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Standing in a Rite-Aid drugstore on upper Broadway in New York City—some time after victory had been declared in Iraq but before Scooter Libby had been indicted—I considered whether the time had come for me to expand my definition of tyranny. I was waiting to pay for a bottle of water and a combination lock, third in a line that was growing alarmingly and beginning to snake its way down the hair- care aisle. Only one cashier was working, though there were four or five registers. No management was in sight. Overhead, the narcotizing music suddenly stopped, interrupted by that most persistent and opaque type of modern propaganda: the marketing to you of that which you’re already using, buying, or doing. A resonant male voice came on, in a near-parody of actorliness:
“These days, there’s a drugstore on every corner . . . So what makes one any different from another? At Rite-Aid, we think it’s our PEOPLE.”
I looked up, startled by this manifest lie. Rite-Aid’s “PEOPLE” at this moment consisted of one beleaguered, recently emigrated South Asian lady in a silk head scarf, who appeared not very familiar with the workings of the computerized register or, for that matter, with U.S. currency. She seemed a very nice woman, slightly shy and embarrassed, in her forties, with a quiet sense of elegant dignity that was being shattered by the ever more harried quality of the task she’d been given. To look at her was to observe a matter of history having taken a wrong turn and landed her, as so many others, far from where she was raised and where the gestures and work of everyday life would have made some sense.
Meanwhile, the line wasn’t moving; people stood mute and passive, waiting. The stoic and gloomy faces, the blue-gray fluorescence and sense of oppression: it could have been a Life magazine photo from the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union (“Party elites have access to Western-style shops, but these typical Muscovites wait in long lines to purchase scarce goods . . . ”). This tangible misery is a regular part of public life now, but why? Here on Manhattan’s steroidally bourgeois Upper West Side, there is no scarcity of goods, of course, nor is there violent repression (unless you’re a disappeared Muslim), yet here we stood, spiritual kin to those stoical Russians grasping their wilted beets and bits of bone and marrow.
Given our freedom to think and express ourselves, you might believe that we customers imprisoned that day would have been irritated by the almost-psychotically mendacious announcement about Rite-Aid’s PEOPLE. But such freedom has perhaps devolved into a privilege we brag about more than we practice. I looked around: no smirks, no shakings of head; no one paid the voice-over any notice whatsoever. And why should they? Who cares about such trifling lies anymore? We are inundated, every hour, every day, with similar lies and have grown utterly insensitive to the offense. Our nation invades other countries, destroys ancient cultures, puts our political prisoners in black jets to Syria (while we murmur about the possibility of invading Syria as well), and generally sews the seeds of fifty years more global animosity, armed with the world’s most expensive weaponry and employing narratives as cheap and transparently false as this crappy myth about Rite-Aid’s PEOPLE. And so the lesson: Tell it in the right voice, with the right inflection, tell it often enough with a large enough budget and sufficiently bombastic graphics and music, and our simple desire to get our stuff will lead us to decide, without a moment’s conscious consideration of the matter, that each new lie is acceptable—and that we’ll endure it without objection.
Our common understanding of the word tyranny comes to us from certain historical paradigms that in Western industrialized nations can rarely be applied anymore: what we think of as tyranny has passed down to us from the cruelty of the Czars and the assaults of tinpot dictators; it derives most essentially from our twentieth-century experience of the Nazi, Soviet, and Chinese Communist police states. We learned in those years how to define “tyranny” from Orwell and Koestler and Hannah Arendt. But Orwell and Koestler and Arendt never set foot in a Rite-Aid or a Wal-Mart, nor did they think their bank tellers were called “client associates,” nor did they live in a country where the only remotely honest analysis of politics, news, and culture came from Comedy Central. (footnote 1)
In its older permutation, still extant of course, tyranny expresses itself as a matter of force. The force involved, even happening in the dead of night, never fails to be explicit, so that the fear it induces also will be explicit. As such, the old version of tyranny virtually requires a reliable and equally explicit, though usually cautious and opportunistic resistance; that resistance in fact defines the tyranny, for the tyranny resides in oppression and the oppression best articulates its identity when putting down actual threats to its power.
