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Keeping Our Demons at Bay
Posted on Mar 16, 2007
By Stan Goff
The durability of these norms and conventions is the constant Nemesis of social change agents. They still think a simple, well-constructed argument should be enough to “change one’s mind,” such a pale linguistic marker for what this proposes. Enough to begin demolishing the foundational structures of one’s entire worldview, and with it every decision taken on behalf of that worldview, every emotional attachment developed within its framework, and every single thing that gives them meaning as a safety rail along the Abyss. The Big Dark-World. Infinity that swallows us up. This is always the preoccupation of those who understand themselves as simply ... individuals.
This kind of saccharine script is irresistible to the narcissistic personality of our age. Our collective narcissism is the moth; the script is the flame.
Christopher Lasch, in “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations,” published all the way back in 1979, concluded (in perfectly predictable patriarchal terms, and with a powerful Freudian inflection) that the narcissism we see in American life is related to the loss of authority of the male. That’s Lasch’s misogyny, of course, so I am compelled to just name it. Nonetheless, Lasch’s description of cultural narcissism had a lot of pearls.
“Success in our society has to be ratified by publicity,” he said.
This script gets turned on by the likes of “journalists” such as David Finkel, and the public transfers its amorphous fear. We make the classic patriarchal deal writ large, the one expected of infantilized women. We accept the “protection” of the Father-State, and in exchange we offer up ... obedience and conformity ... even vigilance on behalf of the Father-State. We become dutiful.
Surveillance is established in the prisons, and we accept that. Then the hospitals, and we accept that. Then the factories, the offices, the corner stores ... dark danger is ubiquitous. Even in the family.
The beauty of this new Panopticon is not that it simply takes our eyes off the real war, the real plunder, the real system; it is that it stations a pernicious little watcher inside our individual brains. We become aware that we are under surveillance all the time, and this surveillance constitutes not the one discipline of the edict, but the implanted discipline that a complex society requires of its subjects to police themselves.
Finkel is not a dupe, any more than Judith Miller or Wolf Blitzer. They are all active agents of the war establishment. They are collaborators. It is this disciplinary process with which they collaborate. They teach us that Dark-World is real, and there we might be, but for the grace of God and our protectors: the cop, the soldier, the mercenary, the prison guard, the surveillance camera—the rat mentality that urges some of us to police others for conformity.
But suburbia is not safe. This is the central illusion.
While suburbia has had its eyes fixed on threatening images of Arabs and Persians and Latinos and deepest, darkest African America, the same establishment that makes war and builds prisons and gazes into our lives has picked suburban pockets with one hand and gripped the ‘burbs as loan sharks with the other.
Suburbia is not being protected; it is being saved for dessert.
It is this sector with its fragile, technological, disembodied living standard that will now come under attack. In the short term, that is already happening through financial manipulation and the further disappearance of living-wage jobs. The tremendous personal debt burden that is mounting in the American “middle class,” fueled by past low interest rates and cash-out equity loans, was the latest maneuver to prop up this sector’s role as global consumer—a time bomb that will explode directly under Suburbia’s feet.
Meanwhile, the liquidation of the commons—from Medicare to Social Security to public services—constitutes a massive transfer of wealth saved by these working people directly into the speculative money pit that is Wall Street. Suburbanites are workers in the truest sense, even though they seldom stand on the factory floor now. They don’t know it, but they are weak, dependent, high-maintenance workers in a consumer mill.
The bill for the United States from Treasury loans to other nations—already impossible to pay—grows exponentially to support the cost of the military now conducting the war, those we see as the guardians of civilization. Our children are inheriting this impasse. We have witnessed what happens when the suburbanites are fleeced; with the taxpayer bailout of the savings and loan criminals, the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund, these burdens will invoke the “too big to fail” principle. From Chrysler to Enron, the so-called middle class will pick up the tab.
The real threat will not appear as an Arab with a bomb or a 16-year-old with brown skin and a Glock. It is already present. It has appeared as pension funds disappearing in strategic bankruptcies. It has appeared as sub-prime lending and subsequent foreclosures.
“Thank you for buying all these houses,” the banks are already saying. “Now we can take them back and rent them to you.”
As Suburbia works harder and faster to keep up with the mounting debt, as it is forced to further ingratiate itself to Suburbia’s employers, as it learns to kiss more ass, get personality makeovers to fit itself heart-and-soul to the boss, it is obliged first and foremost to purchase the bare minimum of status markers (like stage props) that validate this new personality. To call narcissism in this age a “disorder” is a cruel pun. It is a cultural mandate—the norm.
Outside the ‘burbs, the treatment of the others as Dark-World has become a kind of local self-fulfilling prophecy. Blending of police and military functions corresponds to an increasingly uniform (urban, unemployed, young) and crisis-ridden global human ecology. Nonetheless, the imposition of a garrison state on people who have been previously privileged as a core political base (like Suburbia) is no simple matter.
If an openly warlike state is to impose control without the middlemen, it requires Spectacle as camouflage.
Soldier and SWAT spectacle ... soldier and SWAT reality. They are not the same, the spectacle and the reality.
Spectacle conceals reality.
Spectacle requires publicity and amplification.
What better publicity, what better amplifier, than Finkel’s crude reduction of this war to an adolescent docudrama for The Washington Post? Ever since the neocons came to power, most of the so-called reputable press has been so craven in its collaboration with our government that it might as well be assigned a formal position on the Pentagon staff.
The Dark-World set of establishment publicists like David Finkel and political consultants like Karl Rove is like a movie in one other respect. The light you see is on the screen. The story you see is framed in shadow. Remain passive. All will be well.
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