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The Moronic Media and Mass Psychosis

By: pagostino Sunday July 21, 2013 11:19 am

 

Why bother writing down anything at all when everything and everywhere about me there is nothing but images? I suppose it’s because it allows me to produce and re-produce my own thoughts. I’m also old enough to be somewhat suspicious of images, either graven or not.

There is a gem of a book written in 1961 by Daniel Boorstin called The Image or what happened to the American Dream.  He wrote:

Our discontent begins by finding false villains whom we can accuse of deceiving us. Next we find false heroes whom we expect to liberate us. The hardest, most discomfiting discovery is that each of us must emancipate himself. Though we may suffer from mass illusions, there is no formula for mass disenchantment.

Boorstin talks at length about the “pseudoevents” created by the News Media and techniques of generating attention and interest. He implies that public discourse  has devolved into a state which is dominated by illusions created by false images, that as a society we suffer “unwittingly from our own idolatry”. He fears that those images are keeping the population in check at the cost of subverting the principles of a democratically governed People.

The NSA analyzes communication information between individuals and tries to establish patterns that would allow them to predict dangerous activities, while the fixation on a single event like the Zimmerman trial serves to keep the attention on what could be argued was an isolated event -one charged with a long and tainted history of race relations and cultural misunderstandings.

It would be interesting to see the pattern shift in the communication mapping that occurs as different news stories are covered; perhaps they can detect a dangerous shift (for those in power)  when news stories of corruption and malfeasance or the questioning of spending priorities are aired. Could the information allow for a wonderful information feedback loop that allows Media moguls to tamp down on potential unrest? It doesn’t take a supercomputer to see the metadata  in not the contents of what the News Media cover but in what is not covered or for how long a particular story runs and reruns.

There is a passage from Anthony Everitt’s “The Rise of Rome” where Cicero approvingly attributes to Servius Tullius, the second founder of Rome the key to “taming the revolutionary forces of Democracy”,

[The king] put into effect the principle which ought always be adhered to in the commonwealth, that the greatest number should not  have the greatest power…While no one was deprived of the suffrage, the majority of votes was in the hands of those to whom the highest welfare of the State was the most important.

We would seem to be so enthralled (in its etymological meaning) on the reliance of large institutions to tell us what to pay attention to and for how long, that those with whom concern over matters of public policy is “most important” do not have to be overly concerned with the majority of votes. The  campaign being waged domestically is not military in nature so much as it is political and cultural. Which is not necessarily the worst condition to be in; I would much rather be subject to the interminably moronic political campaigns conducted on the propaganda air waves than those on the ground in a bloody civil strife as in Syria or other places in much more dire straits. But I would also like to think that there is the potential for living  in a more Just society.

Although there is no “formula” for a cure from the Mass Psychosis that is projected in the Moronic Media, a good start in developing one would be a personal regimen that includes less consumption of images and a healthy increase in reading, gardening, riding a bike, or whatever brings balance and health to both self and society.

 

 

The Politics of “fooled but not swindled”

By: pagostino Saturday June 8, 2013 8:06 am

In De Rerum Natura  the rationale used by governments to track all forms of communications between its citizens can be found in Lucretius’s poetic verse. Lucretius explains that “I write…

Clear verse about dark matters. This is not
A senseless affection; there’s reason to it.
Just as when doctors try to give to children
A bitter medicine, they rim the cup
With honey’s sweetness, honey’s golden flavor,
To fool the silly little things, as far
As the lips at least, so that they’ll take the bitter
Dosage, and swallow it down, fooled, but not swindled,
But brought to health again through double-dealing

When dark matters besiege our shores we are advised to go about our daily lives and be not troubled; go and shop at the mall, spend your money at the movies, games , and what ever brings you pleasure and distraction. For health to be restored and maintained, the Republic requires you to go about your life undisturbed and serenely oblivious to  matters that would arrest your normal activities.

Those in positions of political power will deal, or double-deal, with the bitter truth. That the President had to mention such unpleasantness after revelation about the scope and depth of the government’s activities in tracking, collating, and analyzing these very keystrokes I type, and a trillion others coursing through the ether with other images, voices, data , and “metadata”, is regrettable .

