Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Displacement of the Public by the Promotional and the Disastrous Parochialism of Our Politics

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is now struggling for her life together with a number of other surviving victims of a profoundly mentally disturbed gunman with marginal right-wing anti-government associations and sympathies.

You will no doubt have heard already that the Sarah Palin camp is attempting to deny that the now notorious campaign ad of hers targeting Giffords and other Democrats for elimination was indeed saying what it was saying, however figuratively, denying that the ad relied for its intelligibility and force on the citation of the iconography and mobilization of the energies of right-wing anti-government discontent in which gun-culture and insurrectionary fantasizing figure prominently, right-wing cultures at the extremes of which -- providing their contours and supplying much of their organizational passion -- are white-racist and anti-abortion and anti-government and militia movements.
"We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights. It was simply cross-hairs like you'd see on maps," said Rebecca Mansour on the Tammy Bruce radio show. Moreover, there was "nothing irresponsible" about the image, and to draw a line connecting Palin and Saturday's shooting is "obscene" and "appalling."

The denial is of course patently ridiculous -- Palin was simply saying the obvious when she herself referred to the "'bullseye' icon used 2 [sic] target the 20 Obamacare-lovin' [sic] incumbent seats". No less patently ridiculous is her camp's effort to displace onto those who struggle to comprehend and contextualize violence what is obviously "obscene" and "appalling" in the violence itself and in those who play into it.

The indispensability to the very rich elite incumbent minority whose interests define the agenda of the Republican Party of a reservoir of ugly unruly inchoate white-racist authoritarian-religionist lumpenproletarian resentments and energies at its margins is well known and easily observed -- the Southern Strategy, the hate minorities denominated the Silent Majority-Moral Majority-Family Values-Values Voters, the Birchers and Buchananites, the Randroids and libertopians are none of them stealthy or inconspicuous -- as are the "dog whistle" genuflections to these constituencies and their anti-democratic dreams in would-be "mainstream" or "centrist" Republican politicians trolling for the stamp-lickers and sign-wavers and votes of the mobs needed to serve the minorities who sign the checks to keep as much oligarchy as can pass for democracy among the rubes from year to year.

There is rarely an easy, straightforward, direct line of causation connecting such cynical GOP "dog whistles" to the occasional eruption of outright criminal violence from some deranged quarter of the mob confusing getting the nod for getting a cue to unleash bloody mayhem This is not to deny either a real connection between endless recourse to the imagery of firearms and the rhetoric of elimination and such terrible acts, but just to insist on care in the attribution of culpable responsibilities in these circumstances. Although the situations differ, there is a family resemblance here with efforts either to draw too facile or to deny altogether a chain of causation between the teen who attempts rape and who also enjoys video games in which animated rape figures prominently, or gun violence in a school setting where the many kids listen to violent rock and/or rap music, so-called. As I say, the analogies are not perfect here, but they are close enough to recommend careful attention from those trying to grasp the connections between eruptions of criminal violence and the work of culture (and subcultures, including subcultures at the margins, including subcultures that organize at political sites) attesting to, responding to, negotiating with, making sense of criminal and systemic violence abroad in the world.

The Palin camp's effort to disavow altogether any need for soul searching in this moment, to register any complicity at all (here's to the "personal responsibility" crowd in action!) in the ongoing violence and ever-present threat of violence into which it is otherwise so eager to tap cynically and opportunistically for short-term advantage, media attention, better book sales, a better seat at the table where the spoils are divided, from moment to moment is all bad enough. But what seems to me even worse, if that is possible, and well worth a longer look, is frankly the incredible contempt expressed in the Palin camp's recourse to so obvious and so ridiculously false a claim in making its denial as to propose that the target icons in the infamous ad are in fact innocuous marks of the kind you would find on a surveyor's map.

