Smiling faces or Rhesus Sardonicus...?
Back in the mid 1990s, as my contracts in the Middle East were about to end, I thought about my past decades of rewarding experience as an expatriate American that I had so much enjoyed and benefitted from. I also thought about the fact that very soon I’d be returning to the United States. Given the greatly broadened awareness my expatriate work has provided me, I wasn’t exactly overjoyed by this last prospect.
Today, some 14 years after my reentry I’m still not overjoyed. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the advantages we Americans take for granted in comparison to many other less-privileged nations. It’s not that I don’t value or take pride in America’s great potential and it’s not that I can’t recognise my good fortune in being protected by many uniquely American liberties and rights that others may only dream about. My lack of enthusiasm over being once more on American soil relates in major part to the failed potential America has demonstrated in its recent decades of social and cultural development. Call it failed potential, call it ill-used opportunity, or, if you really don’t mind stepping on a few august political fingers, call it malignantly out-of-control capitalist materialism. Whatever you call it, America is clearly on the downward slope of the cultural mountain and the future we face will never be as optimistic or as full of as yet unrealised greatness as the past 50 years have witnessed.
As I have often said, hypocrisy is as much an American institution as personal and religious freedom. And so, at least from about 1900 onwards, is insidious subjugation of the American people by heartless, impersonal corporate commercial powers that suck the life and spirit out of its masses. I was sitting in my study just a few days ago, reflecting on all this for the millionth time as I reached for a second glass of liquid CNS anaesthesia…in this case a particularly fine 2007 California Sierra Nevada Foothills Barbera produced by the Renwood winery. Exercising extreme self-control, I fought off the urge to drown my brain cells in ETOH, recognizing that slow-motion self-destruction is not a productive way of dealing with the recognition that America is truly and totally f***ed beyond repair.
That is unfortunate in a certain sense, since I have a feeling that I would make a dandy alcoholic if I gave myself half a chance. Regrettably, ETOH affects me in ways that render it an all but useless escape mechanism for the purpose of dulling my raw senses and aesthetic appreciations. My metabolism interacts with ETOH in most unhappy ways, not least of them being a tendency to become severely depressed several days after imbibing what for most would be merely a single large glass of wine. My metabolism has always been funny like that and it remains one of my greatest regrets that I can’t even become a successful alcoholic like most others (and reap all the rewards consequent, like end stage kidney failure, progressive brain deterioration, severe GI system defects, and eventually perhaps even the Big Sleep itself), since I am and have long been a great appreciator of oenology. Wine in moderate quantity remains one of the greatest pleasures life affords us, in my opinion, but like all things when taken to extremes, it eventually ends up being counterproductive. Hence the self-imposed act of restraint when faced by the remaining two-thirds of a bottle of 2007 Renwood Barbera a few days ago that sat on my study’s desk.
I recall I had gotten home from the office, walked Sooka, my big male Siberian Husky (I lost the other guy rather unexpectedly a month ago to sudden cardiac arrest), and was sitting in the family room watching the news. From 5 PM to 5:30 PM each day the local TV channels all have their primary daily news programming recap, and at 6 PM the national network news (CBS, NBC, ABC) programs all air. PBS follows everyone else with their national summary of news at 7 PM.
As one of the local news anchors, a perfectly coiffed and attractive young woman with a handsome set of lungs, launched into the day’s ‘noteworthy’ events, I found myself mulling over the fact that in our present age, ‘local news’ generally doesn’t amount to much more than a chronicle of the latest murders, drive-by shootings, gang activities, civic outrages, offset by what I call ‘happy stories’...usually an emotionally syrupy ‘Aw gee!’ story about some local up-lifting community do-gooder, an expectant mother, or a local ‘hero’.
