The Resistance Gap: On Media, Time, and the Curious Absence of Riots
Like many left and liberal writers and activists, I often cite polling data showing that majority U.S. public opinion on numerous key policy issues is well to the left of actual (not-so public) U.S. policy and the nation’s two dominant business parties. I use this data to argue that the U.S. is not a conservative and imperialist country when it comes to the actual populace, a very different category than the nation’s political class. The survey findings show that that most Americans hold egalitarian social beliefs and back a large number of progressive policies. The popular U.S. majority supports universal government-mandates health care, a reduction of corporate power, and the rollback of imperial militarism. It supports a peace dividend: the cutting of the Pentagon budget in favor of policies and expenditures to reduce poverty, mitigate socioeconomic disparity, and otherwise address pressing social needs (Adams and Derber 2008, pp. 67-75; Chicago Council on Foreign Relations 2004; Street 2008B; Bartels 2008; Chomsky 2006, 205-250; Hacker and Pierson 2005).
“Taken literally,” the liberal Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels notes in his book Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, the survey data implies “an astonishing level of public support for what would have to be a very radical program of social transformation,” including the outlawing of inherited wealth and of social and economic advantages based race, gender, ethnicity, and intelligence (Bartels 2008, pp. 130-31).
THE DEMOCRACY GAP
“Firmly in the Hands of a Moneyed Oligarchy”
But so what? No such program is slightly entertained by U.S. policymakers and politicians. The progressive policy attitudes and social egalitarianism captured by opinion researchers are not remotely reflected in government behavior. As John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney note, “The United States, despite its formally democratic character, is firmly in the hands of a moneyed oligarchy, probably the most powerful ruling class in history” (Foster and McChesney 2009, p.7). Registering the disproportionate influence exercised by the rich, U.S. politics advances and underwrites deepening poverty and the ever-deepening concentration of wealth and income. It under-taxes the opulent Few and their corporations and it favors employers over workers and unions. It privileges insurance and pharmaceutical corporations over the health care needs of the majority, denies coverage to 47 million, and provides inadequate and over-expensive care to many more.
It advances an expensive global militarism that values global hegemony over survival (Chomsky 2003) and mires the U.S. in criminal colonial occupations. It disregards international law and civilized norms, claiming that America’s supposed inherent and “exceptional” greatness and benevolence entitles the U.S. to do as it pleases on the global stage. And it diverts billions of dollars from potential investment in social needs to a giant “defense” (empire) budget that pays for two mass-murderous occupations (in Iraq and Afghanistan) along with 761 military bases located in more than 130 countries imperial weapons and the constant preparation for war. Coming in at $1 trillion (by the measure of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s National Income and Product Accounts) in 2007, U.S. “defense” spending outweighs domestic U.S federal expenditure on education by more than 8 to 1; income security by more than 4.5 to 1; nutrition by more than 11 to 1; housing by 14 to 1; and job training by 32 to 1. The U.S military budget accounts for more than half all discretionary U.S. federal spending and nearly half the military spending on the planet.
The People as “Ignorant and Meddlesome Outsiders”
Mass protest would seem to be indicated as new President BarackObama’s passionate promise of democratic “change we can believe in” translates into the escalated and monumental bailout of the wealthy while the gargantuan “defense” budget (at least $1 trillion a year) remains beyond question and the rising problem of poverty remains buried at the margins of “mainstream” political discourse. The “world’s greatest democracy” grants its populace no meaningful control over the nation’s financial institutions even as vast public monies are handed over the very investment and banking houses whose reckless conduct in service to the rich and powerful Few drove the economic system off the cliff. As the distinguished left intellectual Noam Chomsky notes, “If the government – in a functioning democracy, the public – does not have a degree of control, the banks can put the public funds into their own pockets for recapitalization or acquisitions or loans to government-guaranteed borrowers, thus undermining the alleged purpose of the bailout. This is what has happened, though details are obscure because the recipients refuse to say what they are doing with the gift from taxpayers. Indeed, they regard the question as outrageous…” (Chomsky 2009).
Meanwhile, Obama’s economic stimulus plan contains no measures seriously advancing the universal health insurance program he campaigned on. Nor does it include any effort to pass the critical and overdue labor law reform (the Employee Free Choice Act) he promised his many union supporters during the presidential race. Badly damaged by a vicious 1990s welfare “reform” (slashing) that Obama has repeatedly praised as a great policy success (see Obama 2006, p. 256 for one example), the nation’s public family cash assistance system is unable to match the rising destitution across America (Deparle 2009) even as the new chief executive and the rest of the liberal Washington establishment prepares a new level of welfare for Wall Street (Krugman 2009).
