(3:00PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)
While in a discussion in yesterday’s essay We’re Not In Kansas Anymore NLinStPaul asked me to expand my comments on the fact I believed that democracy cannot function the current cultural atmosphere and that we should hope that the oligarchs that run the joint can be wise.
To me this is an easy statement to make because democracy, as we have come to understand the term, is not a natural or common state of human culture. History and social science has shown us that most people inevitably follow authority and will follow authority. It also shows that power corrupts and that, in many ways, both the powerful and the weak cooperate in a kind of sado-masochistic scene (check out the Stanford Prison Experiment). People want and need norms and authority and will tend to gas Jews or torture prisoners if asked by the powerful to do so (see the Milgram Experiment). People will tend to conform to cultural views of reality even when it clashes with their own direct perception (see the Asch conformity experiments–you don’t even have to read about that to see how it has happened in this country particularly during the lead-up to the Iraq War).
What made democracy possible in this country was a relatively stable society where people were divided into families, clans and communities with rich human, face-to-face interactions. Values like self-reliance, honor, honesty, courage, mutual trust were essential to keeping things going. Each community had leaders, some corrupt others not–but there was a direct line from local to city or state to national politics meaning that everywhere there was a personal face-to-face quality to each change of level. Also, there were common cultural rituals and values re-inforced by the mass media, not because the media was particularly interested in them, but because enforcing some kind of value conformity was very important to most people until the upheavals of the 60’s. These upheavals had to happen since there was too much cognitive dissonance between how things actually were with the ideals expressed by propaganda in the 40’s and 50’s.
The most significant change in my lifetime has been the dominance of the media and commercial culture (consumerism) on daily life and values. The media has become a fledgling Matrix. Life in the media emphasizes “consumption” of objects and services that provide either pleasure, relief from stress/pain and (most importantly) status. These “values” are in contrast to the values that are necessary for community/clan/family solidarity. The values favored by our media are self-indulgence, hedonism, illusion/fantasy and so on. These values destroy community (if they become dominant) and, in fact, that is what has happened not only in this country but elsewhere in the world as well. We are, often, communities of one. We don’t like our marriage, we get out of it. We don’t like the blog we are writing for, we find one that echoes our own opinions until there is a conflict and then we move on or give up so we stop having to learn how to compromise and make things work and, in fact to grow. We make promises we can’t keep, we have our attention on ten different things at once, we are over-scheduled, have no time to just stare out the window because we are (me included) addicted to variety, to being entertained, to stimulus, and we have little room really be publicly involved in serious social and political issues. As adults we tend to remain in adolescence and the corporations that rule us enable us to do that.
Calvin Coolidge told us in the 1920’s that “the business of America is business”. The 92 Clinton campaign had as its slogan “it’s the economy stupid”. It is the one area that all Americans have in common. “The Economy” is God here since we lack other shared cultural values. Interestingly, the more diverse we become, the more importance the economy becomes. All people need some sense of cultural identity and when we live in a land with multiple sub-cultures from ethnic/religious to groups that affirm one lifestyle/social group or another (and these are proliferating with the growth of internet culture–they range from gays to gamers) so that the money economy is the one place we all meet. Business and “the economy” are concerns that by definition do not promote democratic values but, rather, strict inequality based on wealth. The feature that most distinguishes us a people among the “developed” countries is that we have, by far, the largest income disparities and the least concern with public well-being in terms of health, education and welfare. Also these anti-public welfare tendencies are not economical at all. Educating youth is cheaper than putting them in prison, national health insurance is cheaper by nearly half than our system.
People, if given a choice would probably choose a much more progressive course than either party has offered but because of our collective lack of character the oligarchy has been able to take an increasing share of the wealth, steal elections, raid the Treasury almost with impunity. How do they do this? By invoking fear. A lack of virtue, a lack of personal integrity, makes people vulnerable to be stampeded by fear. The reaction to 9/11 was personally embarrassing to me. What followed were acts of mass-cowardice pure and simple. How can a people rule themselves who have no control over their fears and emotions? They can’t and they don’t. They look for strong rulers to carry their dreams and hopes–they’ll agree to live in fantasies and not be bothered with thinking because if they really thought they would have to look in the mirror and see how far away they are from the comic-book figures they worship on-screen. The level of intelligence in popular culture goes lower every year and the level of conversation becomes ever more filled with trivialities and the deliberate deceptions and misdirections created by PR agencies and MSM organs. Collectively we want to be lied to because reality is too painful. So how can democracy flourish?
Democracy has no hope if officials lack accountability. Today, whistle-blowers in government are routinely penalized and not supported. Trillions are missing from the Pentagon and only a handful of people even know about it or care. Weak communities, weak personal interactions, weak commitments, apathy, pleasure-seeking, cowardice and so on all increase as I’ve mentioned the tendency towards cultural decline and eventual enslavement of the populace and thus the future lies in rule of an oligarchy and a neo-feudal politics. We will have to make arrangements with whatever power-center (or create our own) or risk being picked-off by a feeding frenzy of criminals (particularly those operating legally) and/or the security apparatus. That future is all but inevitable without a major cultural change.
Is there hope? Yes, but that is the subject of another essay.