“The world of our experiences seems chaotic, disconnected, confusing. There appear to be no integrating forces, no unified meaning, no true inner understanding of phenomena in our experience of the world. Experts can explain anything in the objective world to us, yet we understand our own lives less and less. In short, we live in the postmodern world, where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.”
– Vaclav HavelFrom a speech entitled, “The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World”
Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4th, 1994
The Modern in Modern Folktales
You’re probably wondering, isn’t the phrase, modern folktales, a bit of an oxymoron? After all, aren’t folktales usually regarded as stories that embody timeless themes with characters from a particular society or region?
Yet there’s a good reason for putting the modern in Modern Folktales. The phrase, modern folktales, is meant to imply that big changes have occurred in the folktale area of our lives. The sources of these changes are, of course, the modern and postmodern eras. As most of us in the developed world know, the changes over just the last century have been so great that even during this relatively small expanse of time, tremendous differences can be observed. 1950 was vastly different compared to 1900, a mere 50 years; while 2000 or 2009 is probably more different than 1950 by at least as great a factor, if not more.
The statement that the world has undergone change over the last hundred years is, admittedly, pretty banal by itself. Our minds without the slightest hesitation race across the invention spectrum of this period: Commercial Automobiles, Airplanes, Radio, TV, Rockets, Nuclear Bombs, Bikinis, Computers, The Internet, Mobile Communications.
Of course, myriad other changes have also taken place. Supermarkets and fast food shops littering every major intersection. Local amusement parks swept away by mega amusement parks located a plane—not a car or subway—trip away. The interstate and big box retailing bulldozed Main Street. Families visit one another on holidays or by iPhone. The old broadcast networks and even cable usurped by social networks. Wisdom is packaged in the form of tweets and distributed by the many to the many more. In the midst of it all, Google believes in benevolent dictatorship.
But is that really it? Has change only occurred in a physical or commercial sense? Is it possible that in the face of all the changes the world is pretty much the same as it always was except for the fact that stores now offer cooler products to choose from? that economies are simply larger and more diversified, with everything else pretty much status quo?
More interestingly, should we believe that we’re the same people that we were a hundred years ago? That there is no difference between a nation (or world) dominated by producers compared to one in the grip of consumers?
Another way of putting these questions in perspective is to think about how many aspects of our lives in 1900 involved the act of doing compared to how much of our time, in 2000, depended on the act of merely watching. Or how much attention we pay to the value we think we perceive in an abstraction, like a corporate brand, compared to how much we actually focus on a thing’s value itself? When you, for instance, see a shirt on the rack at the department store that appeals to you, what do you look at first? the brand or the quality of the stitching and fabric? Ask yourself whether you’d pay as much for a Mercedes if it wasn’t called a Mercedes but was marketed as a “Shiny Bucket of Bolts” instead? How about that Coach purse, you’ve been wanting so bad? Is half a pound of leather really worth 900 bucks?
The really big question, though, involves the cumulative effect of the radical changes of the 20th Century on the people who live in the countries most affected (especially well exemplified in the U.S., but also in poorer countries that have not benefited from the changes of the 20th Century, yet nonetheless have been seriously impacted). In many ways, some of the changes, particularly medical advancements, have been quite beneficial on a number of levels. But what exactly has the accumulation of all of the 20th Century’s mind boggling changes wrought upon the world in a non-physical sense? In other words, how has it impacted our souls? our psyches, personalities, and stories? our art and religions?
In short, what are the big influences nowadays? Do most of us really believe the same stories that people a hundred years ago believed? Haven’t these stories long since undergone changes or been replaced by newer ones?
Sure, we may still be Buddhists or Christians or Muslims or Atheists. Perhaps some even believe in the same way our forefathers believed. But what about the many smaller stories—the little belief nuggets—that factor into our day-to-day lives and interconnect with many other widely accepted belief-memes (this phrase is specifically referring to packets of information that have been embedded into the fabric of our collective existence through repeated and ongoing communication by the mass media)? These can have an incredibly powerful effect on our lives and yet most people hardly even think about them.
