November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Fred Russell/The Decency Factor

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John Stewart/Daily Show, July 15, 2014

John Stewart/Daily Show, July 15, 2014

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 AMERICAN NOTES

by Fred Russell

“What America is left with is essentially what it calls its freedom, which comes down to saying whatever comes into one’s head, in thousands of academic and popular journals, in the daily newspapers, in television studios, in blogs, and in the privacy of one’s own home. None of this has the slightest effect on how the country is governed.”

 

1. THE WAY WE WERE

Sometimes the amateur anthropologist finds things where he isn’t looking for them. METV – Middle East Television – [U.S. 48 star flag 1912]is a Christian TV network transmitting from Cyprus to the entire Middle East. In addition to its Christian messages it broadcasts “wholesome family entertainment.” This mostly consists of TV series from the 1950s – Lassie, The Lone Ranger, Andy Griffith, The Lucy Show – and films from the 1930s and 1940s, with a predilection for Westerns featuring John Wayne or Roy Rogers. One can’t help thinking that METV must have gotten one helluva deal on these old films, buying up the entire lot probably, but that isn’t the point. Clearly the clincher was their wholesomeness, for it goes without saying that anything produced for mass audiences back then must have reflected a “moral” America where sex was hidden and Christian virtues always triumphed. The value of these films and TV shows is that they serve as a barometer of the American psyche, for nothing reflects the basic, unspoken assumptions of American life more clearly than Hollywood films and the old family TV shows. What Americans responded to in those years tells us what America was. It documents, indirectly, how Americans saw the world, life, themselves, as no other source does.

You know how these Westerns operate. A morally and sexually pure hero overcomes the forces of evil and gets the chaste girl. This is the central myth of American life. The male audience lives vicariously through the hero. His triumphs, always involving violence, address the viewer’s feelings of inadequacy and resentment, of smallness, especially when the villain is rich and powerful. The purity masks guilt. The Western is therefore emblematic, if not therapeutic, operating on an unconscious level. The viewer finds it satisfying but doesn’t really know why, that is, doesn’t make the connection between the hero and himself in any explicit way, though he identifies with him and often becomes a hero himself in his daydreams. The feelings of inadequacy and resentment derive from the sense of failure that most Americans live with, for the great prizes go to the few, not the many, and for most Americans the great dream is the dream of wealth and fame. These feelings have persisted into the present century and continue to be addressed by Hollywood. On the other hand, the idea of sexual purity and the anguish of sexual guilt went out the window in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The sexually pure hero is no longer a model, serves no purpose; the culture itself took care of the problem, setting up new norms, except among the Christian fundamentalists. Heroes, however, remain moral in the larger sense, as moral purity continues to remain an American ideal. Americans want to be decent but often are not. The hero – an honest cop, a crusading reporter, a self-sacrificing everyman – allows us to inhabit our better selves. The difference now is that the greater sophistication of Americans allows for a more realistic representation of moral ambiguity.

By reviving these films, METV does a great service, providing a snapshot of America’s inner life at its crudest level. By studying them we can discover who we are. It is these films too that will be studied in a hundred and a thousand years to tell future generations what America was. Let us hope that METV preserves them.

2. WHO DO THEY THINK THEY’RE KIDDING?

The complaint of American conservatives that the mainstream media is “liberal” or even “leftist,” heard roughly every
[U.S. 48 star flag 1912]hour on the hour on Fox News and other right-wing outlets, highlights the inability of journalists to understand their own profession. The problem with journalists has never been their political leanings or biases. The problem has always been their competence. They are not, after all, historians or scholars or political scientists, or novelists or dramatists or film makers for that matter. Their ability to understand social or historical processes is limited, as is their knowledge of the world, given their inability to speak the languages of the countries they report from and comment on and consequently their ignorance of the culture, religion, history and politics of these countries. Their minds too, it must be said, are fairly commonplace, as evidenced by their use of language, which constantly falls back on platitudes in the absence of real perception. And yet, incredibly, it is they of all people who determine the way we see the world.

The biases of journalists, or the slant they give to their reporting and “analysis,” are really limited in the harm they do, as their audience is as biased as they are and at the most picks up arguments from them to reinforce these biases. Certainly they can sway public opinion from one day to the next, among “undecided” voters, for example, and in this way influence elections, though the end result of the voting process is to elect representatives with whom the voters are invariably dissatisfied and who are held in very low esteem. It is therefore not by swaying public opinion, and certainly not by creating an informed public, that journalists exert their real influence but by contributing to the public’s ignorance, that is, by presenting an extremely distorted picture of the world that the public uncritically accepts in the absence of any deeper knowledge. One might even say that the journalistic profession and the uninformed public deserve each other. If people really want to understand the world, they should try reading books instead of newspapers.

The belief that freedom of speech and public debate is the cornerstone of democracy is one of the great myths of American life, a self-serving myth that journalists are forever promoting to justify their existence and their methods. The cornerstone of a democracy is its legal system and the traditions that sustain it. The guardians of democracy are the courts. Criticism of politicians in the media has next to no lasting effect on American life. The media may “expose” politicians but insofar as it is their criminal activities that are exposed, what is being exposed is almost always an official investigation, making the exposure superfluous. Insofar as the media exposes what it deems to be moral turpitude or simply goes with a headline grabber – adultery, perhaps a homosexual affair, something about marijuana thirty years ago – it is questionable whether it is anyone’s business. As for simple and common government mismanagement – waste and all the rest – the manner in which governments operate has not been influenced one jot by investigative reporting.