This is all a problem, one would think, in a nation whose founding document declares that government derives its just powers only from the consent of the governed. But it’s consistent with what Noam Chomsky calls the “normal workings of state capitalism. The ‘ignorant and meddlesome outsiders’” – the citizenry – are supposed to be “satisfied with ‘necessary illusion’ and ‘emotionally potent oversimplifications’ [i.e., the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama mantras of hope and change. P.S.], as the distinguished moralist Reinhold Niebhur explained.” (Chomsky 2009)
Smart U.S. politicians like Niebhur-fan Barack Obama (Brooks 2007) know they would have little chance of winning and keeping higher elected office if they seriously championed the U.S. majority’s progressive policy preferences and egalitarian beliefs The “deeply conservative” Obama (MacFarquhar 2007, Street 2008, Street 2008A) would never have been permitted to make a serious presidential run if the U.S. ruling class had reason to believe he shared Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hopes for what King considered the “real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” questions “the radical reconstruction of society itself” beyond “the triple evils” of economic exploitation, racism, and militarism (King 1969). The corporate and imperial gatekeepers of U.S. Superpower are not in the business of handing over the world’s most potent office to true-progressive opponents of Empire and Inequality, Inc. (Street 2004, 2008A).
Consistent with the political class’s wishes, Obama and his centrist handlers have “blacklisted progressives” (Sirota 2009) from key policy roles in his administration. As veteran left-liberal Washington- and Obama-watcher David Sirota notes, the venture capitalist Leo Hindery – a top economic advisor to presidential candidates John Edwards and (later) Obama – was banned from serious consideration for a top economic post in the new administration because he is “one of the few business leaders to use his wealth to challenge deregulation, corporate trade deals, and anti-worker policies” and “dared to clash with the same Wall Street Democrats whose corporate-backed policies destroyed the economy.” Hindery committed the unpardonable sin of standing “in opposition to Obama’s top [corporate-neoliberal] economic advisors, many of whom were associated with The Hamilton Project, an economic think-tank that was the inheritor of former Treasury Secretary [and former Goldman Sachs CEO Robert] Rubin’s generally pro-trade positions.” As Sirota usefully elaborates:
“…the Hindery scalping is only one chapter in what has been one long narrative arc whereby economic progressives have been deliberately shut out of top administration jobs. Just step back and think about it for a minute: Amid a stable of eminently qualifiedand well-respected progressives like James Galbraith, Joseph Stiglitz, Dean Baker, Robert Reich, Paul Krugman and Larry Mishel, Obama has chosen [corporate neoliberal] Rubin sycophants like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner to run the economy - the same Larry Summers who pushed the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act [a New Deal measure that mandated the separation of investment and commercial banking], the same Geithner who masterminded the kleptocratic bank bailout, the same duo whose claim to fame is their personal connections to Rubin, a disgraced Citigroup executive at the center of the current meltdown. And the list of Rubin sycophants keeps getting longer, from Peter Orszag to Jason Furman.”
“Its the same in other key regulatory positions, as free market fundamentalists who created the problem take the helm of the regulatory agencies they tried to destroy. Indeed, the only movement progressive in a top economic position is Jared Bernstein, and he was relegated to an amorphous job in the Vice President's office.”
“And now we see that's not an accident . Though Obama won states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana on promises to challenge Wall Street and reform our trade policies, there has been a deliberate and calculated effort to stack the administration with the very Wall Street Democrats who created the problems he lamented, and shun those who have been fighting the good fight.” (Sirota 2009) 
THE RESISTANCE GAP: THE “PUZZLING LACK OF SOCIAL UNREST”
This is terrible, of course. But what about all the progressive sentiment out there, captured in the hopeful survey data? Why doesn’t the remarkable gap – chasm, really – between democratic claim and corporate-imperial reality spark significant mass rebellion inside the U.S.?
It’s good and important to know that the people’s policy preferences are to the progressive portside of their plutocratic “leaders.” But why doesn’t the regular and absurd violation of those preferences by arrogant elites claiming to govern in the name of the populace spark more popular revolt? Why isn’t the U.S. “an organizers’ paradise,” as the opinion data seems to suggest it should be? Why don’t majority egalitarian and progressive policy sentiments translate into mass progressive politics (more than merely electoral) in the U.S.?
Why don’t Americans’ progressive policy and social attitudes feed coherent popular left-ideological identification? Why do most Americans label themselves as “moderates” or “conservatives,” not leftists or even just merely liberals? Why don’t objectively left policy beliefs translate into self-consciously leftist self- and group-concepts on part of any but a small minority in the in the U.S.?
Why no – or so little – social unrest? Where are the great street demonstrations, protests, strikes, and marches that would seem to be required by a government that is “firmly in the hands of a monied oligarchy”?
You don’t have to be a revolution-craving “hard-left” radical to wonder at the absence of protest. In an article based on an interview with the venerable liberal-left political scientist Sheldon Wolin, journalist and author Chris Hedges notes that “street protests, strikes and riots that have rattled France, Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Iceland.”
“The puzzle to me is the lack of social unrest,” Wolin said Hedges recently asked him why the U.S. has “not yet seen rioting or protests.” (Hedges 2009).
“On my computer upstairs,” the liberal Public Broadcasting System (PBS) talk-show host and former Lyndon Johnson White House aide Bill Moyers observes, “I have a lot of photographs from around the world this week, of protests, demonstrations of people who feel desperate in the midst of economic collapse and calamity. And they're taking to the streets. We don't see that in this country.”