Clearly, it’s the usual formula of depressingly sensationalistic crap and tawdry, highly emotional drivel aimed mostly at barely qualifiable adult individuals with the mentality of a teenager; for someone like myself, it’s almost worse than alcohol for its capability to induce depression. It’s hard to overlook the fact that almost all of the anchors appear to be chosen principally for their wholesome, natural sexiness (or in the case of the females, their ‘overt sexiness’); a clearly contrived sense of totally false compassion literally oozes from their words like saturated fat from frying bacon strips as they recite the latest community outrage or international disaster. “Yes, Heather, it’s a real tragedy about all those poor thousands of Japanese earthquake victims, isn’t it? (shakes teased blonde curls and briefly grimaces with forced sympathy before continuing with the next juicy item of local community sleeze activity). In other news, in the State Capitol today…”
By the time the national news summary begins, my head is so saturated by today’s recitations of all the abysmal local acts of stupidity and ignorance in our community that I can barely stay in the room, but I have managed to hang on in hopes of hearing something other than what I know and expect is coming and keep the TV on. This state is not at all helped by the fact that most so-called newscasts now seem to be in the habit of breaking for a commercial advertisement after every storyline (“And when we come back…”). Given that the usual ‘story’ is about 5 minutes long, this means that the half hour news program ends up about only 2/3rd news and the remaining 10 minutes consists of dreadfully irritating and highly annoying ‘messages’ (among the worst offenders at the moment: The Progressive Insurance Company and Geico ‘Gekko’ commercials). The only logical defense against all the verbal shit that is foisted off on viewers at such moments is a rigorous push of the MUTE button on the remote, since once the hard-core verbal component of the message is removed, watching a silent commercial is almost entertaining (think: silent movie without subtitles). Barring the sudden acquisition of God-like powers capable of striking offenders dead in their tracks at the studio on a whim, the MUTE button has become my best friend in getting through these regular evening crap/drivel/dreck ordeals.
Of course, given the consequences (QED) this recurrent nightly barrage of insanely trivial ‘info-garbage’, one can’t help but wonder why one even bothers to watch the ‘news’ anymore. I’ve gone over that question many times and I think in my case at least it’s because I seemingly haven’t anything better to do. Human beings were, sadly enough, developmentally cursed by the forces of evolution with a frontal lobe that not only permits but encourages reflective rationalisation (or the ability to think about and analyse events and circumstances we experience). The prevalent common opinion is that reasoning ability is a positive survival asset that helps set us homo sapiens apart from and higher up on the scale of evolutionary development than lower orders of animals, but in my opinion it’s more of a curse in view of our tendency to search obsessively for higher, abstract aesthetic meanings in everything.
Given the daily routine that characterises most American lives (the ones lucky enough to have gainful jobs, that is), daily life is typically exquisitely dull, unrelievedly boring and disinterestedly repetitive to an extreme matched only by physical labor in a salt mine. One gets up in the morning, throws down some calories, fights traffic to get to the office, copes with the typical day’s agenda of idiocy and organized occupational lunacy, fights the traffic to get home, consumes more calories and retires for the night, only to rise again the next day to repeat the awful cycle anew. Despite the insufferable rhythmicity of this cycle, there is generally an interval of several hours between dinner and bedtime each day that offers a small breathing space for discretionary activity. Most will watch TV, a few might read, some may go out and exercise or play with the kids, while many while away those hours on the computer, but in almost every case, the most frequently availed means of dissipating those precious few uncommitted hours of discretionary freedom takes the form of watching TV programming. Whether ‘free’ broadcasting or via subscription cable/satellite viewing, some form of televised media reception is the usual norm.
That is presuming one lives in an area where it isn’t dangerous to go outside, walk on the streets, or otherwise ‘exist’ openly outside one’s home for a while, however briefly. When the neighborhood is downright hazardous to circulate freely in, the baleful eye of the Great Tube is almost invariably the only court of resort available to alleviate boredom. The advertisers and multi-national commercial corporations know this only too well and figuratively regard the viewers as little mindless robots awaiting their programming instructions, with all the compassion of a homicidal sadist eying his bound captive. Of course the viewers are not usually given to consider themselves from that standpoint as they uncritically tune into the dreck that constitutes typical ‘free’ broadcast evening programming.
Once upon a time (several decades ago), when paid-subscribers to ‘cable TV’ chose cable access as an promising new alternative to the increasing mediocrity of commercial broadcasting’s ‘free’ regular programming, they tended to maintain a fairly smug sense of self-regard, since for a set fee they could benefit from having a number of interesting channels available for viewing without all that annoying advertising. But as the years went by, cable television began to sell advertising time on their private cable networks to corporate commerce until today, cable and satellite media networks carry as much or more commercial advertising as the regular network ‘free’ programming. The irony of this nasty twist of the corporate profits dagger has, of course, been entirely lost on the typical television viewer who generally lives the intellectual life of a lower order herd animal (an ox perhaps, but certainly NOT a pig, since pigs are smarter than the average adolescent human). Eschewing the capability to think and react intelligently while happily watching anything and everything that the corporations think is sufficiently beneficial to their profit margins to fund, mindless viewing becomes the norm for the majority. In this context, lowest common denominator rules obtain, with the result that the horrifically stupid levels of viewable content mirror a shared demographic target value that approximates high-school graduates who lack the ability to think beyond their end of the hand-held cell-phone devices (or laptops) they are permanently bonded to.
