This phrase keeps crawling into my ear uninvited and boring through my head whenever I look at the big television news conglomerates today in the face of the early collapse of the two-party American duopoly with whom they are irrevocably joined.
The original big three NBC, ABC, and CBS, now joined by CNN, Fox, Microsoft, and others, have always been the stenographers of power. They rely on big money. They get paid the big money. They spend the big money. They sip champagne and snort coke and play golf with the other big moneys. The rest - what you and I see and hear - is a show, sponsored by the transnational parasitic class that runs energy, pharmaceutical, financial, and weapons corporations.
Nowadays, it has gotten so that two stations are portrayed as the partisan news - MSNBC as a fully owned subsidiary of the Democratic Leadership Council and Fox as the Republican arm - the rest pretend at being 'balanced.' And it is all pretense. The function of these great propaganda outlets has always been in large part to place limits on the scope of public discussions; and while they publicly disagree about Fox's discussion on the conservative end of the allowable and MSNBC determines the limits of the conversation on the liberal end, behind the scenes the decision-makers' own agenda is best revealed by what is off limits. Many on the right and left, for example, are opposed - albeit out of differing metaphysical foundations - to so-called 'free trade' agreements. But one thing that MSNBC and Fox both support are these agreements, and both work equally hard to misrepresent, ridicule, and marginalize anyone who opposes the agreements. This is where their policing function is revealed, in what is part of any 'bipartisan' consensus. Both also fall all over themselves to 'support the troops.' Nuff sed.
These outlets are intellectual conformity machines; and as such they have exercised tremendous power - to include those they want and exclude all others - to assist in king-making, to distract the public from any of those conversations that might spill outside the right-edge and the left-edge. They have been able to determine the political Zeitgeist in the United States. To do so, they have prevaricated, kissed asses too numerous to count, ignored important events and inflated trivial ones, and generally pretended they have the correct handle on the world.
But they are beginning to see, with the every more likely nomination of of a non-Republican Republican in Donald Trump and a non-Democrat Democrat in Bernie Sanders, that their toadying stenography for power is every day more exposed for its show-like character; and that - for more and more people - these propaganda representatives of the ruling class are (and ought to be) the objects of ridicule. That neither of the openly partisan 'news' companies could steer the nomination into an acceptable channel for their advertisers (maybe a Bush-Clinton rematch) is a tangible demonstration of the rising sea of irrelevance lapping at their feet.
The internet has progressively undermined News Television. And for all the ways that info-tech has put newer generations as risk, one thing you can say for it - speaking now as one of the television generation, a generation that anticipates Barcaloungers with remote controls in heaven - is that mobile technology is mobile. Younger folks might be tweeting, texting, taking work calls, checking in on sick relatives, and making dates on a phone that is a mobile computer; but they are walking, driving, working, eating, shitting, even watching TV... while they take in the simulacra. They don't have the time or inclination to watch TV except when one offers a better picture to watch 28 Days Later or Children of Men. When they want 'news' - that stuff about which the public is talking - they can get it on their own time, in a context of their choosing (a train instead of a Barcalounger?), and from multiple, often contentious, sources. Just as often as mistaken or perfidious as News TV but without the great endowment of homogenizing power, internet 'news' sources not only subvert the limits on subject matter that were policed by News TV, these variable sources subvert the borderlines of specialization. Humble, self-critical people can learn very quickly, as autodidacts, using the world wide web, that the separations between, for example, science and moral philosophy, between plumbing and physics, between history and economics, between psychology and political science and amphibian behavior and flint-knapping are arbitrary borderlines. This doesn't merely cross over the boundaries of respectable opinion (that News TV policed); it topples the taxonomies of our age.
An old organizer friend from Jackson, Mississippi - Sarah Williams - musically riddled me once, "What are the blues about?" Answering her own set-up, she said, "Any damn thing." People out of reach of News TV's apish malevolence are already drifting away from the old political norms, because both poles of the duopoly have been thoroughly exposed and discredited. But that doesn't mean they are flocking to the right or wrong banners. With the breakup of the two dominant political parties - which is what is really going on and merely expressing itself in our increasingly farcical News TV, those in the Great Unwashed who are flocking at all might go for any damn thing.
Hope. And threat. Freedom contains both. We will become free of these institutions by fits and starts, not in some great masculine upheaval. We can do things rightly. But history has schooled us on how pride and impatience and selfishness can lead us to do things very, very wrongly.