But I thought that day in Rite-Aid: what if there is no resistance and, more frightening, no possibility of resistance? What if power can simply no longer be threatened, and there is no apparent force to resist? What if there is no evident possibility of opposing anything? What if we live in a social and political system of relentless acquisition for the few and obvious exploitation and neglect of the many, a system that the many have lost all sense of possibly resisting, a system in which the haves have, the have-nots want to be haves but know they cannot be and accept it, and that’s all, that is our sum total of politics and cultural awareness? Suppose one just lingers in a fluctuating state of uneasiness and grief, driven nearly mad by outdated notions of justice and truth? What if almost every citizen not severely marginalized or in prison simply takes a look at the options and gets with the program as quickly and smoothly as possible, somewhere around the tenth grade or so, if not earlier (footnote 2)—understanding intuitively the fruitlessness of not doing so, and the deeply unheroic, unromantic, generally stigmatized, and invariably uncomfortable outcome, expressed in financial terms, that every impulse toward real opposition will lead to?
Suppose that such thoughts, which might themselves be the beginning of opposition, are simply absorbed, efficiently neutralized in advance of their own conception, by relentless sentimentalizing narratives of victory and national nobility, along with a daily, willful acceptance of the sedimentary accrual of lies upon which, over the last thirty years of so, a mainstream culture—political, social, economic, and artistic—has been built? Can the resulting condition, in which meaningful and dramatic opposition becomes impossible, be called tyranny?
We can call it “voluntary tyranny”—a tyranny we all tacitly accept and to which we all contribute. We go about our business, we buy ourselves stuff we don’t need, we accumulate scraps as armor for our narcissism, we turn on Charlie Rose or open Time magazine so that we can absorb the conventional thinking of the day, and on all these occasions we are in fact striking the hammer down on the nail head, and the nail is planted firmly in the coffin lid of liberty. Do we care?
It is laborious, and neither pretty nor glamorous, retaining for ourselves the habits of liberty that we tell ourselves we’re fighting questionable and intractable wars to bestow upon others. We don’t wish to practice it anymore: it’s not entertaining and it doesn’t pay. Remember how, as inspirational analysis, the theory was widely offered that the fundamentalist extremists (the “evildoers,” the “terrorists”) who knocked down our buildings and murdered so many, did so because “they hate our freedom”? If any phrase bandied about our public spaces since 9/11 reeks of a dumb, transparently self-serving adolescent lie, it is that one. We are the people who most despise our own liberty. It is not our freedom, but something else that people elsewhere, especially the poor and marginalized, hate about us: to a lesser degree we are hated for specific and largely vicious policies, and to a greater degree we are hated for our wealth and all that is entailed in its collection. But then this works out just fine, because our wealth and its continued growth is usually what we really mean now when we refer to our “freedom.”
Obviously we are not living under a totalitarian regime such as the Soviets endured, though our own government now exceeds the Soviets at their best in prisoners per capita and, quite often, in uncontested legislative elections. We are in every measurable, political sense of the word, free—free to vote, free to protest, free to speak and write and create images as we please. Yet I had to ask myself that day in Rite-Aid, why have we come to resemble the Russians at their grayest and most oppressed, standing there in line?
This January I sat through the State of the Union address with my eldest son, who was assigned to watch it for a high school government class. I hadn’t seen one in years; indeed I avoid them purposely, they depress me, decorated as they are by obvious lies, meaningless clich8Es, and recent headliners (victims and war heroes mostly) trotted in as lawn jockeys to power. Watching this year, I was startled by the ever more sophisticated camera work: the networks and other journalists are given the speech in advance, and since determining which lines will lead one party to rise while the other sits is as simple as predicting the ending of a Disney movie, the network crews expertly cut to a full view of the Senate chamber just ahead of each such line in the speech. The effect was eerie, giving the viewer an obvious sense of collusion and orchestration on the part of the network, but apparently no one cares. After the speech ended the many white faces and heads of bad hair could be seen pressing in toward the aisle to touch the hem of the Commander-in-Chief’s telegenic blue suit. Then came the network commentary: after the expensive camera work, Brian Williams and Tim Russert on NBC were almost apoplectic, howling about how “bittterly divided” the two parties clearly were; they spoke in voice-over as we watched the well-fed faces and receding hairlines of the oligarchs shaking Bush’s hand and smiling. I said to my son, “Do they look bitterly divided to you?” He said no. These same Democrats that the network painted as bitter antagonists of the president had in fact presented no serious opposition to the war, no formidable opposition to the insane tax cuts for the rich and budget cuts to programs for the poor, no powerful response to the revelations of domestic spying, clandestine arrests, and outsourced torture chambers. They had effectively opposed nothing. Yet the very networks that had worked the cameras so carefully to show a divided chamber now felt it necessary to press this myth forward at a hysterical volume.
