Retirement address: All we have to do is open our eyes
In February of 2005 we lost Hunter S. Thompson, one of the brightest lights of his generation. In eulogizing him, I concluded this way:
Although I never heard him say it in these words, Hunter S. Thompson I think understood the artificial Red/Blue, Conservative/Liberal divide that most Americans seem to have bought into for the cynical construction that it is – a rhetorical fluff job that turns Americans with common cause against each other and that serves the power elites in both parties to the detriment of the public they take turns fleecing.
There was a divide, in Thompson’s world – no doubt about that – but it wasn’t Left/Right, it was Top/Bottom. He was a working man born in the borderlands of the rapidly (and sometimes violently) evolving mid-century South, and his reporting reflects an unfailing empathy for those who spent most of their lives scrambling for a foothold on the lower rungs of the political and economic ladder. The rich and powerful were usually cast as evil, soulless swine, and his sense of social and moral justice provided countless column inches to individuals and groups who’d been ignored or silenced by a society that cared way more about money than justice.
In short, Hunter Thompson was a champion of the common people. Yes, his reporting was so crazed at times that you couldn’t be sure if you were reading an eyewitness account or a drug-addled hallucination. But he remained to the end one of the most unswervingly ethical reporters of our generation, a man whose commitment to social justice and the public good trumped everything.
I announced my retirement from political writing yesterday, and as I move on to whatever comes next I find myself reflecting back on the good doctor and these three paragraphs. As I suggested in my HST tribute, America’s great red/blue divide, which has grown more pronounced and vitriolic in recent years, is a meticulously crafted put-up job; it is, in short, one of the most successful divide-and-conquer schemes in history.
It’s like when they stage an American football game in Japan. The spectators have no familiarity at all with the game or the teams, so to promote a little atmosphere half the fans are assigned to one team as they enter the stadium and the other half to their opponents. These two identical sets of people adopt their assigned partisan identities and cheer like they actually know the difference between the Giants and the Eagles.
I’m not pretending that the Tea Party and the progressives aren’t different in some key ways. Their views on social equity are at odds, for instance. But it’s important to understand that people who disagreed on social issues managed to live side by side and even be friends for a very long time before some hyper-wealthy types realized that they needed to round up a voting bloc if they were going to establish any kind of sustainable hegemony friendly to their political economic interests. Conservatives and liberals, who collectively agreed on 99.9% of everything, didn’t realize how badly they hated each other until these neo-feudalist lords began dumping vast sums of money into convincing them that the other .01% is all that matters.
So, before I go, I need to make a point or two.
- Progressives think corporations are the devil. They’re right.
- The Tea Party thinks government is the devil. They’re right.
What a good chunk of today’s “left” and a vast majority of the “right” fail to grasp is this simple formula: corporations = government. Thanks to a variety of cleverly engineered policies, including corporatized media ownership (including tax structures that drove the consolidation of newspapers); business tax structures that allow companies making billions of dollars to pay no taxes (and to “offshore” their assets in a clever shell game); personal tax structures that have ushered us to the point where the richest 400 Americans have as much as the poorest 50% of the population; the destruction of any sense of a public interest and the wholesale deification of predatory capitalist ideology; unlimited private money in the campaign finance cycle; big-money lobbying and the swinging door between “regulators” and the industries they pretend to ride herd on; the well-funded ascendance of movement conservatism; and the systematic dismantling of public education (especially its mission to engender critical thinking skills), the actual distinction today between the corporate elite and the government whose interests it serves is nonexistent.
I remember marveling at the power of the identity machine back during the 1992 election. It was then that we started seeing poor Southern whites saying “I like Bush – he’s the kind of guy I could have a beer with.” They identified more closely with the patrician Northeastern Skull & Bones Yalie than they did with the hillbilly boy from Arkansas. I’m not here to defend Bill Clinton, who played an integral role in transforming the Democratic Party into the GOP Lite abomination it is today, but how cocked does a society have to be when everyone in Hope Mobile Meadows thinks Poppy Goddamned Bush is more like one of them than the kid down the street?
Lest you think I’m only here to beat up conservatives, let’s also look at the obscenely pro-Wall Street economic policies of one Mr. Barack Obama and ask ourselves the same sorts of identity questions about African-American voters who think he represents them.
While I’m not a Marxist, it’s impossible to deny that their scholars have given us some incredibly useful tools for understanding what’s going on in our late Capitalist society. The one that’s most applicable to our present conundrum is false consciousness.