Moyers wonders how “Washington” will “ever get the message” on the need for progressive change “unless they feel the pulse of people who are saying we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more.” (Moyers 2009)
A BOOK PROJECT
A careful and systematic attempt to explain this resistance gap – itself a core component of the democracy gap (since power elites feel free to defy public opinion without fear of popular rebellion) – could easily fill a book. The book’s chapters could discuss: how the American political and party system prevents the emergence of any serious electoral choices beyond a narrow, business-friendly spectrum; the comparative historical weakness and late emergence of central government power relative to the development of private and corporate power in the U.S.; the distinctive challenges and employer-driven atrophy of the American labor movement, which currently enlists less than 13 percent of the U.S. workforce; the powerful roles that racial and ethnic division and occupational segmentation and related patterns of spatial segregation and sprawl play in preventing popular movement-building and consciousness; the epic mass incarceration and lifelong criminal marking of a vast swath of the black population (the leftmost and most volatile segment of the citizenry); the depth and degree of religious sentiment and fundamentalist theology in the U.S.; the critical role that the American Empire and the related doctrine of American Exceptionalism  plays in trumping populist sentiments with nationalist identity and fear and in making it difficult for ordinary people to process evidence of U.S. criminality in the global arena (see Derber and Magrass 2008, pp. 19-82 for instructive reflections)
The imagined volume might also address the role that elite U.S. politicians and their skilled marketers and their media allies play in using “emotionally potent oversimplifications” and “necessary illusion” – carried perhaps to new heights by “the Obama phenomenon” (Street 2008) – to trick citizens into thinking that candidates and elected officials are really on the people’s side, consistent with the formerly left Christopher Hitchens’ onetime description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism”(Hitchens 2000, pp. 17-18).
I have no intention of writing such a book. That is a project for which I lack the necessary time, energy, and (since the subject matter can often be more than a little depressing) spiritual fortitude.
CORPORATE MEDIA AND THE INFORMATION GAP
I would, however, like to highlight three interrelated factors that are a crucial part of how we might explain (in the interest of overcoming) the resistance gap.
One of the many reasons Americans with progressive policy attitudes don’t protest more is that the nation’s dominant information systems simply don’t report the shocking (one would think or at least hope) extent to which U.S. policy and societal arrangements violate the U.S. populace’s beliefs. As Robert W. McChesney noted in a brilliant 1997 pamphlet titled Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy, meaningful participatory democracy requires “an effective system of communications” that accurately “informs and engages the citizenry,” encouraging their intelligent involvement in political life. Individual rights and collective needs cannot be adequately protected and advanced when the people lack sound political information. How are the people supposed to act to make “their” government behave decently in international affairs (as Americans tell pollsters they want) when they are not adequately informed about the extent of criminality and immorality at the heart of U.S. foreign policy and when they are fed a diet of foreign policy “news” and commentary strictly crafted and systematically filtered to fit the “American exceptionalist” notion that the U.S. is always or at least fundamentally a great “force for good in the world” (to quote both John McCain and Obama during the 2008 campaign)?
The individual body cannot respond adequately to a threat of injury – an incoming punch or projectile, for example – if its mind does not transmit the information of impending harm. In a similar way, the body politic and its popular majority cannot respond to threats to democracy if its information centers do not adequately communicate the authoritarian dangers.
The need for accurate, un-biased information is especially urgent for viable democracy in a large and complex modern society like the United States, where the scope and scale of political and societal affairs is so vast and multifaceted as to be beyond immediate observation. (McChesney 1997, pp. 6-7)
The need goes shockingly unmet in the U.S. for reasons that are less than surprising. For some time now the U.S. has been the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society in the industrialized world. The top 1 percent controls 40 percent of U.S. wealth and 57 percent of claims on wealth (interest, dividends and the like), leaving the remaining 99 percent to fight it out for less than two–thirds of the nation’s net worth. The top 10 percent owns more than two-thirds of the nation’s wealth and a probably larger share of the nation’s politicians and policy makers (Democrats as well as Republicans). The American (and global) Few’s assets critically include the 10 media corporations that together owned more than 50 percent of all U.S. media (print and electronic) at the end of the last century. The leading firms included Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, Seagram, News Corporation (Murdoch), General Electric, AT&T-TCI, and Sony.
Dominant U.S. media is not simply or merely beholden to the capitalist and imperial establishment through advertising. It is a key and (with its chilling capacity to influence hearts and minds, to shape popular perceptions of “reality”) powerful part of the business establishment. And, as Chomsky once observed, expecting NBC News (owned by the leading “defense” contractor General Electric) to give an objective and un-biased account of domestic and world affairs would be like expecting General Motors’ company newspaper to give a truthful and detached account of working conditions in its automobile plants. GM’s company paper is a form of propaganda meant to sell that corporation’s values and agenda to its employees. It is a mechanism for manufacturing consent within and to the firm.
The evening news on NBC (General Electric), ABC (Disney), and CBS and the rest of the corporate media is usefully seen as a company paper writ large. It naturally seeks to sell the broader American business elite’s agenda and values on a society-wide basis (along with a vast array of consumer goods and services and a way of life that fits mass consumerist imperatives). It is a critical means for the manufacture of mass consent to the imperial profits system.