Some will be leaning forward to issue this or that boilerplate on Trump or Sanders, or to compare their positions, or to prove or disprove that Trump is a proper fascist or Sanders is a proper socialist; but that isn't what is as interesting as the underlying dynamic. This election discloses the early break-up, the degeneration and eventual disintegration, of the two hegemonic political parties in the United States.
I'm kind of a gardener, and one of the things I like to do is companion plant. That's when you plant two or more different species together to produce a desired interaction that benefits one or more plants in the guild. If I grow cabbages, one of the best ways to prevent their destruction by the dreaded cabbage looper (a cabbage-loving green worm), is to plant dill alongside the cabbage. The dill then attracts a species of tiny wasp that injects her eggs into cabbage loopers, which kills them graveyard dead. No poisons required. These wasps do the same thing to tomato hornworms (tomato-loving green worm), so plant dill around your tomatoes and cabbages.
Something like this is going on with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They've been colonized with foreign eggs who are hatching out and consuming the corpse.
The Republican Party is a long standing, post-Nixon mashup of chiliastic Christians and unpopular capitalists (like oil and tobacco companies), combined with gun nuts, tax-hating mid-range entrepreneurs, and grayhairs (like me) committed to the return of that imaginary patriarchy of the 1950s. The party held them together with simplified programs, a steady stream of supportive propaganda, and fealty to the strange attractor of Republican politics - profound Negrophobia.
The Democratic Party - here I will confess my ineradicable history with leftism- according to an old friend, "is the roach motel of radical politics. You can check in, but you never check out." But it is here, alas, at least in terms of interested constituencies, that something unites the 'progressives,' women-generally, and minorities (especially African Americans, because - aforementioned Negrophobia as the unseen organizing principle of the party), is that many many people who fall into one or more of these categories do face real existential threats from Republicans. That's not a unifying program; that is the only strategic defense available against the worst damage Republicans can do. It's like a political protection racket. There is justified disgust among leftists, black radicals, radical feminists, and some Christians about both these discredited, manipulative, instrumental, and ruthless institutions, that can't be closed out by 'realisms.'
This may be a moot point, however. The Realisms are no longer holding.
Sanders may not be the new Lenin that the uber-lefties imagine. He may not be the FDR that liberals would like to imagine. He won't be the Chavez that many of my old comrades admired. He may not fit your definition of what makes a Democrat or a Socialist. Doesn't matter. What matters is that a chasm has opened up between the directed leadership of the Democratic Party and the remarkable emergence of Bernie Sanders as someone who has managed to mobilize enough of a motivated popular base to threaten (1) the efficacy of the Democratic National Committee in carrying out its own intentions, and (2) it's ability to contain public discourse.
Trump is likewise not describable except as Trump, something he continually reinvents like a cheap huckster; but one parallel is clear. Just as the Democratic National Committee did not want Bernie Sanders in the party at all, much less as its presidential nominee, the Republican National Committee sure as hell does not want to see Trump as candidate, or worse, as President. They know the damage he will do to an already doddering party - where conservatives are parting with libertarians, where the tax-obsessed are fed up with the evangelicals, where selfish yuppies are breaking from the nitwittery of the Tea Party, the GOP is faced with a monumental crack-up that has been in play for a decade. No, hell no! Not Trump. But Trump they have, at least for the time being, and they are so on their heels that the best they have to offer is Ted Cruz?
In each case, popular movements have taken unexpected control over the institutions themselves; and so even if both parties find a way to 'correct' their current trajectories, one thing can't be taken back. People know they can do it. The Trump acolytes and the Sanders devotees, they have this in common. They've done the headcount that neither the DNC nor the RNC wanted done.
The networks now exist - with the demonstrated independence from their own leadership - to turn the US from a two-party system into one of several political parties or, perhaps, one hegemonic party. Everyone knows it. Only the most ideologically hidebound will be unable to see it. The floor is open.
Another thing won't be taken back either. The very conditions that are fueling these outbursts ought never be trivialized or homogenized as 'populism.' For a century we have been brainwashed into limitless desire in order to 'expand markets.' We are left standing now, with a child's disappointment, to watch one entitlement after another drop off the precipice of our cultural decay. I wonder if we'll grow up a bit or throw a tantrum.
What did Yeats say?
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This is the sea rising around News TV. Like the message from the dead: as you are, I once was; as I am you shall be. Footnotes in history.