This is not to say that journalists do not occasionally hit a home run or take on  needy cases and change lives by exerting pressure in the right places. That is fine, and if the media wish to invest their enormous resources in doing work that the police do infinitely better or pointing fingers and stirring up tempests in a teacup for no practical purpose or taking one out of a million Americans under their wing and solving his problems, that is their business. Admittedly they also manage to intimidate politicians, right up to the President, but the little dance that journalists and politicians do in no way improves the quality of government. In fact, the time and effort invested by elected officials in “spinning” stories represents an enormous waste of the taxpayer’s money – hundreds if not thousands of aides playing the press every morning, rooms full of people dreaming up excuses for the President’s latest mishap – not to mention often injudicious changes in policy or courses of action simply because of the way they might look in the press.

What is left at the end of the day is some drama and entertainment bought by the American public at an enormous price – the invasion of people’s privacy by an army of reporters who will expose anything that gets them a screaming headline. Into the hands of these reporters has been placed one of the most important functions in a modern society – the control of information. Neither in terms of morality or capability are they the right people for the job.

3. STATE OF THE UNION

Most politicians have the same social vision: to improve everything. That means less crime, less poverty, more health,
[U.S. 48 star flag 1912]more education. Some even offer specific programs. None, however, has succeeded in improving the look of society in any significant way. This is not surprising. Politicians are not social scientists, nor are the bureaucrats who administer government offices. Tocqueville noted nearly 200 years ago that in America it is the least talented men who go into politics. Nothing has really changed, though it is true that as government expanded and offered greater opportunities to exercise power and enjoy prestige, it began to attract more talented individuals with successful careers behind them – businessmen and military men, for example. However, these governed no better than their predecessors, bringing to government skills that were not especially suited to governing a nation, as well as appetites and ambitions that overrode the will to serve. Of course, governments also enlist the services of experts – those same social scientists – but even these are tied to concepts that have never really worked.

Education, for example, is still tied to the old Church idea – propagated by countless generations of churchmen serving as teachers – that as a consequence of Original Sin all men are born evil and must therefore be coerced into doing what is good, an idea that produced rigidly structured educational frameworks where teachers hammered away at the captive child until his head was ready to explode, making study a burden and creating in the child an aversion to the learning process that persists to this day in these same rigid frameworks. The result is a nation of ignoramuses (40% of Americans don’t know that Germany and Japan were the enemies in World War II). Health care, in America, has been so difficult to reform because America is tied to an ideology that makes the idea of socialized medicine anathema, an idea that one might say it took all 20,000 pages of the Affordable Care Act to get around under a system that, according to doctors’ estimates, has been costing America approximately 20,000 lives a year as a direct result of inadequate health care. The inability of Americans to utter the word socialism has cost more American lives than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add to this the unwillingness of the government to clamp down on a food industry that is destroying the country’s health and a drug industry that prefers to control rather than eradicate diseases for reasons of profit, and to close down the tobacco industry entirely, and you can only conclude that the government has consciously chosen economic stability over human life.

Crime and poverty in America are higher than anywhere in the West – violent crime five times higher than in Western Europe and poverty twice as high. The two are of course linked. In America, African Americans are poorer than everyone else and consequently commit more crimes than anyone else. Their condition is the direct result of the way they have been treated by the white population, but no government will ever have the courage to assume the moral debt of the American people to African Americans and make real financial amends to them. In all, about 100 million Americans are hovering around the poverty line – an absolute disgrace in what is the richest country in the world.

It can therefore be stated unequivocally that America is not going to solve its social problems. Things can get much worse but not much better because even when things are at their best the main beneficiaries are a relatively small economic elite. The most that middle-class Americans can hope for is a slightly larger margin of comfort, a little less financial pressure. This is the underside of the American Dream, a region inhabited by the overwhelming majority of Americans.

America’s great comfort in these trying years has been the collapse of the Soviet Union, perceived as representing the defeat of Communism and the triumph of Capitalism. But what has been gained? Russia is still the same Russia, a formidable enemy that nothing short of a nuclear holocaust will cause to go away, and in the meanwhile China has produced an economic model – relative entrepreneurial freedom, a mobilized population and centralized, totalitarian, undemocratic government – that is very likely to gain ascendancy over the American model within a very few years, while Western Europe has produced a social model that is considerably more equitable than America’s. What America is left with is essentially what it calls its freedom, which comes down to saying whatever comes into one’s head, in thousands of academic and popular journals, in the daily newspapers, in television studios, in blogs, and in the privacy of one’s own home. None of this has the slightest effect on how the country is governed.

America is unfixable. It cultivates the illusion that it is the greatest country on the face of the earth, and maybe it is in terms of wealth and power, but it certainly isn’t in terms of its social fabric and the way ordinary people live. To fix itself America would have to do something that is almost unthinkable: liberate itself from the American Dream, for what ordinary people in America have seldom realized is that they can live fulfilling and even exalted lives by simply being decent.

 About the author:

Fred Russell is the pen name of an American-born writer living in Israel. His novel Rafi’s World (Fomite Press), dealing with Israel’s emerging criminal class, was published in Feb. 2014 and his stories and essays have appeared in Third Coast, Polluto, Fiction on the Web, Wilderness House Literary Review, Ontologica, Unlikely Stories: Episode 4, Gadfly, En Pointe, In Parenthesis, etc.