I kept thinking, these were the propaganda techniques deployed by Soviet state-run television—it was this exact experience of manipulated reality that I grew up being taught to fear and to deplore. We were taught back in those Cold War days that one of the tragedies of Soviet life was a daily bombardment of soul-killing propaganda. The big difference, the outstanding and profoundly mysterious difference, between then and now, between them and us, resides in the plain fact that no one is making our journalists promulgate these or their other favorite myths. Williams and Russert that night could as easily have chatted about how the same senators and representatives seeming to oppose what had become questionably popular presidential policies for the network camera-dance had mostly voted for them earlier and were mounting no serious campaign to change them. But that’s not what they said.
Then, in April, I was watching the NCAA championships with my middle son, a basketball fan. “Prelude to a Championship” is what the network was calling the pregame show. People with a historical sensibility look back—or used to, anyway—with fascination and horror at the bombast of Fascist rituals. It’s not that big a stretch to think that someday people will look at most nights of American network television in the same way—the overblown warlike language, the fiery orange graphics, the drumbeats of ancient tribes preparing to attack. And the ads: “Nothing is more powerful than the truth,” says a famous coach I don’t recognize. He looks gravely into the camera from a darkened basketball court. “And the truth is, more people buy Chevrolet than any other car.”
Well, that’s one truth. Others are more difficult to get a handle on. There was once a culture of political opposition in this nation. What happened to it? At the end of February, not long after the State of the Union speech, the “bitterly divided” Senate voted to renew the Patriot Act, making permanent sixteen provisions for anti-terrorist law enforcement that, even in the heated aftermath of 9/11, Congress had thought troubling enough to allow only temporarily. The vote was 89–10. Bitterly divided my ass.
The only thing one suspects these days that might get a substantial number of people really angry—despite the TV sports figure’s pompous reassurance—is the truth. It’s as if we’re allergic to it. When Susan Sontag suggested the obvious after 9/11—that it was idiotic to call the hijackers “cowards,” that we should examine why we got attacked, examine the history and the policies that might have contributed to that particular outcome, and that our politicians and media commentators were putting up a cloud of patriotic nonsense to obscure such questions, howls of outrage came from left and right. Meanwhile Todd Gitlin, former head of Students for a Democratic Society and now a professor of journalism, got right with the program and hung the American flag out his window on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Hurtling down the road cleared a generation ago by Norman Podhoretz and others, Gitlin has, in the flag story afterglow, written a book defending patriotism for liberals. Overt public patriotism in my lifetime has almost invariably celebrated bombing and plunder and the overthrowing of legitimate governments. So, for an aging leftist, it’s hard to know which tradition, that of the radical, that of the teacher, or that of the critic, Gitlin betrayed most in the flag hanging, but it warmed hearts with the New York Times, which ran the story on page one. What was the message so roundly embraced? That radical opposition is now quaint and certainly unnecessary.
There is, metaphorically speaking, a set of muscles that we as individuals and as a culture would employ if we were interested in seeking, distinguishing, telling, and hearing the truth, and that muscle group is in a state of complete atrophy. Rite-Aid; American politics; global trade; Christianity redefined as a doctrine promoting war, imprisonment, and the death penalty; constant dilution of education; new soft drinks and old nationalism—all rely on a culture that is slack and impenetrable. What amazes a child of the sixties and seventies is that nobody “did” this to us. Nobody said, live this way or you’ll be punished, fired, banished, beaten, killed.
And so the lies that utterly dominate our public discourse have no police and no apparent guardians. We produce and disseminate them of our own volition. The question is, why?
“Consuming things,” Jimmy Carter once said, in the speech that is credited with ruining his presidency, “cannot satisfy our longing for meaning.” He couldn’t have imagined the immense complexities of the Rite-Aid hair-care aisle: Every product has a back story: green tea and lemongrass volumizers, shitake mushroom and octopus semen rejuvenators. Brands; bottle shapes; colors and fonts; typography and design appealing to nuanced slices of various subcategories in the demographic scheme; degrees of slickness and control on a scale from seven (firm) to ten (maximum mega hold!)—except what happened to one through six? Extra shine. Add color . . . Enhance . . . Soft All Day . . . Firm All Night . . . We have actually come to believe that our purchases and our waxing schedules are meaningful parts of our lives.