Arguments about the legality of the activity are almost besides the point, for laws can be written to make it illegal for both the pauper and the plutocrat to sleep on the park bench. More to the heart of the matter, is the role of the citizen qua citizen in a democracy. Implicit in the seemingly ever increasing secrecy that envelopes much of what the organs of our government like the NSA, CIA, and FBI and other agencies are engaged in,  is that the main function of the citizen is to  function as a drone, fulfilling our designated roles of producing and consuming and not question how these activities alter our freedoms and relationship to each other.

When those in power promote fables instead of the realities of the hard choices, the bitterness that comes in trade-offs between secrecy and security, privacy, protection of liberties, and shifting priorities, we are treated as “silly little things” to be taken care of by our more mature and capable leaders.

Perhaps they think the “dosage” would be too great. We’ve been fooled, but have we or have we not been swindled?

 

The Politics of Shyster-ism

By: pagostino Sunday March 17, 2013 8:53 am

 

I don’t recall coming across the term Shysterism in any of my political science classes back in my college days to describe a type of government that takes its meaning from the definition of the word Shyster:  “someone who acts in a disreputable, unethical, or unscrupulous way, especially in the practice of low politics or business.” The corruption in President Grant’s administration in the 1800’s covered in the many daily newspapers that used to exist (long since perished but re-emerging in the form of blogs), the muckraking of the early 1900’s, and other instances in American political history, suggest that there has always been shysters having a hand in government policy making .What seems unusual in the contemporary political scene, is that it has been institutionalized. Expectations of Congress are so low, that a good number of people feel that it is run by a bunch of Shysters who are shilling for corporate and other private interest to the harm of the collective and common interest. The for-profit media whose primary interest is financial gain and whose decision of what to cover and how to cover a story is carefully gauged so as to not upset those who provide access to power and revenue inflows have no motive to question the game itself, the “ism” as a whole, and are only interested in covering the dramatic interplay of the actors.

A Shyster is by no means of a foolish nature or lacking in intelligence. The defining quality has more to do with moral disposition in that it is skewed toward selfish ends. A shyster does not care one way or the other about seeking some common good, or desire to fulfill a vocation or calling. It reminds me of Coriolanus where Shakespeare uses the historical stage of Ancient Rome to dramatize the tensions between the patricians and plebeians. Menenius in responding to a Citizen who was a member of the OWS of the time tells him “..you slander the helms o’ the state, who care for you like fathers, when you curse them as enemies.”  The audience of Shakespeare day could believe that he was speaking from the heart whereas for the modern-day reader in the age of teleprompters, market research, and targeted single issue politics, it would ring hollow if placed in the mouth of one of our “honorable”  Senators. The Citizen’s response to Menenius seems to hold up better over time:

Care for us! True, indeed! They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their store-housed crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statues daily, to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us.”

(Listen to George Carlin’s 3 minute gem on “Care for us” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYIC0eZYEtI  )

The emergence of Pope Francis onto the world stage suggests the existence of a tradition that has the potential to elevate and inspire individuals out of a complacency that accepts Shysterism as the norm. Whatever the Pope may mean to you, I don’t think you could call him a Shyster. In Religion and the Rise of Capitalism  R.H. Tawney highlights the contribution of religion in Medieval times by acting as a counter balance to a world that was tilting ever more in the direction of earthly pursuits of money, power, and social status: The Church provided an alternate view in “…its insistence that society is a spiritual organism, not an economic machine, and that economic activity, which is one subordinate element within a vast and complex unity, requires to be controlled and repressed by reference to moral ends for which it supplies material means.”

From the donation of Constantine where supposedly the authority over Rome was transferred to the Church to the peace of Westphalia where secular governments reasserted their authority over the State, to the 1980’s  and its role in providing a public space for Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement, the Catholic Church has been a force in Western World politics. The degree to which it should engage with issues of public policy is going to elicit differing viewpoints, as it has in discussions of Archbishop Bergogolia’s role during the Pinochet years. In comparison with the brutal dictatorships and poverty in some parts of the world Shysterism in the U.S. seems like a benign tumor on the body politic, but something that needs treatment before it turns malignant.

Treachery of the Political Class

By: pagostino Sunday March 3, 2013 9:06 pm

http://www.flickr.com/photos/school_projects/3346086713/

 

Giuseppe Mazzotta, in his ninth lecture on the Divine Comedy  (http://oyc.yale.edu/italian-language-and-literature/ital-310) discusses Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia in connection with the disintegration of language that accompanies the pilgrim as he descends deeper into the pit of Hell. Dante’s “ethical map” in Canto XI includes a poetical  portrayal of fraud and treachery. As Professor Mazzotta points out, whereas fraud is found among the rhetorician and falsifier, the flatterer and the cheat, treachery involves the “deceptive violation of trust that others place in us.”