Being owned and operated by the capitalist oligarchy, a group that naturally loathes substantive (beyond formal)democracy, dominant U.S. media predictably fails to adequately report the degree to which American politics and policy defy the majority’s progressive social-democratic and anti-imperial sentiments. It routinely conveys false and deceptive information (Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” the “crisis of Social Security,” the alleged grave threat posed by “welfare queens,” and the like) and portrays regressive, authoritarian, and imperial policies (the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, tax cuts that primarily benefit the rich, and so on) as advancing democratic ideals,
More than failing to note the democracy gap, moreover, the dominant U.S. media does not generally report the existence of progressive majority opinion in the first place. It thereby leaves untold and isolated millions – generally unconnected by social movements – of Americans to falsely think that their progressive policy and societal views are oddly eccentric, just privately held, and not widely shared.
That media also tells the people that their beliefs and hopes are embodied and expressed in the rise of politicians whose (corporate-crafted) electoral ascendancy proves that democracy really does exist in the U.S. – a recurrent theme in the Obama election and inauguration, consistent with his claim on the night of his victory: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible.....who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."
Of critical significance, dominant U.S. communications systems drastically under-report popular resistance when it does occasionally break out. Popular protests are dismissed and ignored by the corporate media, as occurred when hundreds of thousands of Americans marched in advanced against the illegal invasion of Iraq. When tens of thousands of workers and activists marched against corporate globalization and faced off against out-of-control police in Seattle in the fall of 1999, the dominant communications authorities gave the remarkable events far less coverage than they did to what corporate media considered a far bigger story at the time: the tragic crash of John Kennedy Junior’s personal airplane into the Atlantic Ocean.
The protest coverage that does take place in dominant media typically over-focuses on isolated incidents of protestor violence (the occasional smashed window or overturned car) at the expense of protesters’ specific political demands. There is disproportionate attention to some protestors’ appearance (“dirty” and “ragged”) and little if any serious attention to the specific issues, concerns, recommendations, and vision. The protestors appear as little more than nay-sayers, nattering negativists who have no positive, forward-looking ideas and advance no alternatives. Thus, the global justice movement has been routinely misrepresented as “anti-globalization” (see Street 2003 for one small but instructive episode) in dominant U.S. media.
Mass protests overseas, like the ones that have recently occurred in France and Greece (site of a major and prolonged Left rebellion, still ongoing) are minimized and often out-and-out ignored in American “mainstream” media.
This all helps the state “ruthlessly suppress local protests, as happened during the  Democratic and Republic conventions.” It also helps prevent protests from gaining momentum and spreading across the nation as during the 1960s. “The ways they can isolate protest and prevent it from [becoming] a contagion are formidable,” Wolin notes. (Hedges 2009)
“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it,” James Madison once noted, “is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both” (quoted in McChesney 1997, p.6).
THE TIME GAP: LEISURE IS A DEMOCRACY ISSUE
Given the “fourth estate’s” predictable failure to properly inform the citizenry, it’s up to the populace itself to educate itself about current events and how to understand them. You have to do it yourself. But who has leisure of time for taking on what amounts to the part-time job of digging beneath the lies and deletions of corporate and state media and propaganda to get to the real story of, say, Iraq, Afghanistan, Social Security, tax policy, why people are protesting U.S. policy at home and/or abroad, the corporate-friendly Obama phenomenon, and so on? The United States has the longest working hours in the industrialized world (Schor 1992). Its exhausted, overworked populace (which also loses vast stretches of time to deadly commutes) is hardly in a position to break through the deceptions and omissions of the nation’s Orwellian communications authorities.
Itself partly a reflection of the decline of the American labor movement, rampant overwork is typically discussed in “mainstream” (dominant) media (when it is mentioned at all) as a personal and family health and stress issue. It is most definitely that but it also and just as importantly a democracy issue (Street 2002; Alperovitz 2005, p.38).
This is how the working hours and leisure issue was understood by the early U.S. labor movement, for which the employers’ control of workers time amounted to a new form of slavery (“wages slavery”) and for which time – working hours – was actually the first important issue. “Eight Hours for What We Will” (the slogan of machinist Ira Steward’s Eight Hour Movement after the Civil War) was about popular governance and the democratic ideal (Montgomery 1967).
Leisure is a democratic necessity. It takes a reasonable amount of time to learn and contextualize the heavily corporate-spun issues. It takes time to engage in the difficult work of building grassroots social movements and struggles for a more responsive and democratic political culture beneath and beyond quadrennial corporate-crafted and candidate-centered election spectacles. .
