Saturday, March 12, 2011

Simic's Case

Since I just endorsed Charles Simic’s post to NYRBlog on “The New American Pessimism,” I suspect that it would be fair for me to say something about what I endorse.  The crux of his case lies in three paragraphs towards the end of his post:

In an atmosphere of growing anxiety and hysteria, in which the true causes and the scale of our dire national predicament are deliberately concealed and obfuscated by our political establishment and by the corporate media, no wonder there’s confusion and anger everywhere. As anyone who has traveled around this country and talked to people knows, Americans are not just badly informed, but downright ignorant about most things that affect their lives. How nice it would be if our President leveled with us and told us that our deficit is caused in significant part by the wars we are fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the hundreds of military bases we are maintaining around the world, the huge tax breaks for the rich, and the bailout of Wall Street. As we know, we are not about to hear anything of the kind.

By the president’s calculation, telling the truth to the American people would doom his reelection campaign, since he would not be able to raise the billion dollars he needs this time around. The kind of people who have that kind of money and will agree to contribute to his campaign know very well what informed voters in a working democracy would to do to them once they understood just who has depleted the national treasury to line their own pockets. No doubt, he and his political party will do anything to avoid the truth and will propose outwardly attractive solutions—like the health care bill that not only expands coverage but greatly benefits insurance companies and does little to reduce healthcare costs. They hope that these kinds of measures will lure the majority of voters who won’t bother to learn the details, but they will also send a clear signal to the moneyed classes that they won’t be inconvenienced in the least.

As for those who continue to insist that there’s something fundamentally wrong with a democracy that doesn’t address the ever-growing income inequality the sheer madness of our open-ended military ventures in Afghanistan, the miseries of the sick and unemployed, the suffering of the near destitute and of the children and the old, they’ll be dismissed as being unrealistic in present circumstances and reminded that with the other party in power things would be even worse. The reason pessimists are multiplying is that we dishonor the intellect and the knowledge of history in this country by refusing to admit that corruption is the source of our ills. It takes no great mental effort to realize that there’s no effective political forces either in Washington or locally that are able to do anything serious to correct our self-delusions about being the world’s policeman, because any sensible solution would seriously cut into profits of this or that interest group.

Nevertheless, I would not say that I am in total agreement with his claims.  Thus, I would argue that Americans are “downright ignorant” because any process that should be informing them is not just failing them but is failing them through its own corrupted state.  In other words we should not be thinking of these people in terms of their ignorance but in terms of their suffering from the symptoms of what Max Weber called “loss of meaning” as a result of the systematic manipulations of the consciousness industry.  This is why Hans Magnus Enzensberger hit the nail on the head so accurately when he coined that phrase, because we are talking about an efficient industrialized approach that manipulates the workings of our very consciousness, that capacity of mind to make sense out of sensory input that would otherwise confuse us.  Adolf Hitler knew all about undermining that capacity;  he wrote about it in Mein Kampf.  Those who practice it today, however, have got it down to such industrial efficiency (hence Enzensberger’s terminology) that we barely recognize Hitler’s ancestry in their practices.

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