Human nature being what it is, you would expect to find fraud in large organizations, especially governmental bodies. What you would hope  is that the political class, the power elite, that so overwhelmingly control the direction that governments take  would be content with their fraudulent activities and not resort to treachery, as they have done with the  ”Sequestration.”  They know the severe suffering that cuts to social programs will cause on those who are least able to weather yet more economic stress and insecurity. They know this and yet they do it anyway – this  fits the definition of treachery. They have loosened the common bonds with their fellow man, they have betrayed the public trust and it’s time to call them out.

You can hear echoes of OWS and those who reject the need for austerity in Albert Einstein’s letter to Freud on the question of “Why War?”

            The craving for power which characterizes the governing class in every nation is hostile to any limitation…I have specifically in mind that small but determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interest and enlarge their personal authority….How is it possible for this small clique to bend the will of the majority, who stand to lose and suffer…An obvious answer to this question would seem to be that the minority, the ruling class at present, has the schools and press, usually the Church as well, under its thumb. This enables it to organise and sway the emotions of the masses, and make its tool of them…”

You will not hear words like “treachery” spoken in the banal conversation between Brooks and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s weakly (sic) Friday political round up or on other mainstream media outlets. Such words will only be spoken when someone finds the courage to turn the weak watered down language broadcast over the public airwaves into a strong, loud, and deafening  denunciation; A language is needed that that has the capacity to remove the blinds that have us believing that some magical invisible hand of the market place is at the root of our economic woes and not the treachery of a reigning political elite. A Machiavellian realpolitik that practices treachery in the international arena is bad enough, but when it comes home it is ever so much the worse.

It’s time turn away from those who would seek to interpret and construct our world through sterile and false language that conceals the truth – as embodied in Einstein’s question to Freud -  and turn to poets like Dante to find a  language that treats Fraud and Treachery for what it is and not in terms that Gordon Gekko would applaud.

 

From Canto XI

And fraud, whereby all consciences are bitten, one may employ against a man who trusts him, and ‘gainst a man who storeth up no trust. This latter kind of fraud would see to kill only the bond of love which Nature makes; hence in the second circle make their nest hypocrisy, and flatteries, and workers of magic, coining, theft and simony, panders and grafters, and such filth as these.

 

 

Leisurely Sunday Drive

By: pagostino Sunday January 27, 2013 9:33 am

A Sunday drive with the whole family packed together in the old station wagon staring out the back window at the yachts plying the inter-coastal waterway and pointing out to each other the palatial homes that sat on the beach shore as we drove north on AIA; stopping at McDonald’s for hamburgers and fries on the drive home and sitting outside on the tiled cement tables enjoying food as different from mom’s tallateli, melongene, or pasta e fagioli as the places we just drove through were from our own neighborhood, and thinking how it would feel to be sailing under a raised bridge out to an open sea as the cars waited for us to pass.

The leisurely Sunday drive seems like an historical moment gone by. With the price of fuel, congested traffic, and the desire to spend as little time in a car as possible there is little appetite for a leisurely drive. And even in those few moments when the family is all together driving to some destination or vacation, the kids are plugged into an exterior “iWorld” far from the interior private world of family (which may be a good thing if the family is dysfunctional - but that’s another story).

From the perspective of global warming and resource depletion and all the other untoward effects of oil the death of the leisurely Sunday drive may be a good thing, but from a social perspective I can’t help but think something has been lost.

To those familiar with the works of Richard Wolff and his economic analysis of the shift in prosperity from those at the bottom to those on the top beginning in the early 70’s and Chris Hedges on the weakening of  democratic institutions, it’s old hat that there has been a deterioration in the quality of life for which the political and power elites have yet to be held to account.  With Vietnam, urban blight, crime, and disco, the 70’s weren’t exactly idyllic and I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to them.  But it’s more than just nostalgia that makes me think that homo economicus is bringing homo sapien to his knees, that brute force will decide the outcome and that it is futile to raise a voice in protest to those who have no ears to hear.

Stranger in a Strange Land

By: pagostino Tuesday January 1, 2013 12:24 pm

In 1961 Robert A. Heinlein created the unforgettable character of Valentine Michael  Smith. My daughter, who is about the same age as I was when I first read Stranger in A Strange Land, gave me the new uncut version with 60K words that were edited out of the original as a Christmas present.  It was a delight traveling old and familiar roads again, discovering new details and meeting with characters still fresh in their novelty.

