Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Barnum Identity

In this election year, with all the talk about voting blocs and demographics, there is one group that is rarely mentioned. Yet it is one of the largest segments of the U.S. population, if not the largest, and it has become an increasingly powerful force to be reckoned with on the political, economic, and social landscape.

I’m referring, of course, to suckers.

It’s not as if this is a completely new social group—certainly the advertising industry has long focused on this huge and fertile consumer base. And the emergence and eventual dominance of movies and (especially) television as purveyors of entertainment and information has expanded the economic influence of suckers to the point where they have become arguably the most influential segment of the American audience. But public and popular discourse has been very slow in acknowledging this all-important group.

“There’s a definite social stigma still attached to being a sucker,” explains Dr. Herbert Dietrich, a sociologist and author of the upcoming book The Gullible Majority. “People associate the label with ignorance and stupidity, so suckers are understandably wary of identifying as such, while business and government tend to allude to suckers without being explicit enough to offend. It’s a problem because the shame and secrecy makes it more difficult for suckers to fully participate in public life.”

But there are signs of change. The Bush administration inaugurated a novel approach that has surprised veteran political insiders. Abandoning old notions of apparent adherence to empirical facts, the Bush team has made explicit overtures to the sucker demographic through an ingenious, “fluid” concept of reality that conforms to whatever is required by the authorities at a given time. Voters are therefore encouraged to affirm rather than conceal their sucker identity, a bold strategy that has had interesting but mixed results to this date.

Researches indicate that suckers constitute close to 80% of consumers of pharmaceuticals, beauty products, video games, alcoholic beverages, and family-size vehicles. The percentages are high for many other sectors of the economy as well. The Fox News channel is famed for aiming its programming exclusively at this group, but the other television networks are gaining ground, especially among those who remain ambivalent about their sucker identity.

Suckers are repelled by the cold abstractions of intellectuals and social engineers. Their concerns are centered more in matters of the heart, such as prayer in schools, gay marriage, or the sufferings of celebrities. Values matter to them, not ideas.

Despite the ugly stereotypes, suckers come from all walks of life and every level of education. College-educated suckers are in fact eagerly sought after by companies because of their generally greater spending power. Of course we’re used to seeing those people sitting behind a political candidate holding signs and clapping, but this is only a small segment of this dynamic group—in fact, suckers are all around us, in our homes, schools, and places of employment. Soon they will be tired of the secrecy surrounding their extraordinary dominance in American life.

Already there are sucker clubs and support groups springing up around the nation. Therapists and self-improvement coaches are helping people acknowledge their inner suckers and become proud of their malleability and openness to suggestion. What used to be scorned as naivete is now being affirmed as vulnerability.

If indeed there is a sucker born every minute, we can look forward to a better future in America. The conflict and divisiveness that has torn our country apart will gradually subside as suckers discover their solidarity and unite behind our leaders. As long as there are suckers, Wall Street and the economy will prosper, our troops will continue to defend freedom, and the nuclear family will endure. Here is the real center, the mainstream of society, the backbone of our country, the greatest on earth. All they need is to be told what to do, and all they ask is to be given an even break.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A break

I'm going on vacation, kids. Going where it's cool. No computers, no TV, no phones. I'll be back around the 27th of August. Meanwhile, would somebody please arrest Richard Cheney? Thank you.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

See you in China

China has enjoyed “favored trade status” with the U.S. for a long time now. American leaders claimed that a policy of engagement would eventually lead to a liberalization of China’s human rights record. That hasn’t happened, but you don’t hear the American politicians making much noise about it. We’re still regularly prompted to hate Cuba and North Korea, not to mention Iran, Syria, and Venezuela—but China is our buddy now.

It’s fairly obvious why this is so. China represents a huge new market for business, as well as a source of cheap labor. If there’s a lot of money to be made, you can just forget all that “human rights” talk. And that’s just what the global corporate interests have done—not that our owners ever cared much in the first place.

