect previously noted, there is also a social effect in food selection. So once some despairing wage slaves eat unhealthily because “their own” company encourages them to, this causes subtle peer pressure on their peer group to imitate that, in the sense that eating similar food produces solidarity.

One thing the elite is “good” at is “do as we say, not as we do”. So while they are encouraging terrible health with their actions, like financing yet another McDonald’s restaurant, they “urge” people to eat healthy. So right next to the long lines of vending machines in the break room there is a poster promoting healthy eating. This eases their own conscience and offers them a kind of public relations point, to argue against any detractors or critics. “See, we care! Hear the words that come out of our mouths!”

But let’s get back to the point in which you are technically correct – the choices Americans make. That is to say, despite the despair they feel at their condition, despite their onerous mindless tasks which lead them to looking forward to a delicious if unhealthy meal, they could, in theory, still eat healthy. That’s like saying that they could, in theory, climb Mt. Everest. And people such as yourself, in a privileged position with a relatively good life (whatever complaints you might have about that life), say that they “choose” to not climb Mt. Everest. That’s absolutely correct. It’s also irrelevant. If I take away water from a shark and place that water 100 meters away, does the shark have the “choice” to wiggle it’s way to the water? Absolutely. But how many sharks will succeed at doing that? And who should we be critiquing – the shark for “failing” to make it’s way to the water or me, for taking the water away?

The reason you don’t see what the elite are doing and that when you do see it you make excuses for it are twofold – you benefit from the elite in terms of your privileges (as you said, love of the “good life”) and through propaganda your eyes and mind have been turned away from the actual actions and effects of the elite. Serious critiques of the elite are very difficult to find – and the critiques that can be found without great difficulty are very limited in scope. I’m probably one of the better critics of the elite (although it’s difficult to say) not because I’m impressive but because the competition is so anemic.

It’s one of the more ridiculous propaganda points to say that the elite does what they do based on what the public wants. The public wants socialism – the elite gives them neoliberal capitalism. The public wants universal health care – the elite gives them neoliberal health care. The public wants democracy – the elite gives them plutocracy and corporatocracy. The public wants an end to the war in Iraq, the elite gives them perpetual war. But when it serves the interests of the elite, they machinate their way into “doing what the public wants”, like leading them to despair and unhealthy food, then “serving the interests of the public by giving them unhealthy food”. So after I take water away from the shark I “serve the interests of the shark” by putting sand under his belly.

Here’s a good analogy – let’s take an abused child. Through abuse a child’s consciousness can be changed to accept the abuse. He internalizes the abuse as “normal” and might even look forward to it, as the one time the parent is giving him any attention, despite the painfulness of the attention. So then once the abuse is internalized the abuser can correctly say “I am just giving the child what he wants”. Just putting sand under the belly of that shark.

Judge Judy and the like are the exact same thing. Abuse of the consciousness. Television offered a kind of hope for Americans – as you may recall since you grew up during the early days of it. A hope of national communication – of a greater consciousness. It was of course inevitable that this hope would be exploited by the elite, and sure enough it was. Advertising soon permeated the medium, with it’s irrationalistic propaganda which seeks to drive consumers to products regardless of need or even want. The rise of neoconservatism in the 1970s saw a rise in abusive television, which perhaps started with The Gong Show and culminated in shows like Judge Judy. So, yes, you’re right that Americans might “choose” Judge Judy as opposed to “choosing” an insipid soap opera, “choosing” to fill their minds with irrelevant facts like on “Who Wants to Be an Millionaire?”, “choosing” a show where one is put to a lie detector test to determine infidelity with the spouse sitting right there, or “choosing” to shut off this television.

Let’s look at other elements of television – besides residual effects of the hope that Americans felt with that new medium those several decades ago:

Television is very noisy and hyperactive. In a non-careful critique it might be called “energetic”. It’s easy to see television as larger than life, especially for those people leading abused lives. It’s like any other human institution – once something is seen as larger than life (such as the institution of the presidency of the United States) abuse is sure to follow.

Americans are atomized to an extreme extent, far more than in any other country. Many Americans interact more with technology than they do with people. This lack of human contact, especially intimate human contact, draws them into technology further, as a relationship they can control through the market. Television is a kind of very active person, chatting away constantly, doing tricks and entertainment.