Understanding the stories that shape our lives and decisions is critically important to understanding who we are as a people. Therefore, to understand how we, as a people, have changed, it is necessary to inquire into how our stories have changed. This will also help us to better understand the way our perspectives and values have changed. Do the archetypes that exist in these contemporary stories accurately reflect the archetypes that exist within us as human beings, as opposed to us as producers or consumers? Yet there is something even more fundamental than this.
But before we get into that, let’s go back to the question of modern folktales. Why this oxymoron—this misnomer? As might’ve guessed, the answer just so happens to relate to the importance of the stories in our lives. To begin with, it might be helpful to first settle on a good understanding of what folktales are.
What a Folktale is
In addition to what was stated in the first paragraph, folktales are stories that are passed down through the generations and honed over time. They are expressions of fundamental matters that members of a society in general have faced in the past. Over time, folktales eventually express archetypes that can serve as building blocks to facilitate the communication of themes in other stories or works of art.
It makes sense to assert, then, that all stories, myths and folktales, collectively, help members of a culture form perspectives that they share in common with one another. These perspectives also help people form identities about themselves and aspects of the world around them. Since attaching a concept to a perception allows one to evaluate and compare it, it also makes sense to state that folktales may be viewed, in some ways, as guardians of the values that are shared among members of societies.
Perhaps this definition of folktales was more than what you bargained for and you’re thinking it’s a bit of a stretch? So let’s test it.
What do you usually do when you come across a new circumstance and aren’t sure what it means? You might ask yourself whether it’s good or bad. Should you do this or that? Let’s say there was no bright line rule that you could associate with it. You can’t recall whether your mom (or holy man or friends or Twitter) ever had anything to say about the matter before. So what did you do? If you’re like many people who have grown up in recent memory, you might have strained to recall a similar situation you remember seeing in some movie or television show. “Yeah, that’s right…and Matt Damon never would have stood for that. He would have jumped up and…er…well…he would have done or said something. So I’m not going to stand for that either. Clearly, it’s not right. No way.”
And what you just did in that situation is what millions of other people do all the time and have done since the days before Homer. It’s what judges and bishops do every day of their professional lives. They study the texts that contain the stories that contain the rules and apply them to similar situations. This is what they teach you to do in law school. Simply put, laws and religions are distillations of many stories that have been handed down over many generations. In earlier times, they hatched out of societies’ folktales, myths, and other literature. Anyone who has read legal rulings will also tell you that many judges to this day continue to reach out to literature for perspective—especially when they’re faced with new situations that previous legislation or common law doesn’t adequately address.
It’s so basic—so elemental—that most of us never really think about it; but even the smallest stories we believe can profoundly affect our lives. Again, they are the building blocks of our perspectives and value systems. People and countries make decisions every single day with unimaginable consequences based on the stories they believe. Historically, beliefs have often been transmitted and remembered in the form of stories. Looked at another way, stories are merely containers holding relationships of ideas and are specially designed to fit in the human mind.
Yet a story doesn’t even need to be a full story for it to take root and influence your thoughts. It can be a mere implication that ties in or references other stories that you may or may not already believe. For example, to speak about something as though it were good is much more powerful than to simply say it’s good. This of course is one of the pillars of modern advertising and propaganda. Yet even a recognizable form devoid of any real content may be enough to reference a story or set of beliefs. Treating someone as though they’re an upstanding member of society (or, conversely, a criminal) has a powerful influence on their own idea of themselves; and hence their subsequent attitude and actions. Freud and Jung never went away. They merely discovered how much need their corporate customers on Madison Ave had.
The Software in Your Head
Television people spoke about software and hardware long before most people. But they weren’t talking about Bill Gates’ kind. They were referring to all the stuff that was necessary for viewers (you and me) to watch programs. The programs of course were the software. Although this lexicon had a technical bent, it will help to illustrate the following point.
