Notes from the US, February 2007
Watching, listening to and reading the US media, especially after having enjoyed the benefit of the higher (i.e., non-Murdoch, non-tabloid) end of the British broadcast and print media for the past 12 years, within just a couple of days of being here it felt as if my IQ had slipped by 10-15 points.
The big story getting non-stop, blanket coverage on my arrival in this, the world's self-proclaimed greatest nation on earth was the tawdry and largely self-inflicted demise of Anna-Nicole Smith. The big story getting non-stop, blanket coverage in the days leading up to my departure from said hyperpower is the tawdry and largely self-inflicted self-destruction of Britney Spears. Meanwhile, in other, far-off lands, the US-initiated war in Iraq continues to spiral even more out of control, if that's actually possible; the Bush administration along with other beacons of liberty and progress such as China and Russia refuses to attend an international meeting in Oslo called to discuss a worldwide ban on the production and use of cluster bombs; and we may or may not be about to initiate an even more perilous and foolhardy military adventure against Iran. Closer to home, there are tens of millions of citizens without any kind of health coverage in the event of illness or injury; homelessness and poverty remain endemic on the streets of all large and many medium-sized cities; and other troubling economic issues persist that few, if any, mainstream commentators seem all that eager to try to address.
But no, a former stripper's disputed billions and Britney's new Sinead O'Connor-style hairdo are far more important and worthy of discussion than the death and destruction that we, through our militarism (and the military-industrial complex which drives it ever onwards), continue to inflict upon the developing world, as well as the misery and gross inequality that persist at home.
Having had a chance to re-immerse myself in the mainstream of US political culture, dominated as it is by right-wing forces and their interests, I have concluded that there are effectively two basic kinds of American conservatives: (1) those who live their lives in a sad-yet-frightening state of pig ignorance (apologies to our porcine friends in the animal world!) and (2) those who want everybody else to live in pig ignorance so that they can systematically fleece them of their wealth, their labour, their so-called "inalienable" rights and even their very lives.
In all of this, the mainstream US media is not just compliant: it is complicit. Its corporate proprietors and, by extension, their paid employees, have a nakedly-obvious vested interest in both misinforming and dumbing-down the populace. How anyone could continue to assert with a straight face that there is any such phenomenon as a "liberal media" conspiracy and not win some kind of acting award for dramatic achievement is a serious miscarriage of justice. Where are the Screen Actors' Guild and Equity when you really need them?
Another notable aspect of life in the United $tate$ of America is the historical and ongoing commodification of everything. The unfortunate collective experience of the African-American community, from slavery through Katrina and beyond, provides one of the most glaring and shameful examples. Freed from the plantation and the whip, subsequent generations have lived in poverty, humiliation and dependence as a result of having a diminished economic value to those of the class of elites who once transported, bought and sold their ancestors. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. The echoes of history continue to ring loudly today.
Also commodified, ironically enough, is the iconography of the left. The forces of rebellion against unfettered capitalism are constantly being neutralized or re-channeled into some non-threatening manifestation: a Ramones t-shirt for every other 8-year old! Hugo Chavez t-shirts on sale at the Virgin Megastore on (taste the irony!) Market Street in San Francisco! Nearly the entire body of work of Shepard Fairey! And, the granddaddy of them all, the Che Guevara t-shirt, as modelled by Kate Moss and countless 15-year old fashion victims on shopping trips to the local mall.
At best, some of this is intentionally ironic. At worst, it is intentionally counter-subversive in a hugely-effective way. The right has learned to neutralize the most powerful symbols of resistance by embracing them (though usually only after having killed them in the first place). Create a martyr one day, then derive a profit from him the next. Sometimes, death isn't even a necessary precursor to this macabre process, as the example of one-time rebel without a pause Muhammad Ali so potently illustrates.
Finally, sign of the week, if not the year thus far, as spotted in my former hometown, spray-painted onto a sheet and hung onto a chain-link fence on a hill overlooking the main freeway, Highway 101: "Victery [sic] in Iraq!"
Proving that the world can be both sad and wonderful at the same time!