The holiday season rolled in again this year with a picture on the cover of the New York Times on the Saturday after Thanksgiving featuring hordes rushing in the doors of a mega-store somewhere in America, the store having opened at 6 a.m. with special “early bird” deals till 10 or 11 a.m., which other stores also offered. The idea was to get in the store as early as possible, buy all your crucial new shit, get out and to the next store and buy their sale shit and be done by lunch. Five a.m. to lunch is basically a full workday anyway. One chain, I heard, had offered customers a wake-up call service for that day, to help them get out early. The same picture, essentially, every year. The faces reveal a collective madness, a delusional mania in which people who can’t afford it are out spending themselves to the max of their plastic cards and home equity credit lines: their faces are a landscape of desperation, ecstasy, and zeal. Stampedes, screams, no doubt injuries: none of it matters in relation to shopping. This phenomenon of “Black Friday” is rather like that of “the most photographed barn in America,” Don DeLillo’s creation in the novel White Noise: with the message having gone out over and over and over that the nation, as one, goes shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, people have come to believe that they must go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving.
It turns out, though, that they can never shop quite enough. The story in recent years ends up roughly the same—sales on Black Friday (so called because it puts stores in the black for the year . . . not because it marks the beginning of the plague years, which is how it sounds, and how the photos make it look) are declared excellent but analysis in the weeks that follow shows that spending for the season will “only” rise by one to two percent over the previous year. This is not enough, not nearly enough.
But of course, we’re more in debt than we ever were, the economy seems to be improving but very slowly and mostly for the very rich, employment is stagnant, wages haven’t kept up with profits or prices for three decades, why on God’s earth should consumer spending be rising at all? Since we have entered the realm of a national negative savings rate, shouldn’t we be spending less and putting a few dollars in the bank? Yes?
Well, no. We are required to spend more. We have to spend more for the rest of history. Our entire economic well being depends on us spending more every single week of every single month of every single year. Forever. Our economy is about buying large quantities of stuff, marketing the stuff, creating desire and identity around the stuff: creating a narrative of putative need. We largely do not question how insane this is. We do not point out that it’s impossible, that most Americans are in hock up to their necks and soon—really soon—they simply won’t have sufficient cash and credit to spend more than they did last year.
For now, though, we carry on, literally, as if there’s no tomorrow. A theoretical exercise: go out on a given evening in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or Atlanta or Toronto, enter any popular restaurant and add up what everyone in the place is likely spending on hair and body care per month, plus the price of that one meal—take that sum and you’d have a dollar figure suitable for a year’s support of several impoverished villages, say, in the Amazon rainforest, which is being cleared annually at a rate in square mileage equal in size to the state of Massachusetts, so that there can be roads and farms and low-wage factories where these bogus hair-care products, or some other stuff we can be convinced to buy but that we certainly don’t need, all get grown and manufactured. Rite-Aid, Duane Reade, CVS, Walgreens: ten years ago, along the avenues of New York City and in most villages and strip malls near you, a small fraction of these outlets existed. Now there are lines in almost all of them. They did not sprout up, one “on every corner” as the man said, because of need: they created the need by their presence. They created habit by filling space in the endless vacuum of our boredom, our fears, and our amorphous desires. And so we stood that evening in the Ninety-sixth Street Rite-Aid, voluntarily, fifteen or eighteen of us, numb and imprisoned by our own idiotic purchase plans, while a corporate mind whispered obvious lies in our ear, soothing us about this waste of our time, our resources, and our lives. That’s how a consumer culture works.
Of course, such a culture has a political purpose. It absorbs everything, the artist, the believer, the man in rags: any of them can be in a TV commercial coming to your media market soon. Ours may be the first political system that has been able to render the poor completely invisible, even to themselves. This leaves, alas, only the fanatical and the violent as our final political opposition.
One day I see a young Asian woman—she can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds—in a pink and white T-shirt that says “Ralph Lauren Rugby.” The “rugby” is in a fancy script beneath the Lauren name. What allegiance, what brand of thrice-removed hipness and irony, does this shirt convey, I wonder. Guaranteed this woman has never seen a rugby game or consorted with the type of fellows who play it. American marketing has now reached an apex of codification, creating meaning in meaninglessness, out of mere sound and gesture, like an ape in a cave experimenting with his larynx for the first time.