Every day of our lives, pictures and sound bytes from a wide range of sources tell us many stories; filling us up with many, many words in the process (our brains unconsciously translate images into words). These words and stories—this software—runs on the great hard drive of our minds, stimulates various cells, and is stored there. This information becomes a part of our world in a very real sense, influencing how and even what we perceive—especially the software that is specifically designed to make us do something (e.g., advertisements or political messages). And nothing works as well as the software that exploits fear and appetite, such as hunger and sex. Just think about who the biggest advertisers are. Someone’s always trying to sell you insurance, soap or deodorant. This is fear-based. And then there’s certainly no shortage of mouth-watering hamburgers. Hunger. Or all those eye-popping, beautiful women beckoning from omnipresent magazine covers and billboards with that special PhotoShop gleam in their eye. Sex or fear, depending on one’s particular orientation.
But this is only half (forgive the pun) the story. In addition to ads, movies and television—broadcast the traditional way or recycled, and/or exaggerated and amplified on the Internet—also provide the bulk of the developed world’s entertainment and news information. Once again, information packed into stories and transmitted into your brain as software. Yet how do these stories compare with the stories 100 or more years ago? As far as the news is concerned, there is much more of it and, with the exception of the Yellow Journalism period (in the U.S.), there’s also, paradoxically, much less.
Although news may be on all the time, most of it is soft rather than hard and what’s hard is increasingly slanted pro-status quo (i.e., practically speaking, advertisers and their political affiliates). As we all know, much of the popular television programming and movies are produced by super-sized, multinational conglomerates. These stories, of course, shouldn’t evoke ideas in viewers that would be inconsistent with advertisers’ needs. As for programs and movies produced by independents…well, there are independents and then there are real independents. 1)The word independent can also be misleading nowadays. There is a big difference between the amount of money that some so-called independents can raise and what others can. There are those independents who somehow end up consistently getting financed and distributed through Hollywood-type channels and still maintain their “independent” brand. Needless to say, there are many other filmmakers who cannot raise the necessary financing or get any distribution. For the latter, one must search them out and most people don’t bother. There are, however, a lot of very talented independents creating a vast body of important work involving not just video but across the full spectrum of media. The rest of this prologue will therefore differentiate between this media and the corporate mass media.
Today, most of us are awash in the mass-media stories and not much else. These stories are created out of the needs of the marketplace. They’re not necessarily designed to express something fundamental about our lives or even, for that matter, topics of importance. Whatever of these qualities they do contain are there as a subordinate interest to the senior interest of making money.
Yet perhaps this is the way it really always has been in one form or another? Such as the situation with the plays and art canvases of old. The tastes of wealthy patrons (those who could afford to offer commissions) needed to be quenched. Likewise in the marketplace of today, investors must be satisfied in order for a story to be produced and released to the public. But, alas, there is a crucial difference: The rich for whom the art was intended in the past were already rich and didn’t care whether the art they commissioned made any money. The glory of the work served to enhance the glory of the owner.
What a Modern Folktale is, the Problem of the Internet, and Reality Television
In this day-and-age, we have what has come to be known as the great crowding-out effect. Non-commercial stories get little or no public exposure; while commercial stories are distributed into every nook and cranny of the universe. One is concerned with expression, possibly even fundamental truths; while the other is concerned with maximizing profits. PBS was created in the United States to combat this but, due to a perennial lack of resources, is on life-support in most of its markets as it serves up easily digested orchestras to nursing home patients. There’s only so much one channel can do anyway.
If the profit-motivated stories compose the bulk of what most people in developed nations consume, then, on one level, at least, these stories are tantamount to being their modern folktales. What else is there that they imbibe in any meaningful quantities that provides interpretation and representation of their reality? O-ho, the Internet, one mightily proclaims. Here is our answer; our savior; the great Noosphere promised long ago! Or is it only a grand illusion that helps delude us into believing that ideas are freely distributed; and the best will be distributed the most? Yes, indeed, this would be wonderful if it were an accurate statement of reality.
Sadly, it is not. First of all, the most popular web sites on the Internet are usually affiliated with:
1. the mass media (including major web sites and portals, newspapers and magazines);
2. a college or university;
3. a political group or think tank;
4. or a government entity.