You may recall that just a few days ago I posted about Republican Representative Darrell Issa, who is now Chair of the House Oversight Committee, and who told Rush Limbaugh a few months ago that he considered President Obama "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times." Since part of his brief in the Oversight Committee would be to address corruption, a word that actually means something that has actual serious penalties attached to it, it is scarcely surprising that Issa has regularly been pressed since making this statement and many others like it to provide a single piece of evidence of the actual corruption to which he referred. Obviously unable to do so Issa did not apologize or back down from his outrageous charge but proposed a rather brazen lie:
I think people misunderstand the meaning of the word corrupt, and obviously, CNN does. 'Corrupt', or 'corrupted' or 'failure', it's no different than a disc drive that's given you some bits that are wrong…. I have never said it's illegal. I've never made any of the statements that are often said on CNN that implied wrong-doing of the president at a criminal level.

In other words, when people understood him to be saying what he was obviously saying they were "misinterpreting" his intended meaning, just as when people recognized shooting targets pointing to candidates targeted for elimination in the Palin ad as evoking a painfully clear figure they too were "misinterpreting" her intended meaning. Never mind that using corruption in the sense of a corrupt computer file would render Issa's utterance politically ineffectual, never mind that a map with surveyor marks on it would render Palin's ad politically ineffectual -- in both cases demanding as the condition of their intelligibility according the their defensive retroactive justifications that both the utterance and the ad would be completely unintelligible in the political context in which utterances and ads are offered up to make impacts not puzzle audiences with their inapt innocuousness.

Many are making the important point that there is a distinction between heated disagreements and proposals on the part of one side of a heated disagreement that their opponent should be marked for death, either literally or even through the conjuration of the figure of firearms and force -- which is to say the present distress is not properly attributable to the "incivility" endlessly protested in some quarters, which is incapable of distinguishing strong disagreement from threats of violence, largely because they disapprove of any disputes over policy differences at all preferring as they seem to do the maintenance of the status quo above all else.

But it is not just their recourse to threats of violation and violent imagery that distinguishes Palin and Issa from legitimate political dispute right about now: In making these patently ridiculous moves, Palin and Issa reveal both the level of their contempt for the very idea of political legitimacy (that is to say, the idea that politics is beholden in the least either to the demands of truth or of ethics) and the level of their contempt for the people (to whom the attribution of the least dignity and standing in their diversity requires the minimal assumption of an expectation on their parts of some truthfulness and ethics in their representatives) in whose names and in whose interests they claim to speak and work.

Stakeholder politics are difficult and adults assume that the reconciliation of the diversity of aspirations of the plurality of peers with whom we share the world will be frustrating, and that even good faith efforts of good people of good will in the service of their ideals are fraught with peril and prone to error in the face of the real demands of pragmatism. This is not the sort of thing I am drawing attention to when I speak of the patent absurdity of the claims of Palin and Issa here.

Further, we have all come to expect, for better or worse, a terrible susceptibility to cynicism and hypocrisy and deception from nearly all partisan politicians -- in consequence of the deep and structural corruption of our institutions by the military-industrial complex, by a for-profit healthcare system, by the workings of ubiquitous lobbyists in the context of a surreally expensive privately-funded system of election. And we have all come to expect, for better or worse, this cynicism and hypocrisy and deception from Republican politicians in particular even more readily and naturally -- in consequence of the facts that Republicans primarily serve the interests of a small minority of moneyed and reactionary interests but that even in a notionally democratic system such as our own they must either attract or demoralize sufficient majorities to enact this agenda and it can only be through relentless cynicism, hypocrisy, and deception that such a fraud could be perpetrated to sufficient effect for long enough to be worth the money and effort the small minority of moneyed and reactionary interests they serve must put into it to keep it going. But neither is this the sort of thing I am drawing attention to (though we are getting closer now) when I speak of the patent absurdity of the claims of Palin and Issa here.

In going on and on and on about all this I do not want to be mistaken as simply belaboring the obvious point that Palin's camp, like Issa, is blatantly indulging in rather facile deception here. Of course Palin and Issa are lying, Republicans lie, just as of course Senate Republicans hyperventilating about filibuster reform are hypocritically reversing the "principled positions" they held when they would be the beneficiaries of filibuster reform, Republicans are hypocrites, just as of course House Republicans elected as deficit hawks are now gleefully setting out to add hundreds upon hundreds of billions to the deficit in order to give billionaires more tax breaks, Republicans represent the rich by mobilizing the mob, just as of course "family values" Republicans, in the fullness of time, are exposed in a garish parade of hotel rooms with big-haired anorexic women who are not their wives, with gay hookers' feet in their mouths, with their pockets full of bribe money.