THE SOLIDARITY GAP: CORPORATE MEDIA’S CONTEMPT FOR THE PEOPLE
“Solidarity is a Banished Word”
But back to corporate media, that “reality”-filtering institution before which so many Americans collapse at the end of long working day and commutes. Meaningful democracy also requires a sense of community between individuals – a sense that each individual’s well-being is positively connected to the common good. A democratic political culture cannot take root in a society whose members are simply out to serve their “narrowly defined self-interests” (McChesney 1997, p. 6). Popular participatory democracy is impossible when the people have no sense of shared needs, solidarity, and obligation. It cannot flourish in a society where people have been turned into “disconnected, apolitical individuals” (quoted in Lavigna 2002), as the Latin Americanist scholar Cathy Schneider described Chileans after a U.S-sponsored coup the democratically elected government of Marxist Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 (Latin America’s 9/11). Under the reigning authoritarian-neoliberal cultural doctrine of what we might call the post-Chilean 9/11 era , the populace must be “taught,” in Susan George’s words, “to believe that we are not citizens or members of a social body but discrete, individual consumers. We are entirely responsible for our own destinies and if we fall by the wayside for whatever reason—illness, job loss, accident, failure, whatever—it's our own fault….We have no responsibility for other people either. Solidarity is a banished word. …. That's the essence of the neo-liberal spirit: ‘You're on your own’ …”
”If you are well-schooled in neo-liberalism,” George adds, “you will never join a social movement, never engage in a struggle against an unjust action of the government, never contribute to an effort to protect the natural world because not only will you make a fool of yourself, not only will your effort fail…” (George 2008)
George’s description of neoliberal canon captures much of the essence of what one can see on American television. Self is God and purely individual life strategies reign in the corporate-crafted mass culture that brings us “Survivor,” “American Idol,” Dr. Phil, Suzie Orman, Dr. Laura, NBC’s vapid “Today Show” (where small bits of packaged news and weather are surrounded by longer segments on how to “reverse the effects of aging,” shop for clothes more efficiently, and manage one’s personal stock portfolio) and the highly advertised state lottery systems, which teach their disproportionately working and lower-class customers a number of false and reactionary lessons, including the following:
* Great wealth is a matter of pure chance, not a product of structural inequality.
* “Anyone can play” and “anyone can win” in the “level playing field” that is the American “land of opportunity.”
* Acquiring great individual wealth is the central purpose of human experience and the best thing that could happen to someone.
* People don’t need to join together and fight for social justice but should focus their hopes instead on individual advancement.
* The best response to alienation in the (tyrannical capitalist) workplace is to escape it, not to organize with your fellow workers to create more equitable, participatory and sustainable work environments (Nibert 2000, pp. 187-205).
These themes and more are reproduced by the popular NBC game and reality show “Deal or No Deal.”
Shaming Progressive Sentiments in Entertainment Media
It’s not just the “hard” news media that works to marginalize solidarity, resistance and protest and dissent. “Soft” entertainment media does it too. In a recent episode of the “George Lopez Show” (designed to provide some of the same assimilate-to-the-American-corporate-state role for Latino Americans that "The Cosby Show" tried to play in relation to black Americans during the 1980s), the main character’s (Lopez’s) daughter was made to look silly for being opposed to George W. Bush’s War on Iraq. The chauvinistic suburban thug played by Jim Belushi in the ABC sit-com “What About Jim” receives a hearty shot of canned laughter after he says the following in response to his wife Cheryl’s comment that “maybe” the U.S. president should have to go fight in wars he orders others to fight: “you’ve been talking to the lesbian at the beauty shop again.” Cheryl’s radical-sounding moment passes quickly, never to return.
There used to be a mock-leftish character in an ABC sit-com called “Dharma and Greg.” It was “Dharma’s” father – an officially bizarre and burned-out hippie from the 1960s. He made occasional accurate observations on various authoritarian absurdities of American imperialism and capitalism. The point of his character: he was a ridiculous buffoon who should never be taken seriously.
In one episode of the NBC sit-com “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” years ago, the show’s main character Will Smith (a young inner city black male sent by his poor Philadelphia mother live with the family of his wealthy black uncle in a hyper-affluent West Coast community) was visited by a radical aunt who had once been a member of the Black Panthers. The aunt briefly influenced the impressionable young “Prince” to dream of becoming an activist for racial and social justice. But her character quickly devolved into a ridiculous Stalinist caricature. Will Smith awakened to the fact that his boring bourgeois uncle took the proper step to a respectable adulthood by becoming a corporate lawyer.
Radical and other activists and anti-authoritarians occasionally make similar derogatory and heavily caricature-ized, cartoon-like appearances – models demonstrating the dangerous idiocy of serious progressive faith – in other American television shows
In researching his interesting book Through Jaundiced Eyes: How the Media View Organized Labor, Michael Puette read the scripts of 61 television broadcasts (including sit-coms, movies, and dramas) in which labor unions played a significant part of the story line during the 1970s and 1980s. Of those 61 broadcasts, he determined, 47 had a decidedly negative slant on organized labor. Just 9 took a pro-union perspective. Labor activists and officials were portrayed on the whole as corrupt and selfish, their followers naïve and deluded. Puette found the same thing, only worse, with the big screen. Hollywood’s union screenwriters might want to look at Puette’s study, updating it perhaps, and consider the implications before their next inspiring walkout (Puette 1992, pp. 12-32, 46-59, 162-193).
Advancing Bourgeois Morality and Corporate Pseudo-Paternalism
Dominant neoliberal notions and messages of Me First, It’s your Own Fault (for poverty and any other problems you might be having) and Don’t Challenge Capitalist Authority are omnipresent in U.S. entertainment and “self-help” media. Dr. Phil recently featured a psychological counselor (who also happened to be the employer of more than 200 people) who told viewers to “protect your interests” in the current recession by “hugging your boss” (by kissing up to workplace authorities).
