Saturday, October 24, 2009

Our Embedded Media

Recently there was an article on natural gas extraction in the NY Times. It was basically a cheerleading essay on how the wonderful new technology of ‘fracking’ was going to exponentially increase the world’s natural gas supply. There was not one single word in the entire article about this technology’s serious environmental repercussions – from its use of large quantities of highly toxic chemicals, to the truly incredible quantities of water it requires.

This led me to think more and more about how our media have changed in my lifetime.

When I was a kid, the horrors of Vietnam were in our living rooms, and our magazines. As a young child, I was traumatized to see pictures of napalmed children in a copy of Newsweek while waiting in a pediatrician’s office. Until that moment, I’d been an innocent 5 year old, never dreaming that people could do that to other people, let alone that my country could be the perpetrator of such unalloyed horrors.

But as traumatic as that experience was, it’s far preferable to the embedded media we have now, which show us gee-whiz video game footage of smart bombs, but barely any pictures of the carnage, the reality of war. People the world over have been flooded with images of the true human cost to innocent civilians of our shock and awe campaign in Iraq and our incessant airstrikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But here in the US, we barely see a trickle of it in the mainstream media. And because of our media bubble, we fail to understand the world’s outrage.

The horrifying truth of the Vietnam War, brought into our living rooms each night, helped end that war. It’s very hard for people, when exposed to the truth of burned babies to feel enthusiastic about war, which is why the corporations behind our new and improved, highly consolidated media, try to shield us from such truths. Of course, the fact that these very same corporations make the weapons systems might have something to do with it as well.

When I was a kid, the NY Times and Washington post braved real threats of federal prosecution when they published the Pentagon Papers, which detailed, among many other things, how we were railroaded into the Vietnam War through a series of bold-faced lies.

Contrast that to the year 2000, when our disputed election was decided by the Supreme Court in Bush vs. Gore. I had no idea at the time that Justice Scalia had been friends with Dick Cheney for almost 20 years. Two of Scalia’s sons worked for law firms involved with the case, and Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife worked for the Heritage Foundation, which was sure to profit greatly from Bush’s election. Yet not only did both of the justices fail to recuse themselves, but the media were largely silent. In fact, it was nearly five years later before I read a major story on the close friendship of Cheney and Scalia, and I was thunderstruck that we’d all been kept uninformed and ignorant of this incredibly salient fact by our major news outlets.

Where were the front-page headlines of every major newspaper demanding recusal while the world awaited a decision? Why wasn’t Scalia’s obvious and profound conflict of interest trumpeted on the morning talk shows, the evening round-ups, the Sunday TV news-fests?

From the courageous reportage on Vietnam, which permeated television, radio and print media, we’ve transitioned in a few scant decades to silence over Scalia’s friendship with Cheney, silence over the theft of Ohio in the 2004 election, and the soft-peddling of our torture policies, which continues today – witness NPR’s continued use of the euphemism ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. Our media have grown more craven, more complicit, more Orwellian than I could ever have imagined in 1974, or1984 for that matter.

Justice Hugo Black said: "Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell." – Yet our press now seems intent on beating the drum for war. I can still remember NPR anchor Bob Edwards stating ‘we know there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’ right after Colin Powell’s laughably tortured and specious presentation to the UN.

In fact, our press even seems to have gone so far as to have colluded in a legal coup de tat underwritten by right wing think tanks and executed by members of our chief judiciary body.

Do we have a free press in this country? Yes and no. Sure, there are programs like Alternative Radio and Democracy Now, and periodicals like Mother Jones and The Nation. There are myriad sites of all political persuasions on the web. There is no hard hand of censorship evident most of the time – except, perhaps, when a newspaper wants to publish photographs of the returning coffins of our honored war dead.

But the average American looks to the mainstream media for their information, and the mainstream media is no longer free. It is bought and paid for by the same corporations that have bought our congress through lobbying – those that comprise the military/industrial/penal/pharmacological/oil and gas/agribusiness complex.

