On my personal website I have been building a library of my academic papers from my school days. Tonight, I found one that I thought I would share here.
It was a quick response paper for a cultural anthropology class at Seattle Central Community College some sixteen years ago. Not my best writing ever, for a class or otherwise, but, clunky writing aside, in many ways I think this little piece sums up my political views better than anything I’ve written before or since.
It does not detail where I am on the left or right spectrum, conservative or liberal. On that scale, I am far from static and can usually manage to upset people on both sides of that particular divide. It does, however, explain my opinion on how the American political system operates.
After the massive political failures in Washington D.C. over the last decade, I suspect that more and more people have come around to seeing things from my perspective. Back in 1996, though, my ideas on government and the media were dismissed as naive by many from both the right and the left.
The popular view was that great, unseen political machinations were pulling the strings of power. Everything was a borderline conspiracy, or an actual conspiracy.
After watching both parties shattering like glass against the rocks of their own incompetency the last few years, however, I feel that my views on the system are a bit more mainstream now. Reading this essay for the first time in about 12 years today, it actually felt fresher than it did in the days of the Clinton Impeachment Trial and the WTO controversies, before the 2000 Election, eight years of George W. Bush, endless wars in the Mid-East, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, and whatever sort of tragicomic train wreck the last six plus years of Congress will be labeled as by future historians.
Enough from me today, onwards to me from years past… This is warts and all, copied and pasted from the original Word document.
ANT 202, Fall 1996, Seattle Central Community College
Until recently, I had never read anything by Noam Chomsky, or heard him speak before, but I have run into many people who have and are rather worked up by his ideas. Many of these people, however, tended to have a very paranoid streak in them, and have used Chomksy’s words to confirm their own fears and suspicions about conspiracies and such. They use his ideas as proof that their fears about direct manipulations between corporations, government officials and agencies, the media, and the financial institutions are true. Instead of understanding the subtle and indirect influences these institutions, by nature, have upon one another; they just take these concepts in their bluntest, broadest forms, picturing some sort of wild X-Files type of conspiracy. They believe, in a very literal way, that all politics are nothing but a sham, that the corporations directly control everything, making phone calls and e-mails, ruling directly a puppet government, themselves taking their orders from the global financial institutions. I always ask them where the aliens fit into these schemes, and not all of them realize that I am joking. Because of these people, I have always been a bit weary of Chomsky, but knowing these people’s mind sets, I figured they were just laying their own fears over his ideas, and I’ve always wanted to find out if I was right.
My own view of government and its relationship with the private power structures has always been more of a chaos theory, rather than a conspiracy theory, seeing each individual and group being too caught up in their own special interests, and too busy covering their own asses, to ever work together at a level that such a complex conspiracy would require. There are just too many egos involved. My own view, it turns out, seems very similar to Chomsky’s. So, when listening to the conspiracy theorists talking about the power structures, about the relationships between industry, government, and the media, I’ve never been able to totally disagree. I’ve always ended up with sort of a “Yes, but…” and a “Well, I wouldn’t necessarily go that far” response. I can’t follow them all the way into the conspiracies. For these to actually be occurring, the politicians, CEOs, and journalists would all have to be a lot less self serving, and a hell of a lot smarter, than they ever seemed to be, to me, at least. In 1991, while attending a National Press Club conference in D.C., for example, I had an opportunity to meet briefly with former Rep. Rod Chandler and former Sen. Brock Adams. To be honest, these two were so preoccupied with themselves and with their own personal career goals (Adams, understandable, more so at this point – still vowing to run again, still certain that he could win), that I don’t see them plotting anything with anyone, unless they got to be in charge. When talking about legislation, bills they sponsored, bills where they offered up key support, they never talked with enthusiasm about the laws they were making, or about how they were good for their constituencies, but they were very jazzed up about how powerful they were personally, being able to make that big of a splash on the national issues. Chandler, being groggy from getting back from a fact finding mission to Kuwait, came across as a complete fool and managing to drop in a couple of racist comments, thinking that he’d made a funny, certainly didn’t help his case any. If this guy was ever involved in anything serious, I’d be willing to bet that he’d accidentally expose it. Of course, my paranoid friends all reassure me that these cases were all just acts, that they were ploys to lower our expectations of elected officials, and to lower our defenses.
Still, I feel that these politicians do try to do their best to stand up for and to fight for what they feel needs to be done, but it is no mystery to me how things like aid to the Guatemalan military gets passed by these people, as well. They see the word communist in the early 1980s, and communists are bad. If they don’t vote against the communists, they will endanger their re-election. In these circumstances, why should they even worry if the guerillas are even really communist insurgents or not, why should they waste any effort trying to dig deeper into this issue? It would just be a bother because they already know how they must vote, and so they probably never realize that they were aiding in the suppression of the Guatemalan public, and not in the suppression of the “Evil Empire’s” backing of Soviet-style communism in the Americas.