Oprah Winfrey regales her audiences with stories and video images of her and her friends’ spectacular private wealth. She attributes her success to the embrace of personal advancement over and against people who remain “stuck” in poverty because of “dysfunctional” and “negative” attitudes (and “underclass cultures”) of grievance and “entitlement.” Oprah occasionally showers her studio audience with an ocean of free surplus consumer goods, proof of the individualized county of goods and services available to those who play by the rules of the American System. An author who pointed out that the capitalist system structurally mandates poverty for millions even while it produces “winner-take-all” fortunes for a few (including Oprah and her many rich and famous friends) would never make it into “Oprah’s Book Club” or on to her show, which (on October 9, 2002) gave a platform for Judith Miller and Kenneth Pollack to advance the notion that Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” posed a serious threat to America and the world.
In personal feminist money-guru Suzie Orman’s popular television shows and videos, Americans are prodded to make personal wealth aggrandizement into a deeply spiritual commitment. They are shamed for creating their own economic misery through insufficient attention to such lovely expressions of human freedom and possibility as the personal 401K. Poverty is treated as a personal psychological ailment, NOT a basic fact of social oppression and economic tendency under (state-) capitalism. Suzie is very good at rallying people to take personal financial responsibility (I have learned from her myself), but she naturally has nothing to say on behalf of collective struggle against money’s God-like power to oppress the working class Many and to cheapen the meaning and value of human existence.
In the popular ABC broadcast “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” a sexy young team of home- builders constructs dream houses for free for selected hard-luck applicants who send in sad videos claiming special moral qualifications for assistance. The show advances dominant bourgeois moral fables on who does and who doesn’t deserve help from better-off superiors. There’s no home construction windfall contemplated for people fired for joining union organizing campaigns or whose spouse was seized in an immigration raid. The nation’s rampant institutional racism (including racially biased home selling and lending practices) – still very much alive as the nation celebrates its alleged transcendence of race by electing Obama – does not qualify as a factor in determining why a poor black family might merit aid.
Natural disasters and crippling personal illnesses, injuries, and deaths in the family count toward worthiness for corporate paternalism. Victimization by sexism, racism, capitalism, or some combination of these does not. The officially worthy and deserving family is granted – to great community fanfare (large crowds are assembled to witness the unveiling of new homes for the lucky recipients of ABC’s gift home) – a new home while the regressive social order overseen by ABC-Disney and other giant corporations consigns millions of less “deserving” (and less fortunate) others to foreclosure, eviction, and homelessness – to expropriation at the hands of dominant financial and real estate authorities. The notion of government intervention to provide adequate housing for all, deeply consistent with majority U.S. public opinion, is naturally absent in a “reality show” that makes the private corporations (in this case ABC) the sole legitimate granted of benevolent social assistance and the arbiter of social worthiness for aid.
Contempt for the Lower- and Working-Class Majority
NBC’s “Deal or No Deal” does more than advance the attainment of personal riches (the elusive $1 million suitcase) the basic meaning of life. It is also demonstrates the over-reaching stupidity of working-class people shown to deserve their own poverty because they can’t seem to make the rational choice of accepting an offer for, say, $100,000. In response to the open goading of host Howie Mandel and his hysterical studio audience, they cling like money-drunk fools to the dreams of becoming a millionaire, squandering considerable sums in a futile contest with the superior brainpower and knowledge of the hidden “banker.” Their economic difficulty is demonstrated to be their own individualized fault. The rampant greed that has run America into the ground is shown to rise from the bottom up.
The image of poor and working class people as stupid, lazy, morally inadequate, and dangerous idiots (NBC’s sit-com “My Name is Earl” is an especially clever example) unworthy of democracy is rife across the dominant entertainment media spectrum. Propagating contempt for the poor seems to be a leading reason for such grotesque and proto-fascistic cultural productions as the Jerry Springer and Maury Povich shows, which parade “underclass” victims of inequality like post-modern circus freaks before howling studio audiences of predominantly white college students. The same contempt is a staple of police-worshipping reality shows like COPS and of daytime “small claims court” shows like “Judge Judy,” who peppers her judgments against down and out Americans (often black) with vicious lectures on decent personal behavior and moral responsibility. The vengeful bourgeois matriarch Judy particularly likes to shame people for the terrible sin of unemployment. Her eyes never flair in rage against the investor-class elites who long ago pulled the plugs on the barren, segregated, and jobless ghettoes and barrios that provide so much of the shattered human material for her daily television show.
One message lurks beneath it all: who would want to engage in meaningful solidarity with the pathetic and dangerous rabble that makes up so much of the populace depicted on America’s glowing Telescreens?
Law and Order
The police (-state) and crime dramas (“Law and Order” and so on) are premised on the ancient bourgeois concept (going back to Thomas Hobbes and before) of human nature as essentially vile and as therefore requiring the regular intervention of a disciplining state. The cops are portrayed as benevolent and righteous agents of civilization. Alleged perpetrators are part of the human swamp that noble police (and imperial gendarmes on the global scale) have to manage to keep society from descending back into the horrifying “state of nature” depicted in movies like “Lord of the Flies.”