Much of what resonated when I read the book as a teenager in the late 70’s still resonates. Maybe it’s the genre itself that allows a free and easy  hand with certain subjects. You get the sense that Heinlein is having fun with his treatment of televangelist and commercialism. His painting of the old, wise, and crotchety Jubal is as an endearing and enduring  figure in Science Fiction as is  Issac Asimov’s  Hari Seldon.

The sociopolitical world of today is no less messed up now than it was when Heinlein wrote the book –  some would say worse in many respects. But the point and poignancy of the book  is not in the science fiction  portrayal of an outer world, a world of of technological marvels and descriptions of mind bending kinesthetic powers, but rather a portrayal of an inner world where an individual who was raised by other-worldly creatures at birth is then re-introduced into human society. The awkward struggle to develop an emotional rapport with his own kind is what drives the novel and deals with the question of what it means to be human. When Michael Smith is set upon by an overwhelming need to curl up within himself and withdraw, to fully “grok” what was experienced you can relate on some level.

With the increased frenetic  economic activity and the barrage of information it seems  more difficult to wait for something in its “fullness of time.” You sense the “wrongness” but seem incapable of counter acting it. The home as a “Nest,” analogous to that of a bird, a habitat where a “Nestling,” has a chance to progress at his own tempo, developing into a fully formed and moral human being, seems strange in an era of foreclosures and the struggle to make a mortgage payment.

The book reminded me that there was a time not long ago when the impulse for self-awareness and understanding – an “enfolding” a “sharing of water” in Valentine Michael Smith’s terms – moved many young readers to see the world around them somewhat differently than their parents. I hope it continues to do so.

Obama’s obfuscation, Freud, and Portugese bread

By: pagostino Thursday December 13, 2012 8:39 pm

Portugese sweet bread

At President Obama’s recent speech at a Michigan engine plan he stated that the right-to- work legislation being pushed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder is “more about politics than economics.” The same day saw headlines that his Administration shifted position  on accepting corporate donations and now is accepting up to $1 million dollars in corporate contributions.  We will have a Presidential inauguration sponsored and brought to you by economic interest. Is there a contradiction here, is this some kind of Orwellian doublespeak or is it just an innocuous coincidence?

Let’s say that the President simply made a superficial remark aimed at stoking up his autoworker union base. Does characterizing the battle taking place in Michigan as just “politics” and intimating that it is in no way tied to the wage rates a business will have to pay its workers, seem a wee bit disingenuous?  If you agree that there is more going on here than just “politics”, the President missed (or purposely avoided) laying it out in a substantive way – a way in which assumed a capacity on the part of the listener to comprehend the complex, instead of assuming that all that could be expected of the listener is a capacity to feel emotionally uplifted.  If it is too much in these times to expect meaningful explanations from political leaders and when the media only serves up the same reheated pablum, what is an isolated citizen to do?  If you tune into NPR news you are more likely to get a recipe for Portuguese bread, a review of the new Hobbit film, or a piece on the enduring appeal of Legos. No incite-ful news story is going to be heard driving home listening to NPR’s economic/entertainment show “Market Place?” Couldn’t  NPR at least occasionally go beyond the 3 minute attention-span-limiting format and do an in-depth feature? Would it be to much to expect at least a “lite” piece on the interplay between politics and economics.

It seems as though you are on your own; you have to do the homework on your own time. You are not going to get anything worthy of your time listening to the radio driving home. You might as well listen to those mp3 files you downloaded to get through the traffic delays. More than likely after a hard day at work, most people will eat dinner listening/watching the nightly news, put away the dirty dishes and try and draw a bit of release from some form of entertainment, which repeated en mass becomes a form of containment for that little bit of surplus social energy that could be put into progressive social action.