The vast majority of the rest, like a grain of sand in the ocean, are pretty invisible to much of the Internet’s traffic. Yet even if you happen to stumble on one of these “unaffiliated” web sites, it’s a good bet that its content is in some way repeating, discussing, or exaggerating information that originally came from one or more of the four groups above.
This is further complicated by the fact that the millions who flock to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or other popular web sites often render their own interpretation of this information, thereby giving it a personal veneer—stamping the packet with their own individual imprint. As a result, many people wrongly believe that they’re reading a personal viewpoint when, much of the time, it’s really just more regurgitated corporate or political rhetoric.
This is a feedback system in which stories or ideas are produced at the corporate level, then received by audience members, who communicate back with the producer by choosing which stories they prefer (e.g., those shows, movies, ideas, or political candidates that achieve popularity). Like a democracy, a strong public Internet depends on the free flow of information to a well-informed and thoughtful population of users. This need is two-fold. The person initiating a search engine query must possess a sufficient level of information to find what they’re looking for. If, for example, one has never been exposed to anything other than hot dogs and hamburgers, how can we expect them to search for souffles? Moreover, if no one’s searching for souffles, why would anyone bother to make web sites about them? The same can be said for the stories we consume. Yes, web users may have a need for something more than the hackneyed, high-carb, low nutritional fare they usually find on TV or in the movies. But how far will they get on their sound byte diet? Although the craving is certainly present, many of the Internet’s search queries are as stale and uniform as the uninspired fare served up at the drive-thru.
A good example where this leads is the Reality TV evolution (or devolution?) that has conquered traditional programming in the last decade. During this time, we’ve gone from Jenny Jones’ makeovers and Jerry Springer’s altercations to The Bachelor and Bridezillas; from Fear Factor to Mad Housewives; from Who Wants to be a Millionaire to Megan Wants a Millionaire.
Yet the recipe for these so-called reality shows is not about reality at all. Rather, the focus is on the reaction that can be observed when you take ordinary people and put them in situations where they believe they have a chance at living the life of a wealthy or famous person as long as they win some kind of game. The viewing appeal has to do with capturing and revealing all those degrading or funny things that can we get Joe Six Pack (borrowing from Sarah Palin, another reality TV star) to do for money, fame, sex, or even their own TV show. Or what happens when he’s put in a situation in which he suddenly learns his lover has been unfaithful? No time for poetic moments to evolve. We want the porn; the money shot; tits and ass; and more tits and ass. Hell, let’s just turn audience members into celebrities while we’re at it. Then we can chronicle the process and results on video, and call it a show. Think of it as a softer, gentler Colosseum right in your living room.
Whatever this is, it’s not an accurate reflection of real life. It’s a distorted side-show reflection of regular people who’ve been convinced that an important goal in life is one that involves a bunch of people admiring them through a camera lens. This is the type of belief and values system that one would expect to arise out of celebrity culture carried away with itself. People of an earlier time may recall that the star system was just a marketing scheme in the early days of Hollywood. The funny thing is that western societies (especially in the U.S.) have been so immersed in what eventually became a kind of religion that followers now exist on both sides of the camera.
The sad reality that underpins this religion is the fact that many of the physical (i.e., real economic) productive capabilities in the U.S. and other western countries have been slowly winnowed and outsourced away. Yet these are societies that place a premium on looking rich in the face of less opportunity. Isn’t there something wrong with a situation where someone feels they have a better shot getting on a reality TV show than a job working for GM?
Many believers of this religion unwittingly adhere to an extreme version of liberalism and think the chief goal of their lives should be the acquisition of money, material possessions, and mass recognition. Perhaps we could make a reality TV show out of this and call it Individualism Gone Wild in an Age of Duplicitous Western Decline and Technological Increase. The theme would be that there is something interesting in watching the rise and fall of a self-centered nobody regardless whether he has any talent other than the power to pique prurient interests. On second thought, maybe it’s not such a good idea. A better version of this episode already came out on the silver screen many years ago. It’s called A Face in the Crowd and was directed by the late, great Elia Kazan.