Civil liberties do not do very well in these shows. Defense attorneys are suspect. Detectives and prosecutors are often amazingly free to bully and manipulate suspects and elicit confessions without lawyers in the interrogation room. Domestic police and heroic agents of imperial order like “24’s” Jack Bauer are thankfully at liberty to make up the rules as they go, ignoring basic civilian protections and civilized norms and national and international law when “necessary” (which is most of the time). It’s all done in the in the benevolent name of public safety and the permanent bomb-ticking emergency of the authoritarian “new normal” in the post-9/11 age. Such suspensions of civil liberties are necessary when you are dealing with the savage aspects of so much human filth and savagery on the streets of America and in the precarious caves, slums, mountains, deserts, and jungles of a treacherous and swarthy world.
A George Lopez Digression
A recent George Lopez episode nicely demonstrates corporate media’s depiction of working class people as unworthy of democracy, respect, and solidarity. Late last year I had the misfortune of seeing the last ten minutes of a broadcast in which Lopez realizes that he is wrong and his wife is right about their son.
Earlier in the show, George’s wife had argued that Lopez junior (LJ) should “reach for the stars” by going to college and “getting rich.” With one foot still stuck in his working class past, George argued for LJ working hard in whatever job he could find as soon as he graduated from high school. LJ is working in a local manufacturing plant where George is the factory manager.
At the point I tuned into “My TV” (the actual name of the network at channel 20 of the dial in Iowa City), however, George had a revelation. He “sees the future” in a “vision” and it is ugly. At some imaginary date 20 years down the road, Lopez walks into the plant and announces that all the jobs there have been automated out of existence. The will now be performed by robots. All the workers there, including LJ, freak out because their lives are over. They have nowhere to go. This is all they know how to do. They shriek and cry in pathetic ways hardly crafted to elicit empathy or solidarity.
Lopez wakes up from his “vision” and goes on to the shop-floor to fire his son. LJ is outraged and swears he’ll come back to the factory after he graduates high school. In response, to this threat, George starts asking other workers on the floor what they would do if the plant closed down. The silly workers misunderstand his question and go into hysterics. They think he’s announcing a shutdown and start behaving like out-of-control children. (Throughout “George Lopez Show,” the workers under Lopez’s benevolent direction – including his own mother and other senior-citizens – are portrayed as childish oafs.) After calming the silly proletarians down a bit, Lopez looks at his son and says, “See, you don’t really want to end up like one of these pathetic morons do you?”
LJ gets the point. “Thanks Dad,” he says. He resolves to leave the working-class behind and to go college to become (he hopes) rich one day.
Besides treating workers as silly louts – compare its depiction of them with the forthright actions of the (mostly Latino) Republic Window and Door workers who boldly occupied their Chicago workplace last December to secure full wage and severance payments when notified that their plant would be closed in three days – this episode elevated the notion of personal advancement up and out of the capitalist workplace over the notion (imagine) of staying to fight for justice and equity .
The barriers to popular resistance highlighted in this essay – inadequate information, overwork/time-shortage, and corporate media’s assault on solidarity – are mutually reinforcing. Citizens who are not adequately informed about current events are less likely to join unions or to fight for universal government-provided health insurance. This feeds overly long working hours, for unions are a critical weapon in the struggle for a decently limited workday. Giant employee health-care costs push the employer class to extend working hours. America’s employment based health care system – with benefits paid per worker, not per-hour – creates strong structural incentives for business to try to get as much work from as few employees as possible, filing the gaps with non-benefit part time and temporary workers (Schor 1992, p. 66)
Overworked employees lack sufficient leisure time to become adequately informed and socially activist. Without time or energy for sustained critical engagement with – and contextualization of – current events, they become more vulnerable to the superficial sound-bite spins and distortions of reigning corporate electronic media. Often mentally and physically exhausted, they are prone to the vicious, mind-numbing inducements of the corporate-media’s ideologically loaded – more than more than just “diversionary”(please see Street 2000 and Street 2004A) – entertainment and self-help culture, where George Lopez et al. chip away relentlessly at viewers’ propensity to engage in the sort of solidarity and mobilization required to shorten hours, advance universal health care, save livable ecology and (more broadly) to push politics beyond the “necessary illusion” and “potent oversimplifications” of the corporate-crafted political culture
Digging democracy’s grave deeper, corporate television subjects its captives to a relentless behaviorist onslaught of expensive and clever advertisements. Besides advancing the culture of atomized and amoral materialism selfishness and assaulting popular capacities for sustained mental focus (have any psychological researchers dared to connect “Attention Deficit Disorder” to television advertisements yet?), these commercials persuade masses to make purchases that encourage vulnerability to overwork by feeding the “vicious circle of work and spend” (Schor 1992, pp. 107-138; Schor 1998, pp. 73-74).
REFORM AND REVOLUTION
The existence of each of these and other barriers to popular resistance is unsurprising in a militantly state- capitalist nation. A society in which wealth is concentrated into the hands of an ever-smaller business elite – an institutionally inherent outcome of capitalism by any reasonable definition (including that of Webster’s) – will see its economic masters work to sustain and eternalize inequality through control of the all-important communications system (media). Those masters will own a disproportionate share of that system. They will insist upon media that filter, shape, “spins,” and otherwise distort information and shape popular perceptions and values in ways consistent with continued ruling-class domination. Their media system (whose ownership and control naturally becomes ever more concentrated in accord with broader economic “laws” and related political interventions) will privilege selfish and authoritarian values over the common good and social justice. This ideological bias will be seen in both the “hard” media of national “news and commentary” and in the “soft” realm of corporate-crafted “popular” and “entertainment” media (Street 2000; Street 2004A). In their role as employers (as exploiters of the vast majority compelled to rent out their labor power by concentrated ownership of the means of production and distribution), meanwhile, the masters want to get as much work from as few employees as possible. The facts that overwork and the decline of leisure undermine popular capacities for collective resistance and increase mass susceptibility to the reactionary and authoritarian messages of dominant media are welcome bonuses to the ruling class.