It surely isn’t a good thing, but I believe there are few societies in which more than a small percentage of the people have the inclination to be involved in politics in a meaningful way. I think far more people don’t vote simply because they’re disinterested than because they’re discouraged about the possibility their actions could make a difference.

Again – your belief is no surprise at all, for the previously mentioned reasons. It’s easy to see that you’re wrong, if you care to.

Look at Venezuela. Contrast the political activity of the Venezuelan people ten years ago to today. 10 years ago were they “disinterested” or “discouraged”, in the ways in which you mean those terms?

Since that would probably require you to do a research project, let’s not take water away from you and instead keep you in water with this example:

The political activity of Americans in the 1960s versus that of them in the 1990s. Hmm… quite a difference there. Hmm… let’s see… in the 1960s Americans had hope that some leftist variant (some variant of socialism) could be instituted. In the 1990s they did not. Or that is to say, in the 1960s the shark had water and in the 1990s that water had been taken away from him through neoliberal pursuits, as well as global events.

Here’s an easy way to see it – humans do what is good for them to do. Humans don’t do things that make no difference in their lives. People don’t vote not because they’re “disinterested”, but because voting makes no difference. Contrast the difference in political power between a “voter”, a CEO of Exxon Mobil, and a senator, in America. Now contrast this with a truly democratic system, in which each human has equal political power. Whatever other things you might call the current system, it’s not democratic.

Of course senators are not representatives of the American people, but even if they were they would be illegitimate. The American people don’t need political representatives – they need direct political power. They need to have their will directly implemented.

When I was teaching high school in Ann Arbor, I was surprised how difficult it was to get most kids to think seriously about political issues. At the same time, there was a broad undercurrent of environmental concern that wasn’t around in my generation and that I found quite encouraging. People may be cynical about politics and believe their personal actions won’t make a difference, but they are conscious of major policy dislocations and ultimately exert influence to change them. (I think the course of opposition to the Vietnam War went much the same way and now it’s beginning to happen with Iraq as well.

There was plenty of opposition to the war in Vietnam prior to 1968, but it was irrelevant because the elite weren’t opposing it (with rare exception). However, in 1968, the liberal elite began to oppose the war in Vietnam out of fear of the draft as well as “high cost”, which means money that is going to the conservative elite rather than to them. Opposing the war was an economic decision since too many people in power weren’t profiting from it, so the war had to go.

Vietnam taught the elite two things – they need a private military force to eliminate the draft and they need to unify the interests of the liberal and conservative elite, so as to not cause them to be in opposition on issues of vast profit-transfer, with war being by far the best mechanism thereof. According to subsequent history they learned these lessons quite well.

It really doesn’t matter what high school kids think, as your own experience could teach you:

The American Elite stands against global warming, as long as there is profit in it. Most “solutions” being talked about in America are market-solutions – carbon credit trading, new technologies, and the like. Very little progress has been made against the largest perpetrators – the coal industry, nuclear industry, energy-eaters like the livestock industry. Even this, which despite the profit involves risk, was only accepted long after your high school students were interested in the environment. People have been interested in the environment for a very long time. Throughout that time vast pollution has happened.

I, ignorant as I am, have any number of solutions. One is to shut down all coal-producing plants after buying them out (at fair prices, not those recommended by the industry) using taxpayer dollars, making any new plant illegal, and giving training to the workers to ease their transition into a new industry. If taxpayer dollars are lacking for such a move, end the war in Iraq which will free up countless billions.

Expand public transportation. Invest in renewable energy. I don’t need to go on – in America you can find plenty of sources more knowledgeable than I to talk about market solutions to possibly avoid human catastrophe.

None of this has anything to do with cynicism. Is the shark, wiggling desperately toward water or weeping with despair or wallowing in the sand being fed to him, cynical? Is he cynical if he complains? Does it really make any sense to call him cynical? While you call the shark cynical do you have any idea what look the man who took the water away from the shark is giving you? Do you care? As Amy Goodman might say, “Facts matter”. What matters is the truth. What matters is reality. What matters is the human condition. What matters is improving that condition.