A Dialog Trapped in the Morass of the Many-Headed Beast
As far as the political dialog goes (and what’s not political nowadays?), there’s two main types out there: Conservative and Liberal (aka, Progressive). Most of us in America gravitate towards one or the other. The ever present battle that currently represents this situation further polarizes people who become firmly convinced that the problems in the world today could really be solved if only the other side would just stop opposing the implementation of their excellent ideas. One of the problems many of us don’t realize is that as long as the two sides remain locked in this stasis, they can be easily controlled by those with the resources to pay for the creation of both types of rhetoric.
Furthermore, the way that information is often packaged for TV, the Internet and other forms of communication predisposes people to accept ideas that have been repeated over and over again. There are two principles underlying this phenomenon:
1. The more a thing is repeated the more likely it is people will begin to believe it; and
2. the less explanation acceptance requires, making it easier to communicate because fewer words are needed.
An example is what happened to the phrase “politically correct” in the United States. The term went from being a positive phrase intended to refer to attempts to treat all people with respect and create a level playing field politically, educationally, and economically. Over the years, various conservative political interests have repeatedly associated this term with what they portray as excesses of the “liberal establishment”. Their attacks on the phrase have been so consistent and well publicized in the mass media that they’ve managed to successfully turn what many people once believed was a positive phrase into a pejorative one pregnant with insidious meanings.
Powerful interests in general have succeeded in doing this to many other words and phrases, as well. Unfortunately, these coded words have filled our political lexicon and are making it increasingly difficult for other interests to engage in plain and honest dialog with the American people. 2)This problem has also popped up in many other countries around the world To attempt such a feat nowadays is a sure road to political suicide for none can survive the many-headed beast—the hydra—who looms before the gate of our democracy and guards the interests of the status quo. New and innovative ideas that require explanation are quickly targeted, destroyed, or simply drowned out by the monster’s terrible screeching.
It has always been easier to destroy than to build, and it’s no different in the realm of communications. The amplification and polarity-effect besetting mass communications and especially noticeable on the Internet protects the status quo instead of threatening it, as many people mistakenly believe. So, if you’re really concerned with introducing new ideas and change in the public arena, you must beware of the many-headed monster and prepare yourself to be dragged down into its swampy morass.
The Story is the Untold Story
For something to be a folktale in the sense defined above, it must be intimate; it must touch us directly; it must hold some aspect of our world-view. And this is where we come to disturbing realizations. What truths or perspectives do the mass media stories contain? Yet to what extent, do they influence our thoughts and actions?
Remember, our brains are wired to think in words. Stories are composed of words. The stories you consume will impact your thoughts. Think about the following scenario:
There’s a young man standing close by with a gun in his hand. Someone tells you he’s a soldier. Another counters that he’s a terrorist. A third guy says no, he’s just a militant. You’ve heard many stories over the years about each type of character—each with their own story and role. It makes sense that you react toward the young man based on the mask he wears. If he’s a soldier, perhaps he deserves your praise. On the other hand, if he’s a terrorist, it’s acceptable that governments hunt him down and kill him. Like a brand, it’s possible for a label not to be consistent with the actual value it’s supposed to represent.
Let’s take a few other examples.
One of the big stories the Clinton Administration was pitching in the 1990’s was that NAFTA was going to be great for corporations and economies throughout the Americas. We inhabited a global economy now and we needed to start thinking in terms of trade blocs. Just take a look at the Euro Zone and the growing Asian bloc. We, in the Americas, must not get left behind. Turns out this was, in some ways, a moot point. U.S. FDIs (foreign direct investment) were surging in China throughout the 1990’s, and peaked at 14.6% of total contracted FDI in 1999 (substantially more than the 7.9% recorded for 2004). 3)“Foreign Investment in China”, The US-China Business Council,
last updated 03/14/05 [accessed 11/05/09 Much of this investment went into building factories and other infrastructure necessary to produce exports that would be shipped back to the U.S. and sold to American consumers. So if American jobs didn’t head to Mexico, there was a great chance they’d wind up on the other side of the Pacific regardless whether NAFTA ever got passed.