Consider also that despite the clever little ‘limited offers’ that promise a potential cable/dish viewer a special two-year reduction in subscription rates as a ‘come-on’ sweetener, cable (and dish) network subscriber prices continue to climb year after year, as statistics clearly demonstrate. With the proliferation of broadband packages now being offered, it isn’t long before the average household on one or the other of these ‘alternative’ network plans ends up paying well over US$ 100-300 a month in fees and charges. Thus, although the potential access to a wide range of viewing channels is alluringly attractive, all those happy ‘consumers’ (my absolute favorite word) are now actually paying commercial corporations their hard-earned money to watch their noisome and mind-rotting commercial advertising. It’s enough to drive an analysis prone rocket scientist insane, but then…when were television viewers ever rocket scientists (for that matter, when were rocket scientists ever TV viewers…)?
Years ago, back when television programming was ONLY available on public commercial networks, I made the personal decision NOT to avail cable programming. Today, looking back on that decision and the evidence of how the cable/dish companies have steadily continued to eat their subscribers’ already endangered remaining brains, I am quite content to remain with the old fashioned public ‘free’ broadcast programming, since the wretched nature of what’s viewable therein is sufficient incentive to encourage me to watch only a minimal amount of its fare (thus far amounting to the few regular daily evening news programs and an occasional program of interest on PBS). Now that local news casting quality has dropped to the level of petri-dish slime mold, even that small amount of interest has dropped off to the point where the CBS/NBC/ABC national evening news programs are the sole semi-appealing viewing venues of any merit worthy of consideration (and just barely).
After years of slavishly remaining loyal to the concept of the ‘evening news’, I have almost reached the point where the commonly bastardised concept of what constitutes ‘news’ no longer has any merit for me to me as potentially useful and/or instructively packaged intelligence. Local news programs have long since dropped off the scale of worthiness for the previously alluded-to reasons, but let’s face it, when a local news channel is so desperate for something to blather endlessly on about that it hires no less than five meteorologists (four of them curvy, buxom bimbos, albeit with meteorology degrees) and dedicates a full ten minutes to discussion of miniscule temperature differences of a few degrees between adjacent communities (and at least several more, promoting the merits of their God-awfully expensive-to-operate private ‘news-copter’), it’s likely long past time to end any association whatsoever with their particular form of oral public media infotainment diarrhea.
That leaves me with a perplexing dilemma: what to do after dinner? I can’t read then, because reading is an activity that takes peaceful surroundings and a full charge of brain cells (and a typical day at the office very quickly empties the personal Leyden-Jar of its total galvanic potential). You can only pet the dog so long before he starts to resent all the excessive attention (Siberian Huskies have a limited tolerance for close physical interaction with their humans; it’s an expression of their naturally dignified austerity that I very much appreciate, when compared to the slavish devotions of some other, more unreservedly fawning breeds) and encouraging unconstrained interactions with the Heinz-57 neighbors hereabouts, by walking around after dark is not generally productive (you’re more likely to be perceived as an ill-intentioned intruder by some of the more trigger-happy paranoid homeowners, passing by on the dark streets). Unfortunately, answering email and surfing the internet are neither enriching nor rewarding for someone who has spent a good part of the entire day doing this at the office. So, what to do?
Not much, as it turns out. The choices are 1) either get zonked on Renwood 2007 Barbera, or 2) go to bed early and sleep off the awkward surfeit of scant free time accrued before one’s normal bedtime. Neither alternative is a particularly good solution to the problem (for reasons already explained) and that leads me to reflect further on the greater challenge we contend with in our modern American culture that forces this state of affairs upon us.