Far from being an objective, inquisitive force, our media have become cheerleaders for much that is rotten in America – because their paymasters profit from our inhumane health insurance system, our centralized energy production and distribution monopolies, our leadership as the world’s number one weapons dealer, and our imperial rape of both human and natural wealth the world over.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Chimps and Bonobos

Humankind’s two closest genetic relatives are the Chimpanzee and the so-called ‘pygmy chimp’, the Bonobo. We share some 97% of our genetic makeup with both of them.

This is a vast oversimplification, but in general, Chimpanzee society tends to be male-dominated and violent. Chimps engage in brutal fights, gang rape, genocide, even cannibalism. Their society is highly stratified, with dominant males at the top and lesser males at the bottom. Although females also have dominant and lesser representatives, in general their health and safety, and that of their offspring, is still largely a matter of male whim.

The Bonobo are quite different. Although there are fights in Bonobo society, they tend to be brief and non-lethal. There appears to be no rape, no cannibalism, no wiping out of other troops of Bonobo. All in all, the Bonobo society is, for lack of a better word, more humane

In Chimp society, sex occurs only when females are in heat. In the matriarchal Bonobo society, sex occurs all the time, for procreation, for enjoyment, and sometimes merely as a form of social stress relief. It’s kind of like the Greek play Lysistrata, wherein the women refuse the men any sex until the men give up war. The Bonobo have largely given up conflict, replacing it with ready access to sex.

What do our two closest relatives have to tell us about human society?

In his landmark work, the Mass Psychology of Fascism, Willhelm Reich posited that the veneration of war and conflict coupled with sexual repression leads to a more violent and easily manipulated, fascistic society.

On its surface, American society is heavily sexualized, not repressed at all. But Reich didn’t mean the repression of all sexual symbols, but rather the displacement of healthy representations of sexuality with unhealthy symbols that debased and dehumanized, coupled with increasing representations of violence.

In light of that distinction, it’s easy to see how American society is sexually repressed when it comes to positive images of sexuality and the human body, while overflowing with negative ones and simply awash in violent imagery. To paraphrase Larry Flynt, in America it’s illegal to commit murder, but not to broadcast movies of it, and legal to make love, but illegal to broadcast movies of lovemaking.

Once, while watching the movie ‘Dead Calm’ on broadcast TV, I saw a naked rear end pixilated on my screen, I suppose to protect me from some terrible prurient urge. This was followed not 5 minutes later by the graphic, unpixelated footage of a man’s head being blown off. What kind of a society finds a naked ass more dangerous than an act of bloody violence?

Obviously, in the human mind, sex and violence seem to be linked in all sorts of complex ways. Look at how the torture at places like Abu Ghraib often devolved into sexual humiliation. The themes of procreation, survival, and death underlie all human activity, and imbue everything with their nascent power, which can be positive or corrosive. It can build a culture up, or debase it. And one man’s view of socio-sexual health can be another’s symptom of metasticized perversion.

For example: when Jonbenet Ramsey was slain, I became aware for the first time of childhood beauty pageants. I was profoundly shocked that these little girls were so sexualized and monetized. The pictures of six year old Jonbenet tarted up like a Vegas showgirl, complete with feathers and heavy makeup, seemed to bespeak some horrific underground subculture of kiddy porn purveyors.

Yet who were the perpetrators of this little girl’s debasement and objectification? Her very own quite conservative, mainstream, Republican, Christian parents, who doubtless saw nothing perverted at all in their actions. In fact, the same segment of society engages in so-called father-daughter purity balls, which ostensibly are about being chaste, but carry many disturbing psycho-sexual undertones, including ones that imply that women are chattel, their bodies and sexuality first owned by their fathers, and then their husbands.

Our culture is so out of whack that a nude adult body part is deemed threatening and perverse while the obvious sexualization of a child, albeit in symbolic terms only, is seen by many as wholesome.

Welcome to the topsy-turvy Chimp world that is America.