Of course, as a matter of course: it has become an airless, joyless, robotic ritual, a dance of death in which conservatives lie and cheat and then are shown by progressives to have done so and then flashbulbs erupt and eyes roll and cynics shake their heads cynically while photogenic prison sentences and retirements sink into the swampy ooze where their books written or their path to a perch in firm or University or think-tank awaits and the next round of eager liars and criminals vaults onto the greasy pole…

It is wrong to think of the work of ideology as nothing but the work of a kind of relentless deception -- although such deception and cultivated ignorance are indeed among its spectacular achievements -- since ideology functions as well, and more importantly, when none or most of us are actually deceived at all. That is to say, what we properly call ideology works not only when and because we are deceived but also, and especially, despite the fact that we know better than to believe its deceptive formulations and so are deluded in a different and deeper way than deception from our capacity to act meaningfully and efficaciously together with our peers in the making and changing of the world. While some may buy the expensive toothpaste, which is not only ineffectual as compared to the promise of the radioactive detonation of white enamel pornographically brushing the digitally enhanced mouths of the joyful mammals modeling for the cameras but also ineffectual as compared to the endlessly many alternate toothpastes the multinational corporation also sells "in competition" with this one brand, because the man in the lab-coat and the thick but stylishly square-framed glasses says it exhibits scientific and medical qualities beyond compare, when in fact it does not, we describe as ideological the way in which not only those few who are duped by this ritual deception but the many more who are not deceived in the least will also buy the toothpaste -- about which they are reasonably skeptical about any claims about its superiority and about which claims they may even feel a sarcastic appreciation precisely of the manner of their falsity -- just because the ad and its associations has lodged congenially in their sense of self, enough so that no false expectation of medical enhancement, personal satisfaction, sexual liberation, consumer emancipation at all is necessary to impel them pluck the product from the supermarket shelf.

(Those of you who might think upon reading this that I must be an avid reader of Slavoj Zizek are, I suppose, either ignorant of or forgetful of the better and more serious work of Adorno and Barthes, the first of whom is incomparably more insightful, the second of whom wrote incomparably more beautifully and clearly, and both of whom preceded Zizek's gnomic regurgitations by decades.)

Americans "buy" the Republican family values schtick and they "buy" the Republican fiscal responsibility schtick and they "buy" the Republican libertarian schtick not so much because they believe what Republicans say as despite not believing what they say enough never to be the least bit shocked, never to exact any kind of price whenever Republicans are subsequently exposed in their infidelities, their reckless borrowing and revenue giveaways, their hostility to civil liberties all in the usual manner.

As I said, anybody who is not a complete fool or naïf has acquired a certain skepticism about the motives of even the best of our partisan politicians, and anybody who is not a complete fool or naïf has come, likewise, to realize that stakeholder politics requires painful compromises and demands fraught, error-prone negotiations of the ideal in light of the pragmatically possible (a sense of the possible which itself is error-prone and all too corruptible).

Further, every minimally competent citizen in any complex, hierarchical, mass-mediated society with a functional division of labor participating in global finance and trade, even or especially in notionally democratic societies relying for their legitimacy on the appearance and experience of the consent or reconciliation of the governed to their government, will be literate in the reading and appreciation and enabling -- variously earnestly, sarcastically, otherwise ambivalently -- of any number of ideological formations suffusing public discourse.

But I want to propose at least one more element is at work here beyond our cynicism at ubiquitous corruption, our awareness of the fraught negotiation of the ideal and pragmatic in all stakeholder politics, and the work of ideology: and that is the prevalence in our time of a deceptive and hyperbolic and parochial advertising and promotional culture that has largely displaced the assumptions, norms, and practices out of which legitimacy -- such as it is, and however compromised -- hitherto has shaped public life.