That same day, I see another T-shirt in the neighborhood: a well-insured looking man in a shirt that says “Bank of Dad.” American cultural, social, and political life has basically always been about money and little else but there is a smug brazenness about it now that insinuates itself morally into images of retribution, towers of fire, and death in the thousands—which is to say, a brazenness that makes a person occasionally want to blow things up.
Here is the basic condition of the average American middle class or working class person: lack of job security and unmanageably high costs for such vitals as medical care, home ownership, and education—costs which have risen by a multiple of more than ten in the last thirty years, while income except above the ninety-fifth percentile have risen at the rate of about one percent per year. The result is that, from kindergarten through college, people in this bracket, not being rich, don’t get the kind of education they might have gotten thirty years ago, won’t be able to purchase homes in the community where they were raised, won’t have reliable access to medical care. This beleaguered citizen comes home after working longer hours, hours his or her spouse also works, the children are undercared for, the family’s world is forever tenuous and chaotic, and then this poor beaten-down individual is invited to watch the news: meet our new enemy, Iraq. Iraq and September 11: Iraq’s WMDs, Syria’s evil intentions, Iran’s theoretical nukes. Evildoers and Satan and all those delicious, depraved things they do to each other at night with those aluminum tubes. It’s a ceaseless hypnosis through patriotic melodrama, meaningless chatter, and outright lies. The number of words and images spilled on a daily basis is worse than a viral attack. The salaries of the producers are beyond the viewer’s imagining but a small investment paying back billions: billions upon billions and billions of dollars, unimaginable wealth, being sucked up into the belly of a gigantic military-industrial beast that gorges itself while the villagers listen to White House announcements about peach-colored terror alerts. And serving this process is the professional class, the university scholars, and VPs of marketing and communications, bringing food to the beast and nodding in solemn agreement or suggesting minor adjustments to the wisdom dispensed by the highest officials in the land and their media courtiers on the Sunday political news shows. You look at the congressional leadership or the president’s cabinet, then you look at Tim Russert and Cokie Roberts and George Will, and we can also throw in many of the Washington editors of the major papers and the executive producers in the news divisions at the networks, and you realize that they all live in identical communities, they drive or are driven in the same cars, they send their kids or grandkids to the same colleges, have the same massive refrigerators with the same excellent food. Nice brickwork in the kitchen and plenty of cheap help. It’s the same fridge and the same early acceptance letter all of us want.
In American politics and the commentary that feeds on its waste, one team makes it clear that this life of unimaginable plenty for unimaginably few is what it believes in and the other says it believes in it too, with just a few caveats about doing it all a smidgen more efficiently and a tiny bit more fairly: so who’s left to vote for? If there were an opposing side truly and dramatically holding out before us the prospect of justice, of living profitably but with certain discipline in some form of harmony with the earth and with others, we just might be convinced to change our minds, but that’s not what the “other side” offers, if one chooses to see it as “other,” which in reality it isn’t. It’s offering some complicated watered down version of the same product (“I want to run this war better,” John Kerry told us repeatedly during the last presidential election).
On the subway one day I see a young woman reading a nicely printed, presumably corporate, newsletter. The specific article she’s reading has a title to which almost no commentary could do justice: “Joy at Work: An Executive Summary.” Do people really believe in this, this concept of “joy at work”? The executives sure hope so. Unable to stop myself, I mutter, “Arbeit macht frei: an executive summary.” The woman looks up.
“Excuse me?” she says.
“Nothing,” I say.
In 1787 Jeremy Bentham, social philosopher and architect, introduced his design idea for a new kind of prison, which he called the Panopticon. He designed it as an exercise in maximizing prisoner compliance with minimal exercise of oversight and authority. Roughly described, Benthem’s design entailed cells, with openings at both ends. The cells were arranged in concentric pentagons around a central tower from which every cell’s interior could be viewed at any time. The viewing stage of the tower itself, however, could not be seen into, resulting in a prisoner’s never knowing whether he was being watched or not. Eventually, it became clear, the prisoners simply internalized the idea that everything they did could be seen, and acted accordingly.
