Look around, look in the mirror, talk to your friends, your enemies, whomever—we’re suffering a societal depression. I’m not talking about an economic depression. This is more pervasive. It involves a loss of hope, a fear of the future, a general sense of despair. It gets worse when you engage with society, watch the news, talk politics—you know, do the sort of stuff an engaged citizenry has an obligation to do in a democracy.
The problem is that our screens are inundated with Republicans. Pathologically greedy ones like Mitt Romney, mean nasty ones like Rick Santorum, bullies like Newt Gingrich, hate-mongers like Michele Bachmann, executioners like Rick Perry, morons like Sarah Palin, buffoons like Herman Cain, bedazzlers like Ron and Rand Paul, or lapdogs like John Boehner. They all promise a future enslaved to the sociopathic accumulation of short-term material wealth by an engorged elite, no matter what the long-term costs are to society, and more importantly, planetary survival.
These are people promoting an agenda that, when looked at objectively or studied empirically, promises a future of environmental and social chaos. Yet, the “mainstream” media, which is owned by the same corporate forces that sponsor, or basically “own,” these politicians, glosses over their craziness, simply packaging elections as if they were sporting events. Who’s in first? Think dog races. And it doesn’t matter if the dogs are doped
These politicians make up their “facts” as they go along, often basing central campaign memes on outright lies, which the corporate press seldom challenges and often echoes. Presenting lies and truths evenly is not balance; it’s poor journalism. It poisons our ability to have the rational discussions and debates that are essential to a democracy.
Take the Affordable Care Act, for example. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the accounting wing of Congress tasked with determining the financial cost of enacting legislation, estimated that the law will cut up to $193 billion from the nation’s deficit during this decade. The mediated discussion of the law, however, is dominated by Republican members of Congress, the same organization whose own study determined the measure’s savings. Yet these Republicans proclaim with straight faces that it will add to the deficit, often making up different numbers as they go along or citing “studies” created by corporatist PR wonks. The resultant spin challenges reality head-on, further claiming the act will deny, rather than provide, healthcare. Repeat this meme often and loud enough, and it drowns out reality and exterminates debate. Total information dominance. In the end, the uninsured rally behind repealing the law that would provide them with health insurance. The true triumph of propaganda is getting people to act against their own self-interest.
Then there’s the downright meanness of the Republicans that dominate our radio waves and news screens. There are Republican governors who want to cut funding for inner-city schools and health clinics, defund pre-natal care, and force women seeking abortions to endure state-ordered, medically unnecessary vaginal probes. There’s the endless parade of hate-mongers railing against gay families, Muslims, and immigrants. There’s the “Stand your Ground” crowd, actually selling and buying shooting range targets of youths in hoodies with Skittles. There are the earth-hating nuke, frack, and “drill, baby, drill” fundamentalists whose ecocidal environmental policies seem rapture-dependent.
There’s Ann Coulter, who argued, “If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another Democrat [sic] president. It’s kind of a pipe dream, it’s a personal fantasy of mine.” There’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio who engages in mass civil rights violations as if he were a contestant on some sort of Nazi game show. There are Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, with whose misogyny, racism, and contempt for the poor and powerless we’re all too familiar. There are de-evolutionists like Ron Paul, who argues that an ambulance shouldn’t pick you up off the side of the road if you can’t afford to pay for triage.
And more frightening are the mobs who drink the Koolaid. During a Republican presidential debate, when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Paul if an uninsured man should just be left to die, before Paul could dodge the question, his supporters cheered, “Let him die.” Contemporary history is replete with such mobs, and they have led us to some of humanity’s darkest chapters.
The alternative media, for those of us who read, watch, or listen to it, is even more depressing. At least the mainstream media is mind-numbing. You can go with the flow. Let it dumb you down. Just celebrate the hedonism of a consumer society. Believe tax cuts for the rich and the flaying of education and healthcare are somehow good for you. Live in the moment. Like you’re practicing yoga. The alternative press won’t let you do this. It demands engagement, thought. And quite frankly, engaging with the news, thinking about what’s going on in the world, is a bummer. We’ve come to dread these islands of serious news coverage. We avoid news programs like Democracy Now! and Free Speech Radio News, websites like Truthout and Alternet, or magazines like The Nation and Mother Jones precisely because they do their jobs well and keep us informed.