“False consciousness” is a concept derived from Marxist theory of social class. The concept refers to the systematic misrepresentation of dominant social relations in the consciousness of subordinate classes. Marx himself did not use the phrase “false consciousness,” but he paid extensive attention to the related concepts of ideology and commodity fetishism. Members of a subordinate class (workers, peasants, serfs) suffer from false consciousness in that their mental representations of the social relations around them systematically conceal or obscure the realities of subordination, exploitation, and domination those relations embody.
In other words, people believe things are one way when they’re actually another. For example, most Americans believe the US has a free market system, when in fact it’s regulated in ways that favor one industry over another or in some cases, certain companies fortunate enough to have powerful friends in Washington.
AT&T had it made in the aftermath of the 1996 Telecom Act, in no small part due to certain cushy relationships with FCC regulators and VP Al Gore. The regional Bells trying to compete against AT&T? They knew going in they were going to lose every time because the government was in AT&T’s pocket, and citizens living on the wrong side of the digital divide were screwed.
And what about the Big Tech-loving hash that is our patent infringement system? I hope Google hasn’t laid legal claim to the term “Big Tech,” or I could be hearing from their lawyers later this afternoon.
The harsh reality of the US economy is that it’s thoroughly gamed and rigged, and anyone who asks you to believe otherwise is either ignorant or they’re lying to you.
We also love hearing that we’re “free.” Sadly, we have been seduced into understanding freedom in its negative context. “Negative liberty” focuses on whether or not someone is actively preventing you from doing something. Since the government has no laws forbidding poor black women from becoming CEOs or senators or even president, then they’re free to do so. The problem is that the US is rife with systemic structures and dynamics that mitigate against poor black women becoming CEOs or presidents. Cultural and institutional racism, appalling educational and economic opportunities in urban and Southern rural communities, etc.
It adds up to no, there isn’t a law against it, but a bright young girl in North Philly isn’t competing on a level playing field, either.
The concept of “positive liberty” takes a view more focused on assuring opportunity. In this paradigm, we can’t really say that X is free to do Y if the system doesn’t afford proactive support and opportunity.
Yes, positive liberty has a dark side. Conservatives like to accuse efforts at promoting equality of opportunity of really being about enforcing equality of outcome, at which point we’re deep into the Randian weeds. (For a fun, satirical look at positive liberty run amok, by all means give Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” a read.)
These concerns are not unfounded. It isn’t hard to imagine a slippery bureaucratic slope between the pursuit of equal opportunity and a mandate for equal outcome. Of course, what political/economic goal isn’t open to corruption and abuse? In the end, the fear of a Harrison Bergeron world is less concerning than the false conciousness-inducing ideology of negative freedom that our power elites today use to slant the playing field in their direction.
The poor and the working classes seem to gravitate toward one pole or another. If they magically awoke tomorrow morning freed from their false consciousness, we’d be living in a dramatically different world by nightfall. It wouldn’t be a perfect world, I’m sure, but we’d have taken a few steps in the direction of greater social justice.
I have been known to say that I’m not here to tell you what to think. If people educate themselves and commit to thinking critically about our world, I trust things to work out okay. I say this because I have a great deal of faith in education. Those who know my personal history understand why I think this: I’m a prime case study.
Of course, over the past six years I probably have told people what to think a time or two. As I indicated in my post yesterday, it’s been a frustrating run, and it drives me bonkers when people can’t or won’t see the truth right in front of them. While there are some profoundly evil geniuses wreaking havoc on everything they touch these days, the sad fact is that bad smart people don’t cause a fraction of the mischief that ignorant good people do. The old adage that you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time fails to articulate the crucial role of education and critical thought in the equation. Stated more precisely, you can fool a dummy nearly all of the time and you’ll very rarely fool the smart and thoughtful.
This is why, even though I have almost never employed the vocabulary of Marxism, I have worked hard as a political blogger to help readers see through their false consciousness, to understand the ways in which those they trust are lying to them and manipulating them in ways that damage their chances for a better life, and to recognize how the political and economic dynamics they confront every day are structured to hamstring their pursuit of success.
I haven’t been trying to say that “you’re stupid.” I’ve been trying, perhaps not always effectively, to say that “you don’t have to be stupid – open your eyes and use your intelligence.” I’m a simple kid from the working class North Carolina outback and I learned my way out of the muck. I know that others can, too, and I know that if enough of them do that not only will they be better off, we all will.
Starting Sunday S&R will be publishing The New Constitution. It represents a roadmap to a future less plagued by those who’d hold the people – conservatives, moderates, libertarians, liberals, and everything else along the way – down for their own selfish interests. I’m sure it won’t be perfect, so I’ll be inviting thoughtful feedback on how to strengthen it as we go.
I may be retiring from politics, but I’ll never stop caring deeply about my country and fellow citizens.