I have been preoccupied lately with the crisis of scientific, ethical, and political legitimacy exacerbated by the ongoing suffusion and subversion of public discourses and institutions by the norms, ends, assumptions and ethos of marketing and promotional discourse. Just this Friday I posted a new critique of futurological discourse emphasizing these issues, for example.

As a pluralist and a pragmatist I have long accepted as my own the definition of truth in William James's proposal that "the true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons." It has also long seemed to me that one can identify a usefully limited number of separate, but no doubt also related, domains of reasonable belief-ascription, domains of truth-talk each with a shared ethos, responding to shared histories and hopes, emerging out of shared situations or practices, with shared criteria of reasonable warrant. The domains I tend to talk about are science, morals, aesthetics, ethics, politics, commerce, but I do not doubt that these domains could readily be multiplied, carved up differently, go by different names, etc.

Now, for me, the domains of the scientific and of the ethical, considered as importantly separable modes (among many) of warranted belief-ascription or truth-talk, are defined not only by their unique criteria of warrant (for instance, falsifiability for science, integrity for ethics) but also out of the practices and imperatives of contingent universalization out of which the legitimacy of each is substantiated, as distinguished crucially from the essentially parochial practices and imperatives out of which arise the different truths of profitability (every profit somewhere complemented by a loss elsewhere) and morality (every "we" constituted through the exclusion of a "they").

I do not point out these differences to denigrate profit as compared to scientific consensus or morality as compared to ethics. Sometimes, surely, what is reasonable and congenially wanted is to make a profit in some competitive context, just as sometimes what is wanted is to signal one's belonging in a particular moral community, just as sometimes what is wanted is a belief that a consensus of scientists propose as best, however counter-intuitive it may be, at delivering superior powers of prediction and control, just as sometimes what is wanted are norms that would solicit universal assent among the diversity of individuals and subcultures who share the world and collaborate in shaping its posterity, just as sometimes what is wanted are nonviolent adjudications of stakeholder disputes, however contingent they may be.

To be reasonable demands a proper respect, in their proper places, for all the various goods in respect to which we can be warranted or not in our beliefs. We are irrational in my view not only when we accept as true a belief that is not warranted as such, especially when we do or should know better, but also when we mistake the domain of truth an occasion calls for or try to impose the criteria of warrant proper to one domain onto another to which it is unsuited.

Looking back over much of my writing, it would seem that I am especially preoccupied by those confusions and problems that arise from ignorant or mistaken efforts to substitute properly parochial domains of belief-ascription for those which yield the indispensable legitimacy of contingent-collective-universalization. Given how often the verdicts of such universalization can be exposed retroactively as more beholden to parochial concerns than they aspired to be, these are of course perfectly understandable confusions and problems.

But treating the difference between the insistent-parochial and contingent-universal as a difference that makes a difference and acting as though it does in one's efforts and aspirations really is indispensable, I would say, however trivial a difference it may seem at an initial glance; which is to say, putting the point in its weakest form, more confusions and problems by far are introduced by dispensing with the distinction in practice than must be coped with in keeping the distinction in theory, and putting the point in its strongest form, this is a distinction, if I may crib from Gayatri Spivak, we cannot not want.

In particular, I keep warning against the prioritization or substitution of the moral for the ethical (which yields moralizing and genocide) and against the prioritization or the substitution of the profitable for the scientific (which yields propaganda and oligarchy). It seems to me that efforts to make sense of the force of the propaganda technique of the Big Lie or to grasp the force of the philosophical proposal of the "noble lie" both benefit from a focus on such confusions, for example.

Not so very long ago there began the still-ongoing, still-incredible criminal enterprise of the George W. Bush administration to declare an illegal pre-emptive war based on lies and then, in pursuing that war and the subsequent occupation of territories conquered in that war, to engage in war-crimes like torture and illegal domestic spying and other violations of Constitutional rights.