Turns out that NAFTA was great for U.S. government-subsidized agricultural interests who could dump product in Mexico at below market prices. But it was real bad for all those small Mexican farmers who couldn’t compete with the enormous government subsidies that U.S. farmers receive ($150 per hectare in the U.S. compared to $45 in Mexico and $52 in Canada). 4)“As NAFTA removes final agricultural tariffs, Mexican farmers protest against US subsidies”, Global Subsidies Initiative,
A crucial factor in obtaining public support for NAFTA were the Gore-Perot debates. Most people don’t credit Nobel Peace Prize laureate Al Gore for being a great speaker or debater. But he displayed his talents particularly well when he finally eviscerated Ross Perot during their last televised debate over NAFTA. 5)RUPERT CORNWELL, “Gore trounces Perot in Nafta debate: Vice-President’s triumphant TV performance boosts White House hopes of congressional approval for pact”, The Independent, 11/11/1993,
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/gore-trounces-perot-in-nafta- debate-vicepresidents-triumphant-tv-performance-boosts-white-house- hopes-of-congressional-approval-for-pact-1503459.html
[accessed 11/05/2009] Needless to say, Gore argued for it; Perot against.
If only Perot hadn’t lost, millions of Mexican families might still be farming their ancestral lands and not looking for work illegally in the United States. The number of undocumented illegal immigrants living in the U.S. surged in the years immediately following the enactment of NAFTA; doubling from 1996 to over five million in 2000. 6)Tessie Borden and Sergio Bustos, “NAFTA effects: Mexican Farmers Head North”, The Arizona Republic, 7/28/2003, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=GlcLAAAAIBAJ&sjid=5FIDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3248,4770120&hl=en [accessed 11/05/09] Looking at the story from this angle, provides some perspective on the fury in Washington and the U.S. mass media over what to do about the “illegals”. The fury reached a fever pitch in 2006, ultimately culminating in the Secure Fence Act of 2006; which provides the legal mandate to wall off the U.S.—Mexican border. For U.S. legislators, this is one apparently the appropriate way to deal with the impoverished and starving people whose livelihood Congress’ previous legislation took away. It’s too bad the many-headed beast was screeching so loudly about the drug or possible terrorist threats the United States would suffer if a 700 mile wall was not erected forthwith. Otherwise, saner alternatives might have been heard.
China’s Most-Favored-Nation trade status in the area of textiles also blasted Mexican textile companies at about the same time that farmers were being wiped out. Not too many people in the U.S. heard about this story either because it too was largely ignored in the mass media. But it was an important, newsworthy story about the effect of our legislation on one of our closest neighbors. Don’t these stories deserve popular distribution and analysis? Why does the news media pay so much more attention to violent tragedies perpetrated by lone mad-dog, gunmen, such as the mass shootings carried out at Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, or Columbine? These stories are repeated so much that they become a part of our everyday vocabulary. Does the news media honestly believe that Americans care so much more about these tragedies than the ones committed by their own legislators’ faulty legislation? Or are they just afraid of the impact this would have on future legislation?
Judging by the actions of those who have the power to raise issues in the mass media, we should all smilingly participate in this sickening merry-go-round of complicity and continue to pretend in the face of cold-hard reality that many horrors we’ve created don’t actually exist. But what do we have to justify this pretense? The fact that the many-headed monster doesn’t repeatedly screech that these stories exist? That reality is not reality unless it speaks it first? Yet why shouldn’t those in power believe this? William Randolph Hearst came close to believing it a hundred years ago. After all, the mass media have the power to create our perspectives. Why shouldn’t they believe that the words they speak have the power to also create what we perceive? what is real? They’ve been getting away with it for some time now. Who needs Newspeak when reality pours forth from their very lips?
Isn’t there more than enough evidence to suggest these questions? Remember how concerned we Americans were in 2002 about the plight of the Iraqis at the hands of the butcher Saddam Hussein? As month after month in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq—officially known as “Operation Enduring Freedom”—the mass media from The New York Times all the way down to Fox News communicated in excruciating detail the many reasons why we needed to save ourselves and Iraq. The dangers were imminent. There was no time to lose. Turns our the only weapons of mass destruction were the words spoken by those who created a case out of nothing and pounded it into us until we were brainwashed into believing it.