But this does not mean that there is nothing to be done to advance popular democracy short of the “radical reconstruction of society itself.” Such reconstruction is most certainly required, but in the meantime – and consist with the deeper project – we can and must use whatever time and space we can carve out to advance (among other things) the re-expansion and reinvigoration of the U.S. labor movement (starting with the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act), the attainment of universal national health care (as close to the single-payer model as possible), and (most relevant to the subject matter of this essay) major media reform, including the expansion of non-profit and non-commercial media, real public broadcasting, real public regulation of private broadcasters, and the break-up of the big media conglomerates through anti-trust legislation specifically tailored to the problem of the corporate media monopoly (McChesney 1999, pp. 304-314). The attainment of these things would significantly advance the cause of radical-democratic structural change and the construction of a responsive and informed democratic political culture. They would create important new opportunities for workers and citizens to transcend the dominant ideology on the path out of pre-history and into a self-consciously classless, participatory, and egalitarian society.
We should not advance media reform in isolation from other and related struggles for electoral reform, labor rights, women’s rights, civil rights, immigration rights, ecological sustainability, universal health care, educational justice, tax reform, participatory workplaces (and schools and communities). But the corporate media complex is an astonishingly powerful center of authoritarian –-- potentially now totalitarian in the U.S. (Wolin 2008; Carey 1997)--– rule in and of itself. I’m not sure it isn’t the most powerful institutional complex of all, thanks to its awesome capacity to shape popular concepts of “reality” and to craft mass sentiments on what is possible and desirable in human affairs.
One hopeful possibility in the current epic recession is that the economic downturn might be freeing up more time for Americans to think critically about the society and world (including the media world) they inhabit. As The Wall Street Journal reports, “it’s been decades since Americans had this much time on their hands.. ...Americans grappling with layoffs and grim economic news” are seeking “ways to fill their time.” According to Journal reporters Nick Wingfield and Pui-Wang Tam, time is being increasingly filled by visits to Internet job networks, online games, and “social-networking services like Facebook, blogs, and discussion forums” (Wingfield and Tam 2009). The number of visits to the Web site “General Hospital Forum” (discussing plot developments on a daily television soap opera) has risen to 20,000 a week, up from 10,000 last year. Let us hope that some folks with new "time on their hands" come to such fine Internet and print media outlets as ZNet, Z Magazine, Monthly Review, CounterPunch, Black Agenda Report, and Dissident Voice, homes to regular radical-democratic discussion of the current era’s core oppression structures and ideologies and of alternatives to dominant domestic and global institutions and doctrines,
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of many books, articles, essays, chapters, reviews, and speeches. He will be teaching a course titled "Critical Perspectives on Corporate Media" at ZNet’s “Z School” beginning on March 1, 2009. For a brief course description (and to sign up) see http://www.zcommunications.org/zstore/121. Street will speak (along with three other panelists) on “Obama and the Left: Different Perspectives on Social Change Today” at UNITE-HERE Hall, Debs Room, 333 S. Ashland Ave, Chicago, IL, on February 28, 2009.
1. Sirota’s “now we see” comment seems quite belated. See Street 2008 (sources are listed below), pp.1-58 (containing a chapter titled “Obama’s ‘Dollar Value’”) for a detailed discussion of Obama’s political history suggesting that Obama's latest service to Wall Street and corporate America is unsurprising. See also Silverstein 2006 and Reed 1996 for earlier accounts of Obama’s corporate captivity.
2. See Pollin 2003, pp. 20-75, for useful reflections on Wall Street Democrats creating future economic problems under Bill Clinton.
3. The nationally narcissistic notion of the United States as a specially benevolent, democratic, and far-seeing super-state that uses violence only for good and democratic purposes and which is uniquely qualified by God and/or History to guide the future of humanity.
4. As Hitchens elaborated: “That elite is most successful which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least transparently ‘elitist,’” making populist-sounding pledges that are “distinguished by a ‘reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers.”
5. Interestingly enough, Naomi Klein seems to date the onset of the neoliberal era from Chile’s 9/11. See Klein 2007.
6. Then George gets told by his own boss that the plant is in fact going to be closed because "some Mexican corporation” bought it out and is planning to set up shop back in Mexico. “They drove up a truckload of pesos,” George’s boss says. “Sorry George. It’s just business.” It’s quite revealing that the episode’s writers have the plant bought and closed and moved to Mexico by a “Mexican corporation.” That’s precisely the sort of thing that U.S. corporations are famous for doing in their perpetual search for lower labor costs, lower taxes, and weaker regulations.
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Paul Street 2008B. “Americans’ Progressive Opinions v. “the Shadow Cast on Society by Big Business,” ZNet Sustainer Commentary (May 15, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/3491.
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