The cause of this unhappy status quo (whereby we all work at the office, then return home each evening to hunker down protectively in our personal ‘safe-house’ until the start of the next day’s routine) is our American way of life itself….that brain-sucking socio-economic mothering machine we have created for ourselves in which our only two meaningful personal life fulfillment choices are to either produce or consume goods. Produce at the office and consume at home. In a nation that has over the past century transformed itself into a remorseless economic monster that spawns a corporate overclass of commercial, corporate manipulators of our collective wealth and an underclass of material consumers of products funded, produced and distributed by those manipulators, there is no longer any room left for truly reflective assessment of the quality of the highly organized, programmed and regimented lives we all lead. In other words, there’s hardly any leeway left to us for quiet personal meditation on whether our mad culture of unconstrained material consumption and frantic economic productivity is good for us or not (and trust me, at least in any spiritual sense it is NOT). Offer the typical younger individual a choice of whether to blather insipidly to friends on a cellular communication device or to spend a half hour of so quietly regarding life and all its natural possibilities and, no surprise, it’s a nolo contendre prospect (blather-blather-blather, etc.).
Aside from the present expression of America’s open-door immigration policy (a politically correct contemporary updating of the old early 1900s ‘melting-pot’ concept that has led to diffuse ethnic fragmentation and cultural polarization of the national demographic instead of the much ballyhooed ‘blessings of diversity’ we’re constantly hearing about), it is America’s inherent entrepreneurial impetus that is chiefly responsible for the widespread urban anomie that I have referred to above. Before one asks ‘How is that possible?’, consider if you will the fact that America’s entire socio-economic model has developed in concentric rings around the philosophy of individualism (versus social ‘collectivism’). Thus, modern America has become simply a technologised and institutionalised extension of the same ‘rugged individualism’ that helped it expand to fill the boundaries of the continent from east to west. In that model, as informally realised, each individual was traditionally encouraged to self-actualise and rise to his/her highest level of personal wealth and success. This process might have been inconsequential, perhaps even commendable, had not change reared its ugly head in the form of the rise of science and technology and the exponentially expanded opportunities to profit thereby.
As America’s economy grew exponentially with the onset of the industrial revolution, along with it came the laws of incorporation, which granted the same legal status to commercial business as that enjoyed by the individual private citizen. Utilising all of the complexities of what I call the ‘legal profession industry’ (i.e. the practice of law), corporate commercial companies soon rose to a position wherein they wielded immense power in their pursuit of wealth, and the attitude of laissez faire capitalism predominated at all levels of local, state and national civic enterprise. ‘Self regulation’ became the norm, based upon the outrageously convenient assumption that individuals and corporations would inherently auto-maintain the highest ethical and moral standards in their activities, due to the nation’s tradition of strong religious (Christian) principles that castigated all immoral, illegal or behaviorally deceitful activity as ‘sinful’ (and thereby unacceptable). It was a very convenient assumption, indeed, and one which was both specious and self-cosseting for the new corporations. As a willing partner in helping the corporations rise to their present level of massive influence, we can thank the ‘legal profession’, since attorneys and their legal expertise are easily and routinely ‘bought’. Of course, when ‘law’ is paid for by profit-making corporate powers, ‘justice’ becomes an archaic and meaningless concept; concerns with ‘right/wrong’ are thereby reduced to the rather simple concept of ‘that which can be gotten away with, while remaining within the constraints of civil and criminal codes’. The net result of this ethic of ‘moral self-regulation’ is not all that different than putting a child in charge of a candy shop. The same result accrues (although in a candy shop the consequences are usually chocolate covered, whereas in the business world they are measured in the misuse of billions of dollars) as surely as Jalapeno peppers hurt twice....
Of course, as history has demonstrated over and over again, human ethics and morality are as variable as the weather and the pursuit of wealth and power, whether carried out on the individual or corporate level will invariably ignore the basics of right/wrong moral concepts whenever there is a significant potential to acquire great wealth and/or power by ignoring them. Against this backdrop (linked to the hard-wired characteristics of human nature), for-profit corporate activities today further pit the wealthy and powerful against the poor and weak by using the vast array of highly sophisticated coercive economic forces (chiefly advertising and marketing resources) to socialise (a less kind term popular in the 1950s would be ‘brainwash’) the lower classes to embrace wholeheartedly the concept of unbridled, reflexive consumerism. The results of this nuance of American economic ‘enslavement’ may be seen everywhere we look, with perhaps the most disturbing current example being advances in wireless (cellular) communications technology (micro-electronics) and hardware that quickly render the very latest products obsolete and impotent in less than a year from release (thereby opening up whole new markets...again).