It is possible that our modern-day Panopticon is Windows (TM), a name which initially signified the way the data on the computer was displayed and manipulated by its user, but which can as easily now be taken to mean a transparent opening into the user’s own habits and thinking, if thinking occurs. Which is to say, we might consider the possibility that this new form of tyranny began for us with our gradual acceptance and deep internalization of the knowledge over the last twenty years that everything we do on a computer, with a bank card and credit card and keyboard and mouse, can be known by anyone who is interested in finding out.(footnote 3) If you’re a student today you can sit with your laptop in any classroom with a wireless connection to your campus database—you can take notes, instant message your friends, search the Internet, create flowcharts, play games against live competitors in Hong Kong, hit a casino in Honduras. The room will feature one or possibly two cameras with digital feed to the same database. You’re likely using Windows XP, the platform of choice at virtually every American university and corporate workplace. You have essentially achieved a state of mind in which you know, perhaps without realizing you know it, that everything you’re doing, everything you’re notating, everything you’re writing to your friends, every site you visit on the Web, is registering somewhere, beginning with local servers and spreading outward to some multiple number of somewheres, part of the endless repetition, almost as if your very thoughts are part of a collective experience (footnote 4), a flow of binomials that strips through your field of vision faster than you can track. There is zero and there is one: all knowledge is Manichean. You accept this, completely. That knowledge is an invisible narcotic.
We encourage our journalists and our leaders to lie to us, in the end, because we are afraid. The great question is, why this profound fear? What would happen if our newspapers and broadcasters started telling us the truth on a daily basis (for instance, showing us images of the maimed and the dead in Iraq, which they have from the first day to today adamantly withheld from broadcast and publication, under no binding orders but their own); what would happen if the depth of political, institutional, and corporate mendacity that plagues the nation were constantly being exposed, if our political leadership were forced by frank confrontation to answer difficult questions and face the consequences of American policy—thereby likely having to change it? What is the intuitive collective understanding that—we must conclude—does not want this to happen? Without articulating or analyzing the idea, most people carry some small seed of consciousness telling them that our prosperity and our hopes for its continuance have been lashed to this culture of lies: that if we admitted into our thinking too much information about the exploitation of other nations, the destruction of the earth, the horrors of our slaughterhouses and our weapons factories, and began the process of changing these things, our riches would begin to disappear. So best to keep quiet.
Tyranny, of course, even in its newest dispensation, finds its firmest foundation in exactly this kind of fear. We appear to be addicted to fear: Our tabloids and local news shows peddle it back to us relentlessly and without shame. The headlines and teasers all come at the volume of a harrowing scream. There are criminals, perverts, viruses; there are even particular types of plastic bags to fear. The weather is our greatest drama; a typical winter snowstorm is made into a repetitive narrative of terror. There was a moment in New York City and elsewhere, too, I suppose, though I observed only what happened in New York, after September 11, when our fear was replaced by grief. And we behaved better. And those who create our national narrative, not just the politicians but the journalists, critics and many of the most prominent intellectuals, sensing this change, crushed it, and replaced it with the more familiar, the more comforting fear. And after a few days the streets of my city were filled with a new noise, the whipping of plastic American flags that hung from the antennas of passing cars: it was a public sound not dissimilar, I kept thinking at the time, to that of Soviet boots in the streets of Prague.
Last summer I took a Shortline bus upstate to spend some time with my sons at Boy Scout camp. The bus goes out to New Jersey, where the highway splits and cloverleafs to provide multiple exits leading to various sectors of the ShoppingZone. Northern New Jersey features strings of towns dedicated exclusively to shopping. Ikea, Wal-Mart, and a rather forlorn Macy’s anchor, the traditional mall stretching from its midsection like a fantastic erection. Along the side road, which is six lanes wide and has its own mini circular exits that spit you out for each major shopping outlet, watch for the revitalized Howard Johnson’s, a Hooters next door, a Land Rover dealership, a little tanning place, Quiznos Subs, and Dominic’s Kitchen and Bath Supply. There’s Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Izuzu, Boston Market, Tower Records, The Big K, Ace (the helpful hardware man!), IHOP, Tile King; it goes on for mile after mile after mile. Shopping at this scale replaces sex, it replaces ideas, it replaces thought, it replaces religion. Chili’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, CVS, Wendy’s, McDonald’s. The traffic has to be endless, the flow of cash and credit beyond the imagination to keep it all going, to keep even the small fish like Dominic and his Kitchen and Bath Supply in business and prospering. I sit in the bus and wonder: how many—perhaps fifty families per square mile per month, minimum?—need to be redoing their kitchens or their bathrooms to sustain Dominic? This is suburban New Jersey, the old kitchen and bathroom were probably fine. People remodel out of boredom. All this in just one five-mile strip of American shopping. It is a pyramid scheme of desire—it relies on constant titillation and dissatisfaction, on the narrative of desire and need.