I’d like to hear your thoughts sometime on what it would take to arouse the general public from its stupor and take an active (and educated) approach to dealing with society’s problems. Trying to solve this problem from the top — for example, by banning all intellectual garbage from the public airways — would be a lot like prohibition, and the results would be equally disastrous.

I’ll start with a minor point on the “intellectual garbage”:

Judge Judy and the like are not intellectual garbage – they are intellectually void. They are garbage in terms of morality – they actively abuse the viewers.

Americans need to have power to take power. In order for them to have power they need to unite, organize, and exert power. Every democracy in history had a organized populace – countries like Bolivia and Venezuela are democratic to the extent that they have powerful grassroots populist movements, which allow leaders to emerge, just like Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged from the democratic movement in the 1960s.

There’s no easy way for this to happen. It takes constant struggle among the people. It probably never would have happened in Bolivia or Venezuela without geopolitical assistance – the American elite so thoroughly abused and in some cases destroyed these countries that it caused massive resentment and opposition to neoliberal doctrine. Obviously such assistance isn’t available to Americans since we are in the belly of the beast. In Empires democracies only emerge with the fall of the Empire, which typically decays from within rather than is overcome from within. Since the American Empire is in the process of falling, that should give a big boost to any populist organizing.

Another minor point – prohibition wasn’t about solving problems – it was about creating a problem in order for those who sought to solve it to gain power. Let’s take an even clearer example – marijuana. Marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol. But unlike alcohol, it isn’t dominated by large corporations and probably can’t be, due to the ease of individualized raising. So marijuana is illegal while alcohol is legal, which has nothing to do with health and alcohol kills thousands of people every year and injures the health of countless more but that’s irrelevant, because it makes the right people (the elite) money, and that’s worth pretty much any quantity of blood, as 1.25 Million recent Iraqi corpses discovered. If blood is thicker than water, money is thicker than blood, at least in this monstrous world that the elite have created.

Prohibition was a power play by the progressives to try to gain control over changes in society, especially the rise of power of urban immigrants. This kind of moralizing didn’t start with that and it’s been on-going ever since – one example is the “ratings” given to movies. I’ve taken a semi-close look at that and here’s what I see:

For one thing, children are not harmed by the things the moralists say they are harmed by. Nudity has no effect on children. Nudity has zero effect on anyone prior to puberty, and subsequently for children nudity is a titillation with little meaning, and the meaning then develops in them as they mature.

Violence is more complicated. It’s all about context. In most current contexts violence is bad, although it has little effect on children (there’s more effect on adults) since children have little ability to think. But I do think shows that glorify violence have some negative effect on children, although again, the larger negative effect is on adults, especially young adults.

The reviewers also have a ridiculous concept called “graphic”. So for example there is nudity and then there is graphic nudity, which is supposedly worse. I suppose this is some insane puritan notion that I am happy to commit violence against. It’s of course utterly ridiculous especially with respect to children. It leads to the logical conclusion that killing someone is better than killing some in ugly fashion. Since I don’t want to injure myself trying to figure out just what fucked up mind can come to that conclusion I’ll move on:

Pretty much all the reviewers care about is sex, violence, and swear words. Frankly, BAD movies have a much worse effect on children than anything else. Just as with sex and violence, profanity has no real effect on children. It doesn’t matter that the children might say the word after hearing it since they don’t know what it means – they are just trying it out as an experiment – probably trying to irk the puritan fools who are raising them.

Both as a child and as an adult, I’m most benefited by quality and most harmed by a lack of quality. That should be the primary measure of any rating system. It’s tragic that rating systems exist which ban children from seeing great movies that include sex or violence but allow them (often encourage them) to watch crap that happens to not include it. This is not to say that a great movie to a child is the same as one to an adult, although there are considerable overlaps.

In terms of why there is a movie rating system, it’s obviously not to protect children. The same people who made the rating system created global warming and the perpetual threat of nuclear holocaust, not exactly new-human or future-human friendly affairs. The rating system exists to, again, allow the raters to have power over the industry. Children are used, as they so often are, as a pretext, summed up in the classic phrase “Won’t you think of the children?”

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