Yet what about the genocide in Darfur that was going on at the same time as America was liberating Iraq? A tragedy so painfully similar to the Rawandan horrors world leaders swore would never happen again. Or the terrible decade-long, plight of the Indian farmers; 200,000 of whom have committed suicide out of despair—another globalization tragedy that unfolds to this day. 7)Amy Goodman interview, “Vandana Shiva on Farmer Suicides, the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal, Wal-Mart in India and More”, Democracy Now, 12-13-2006, http://www.democracynow.org/2006/12/13/vandana_shiva_on_farmer_ suicides_the [accessed 11-04-2009] Don’t these stories deserve more than just the steady drumbeat of silence?
What about these stories? Aren’t these also modern folk tales? Aren’t they truly borne out of the lives we, the people, live? Don’t these unspoken stories more closely resemble the stories that bind so many of the silent majority to an actual, objective reality? Are these silent, less filtered stories at all similar to the heavily publicized, mass media tales; the ones that so often shape our perspectives and provide our identities?
But before getting any further into these questions, it should be noted that the right stories can also do wonders for government spending programs. Take, for example, the fact that in the years since the August 1998 U.S. cruise missile strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, Americans and the rest of the world have learned a great deal about al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the Global War on Terror (GWOT). The story we’ve all repeatedly heard is that decent men and woman everywhere are threatened by cowardly terrorists who are also everywhere. Although the terrorists don’t really belong to a country many of them are somehow working for the Axis of Evil, represented by North Korea, Iran, and Iraq—at least according to President Bush after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. Based on the actions of the U.S. military today, it seems to make sense to conclude that President Obama considers that there are many forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan that also should be put into this group of belligerants. Yet all of these countries combined account for something like 1% – 2% of global defense expenditures. The U.S., on the other hand, accounts for a staggering 45% all by itself.
The more we hear about wars and terror, the more the U.S. government spends on defense. In 1998, President Clinton requested about $250 billion for DOD outlays. For FY 2010, Obama requested over $500 billion and another $128.6 billon for “Overseas Contingency Operations,” funds which primarily support continued military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 8)Analysis Of Senate Appropriations Committee Action On The Fiscal Year 2010 Defense Appropriations Bill (H.R. 3326), National Priorities Project, 09/29/2009, http://www.nationalpriorities.org/publications/2009/09/24/Analysis-of-Senate-Appropriations-Committee-Action-FY-2010-Defense-Appropriations-Bill [accessed 11/4/09]
A Modern World, an Abstract World: The Distance Between Meaning and Words
A tragic consequence of our modern world is the degree of abstraction that is used to keep the great juggernaut rumbling along its course. Looking back on the last century, it’s pretty clear that the more the population grows, the more abstract the world becomes. We are specialized, categorized, compartmentalized; bringing to mind the modern corporate structure. Corporations today are highly focused entities and most of their workers are assigned to specialized, narrow slots.
Oftentimes, the greater the distance an employee’s position is from the actual thing or service produced, the more highly valued she is. Pay scales across a wide swath of industries provide ample support for this observation. Retail chains, for example, usually pay store workers much less than they pay workers in their corporate administrative offices. An even starker example involves the harvesting of the fruits and vegetables we eat, one of the most hands-on work there is. The amount of remuneration migrant farm workers receive to provide this essential service suggests that they’re barely worth keeping alive. On the other hand, legal services that lawyers offer may represent some of the most abstract work performed in the modern world. Yet they are among the most highly paid; raising the question whether an ambulance-chaser really contributes 100 – 200 times more value to society than someone who gathers the food necessary for our survival? A comparison of compensation rates says they do.
Modern people in many developed nations, pride themselves on the fact that they don’t live under monarchies any more. But, in many ways, the landed gentry has merely given way to what has become the corporate gentry. As power consolidates in an abstract world—especially the power to communicate—the temptation is becoming irresistible to use words as a means to create the reality we want instead of representing the reality that is. Nowhere is this better represented than on Wall Street where the power of words creates and destroys billions. Let there be… easy money…and there was… .