Such a narrative cannot tolerate critical thought. The restaurants alone confirm this—Boston Market, Hooters—who could eat this stuff? Who would pay a premium to do so? Two straight days of widespread introspection in this concrete-ribboned county on the eastern seaboard and it would all come tumbling down. It can’t be for this, can it, that we suffer the lowest savings rate in the industrialized world, that there’s almost $8,000 in consumer debt currently on the books for every American family, a number constantly growing.
From suburban New Jersey, the bus moves north into the foothills of the Catskill mountains. This is the home of the corporate campuses. Sharp, Ibsen, Kinoh, they sit atop soft hills like castles, homes to the various ranking lords and courtiers of our many jacket-and-tie fiefdoms. Back in the optimistic and oblivious fifties, this highway was blasted through shale and rock, it passes between jagged walls, infinite facets of glittering grays and taupes and blacks.
Up at the scout camp, after a day or two, the one black scoutmaster I’ve seen, from a troop in West Harlem, having recognized me as a leftie malcontent, sidled up in the quiet time after lunch and said, “So what do you call it, when the government, the military, and the major corporations all work together, in tandem, to control a society?”
We’ve had a few amusing conversations thus far, laying the groundwork for this nonsequitor. “I don’t know,” I say. “What do you call it?”
“Fascism!” he says. He can hardly contain his delight.
After a rainy week I return to New York City; I’m on the subway. Overhead, in one of the few slots empty of advertising, someone has carefully block-printed in black this message: WE ARE BEING LIED TO. He doesn’t attach the thought to the war in Iraq or the economy or any other issue. It’s meant to cover the full gamut of everyday reality.
I hear an ad on the radio later: “There’s no feeling like it in the world,” the announcer says. “The thrill of buying the perfect mattress.”
At the newsstand on Twenty-third Street, I stand waiting to buy a candy bar. Ahead of me there is a young woman; she has in place all the signifiers indicating her membership in the educated, upper professional classes. She appears to be somewhere between her mid-twenties and early thirties, certainly no older. The Pakistani who tends this newsstand morning and night holds before her two magazines, Us Weekly and InTouch; she takes into her hands first the one, then the other. Us Weekly, InTouch; InTouch, Us Weekly—which is it going to be? There she is and she can’t decide. She continues to gaze, handing one back, taking the other, gazing again. They have nearly identical covers featuring Jessica Simpson. The young woman gives an embarassed laugh: The Pakistani works this corner at least eighty hours a week (I later learned from him) and right now, it occurs to me, he understands terrorism a lot better than this likely voter he’s serving. The two magazines hang there, identically, from his right and left hands. Jessica Simpson, like Rite-Aid’s people, deserves some consideration. She is the purest celebrity creation in the history of American celebritydom: a prototype of the dumb American blonde, she has no particular talents (she sings but that only seems part of the invention) and her fame rests on a TV show that filmed her as she hung out with her blandly handsome husband (they’ve since, inevitably, split, since neither could stand the exponential emptiness that was the product of their union), decorated her house, and wondered where to shop and what to do next. She didn’t have to worry very hard, though, because there were producers and marketing people working for MTV and its licensing partners who decided these matters for her in any case. The cameras lived in her house and watched her every move. The entire Jessica Simpson narrative has relieved Simpson of the burdens of selfhood in a way that is the envy of tens of millions.