Further using their primary weapon of science-based technology to exploit the inherent human fascination with tools (the opening scene of Arthur C. Clarke’s timeless 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind, wherein a group of primates discover the use of bones as weapons), corporations now flood barely thoughtful minds of immature consuming individuals (i.e. adolescents and adults with arrested adolescent awareness) with a dazzling superfluity of material products to choose from and consume. Recent behavioral science studies have tended to suggest that as the number of choices a human being has been given increases, that person’s ability to make wise choices (and react intelligently) diminishes inversely. Very quickly the dynamic we know as ‘information overload’ (in this case, diffuse material products availability) soon renders the average person little more than a continuously reactive and thoughtless machine, since there’s little time for cogent reflection (and that’s even assuming a person HAS that capability to begin with). When these deliberate efforts to ‘train’ consumers to make predetermined choices take form in audiovisual marketing and advertising programs (i.e. your typical television ‘message’), the result is predictable to a great degree: total surrfender of thoughtfulness to unconstrained, reactive material consumption.
Thus, returning to my central thesis, the modes of expression available for those of us who are (like everyone else) caught up in the daily cycle of eat/work/recreate/sleep are not only severely limited to those carefully predetermined for us by powerful corporate commerce entities, they are unsuited for anyone who insists on demanding that a substantial degree of intelligence be incorporated into human affairs (put another way, anyone who spends at least part of his or her conscious hours reflecting intelligently on aesthetic aspects of his/her given life finds that a life of almost incessant and unrelenting production and consumption, that is unattended by thoughtlessness, is unacceptable and largely devoid of intrinsic meaning).
And thus it is, also, that as the forces of demographic fragmentation and polarization have joined with rampant American capitalist materialism to force us all into these ineffably meaningless life cycles we maintain in this country (already detailed), the only thing one may do (quite often) is to flip on the television to waste away those few scant hours that span the ‘end of work and ‘start of bedtime’ marks. Not without its own delicious irony, the act of sitting there and absorbing all the market-driven audiovisual ‘messages’ and contrived mental vacuity of television programming merely further reinforces the exhausting sense of emptiness that many like myself face at these moments.
Returning briefly to the deliberations in my life those 14 or more years ago (when I contemplated facing a return to this uniquely American form of ‘mind control’ that American capitalism and its marketing forces have forced upon our nation’s inhabitants), I felt quite unhappy over the prospect. Of course, there was really no alternative, since for various reasons that don’t merit iteration here I had no other choice. Not surprisingly, it took less than a month after my return to American shores before the dreadful emptiness that American life comprises made itself felt in full force. That awareness has remained with me to this day, more than a decade and a half later, and at particularly low moments each day feels like yet another battle lost in the effort to resist having one’s brain turned into vanilla custard pudding (by the onslaught of aesthetic vacuousness that suffocates the shit out of American culture).
The sight of all those insincere and falsely contrived smiles on the faces of the perfect models that everywhere hawk products and services in advertising is usually more than enough to make my gorge rise involuntarily. Add that effect to all the smarmingly insincere visages of news anchors who flash their perpetually perfect, white toothy grins at us in rote recapitulations of the day’s homicides, murders and so forth, and it makes that bottle of 2007 Renwood Barbera seem an almost reasonable general anaesthetic to consider using regularly. At ‘off’ moments like this, when I pause to think about the dull and empty futility that daily American life forces upon us, I can’t help but wonder if anyone else among our 300+ million native and illegal inhabitants of America ever has similar thoughts.
Naturally enough, I am well aware that my ponderings and ruminations are all but lost at sea and drowned in the oceans of apathy that well up within the states of collective anomie that submerge public awareness in America. Being a voice in the wilderness has never been fun, not for the semi-mythical ‘John the Baptist’ of ancient Christian legend or for any modern non-believing, secular counterpart. For their part, the dark forces of American materialism in combination with the unholy dualism of corporate commerce and marketing are far too deeply entrenched in our way of life to ever be fully arrested, successfully deflected, or surgically excised before the ‘great American experiment’ finally succumbs to its own hypocritical lust for power and wealth and eventually collapses from its rotten core outwards. What is especially tragic is that America’s exemplary principles of individual freedom and liberty have been so thoroughly prostituted by those same philistine economic factors referenced that the word ‘democracy’ will likely never recover from this insult to its original higher and purer state of philosophical sanctity.
And so, I’ll likely continue to sit here and amuse myself stupidly by fixating on the really spectacular set of lungs that rhesus sardonicus afflicted female news bimbo sports as she describes the lurid details pursuant to the latest case of child molestation in our neighborhood.
America…ya gotta love it! Coming soon to a theatre near you!