It is in my view the utter suffusion and subversion of the concerns of legitimate politics (even conceding the debased form of our democracy) by the norms and assumptions and practices of marketing and promotional discourse that accounts most of all for the criminal catastrophe of the Bush Administration and the debasements of Movement Republicanism more generally, both the inspiration of its vile architects and the resignation to its evil -- again, very much ongoing -- by American majorities, including many who disapprove of what they are nonetheless enabling.

More than the greed, more than the bloodymindedness, more than the imperial hubris, more than the indifference to unnecessary suffering, more than the entanglement in brazen deceptions and flabbergasting incompetence, what I would direct our attention to is the shaping of that criminal enterprise, that war, occupation, looting, torture precisely by the parochial and wishful norms and ends of marketing and promotional discourse and their substitution for the norms and ends of legitimate public science, ethics, and politics. The megalomaniacal ad-man's delusion that an unpopular unecessary illegal war could be sold like anything else to saucer-eyed consumers and the futurological fantasies of war on the cheap through digital network jazz all to conjure up at the place of one of humanity's oldest civilizations the neo-feudal fraud of a libertopian snake-oil paradise of contractors casinos and crap, all displaced considerations of respect for evidence, for the rule of law, for the consent of the governed, for the shared humanity of shocked and awed civilians, for the good opinion of mankind, even for the practical rules of warfare.

In an article published by William Schneider in early September, 2002, entitled "Marketing Iraq: Why now?" then White House chief of staff Andrew Card explained the timing of the Bush Administration's sudden insistent public push for an invasion of Iraq by declaring, in a phrase that immediately became notorious, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

That the decision to invade Iraq was indeed made from the vantage of "a marketing point of view" could be discerned as much in Republican strategist Dick Morris's assessment at the time that "Polls show that only one issue works in Bush's favor: terrorism" (not that Iraq was actually connected to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in any case), and also in Karl Rove's no less cynical assessment that "We can also go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military and thereby protecting America," but also in the response to demands for evidence with dismissive appeals to uncritical passions over falsifiable reports, from President Bush's evocation of "ticking time bombs" to Condoleeza Rice's notorious terrorizing declaration that "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." (All these quotes are included in the article linked above.)

Whereas the scientific and ethical domains of truth confer a legitimacy to which not only those who are shown to be right but those who are wrong, not only those whose case prevails but those who are defeated are both beholden, in marketing and promotional discourse there is no question of contingent universalization: what is marketed or promoted is always a product or service or spin among competitors, and what is sought is only adequate prevalence not generality, the term of profit or victory is defined by immediacy not posterity, the continence of commercial success or moral satisfaction does not rely on concern with the fate of the loser, the outsider, the excluded, however proximate they may be, however urgent may be their concern.

We have come to expect hyperbolic claims, outright deceptions, misleading repackaging of the stale as the new and improved in the advertising that bombards us incessantly and ubiquitously today. Even commercials connected to government blatantly deceive us: as in the Air Force ad that conjures up a computer generated conflict of spacecraft and orbiting military platforms and concludes with the slogan "It's Not Science Fiction" when that is precisely and obviously what it is.

Advertising copy colonizes ever more of our geography, our time, our attention, where ads have always been they are multiplying deliriously, where commercials already hailed us they are growing ever louder, ever more shrill, corporate logos are re-branding our public buildings, commercials interpose themselves in our privileged professional relationships with our doctors and lawyers, advertisements distract and derange the deliberation of scholars at study in public universities, newspaper "reportage" in Science and Technology sections are scarcely distinguishable from advertisements enthusing over consumer goods like the "latest" cell-phone or hybrid car or indulge in fantastic extrapolations from inconclusive press releases about some medical research finding into futurological agonies and ecstasies over "designer kids" "clone armies" "zombie drugs" or "thousand-year lifespans."

Propaganda networks like Fox are content -- indeed, eager -- to appeal only to a mass but nonetheless canalized and insulated audience whose sense of reality, facts, values, acceptable conduct are importantly at odds with those of vast numbers of their fellow citizens and fellow earthlings, but with which they cannot be reconciled because there are no authorities to which they could make consistent shared recourse to adjudicate disputes on either facts of the matter or to deliberate respectfully on questions of what matters in the first place.

