Friday, September 03, 2010

I'm afraid of Americans

C.L.R. James, Every Cook Can Govern:

It was not that the Greeks had such simple problems that they could work out simple solutions or types of solutions which are impossible in our more complicated civilizations. That is the great argument which comes very glibly to the lips of modern enemies of direct democracy and even of some learned Greek scholars. It is false to the core. And the proof is that the greatest intellectuals of the day, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others (men of genius such as the world has rarely seen), were all bitterly opposed to the democracy. To them, this government by the common people was wrong in principle and they criticized it constantly. More than that, Plato spent the greater part of his long life discussing and devising and publishing ways and means of creating forms of society, government and lay which would be superior to the Greek Democracy. And yet, Plato owed everything to the democracy.
... Plato’s best known book, The Republic, is his description of an ideal society to replace the democracy, and it is a perfect example of a totalitarian state, governed by an elite. And what is worse, Plato started and brilliantly expounded a practice which has lasted to this day among intellectuals -- a constant speculation about different and possible methods of government, all based on a refusal to accept the fact that the common man can actually govern. It must be said for Plato that, in the end, he came to the conclusion that the radical democracy was the best type of government for Athens. Many intellectuals today do not do as well. They not only support but they join bureaucratic and even sometimes totalitarian forms of government.

We should remember that anytime the working class, the average person, becomes an object of scrutiny in the press, we get a particular kind of picture owing to the fact that the press is a corporate press, not a working class press.

Intellectuals, in their turn, derive much better salaries from corporate payrolls than from giving their time to social concerns. So intellectuals, experts, professionals, and so on, particularly within the political sphere -- well, let us just say that when a career is comprised of chasing money, it will inevitably chase the aims of people with money, not the aims of the average person. This has been a tradition amongst intellectuals throughout history; here we see that democratic Greece was no exception.

Take any portion of the working class you like and submit it for the professional journalist's consideration. Here is the editor's rule: If the activities of average people can be deemed compatible with the aims of investors and advertisers, they are sanctioned, even celebrated; if the activities of average people run counter to, or are otherwise independent of corporate preferences, then you have a problem. Whether you are talking about unions or Tea Partiers or G-20 demonstrators, you have a real problem, because these social groups aren't necessarily amenable to quarterly earnings concerns. So you have to start talking about the pampered autoworkers who are bankrupting their communities, the racist crackpot Palinites, and the violence-prone anarchists who must be peaceably contained by riot police.

This is a pretty consistent process if you watch for it. Because US politics are constructed around competing elite groups which the rest of us must endorse, one way or the other, lest we "waste our vote," most of us are conscious of this phenomenon when it is applied to our "side." So, I've always known that unions are bashed mercilessly in the press, and I can plainly see that many people have a negative impression of unions as a result. But I have to admit that for a long time I fell into the left-right temptation when media portrayals played to my prejudices about other parts of the working class that I didn't know or for whatever reason didn't think highly of. This is why it may be good to observe the above formula anytime we want to evaluate these trends.

In general, we have much more to fear from centralized institutions of power than we do from our own neighbors. Institutions of power will always say the opposite. For example, when I turn my radio to local news each morning, invariably I hear about the robberies and murders and other crazy shit that random individuals are up to in my city; if I read our "blue-collar" newspaper, it's filled with the monstrous crimes of poor people: the stuff is written from the perspective of law enforcement, the state, doing its damnedest to protect us from our own bloodthirsty tendencies.

This is "the news", 24/7. So you see, it takes a constant effort to keep us more afraid of each other than we are of the people writing the very laws which are subsequently "enforced."


Anonymous said...

Bullseye, JRB.

When I was a middle-schooler, my mother worked in the White House Press Office. My brother and I travelled with our mum on several POTUS trips -- Nixon to Key Biscayne, Nixon to San Clemente, and Ford to Vail 2x. We flew on the press plane -- a chartered commercial flyer, paid for by Uncle Sam, with a monstrously large open bar also paid for by Uncle Sam.

The White House press, plied with tons of free booze, are now expected to criticize the occupant of the White House in a way that reveals actual truths?

No, I don't think so.

Now move forward some 20 years. Mum has moved on, she works as the special assistant to the Deputy Secretary of State for Public Affairs. One of her jobs is to comb through media reportage of US foreign policy, or reportage of US State Dept positions, to ensure that all such reporting is consistent with the text provided in the Press Spokesman's 3-ring binder. The Press Spokesman must read his/her answers to press Qs from that binder.

This controlled "news" is useful?

Whenever mum found deviation, her job was to contact the appropriate authoritative person at the media outlet and arrange errata disclosures or corrections.

She was very good at her job.

And I was lucky enough to see all this stuff.

JRB said...

I have to say, Charles F. Some of your comments deserve to be blog posts in themselves. This one's a doosey!

almostinfamous said...

@CFO - that's eye opening!

@ JRB - that closing sentence is golden. It's a phenomenon that i have been trying to combat all last weekend. the message has been so well crafted(and re-inforced) to attack our worst fears about each other. yet another classic example of divide and rule...