But there is a danger here if things persist. Maybe the political elites should get out their Freud primer. In The Future of an Illusion, Freud begins by laying out a view of life that begins on very basic economics principles and setting those up as a given, before proceeding on to the main topic of religion. Although he uses words like “envy” where a “sense of justice” would be more appropriate, and granted many terms and phrases are laden with psychoanalytical overtones that sound discordant to the modern ear, overall he seems to explain more about what is going on in Michigan than President Obama. Freud writes:

If we turn to those restrictions that apply only to certain classes of society, we must meet with a state of things which is flagrant and which has always been recognized. It is to be expected that these underprivileged classes will envy the favored ones their privileges and will do all they can to free themselves from their own surplus of privation. Where this is not possible, a permanent measure of discontent will persist within the culture concerned and this can lead to dangerous revolts. If, however, a culture has not got beyond a point at which the satisfaction of one portion of its participants depends upon the suppression of another, and perhaps larger, portion – and this is the case in all present-day cultures – it is understandable that the suppressed people should develop an intense hostility towards a culture whose existence they make possible by their work, but in whose wealth they have too small a share. In such conditions an internalization of the cultural prohibitions among the suppressed people is not to be expected. On the contrary, they are not prepared to acknowledge the prohibitions, they are intent on destroying the culture itself, and possibly even on doing away with the postulates on which it is based…It goes without saying that a civilization which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them to revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence.

So strikingly dissimilar in many respects and in approach to an atheistic Freud, Walter Rauschenbush in Christianizing the Social Order - a book very much within the early 20th century Social Gospel movement – points to an economic and political order that is similar to Freud. Rauschenbush writes:

In every social order…individuals rise to controlling positions and intrench (sic)  themselves in the places they have attained Their effort is to preserve for themselves and their children the power and wealth which they have acquired  Knowing the power of the State they seek to control politics. Knowing the power of public opinion, they influence the press and the schools. Their house is built on things as they are; therefore they are against any change – except change that will further fortify their position…The financial and political forces which the upper classes have been able to manipulate in all past eras have been enormous , and the skill with which they handled them was always the best that could be hired…we might expect considerations of justice and mercy to thaw through the icy indifference of class selfishness. But moral suasion is strangely feeble where the sources of a man’s income are concerned…The immense power wielded by the rich is an intoxicant that few can withstand permanently. Men defer to them, smooth their way for them, and make them the center of ever occasion. The morbid curiosity of the masses about their doings is unpleasant, but it is an expression of the sense of their importance….

 

When politicians and the mass media are unable or unwilling to speak intelligently and truthfully, when they speak to “audiences”, “target markets”, “consumers”, and not to citizens (in the Aristotelian sense – those who participate in the exercise of power), then it is time to stop applauding and repeating trite and misleading clips of speeches. Otherwise, we have to resign ourselves to baking bread, watching the Hobbit and playing with Legos – all of which I plan to do while I still can…

Father Zossima and the modern doctrine of the world

By: pagostino Friday December 7, 2012 3:59 pm
Fyodor Dostoyevsky - The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoyevsky - The Brothers Karamazov

 

Recently I was given an unabridged copy of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Although I have had the  ”authoritative modern abridgment” by Edmund Fuller version for many years, a version dog eared and worn for having been read and reread, I never thought to seek out the complete work.

Once I began reading it, I was struck by just how much was omitted and how those omissions seemed to speak to me.  One passage in particularly seemed to jump out and thought worth reproducing at some length since, like myself, most people only read the abridged version.

The passage comes from the section titled Conversations and Exhortations of Father Zossima (e) The Russian monk and his possible significance. In it, Father Zossima contrasts the everyday orientation of the lay person with that of the devout monk. He points to the then newly emerging  faith in science and progress to contrast with the faith of the monk. For the lay person:

 

They have science; but in science there is nothing but what is the object of sense. The spiritual world, the higher part of man’s being is rejected altogether, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says:

“You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don’t be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.” That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means for satisfying their wants …

…Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. They have dinners, visits, carriages, rank and slaves to wait on one is looked upon as a necessity, for which life, honor and human feelings are sacrificed, and men even commit suicide if they are unable to satisfy it. We see the same thing among those who are rich, while the poor drown their unsatisfied need and their envy in drunkenness. But soon they will drink blood instead of wine, they are being led to it. I ask you is such a man free?

…it’s no wonder that instead of gaining freedom they have sunk into slavery, and instead of serving the cause of brotherly love and the union of humanity have fallen, on the contrary, into dissension and isolation and therefore the idea of the service of humanity, of brotherly love and the solidarity of mankind, is more and more dying out in the world, and indeed this idea is sometimes treated with derision. For how can a man shake off his habits, what can become of him if he is in such bondage to the habit of satisfying the innumerable desires he has created for himself? He is isolated, and what concern has he with the rest of humanity? They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.