Likewise, the media. Journalists, like politicians, feel that they and not their possible replacements are the best for their jobs, that they will fight the good fight in a way that they are uniquely qualified for, in a way that their potential successors are not. On top of this, or in place of this, let’s face it: unemployment sucks. In the media, votes count as much towards job security as they do in politics. Here, however, the votes are cast through ratings and circulation figures instead of elections. Using the Guatemalan example again, in the early 80’s the American public was largely uninterested in Central American political struggles, just writing it all off as those damn Cubans working with the Soviets to expand communism closer to the States, and being bored with anything deeper than that. A minute or two here, a few column inches there. The sort of publicity needed to truly educate the public about these freedom fighters, the time and attention needed to explain that these repressed Indians were not really communists, and definitely not backed by any communist nations, would have sent, let’s say, the evening news ratings into the trash. Maybe some journalists knew about the situation down there, and they felt strongly about the need to bring the details to the public’s attention, but often they will sacrifice that story for another one they also feel strongly about, one that the public is more interested in, one with a higher ratings potential. The instinct for self-survival wins again.
This is how I see these two institutions working. It’s not that they are working together, it’s that the very nature of our society forces them both to work in ways that, in this case, serve each other well. Real issues become fuzzy sound bites that end up largely dictating American policies. And it is definitely not Sen. Doe calling up Jack Blowdry, having the network nix the story so Congress can get away with something. Most journalists I’ve met would run screaming to the showers seeking purification at just hearing such a suggestion.
So, getting back to the Chomsky interview, it was very refreshing to hear him say pretty much these same things, confirming my suspicions that he wasn’t a conspiracy theorist, and in fact, hearing him bluntly deny it. My paranoid friends, it seems, weren’t only misunderstanding his message, but completely missing the most important part of it all, that we do live in a free society, and that these institutions don’t have the strength that they would have if such a conspiracy was taking place. (Totalitarianism, anyone?) It’s the capitalistic democracy we live in that creates the appearances of a conspiracy, but it’s also this system that gives the public’s opinions so much strength. It’s the public’s voice, expressed through votes, and sales, and ratings, and such that fuels this system. It’s the fear of a negative opinion that brings out the negative aspects of this system. The idea, as Chomsky put it, that while in a totalitarian system, backed by violence and fear tactics, it doesn’t matter what the public thinks, only what it does, and that the powerful don’t need the support of the public when they decide policy, but in a capitalistic democracy the thoughts of the public are very powerful and potentially dangerous to those in charge while being the hardest part of the system to control, and the support, or ignorance, of the public mandates the policies of the powerful. Therefore, the fear of a negative opinion, of being perceived as another Mondale instead of another Reagan, of selling Pintos instead of Cadillacs, creates a situation where the truth is something to be feared in case it is taken wrong by the consumers. Image become more important than reality, and the truth, or at least the details of the truth, are avoided when possible by anyone selling themselves to the public. The truth is only investigated and reported by the media if it is exciting, importance or relevance becoming only a secondary consideration.
For example, when the Watergate scandal was being uncovered by the Washington Post, the idea of corruption on that level in the executive branch was big news, but after Nixon and 12 years of Regan/Bush, it’s going to take Clinton being caught at something a lot more clear-cut and scandalous than Whitewater to capture the public’s attention in the way it was by his predecessor’s misdeeds, 23 years ago. [I will interject here in order to point out that this essay was written before Monica Lewinski and the Impeachment] These days, however, O. J. Simpson managed to catch the public’s attention quite nicely in a way that Whitewater hasn’t been able to in post Watergate times.
So Chomsky’s most important message is that if we educate ourselves about how the system works, and why, if we can rekindle our interest in politics and government, we can make our voices even louder, and we will be able to more adroitly wield the power over the system that too many people believe we currently lack. Then we can make the interest of the public more important than just its opinion. It’s hard to inspire interest in the system, though, when 99% of what happens in D.C. does not effect our day-to-day lives, when the practices and attitudes of corporations do not affect us, as long as their products fulfill the use promised, and as long as the news media acts primarily as a form of entertainment, not education. How do the O. J. Simpson trials affect us at all? Even in times of war, the choices are made, or at least ratified, by our pre-elected representatives, and the only news that usually affects the public directly is delivered via mail in the form of selective service notices, notes from friends and loved ones at the front, and letters of consolation. So interest in these institutions is understandably low, but still, it is very necessary. Just because we are not directly affected by them most of the time doesn’t mean that we can’t be.
We need to be vigilant for the times when our lives could be very much changed by these institutions. It is important for the public to remain vigilant, and the power we have over the system needs to be maintained, or it could be lost, whittled away slowly with the public not even realizing that it has been lost, or that they ever even had it at all.