But all this desire, fear and identity-desertion proves nervewracking. On Thanksgiving, I’m at Pennsylvania Station in New York City in a little place called Cafe Espresso or something like that. Smoothies and cappucinos. A woman ahead of me with tricolored hair, different shades of blonde and tea—she’s middle-aged and it’s a five-hundred-dollar hair job, minimum—says to the Caribbean immigrant behind the counter, “But it still has the chai spices in it, right?” Beside me, another woman is frantically trying to get in her order ahead of me; I guess she has a train to catch. Then again, this is a train station, and today is Thanksgiving, so we all have a train to catch. She wants a medium latte. The chai question is hanging in the air like a threat. You can sense these women’s panic on an animal level: your heart rate goes up just being near them; all your flight-or-fight mechanisms are kicking in. They want exactly what they want, nothing other than that, no variation, no disappointment; they don’t want to have to think about whether it’s reasonable to ask for it now; what they want are Starbucks products and can’t accept that this isn’t, in fact, a Starbucks but a cheaper, immigrant-owned operation in a train station; they need at every public moment of their lives to be well served. Their wallets are fat and soft looking, like ripe mangoes. I imagine them suddenly, the two women, like primates, crouched, crudely peeling back the leather skins of the wallets, wetly sucking out the contents, as if mangoes were in fact what they held, not YSL accessories. The Caribbean girl behind the counter, to the chai question, kind of nods and grunts a vague assent: clearly she doesn’t really understand the question. The woman—she’s about my age, late forties—while accepting this vaguely affirmative answer, having no real choice, doesn’t really believe it. One feels her irritation growing.
That day at the newsstand, I never did find out which magazine the young lady chose. The Pakistani guy looked at me, as if to say, you know what you want? You going to pay? So I reached around the woman, grabbed the Snickers and gave the guy my money.
You have to be more sophisticated than I in order to know what’s going on here, what the appeal of these magazines can be; same with the beverages at all the cappuccino places in the train station. Same for the peppermint mocha chai lattes, the vanilla caramel half-caf soy macchiattos. I already know more than I want to know about them, obviously. And as we numbly watch our nation turn monstrous, a rich land of constant war, bad education, and no medical care, a place where no thrill matches that of buying the perfect mattress, where the truth is more people buy Chevrolet, we might ask ourselves, to steal a line from a great poet: After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
1. Orwell et al. wouldn’t, in other words, understand a culture in which most of the best critical intellects have adopted the role once held by Lear’s Fool, whom we recall from an earlier political fiasco, back in the day when political fiascos were also known as tragedies. Of course, the American mind ceased being able to stretch itself to the boundaries of tragedy some time ago; recently it has failed even to be able to sustain the effort of any sort of drama at all. Thus we have “reality” shows. Actual reality, we fend off as fervently as we can.
2. USA Today reported last year on a poll of American high school students that revealed that a third believed the press in the United States has “too much freedom” and even more who went further, endorsing the idea that the government should be permitted to approve what gets published. Unencumbered by any historical knowledge whatsoever, these young products of our carefully ruined educational system are correct: indeed, there is no more comprehensive way to make sure we remain protected from uncomfortable truths. The major media of course have without complaint or coercion already essentially complied with this dream of the people, in our 1991 and 2003 invasions of the Middle East and most other political fronts.
3. I remember a story from the early 1980s, among friends who were then working in the newspaper business. As the editorial process became computerized, a moment came when every reporter’s drafts and notes and every other file took up residence not on his or her own desktop computer but on a networked server where editors and super-editors had access to it at any time. People in the newsroom, I was told, were upset about this. They were upset, too, that the programs put in place for them to do this work would keep track of how much time they spent on each task. Dire outcomes were predicted. Of course, little that was manifestly dire occurred, yet somehow the same papers that in the 1970s helped to create solid middle-class resistance to the war in Vietnam and to the antics of our intelligence community, assassinating foreign leaders and changing governments by secret policy directives, became twenty-odd years later the media messengers that helped make the invasion of Iraq possible by giving front-page play to a string of fables peddled by the government. What changed? The internal consciousness and perception of reality of the individual reporters and editors working there changed: the people responsible for producing the news went from having among them a sufficient number who would take risks and resist government pronouncements to having an almost universally bureaucratic mind-set that enthusiastically prints and broadcasts what the government directs, minimizing or ignoring the voices of those who disagree or protest. Or, we can make it much simpler, this analysis of the media: in the seventies, many reporters had long hair and wore bad clothes, whereas the people they were covering did not: now both groups have the same haircuts and wear much the same outfits. They share the same aspirations and are, in the end, the same sorts of people, which explains why so many individuals move easily between the two realms, working first for one and then for the other.
4. A sense that the American educational experience strongly undergirds, in that almost all pedagogy from kindergarten to university-level these days emphasizes the benefits of students working in groups on collective projects over the far less preferable encouragement of individual intellectual achievement that stands at the core of all true critical thought. Schools love to talk about fostering creativity and individualism but in practice discourage both.