Friday, March 24, 2006

"... And the Wisdom to Know the Difference"


Since I was old enough to distinguish between propaganda and history (fifth grade, I guess), I have been aware of a serious problem abroad in our land. For quite a while I did not have a name for it, so (like most) I just watched. Americans are a mixed bag anyway, a polyglotinous people with somewhere between zero and one half the necessary amount of cultural cohesion necessary to keep things civil. We all recognize this melting pot problem in one way or another, and over the years we seem to have come up with a solution resonant to our traditions of strong-willed religiosity and equally adamant agnosticism and secularism. Americans have been carefully taught to believe they are a transformed people on a special/holy mission in the world. The late 19th century and early 20th century writers spoke often of the American "City on the Hill." Some of us have this as a secular creed, others take it straight.

The public notion that America is somehow special in the eyes of God and that our democracy guarantees our righteousness glues us together—civilizes us—in ways that are generally harmless, cosmically inconsequential, and may even be winked at from time to time. Like Oktoberfest or running the bulls in Pamplona we have our ways of enjoying at least a simulacrum of brotherhood. In the best of times our public righteousness is a bit like the singing of hymns in church—loud, flat, parochial, but comfortable and congealing. In times of national emergency, though, and during periods where we must pull more or less together in the same direction to achieve common aims the tail begins to wag the dog. The na├»ve simplicity of our mythos easily unravels. In relatively short order tempers rise and murky assumptions are laid bare and the claims made on these assumptions are found to be scandalously wanting. But, although you might easily think otherwise, the propaganda continues its drunken stupor despite the cognitive dissonance, sometimes without the slightest hint of irony, but sometimes (as now) with rendingly divisive clarity. Some get the idea that we need better assumptions, but many (even an majority sometimes) hold on to verities for dear life. Both Right and Left are afflicted with mythophilia. Assumptions are among the least manageable of human artifacts.

One of the extra problems in America with assumptions is its incredible deficit in critical thinking. Assumptions are tacit and often completely embroiled with emotion and various kinds of fears and dismays. They do not respond to the kind of cool analysis we use in business or academe. Accordingly, Americans are ever hesitant to fool around with their own assumptions or even those of others. Nevertheless, it is possible with patience and skill to follow arguments down to their assumptions and to actually inspect these quivering nodules of belief. We can, but we do not often do it. It can be painful and disorienting. It often leads to confusion and embarrassment. Too often it leads us to our outlandishly childish notions about the world, usually perpetrated on us by organized religion (ever since the famously illiterate Dark Ages) to keep a restive and violent population in check.

Critical thinking is in deficit wherever you go across this country. In colleges and universities all across the land, academics try to stimulate televisioneered students to think outside the bun, but it is very difficult to get someone to give up the comfort of their assumptions and try on new ideas. In fact, there is now a feeling prevalent in America that if one were to just hold an idea long enough and strong enough it will come true, regardless of its relationship to facts and reality. This is an artifact of the Boom Generation whose cohort hubris developed more or less innocently as fabled hordes of Boomers encountered one societal institution after another as they grew up and moved out into society. They transformed public education, then universities, then the institution of marriage, and finally politics. They transformed these institutions by the sheer weight of their numbers, not the truth of their arguments. Sexual mores changed. Political verities were shattered. It took about a generation for Boomers to understand what power they in their numbers had, but with each success they mistook the weight of opinion and wishful thinking for the quality of thought.

Neocons, not surprisingly, are a phenomenon of the Boom Generation. Of course not all Boomers are neocons, but the vast majority of neocons are either Boomers or early cohort X-Generation folk. They believe their notions about Americanism and market forces, and subconsciously they have trained themselves to believe that it does not make any difference whether there are little faults in their logic or facts; the ponderous weight of their beliefs will change the world and American hegemony will be accepted. American hegemony comes with a massive dose of the self-delusory American propaganda upon which we suckle and to which we toss back a Miller or Bud.

Prominent among the neocons there are people who would best be described as "market fundamentalists." Market forces are almost as real as the force of gravity, of course. One can demonstrate endlessly that not only do supply and demand curves describe the probable human behavior in a goods and services market, but that there are almost endless ways of modulating these behaviors with advertising and price, creating other curves, careers, and eventually in our own era, public policy. Market fundamentalists take the truth of market economics and declare it to be the only reliable truth, the inexorable nexus of man and his environment, even of man's relationship to man!

Detroit and now Big Pharma claim to have relied on the market for decades, but in truth both are addicted to government contracts and governmental suppression of competition and public policies designed to relieve corporations of the liabilities they create. Automobile manufacturers got government to ditch railroads and instead build huge highways systems, an unmistakable promotion of petrovehicles. Big pharma is going one step further and getting government to promote the prescription of drugs where disease is a matter of strenuously debated opinion, such as teenage "depression." Tell me, have you ever seen a normal teenager? All of this is being accomplished right under our liberal noses in a program called Teen Screen. What industry promotes and lobbys for one day becomes their addiction the next. These corporate addictions are almost invisible to the citizenry because, like our holy mission, the progress of commerce is seen as the progress of America. It is a densely packed tissue of assumptions and not easily discussed over beers.

But now the piper must be paid for the suppression of the awful fact that American products are too often inferior despite the Greek chorus of propaganda to the contrary. The fundamentalist market analysis curves describing the situation at Ford and GM are now deployed against the very people who labored to make something of these enterprises. There were massive layoffs and now this week the offer of payoffs to employees to leave the employment rolls and their careers. You could blame globalism, but the real problem is that stockholders and management have been living in a dream world.

There are no curves defining culpable negligence. In fact, there are no curves describing social contexts, ethics, interpersonal relationships, healthy behaviors, and virtually anything that is not bought and sold. But, market fundamentalism is just exactly that—an unwarranted transference and reliance on a simple confined truths applicable to simple economic relationships, but worthless as worldviews and worse than worthless as a political doctrines.

A good example of what foolishness can result from a slavish reliance on market forces is the state of the American patent system. What has happened is the result of the notion that individuals in a marketplace are the only discernible interested parties. Lost is the notion that society itself provides the context and that society's interests must be protected. It is utter madness to allow a patent on a life form or on the genes describing some part of it. But this is a consequence of market fundamentalism. If you are counting, we have been marching to this drummer for a quarter of a century now.

The unholy alliance of American Righteousness and Libertarian market fundamentalism reduces everything to simplistic, often dichotomous terms. You are either with us or you are against us ... and if you reject my hegemony you are rejecting my assumptions about life and the world, (never mind that I am not completely sure what those assumptions really are). You are either buying or selling. Your life is a market in which you buy yourself position and influence with resources you receive from selling yourself as labor. (Sounds familiar doesn't it!) There are no "situational ethics" in this; nothing is relative; there is only one context—the market. There are only absolutes: the market and Holy America, producing American hegemony and its fundamental power in the world market.

Or maybe not. We will see when the soon-to-arrive downturn buries us in an economic depression so dire that even Pat Robertson's manic God will not find us in the ruins of our Republic.

James Richard Brett

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