Most folks, especially the young, actively avoid serious information, instead choosing to be hyper-informed about their own social networks or the products they hope to buy. Middle-aged liberals, or at least the small minority of them who still might harbor some hope, lament this apparent apathy, often condemning an entire generation for their supposed disengagement, or in the case of Ron Paul-heads, their misengagement. But haven’t stodgy old folks always scapegoated the young for the ills their own generations have foisted on society? I mean, who runs the world? Young people? I don’t think so.
People engaged with politics in “the 1960s,” which is actually a social period that lasted through the 1980s, because there was momentum. There was the perception of progress, a sense that the world was changing for the better. To join in this revolution felt good, empowering. On June 12, 1982, more than one million people marched to New York’s Central Park to rally against nuclear weapons proliferation. The so-called “Reagan Revolution” was in full swing, but the counter-revolution felt more powerful and unstoppable. Indeed, the sister movement against nuclear power shut that industry down cold in the United States, just like the anti-war movement stopped the Vietnam war a decade earlier, and the Civil Rights movement won universal rights to vote and go to school a decade before that. It’s empowering to march with a million people. It’s empowering to march with a thousand people. It’s empowering to win battles. It’s empowering to change the world. That’s why people were engaged—because it was rewarding, emotionally nourishing, and fun. And we were on a roll.
Activism today takes much more dedication and determination. The opposition, what I call the “anti-democracy” and “anti-environment” movements, has the game rigged. They call themselves “conservatives,” which they are not, and the media echoes that misnomer. This keeps politics semantically confusing, and allows dark forces to hide behind a neutral label. This makes sense because most of the corporate media is either owned outright by these “conservatives” or is inundated with ads paid for by these same groups and people. Propaganda theorists call this “total information dominance,” which is based on the military theory of “full spectrum dominance,” whereby one force exercises not only superiority, which means they will win the battle, but dominance, which renders the battle obsolete. We’re not at total information dominance yet, as evidenced by the paper in your hand (or the screen in front of you), but, judging by our media consumption patterns, we’re almost there.
Within this propaganda environment, democracy and environmental and social justice activists are marginalized or ridiculed. And their causes are packaged as futile, or worse yet, silly. Ultimately, this is how activists often come to view each other, believing the dominant media memes that feed an ethos of hopelessness. Hence, the reality on the ground is an endless stream of small, difficult political demonstrations that are often harassed, threatened or sometimes beaten and arrested by an ever more menacing and violent police presence. Where we once faced fire hoses and dogs, we now face armored personnel carriers, stun grenades, Tasers, sonic devices, and soon, drones. I’m not talking about what we face as rioters—this is the presence that now often shows up to intimidate peaceful protesters at any large event. It takes an incredible commitment to subject oneself to such terror.
And protest itself has been coopted and commodified, packages and sold back to us, often by the same interests that we protest against. So now, in this make-believe world, we can be “green” by driving a new car, buying a new air conditioner or burning fracked gas. Why get beaten by cops when you can save the world with a reusable water bottle?
Those who endure serious news programs know, for instance, that the oil magnate Koch brothers are planning on dumping perhaps a hundred million dollars into the Romney campaign. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is incidentally suffering through a Justice Department investigation of his business dealings, is promising to spend whatever it takes to get Romney elected, this after dropping $20 million into Newt Gingrich’s Republican primary bid. Add in a plethora of other like-minded billionaires, corporations and industry lobbies, and our political landscape becomes dominated, much like a battlefield. Where a battlefield is dominated by bombs and bullets, the political landscape is dominated by propaganda. And this is all to defeat not a socialist or populist insurgence, but the corporate and Wall Street friendly Barack Obama—because he might not be a totally compliant puppet.