“President” Bush will be at the Olympics, along with NBC, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Adidas, and many other benevolent sponsors of our way of life. And even though China supports thuggery in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Burma, and vetoes any attempts by the U.N. to help the people in those countries, it won’t be labeled a state sponsor of terrorism. It's too big and powerful to be in the axis of evil—the Chinese own too many assets, and the U.S. owes them too much money. The axis of evil is only for weaker countries that can be bullied on the world stage.

But I think there’s still more to it. I’ve said it before, but I’m not averse to some reiteration now and then: the neocons and their Repug enablers are passionate secret admirers of the Chinese government. They look at the American tradition and they see weakness and anarchy, a lot of rubbish about self-evident truths and inalienable rights. Then they look at China and wish that we could be more like them.

China has an aggressive, fast-growing "state capitalist" economy. Their pool of workers is huge and easily exploitable—labor unions are not allowed. Industry can pollute to its heart’s content, without interference from environmentalists. There is only one political party, and it controls everything. The members of that party enjoy the privileges of an elite with little restraint or regulation. It is against the law to criticize the government. So-called freedom of speech, which always disturbs the function of the state, is non-existent and irrelevant. The party can lock up anybody it wants to, and there are no significant protests or consequences. Although the government routinely denies it, torture is allowed and regularly practiced. All important decisions are made in secret, and the operations of government are successfully concealed from the public. A vast police apparatus keeps the population under surveillance. The military conducts its operations without public oversight.

The fact that the party controlling China calls itself Communist is really beside the point. No one really believes all that talk about “the people” anymore, least of all the Chinese themselves. The businessmen and the generals and the politicians get rich, while millions remain poor. Their foreign policy is naked realpolitik—you don’t think they support Sudan or Burma out of principle, do you? What about women’s rights? Take a look at the photos of party leaders meeting together. See any women there? Gay rights? You’ve got to be kidding.

So the only difference, really, is that the Chinese government gets to have its way without interference from left liberal ACLU feminist moonbat journalists or other troop haters. They can just lock up their enemies, or kill them, and make lots of money. This is Dick Cheney’s wet dream. With a few minor cultural alterations, it sounds like the Fox News vision for America. All this stuff with FISA, the Patriot Act, rendition and torture, the militarization of our culture—it’s all just the Bush rats playing catch-up. We’re behind, don’t you see? You’ve heard of the arms race; this is the repression race. Freedom is holding us back from our potential as a world power.

This neocon push to turn the U.S. into a Chinese-style national security state has not been so simple, or as easy as the deep thinkers on the right were hoping it would be. Granted, slavish obedience has a long historical pedigree. Humans are primarily social, subject to the legitimate need for custom and authority. China has a very spotty history of intellectual freedom, and even less experience with democracy. With the 20th century came totalitarianism under Mao, and the effects of subjugation are still evident today.

In the United States, it’s not so simple. I think it’s inaccurate to characterize Americans as either brave lovers of liberty or ignorant docile sheep. The truth is more complicated—we’re really a diffuse mixture of both, with many shades in between. Our history has always displayed a tension between the belief in obedience to the status quo and a striving for individuality and justice. The status quo has almost always had the upper hand, but the other aspect hasn’t died out yet, either. The curious thing is that, leaving aside the voicing of political views, Americans are generally accustomed to saying whatever they want. Some form of rebellion seems to always take shape in the culture. When we think of free speech, however, we tend to conceive of it in high-minded terms, as a sort of noble ideal of liberty. We underestimate the simple pleasure of just speaking one’s mind without fear. We’ve become used to making jokes about everything, accustomed to looking at the situation with a bit of cynicism.

If these visionaries, these crackpot neocons, think that Americans are going to easily suppress that pleasure in favor of an austere, Chinese-style cultural hypnosis, they’re going to be disappointed. It’s not that Americans are rising up en masse against the pigs or anything like that—we all know that’s not happening. But there’s a very basic resistance to losing the pleasure of saying what we want, and doing pretty much what we want, without being stopped and frisked, or arrested for making statements detrimental to the welfare and unity of the American people. Don't get me wrong. I don’t think it’s impossible for us to become like China. Certainly, China’s secret admirers in Washington will keep trying to achieve that goal. But it’s an uphill climb.