Friday, June 28, 2013

A stroll through power - Part 3

I went to the library yesterday and picked up a copy of Howard Kurtz's Spin Cycle - Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine (The Free Press, 1998).  Then I read several reviews of the book as I paged through it.  A few quotes from the opening pages:

[Clinton's publicity staff] were engaged in a daily struggle to control the agenda, to seize the public's attention, however fleetingly, for Clinton's wide ranging activities.  They had to manage the news, to package the presidency in a way that people would buy the product.  (p. xix)

In recent years the modern practice of spin has come to occupy a sort of gray zone between candor and outright falsehood.  Larry Speakes kept a sing on his desk:  "You don't tell us how to stage the news and we won't tell you how o cover it."  It was a revealing motto, for the Reagan administration revolutionized the staging of news, devoting enormous energy to selecting a story of the day and providing television with the pictures to illustrate it.  (pp. xxi-xxii)

The mundane reality of White House life was that the top players spent perhaps half their time either talking to the press, plotting press strategy, or reviewing how their latest efforts had played in the press.  They did not let Clinton have the briefest exposure to journalists without rehearsing what he would say to this or that question, lest he serve up an unscripted sound bite that would mar the day's story line.  (p xxiv)

These quotes are just from the introduction.  In the reviews, there are those who defend the White House and those who defend the press (both of whom come off badly in this account of constant, mutual, and cynical manipulations), those who admire the efficacy of the presidential spin staffs, those who embed their critiques in the studied amorality of political-science-speak, those who are pro-Clinton and anti-Clinton, and those who decry the corruptions of politics.  Only in the latter case is there anything coming close to a criticism of manipulation itself, and in those cases, there is a kind of Ambrose Bierce standpoint of wry acceptance.

In the same way we are all immersed in and acculturated to the lifeless abstractions of quasi-moral speech in today's bureaucratic polis, we have all been, to one degree or another, habituated to the acceptance of moral instrumentalism in politics - of the manipulative purposes of propaganda.  We not only accept it, we have established university tracks for those who want to make successful careers in propaganda.

Christians, I maintain, ought not to stand silent before this public reality.  If ever there were a cultural struggle to be engaged by followers of Jesus, I would think standing opposed to and exposing a culture of mass-manipulation, a culture in which manipulation is accepted and practiced almost as a matter of day-to-day survival, is that struggle.  One reason we have such contradictory points of view on sex (and anachronistic guidelines), for example, is that we haven't seriously engaged the question of manipulative versus non-manipulative relations - which could shed important light on all those questions related to sex... and money... and power.

Manipulation has become invisible in the same way water is invisible to fish.

Children are trained to seek external rewards (or escapes from punishment) for doing things correctly.  Make your bed and I'll buy you an ice cream cone.  They are placed into competition with peers (and artificially age-segregated environment that no one - especially education advocates - questions), where they learn to compete with peers and perform for teachers.  Performance and performance aesthetics come to preoccupy us as a matter of necessity... I need that job, and maybe if I learn to "marke myself" more effectively, I can get that job... which might be bossing other people, or trying to wheedle money out of them in a retail setting, or pushing through the flow of bureaucratic paper that makes fighter-bombers fly or ensures the prompt delivery of packaged factory broilers.  If I make a salary, I might be expected to "develop relationships," which does not mean friendships or amorous bonds, but getting connected to other people who you each can exploit to mutual benefit, not because that other person is important to you, but to accomplish your organization's mission.

We live in a manipulative culture, one where manipulation is inevitable because it has been made necessary for most people to survive.  How do we respond to that as Christians?

Moreover, we are required to perform.  I don't mean perform as in, I am a riveter, and I do a good job riveting.  I mean performances for an audience, like actors do.  Putting on an act, as my parents would say.  Some days, one can go home so exhausted from putting on an act - I imagine teachers here, because teaching is something I've done - on doing a performance, that one doesn't want to smile, speak, or think for hours afterwards.

Performance shifts me apart from myself.  It splits me into an actor and an imaginary audience member.  But it also habituates me (we ought to pay far closer attention to our habits) to dividing the world into two parts, reality and representation.  I see a family across the street.  They appear very normal and well-adjusted (because I know what these are), and they behave one way in public - alone or together - where there is a representation of things being generally good, or under control; and they may behave an entirely other way at home, where things are far more tense, insecure, chaotic, and "mal-adjusted " that that public representation.

People nowadays seldom feel as good as they say they do, when they say they do.  I believe this is partly because manipulation makes us feel shitty without knowing why; and we are in one manipulative exchange after another, taking on that poison, with no recognition that we are taking poison.  We have normalized something that makes us feel shitty about ourselves and others, and so by a tricky logic we can't accept that what we have accepted is the problem.

Illich said that consumer society has created two kinds of servitude - servitude to envy and servitude to  addictions.  Like an addict (another something I know a little about), we seek that thing that makes us feel differently until we fear there is nothing else.  We come to confuse the transient high of - whatever, sex, drugs, shopping, booze, sugar, television... - that thing which we serve now, with that happiness, that philosophers used to talk about, that doesn't necessarily involve mirth, light-mindedness, fun, or terminal irony.  Worse, we begin to suspect that there is nothing else, and now the door is open for unlimited manipulation.

We are rewarded for performances; and we learn to reward performances.  We have come to value performance first... think of Hollywood celebrity worship.  I don't want to see that film because I am intrigued by the story, but because it features my favorite (well-known, comfortable) actors.

If anyone wants to understand why we are suckers for propaganda from an Arkansas huckster like Bill Clinton (his family and mine are both from Hot Springs, Arkansas), it's because he gives us a performance that we like.  I won't even begin with Barack Obama... slick as Slick Willie any day.

Consumer capitalism has bequeathed us the Age of Simulation.  Not only the performance of an actor on the stage in lieu of "let your yes mean yes... and anything else comes from the devil" (we forget that Jesus' use of the term "hypocrites" is from the Greek word for play-actors), our stage-sets have come to smother every other reality.  We live in a world of simulacra, as Baudrillard called them, a world of endless imitations.

In Baudrillard's view, the meta-narrative of "progress" was but a modern delusion about some universal completion, some historic endpoint and culmination, where everything would be alright for everybody.  What we know from history is that progress was and is an idol put before consumers by capitalists and before citizens by the state.


  1. I enjoyed this, Stan. Haven't read the first two yet. Thanks!

  2. Yup...right on the money, as far as performance goes. Speaking as a musician (one who performs), you learn theatrics early on. How we internalize them (or not) is another story. If you have an open mind, you can learn to discern.

    I think that's why the powers-that-be get so angry at musicians and actors who learn and speak the truth---they've stepped out from behind the veil and betrayed the performance...a terminal sin in a world of moral relativity.