And it’s getting worse. Congress is utterly corrupt—nasty people who are bought and paid for, completely indebted to their sponsors. The Supreme Court majority is now nothing more than a tool of these same interests (even the one-vote margin upholding of the Affordable Care Act maintains a corporate revenue stream and avoids a precedent that could have been catastrophic to the marketplace and economy). In 2010 the Supreme Court hammered the nail into the coffin of democracy with their 5-4 Citizens United decision, allowing corporations and billionaires to dump unlimited amounts of money into elections, both as donations directly to candidates, and as “dark money” funding “independent” propaganda and disinformation operations. Last week, the Supreme Court, in another 5-4 decision overturned Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, which since 1912, has outlawed unlimited “donations” (payments) to political campaigns. This full frontal assault on democracy and states’ rights (a central conservative tenet), overturns 100 years of legal precedent, circumventing state-level resistance to the political corruption enabled by the Citizens United ruling.
The opposition to democracy is ominous—and it’s global. Multinational corporations have no patriotism. They are conceptual constructions with one purpose—to collect wealth and funnel it to their shareholders. To accumulate this wealth, they moved almost the entire industrial base of the United States to foreign countries that model the anti-democratic “reforms” they would like to impose on us. Now they’re poisoning our global environment, threating the very habitability of the planet.
Corporations are not people, as the Supreme Court claims. And like their corporations, the people behind them are multinational as well, hiding their money in tax havens around the world. Sheldon Adelson is a good example. He makes his money primarily in China and Macau, using it to engineer elections in the United States to both protect his financial interests and to manipulate US policy to militarily support a nationalist agenda in the foreign nation (Israel) where his wife is a citizen. Most of your big money political funders have similar baggage, pushing their own pet causes. We’re being played by their politicians as they wrap themselves in the flag and use their media might to tar democracy activists as somehow “anti-patriotic.’
Billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers can have more political impact with one check than we can with one million feet on the ground. But that’s not reason for despair. It’s a call to action. A call to get two million, or twenty million, feet on the ground. A call to make enough noise to drown out their propaganda—to dominate the conversation. A call to overcome the repetitive propaganda meme telling us that the 99% movement is a special interest that the 99 percent is somehow not a part of. We are the 99 percent.
Instead of smugly condemning people for a supposed apathy, let’s instead understand the reasons for their despair and disengagement, and the mass movement that we will need to overcome it. Depressed by the odds and the sheer might of the opposition to democracy and environmental sanity, we’ve become disengaged—even lazy. But our very survival, not just as a free people, but as an inhabitable planet, is at stake here. This is no time to tolerate political corruption and the environmental suicide it is enabling. This is a time to Occupy the political system, with love, hope and fearlessness. Occupy the summer. Occupy the Fall. Occupy the elections. Occupy your life! I can’t really see any other choice.
People made a grave mistake when Barack Obama was elected president. Their hope took on a mystical faith—a belief that hope alone could heal the world’s ills. They celebrated their “win,” patted themselves on the back for voting, and went back to letting other people run the country. In reality, the fight didn’t end with the election of Barack Obama. It was just beginning. And most of us were absent when the battles heated up. Disappointing as the Obama presidency has been, a Romney presidency, or an anti-environment anti-democracy anti-labor Senate, would be unthinkable. I’m sorry to say, yes there are two evils, and it’s real important that we have the lesser of the two in power as we continue the struggle for sanity and justice. This too is depressing.
To use a football metaphor, I’d rather be on my own ten yard line with a first down than on my own one yard line playing defense. A Romney presidency would have us hitting the streets to struggle for the survival of public education, student aid, affordable health care, Social Security, Medicare, voting rights, consumer rights, legal birth control, civil rights and a baseline of environmental protections. An Obama presidency and a Democratic Congress would instead, have us hitting the streets to fight for universal corporation-free health insurance, strong environmental safeguards, quality affordable public education, the restoration of public funding for parks and the arts, restoring an equitable tax code where the rich pay their fair share, a real commitment to mass transit and renewable energy, and a 21st-century infrastructure ready to take on the challenges of global warming. Which way do you want the ball to be moving? I’d rather play offense. That starts with getting Romney and the Republican Congress out of the game.
If we are suffering a Republican depression, action and engagement, no matter how bleak things appear, is the best medicine. History has always shown, if enough of us hit the streets, everyone else will follow. And it won’t be a party—it will be a struggle for sure. But it’s our struggle, and unfortunately we can’t really opt out of it.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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