We are saturated in deception, spin, hyperbole for parochial short-term inconstant gains and we come to find our expectations, our assumptions, our aspirations, our very souls are being reshaped in the image of the parochial promotional: the desperate marketing impulse that pads our resumes to get that job interview, whatever our qualifications, and connect us somehow to some useful role in the society from which we feel unmoored, the sad self-promotional effort that exaggerates, fictionalizes, and normalizes our personal profiles and photoshops our images to get that first date, whereupon we dream some magic of encounter will deliver us from spiritual homelessness, the pathetic public relations ethos that drives us to express ourselves in blog posts that yield zero comments, that pretend word clouds mechanistically weighting the frequency of word choices discerns some unique meaning from utterly undistinguished utterances, that fancies the number of fleeting page views drawn in by who knows what word search strings renders us public intellectuals of a sort, all the while only the silent raptor-eyed panoptic surveyors and monitors of the security state and the compilers of profiles for even more incessant and intensively targeted advertising harassment show much more than utter indifference to our "participation" in the remnant freedom of open networks...

We fancy we are agents marketing ourselves for advantage in a networked attentional economy, promoting what is remarkable in us when instead we go unremarked but marked for marketing, constituted in our selves as market-ready, readily marketed, on the make not self-making but on the market.

There have always been ideologues and charlatans and fraudsters populating the scene of our public life, there has always been deception and corruption and scandal, oligarchy and violence and exploitation are nothing new. But we have been sold: the corrosive and deepening derangement of public discourse by the norms and forms of promotional discourse demands our urgent and immediate address, its forms facilitate in their utter prevalence the displacement by parochial profit-taking and imperial moralizing of the contingent universalization in which public scientific, ethical, and political legitimacies are lodged, its suffusion of our public life and our public selfhood provides an indispensable but neglected context (no doubt among others) with which to understand the special vulnerability to and force of eliminationism, hyperbole, deception in our debased contemporary politics.


jollyspaniard said...

I think Sarah Palin may have just hit her Emperor Has No Clothes moment. Even people on Tea Party blogs are viewing her canned, whiney, "I'm the real victim here" youtube address unfavourably. I tried watching it myself but had to stop half way through it was too cringe inducing for me to stomach. I've not heard Obama's speech yet but even the tea partiers like it which is some feat.

You make a lot of good thought provoking comments. Despite your framing of the problem I still don't understand how one can craft a politics that can appeal beyond the wall of resentment that seems to govern the hard divide between progressive and reactionary politics in our respective countries.

America seems to have had a small "penny dropping" moment this week. But America is still miles away from giving up military hegemony (or euphemisticaly called "forward deployment") which is what's really underneath everything you're describing here. Britain gave up their empire but it took two World Wars, Suez and Ghandi to do it. After they gave up the empire their national character completely changed. What's it going to take for America to do the same?

jollyspaniard said...

One scary thing worth pointing out is that "war on the cheap" is becoming possible. It's now possible to deploy munitions to remote areas relatively inexpensively using drones. And that cost is getting cheaper all the time.

However there does seem to be an external cost. People in these countries violently object to killer robots operating with impunity against defenceless villagers for some reason.

Dale Carrico said...

The imperial delusion of "war on the cheap" has been around since empires have. Flashy aggressive initial victories enabled by superior imperial resources and then overreaching, fatal neglect of "hearts and minds," widespread corruption seem always inevitably to follow. I strongly suspect it is a futurological fancy to expect drones to alter the fundamentals very much.

Dale Carrico said...

Sarah Palin is a celebrity, not a politician. Every campaign is a marketing campaign for her books and shows and so on. There is a sense in which the same can be said for the GOP as a whole these days -- this is what it means for Republicans always to apologize to Rush Limbaugh when they cause the least offense, or to declare they used to think Fox worked for them but now they realize they work for Fox. The GOP is not a party with a governing philosophy, they are empty suits engaged in permanent campaigning and PR stunts that amount to entertainment ventures while contracting governance out to corporations. It can't work: either secular sustainable social democracy will prevail over them or they will succeed long enough to bring America down around their ears.