One of the reasons behind the financial and real estate bubbles in recent years has to do with this reality-by-words phenomenon. Although greed, corruption, and incompetence have all played important roles in these affairs, nothing seems to better explain our apparent inability to identify absurdity than the fact that we must utterly believe much of the bombastic nonsense we tell ourselves. Regardless whether it corresponds to reality. The formula that we’ve repeatedly used to do this involves putting the irrational in a rational wrapper and then using the full power of the mass media to repeatedly communicate it. The effect has been that many seem to happily go along thinking they’re actually participating in a safe and righteous course of action.
To better visualize this point imagine a crowd forming around one guy doing something crazy. They point fingers in disbelief and make fun. But if things are reversed and the crowd starts acting crazy, there is a likelihood that an individual onlooker on the outside will be inclined to accept it as normal and wish he were part of the group. Our brains are wired to accept as valid or good the actions or will of a dominant group. These actions and thoughts are what we call societal norms. One of the greatest achievements of modern mass communications over the last century is the highly disturbing ability to create the perception that something falls within or outside of these norms. A very small hint of this power can be glimpsed by simply asking yourself whether you’re more likely to believe something advertised by a person on TV or standing before you at your front door?
Another example of the power of the mass media to sculpt our perception of reality has to do with the way the contemporary political dialog is carried out in the U.S. and other developed nations. American’s political debate is not powered by reality nearly as much as it is by their politicians’ habit of calculating the safest words to use in relation to well publicized words they and other political commentators have used previously. The result is change is imprisoned within an unbreakable framework of language that has painstakingly designed to maintain the structure of the status quo. In other words, policies are driven less by peoples’ needs than the need of politicians not to become casualties of certain words. Another huge problem is that politicians are not the primary creators of the words used in our political debate. Most of the time, they merely repeat them.
When the phrase, “WE WILL NEVER FORGET,” is unfurled or spoken at events having to do with terrorism, it’s target is not so much terrorists as it is Americans and their politicians. It serves to remind them that we mustn’t change the very stringent terror policies started under the Bush II Administration. Not so much an expression of patriotism as it is an admonishment or threat. The translation of this seemingly pious phrase goes something like,
“A vote to change policies enacted after 9/11 will be communicated in the mass media as evidence that you have forgotten about the threat of terrorism and thereofore can no longer be trusted to keep our country safe.”
Without this sad state-of-affairs, there wouldn’t be nearly as much use for expensive political or campaign consultants. Listen closely a moment and you can almost hear ’em now:
“Sorry, Mr. President, but you would appear weak [code for Carter], if you spoke about the need for diplomacy instead of war—or at least a little killing action. It’s plain to see the situation calls for it.”
Or, how about:
“Yes, we realize that the Fort Hood shootings raise a lot of gun control issues, but right now your stalwart support of our troops needs to take front and center—especially given the need to appear strong and determined [code for Reagan] about Iraq and Afghanistan.”
In an abstract world, the most-heard-story is the accepted version of reality.
Sowing our society with the right messages reaps tremendous corporate and political profits. A recent example involves the economic concept of the ownership society. This business-friendly concept quickly became a marketing concept:
“No, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, don’t think of yourselves so much as consumers, but as owners. Yes, you too can play an ownership role in the great corporate monarchy—as long as you help keep savings rates low and spending high. We’re all capitalists together—the big with the small—taking risks and bearing responsibilities… .”
This worked great especially during the housing boom a few years ago.
“See, no reason to worry about all those jobs going to China. We live in an ownership society now. You’re not a worker but an owner. And look, the evidence is in the numbers. Stock markets and 401(k)s are up. Home ownership is at an all-time high. Who needs defined-benefit plans when low interest rates can turn your house into a cash factory?”
That was the pitch circa 2003 – 2007. By 2008, however, the media turned many of those stranded homeowners into sub-prime borrowers who, according to many television pundits ex post facto, had no business buying a house and ruining Greenspan’s terrific track record. Nonetheless these egregious fakers were owners now and needed to bear responsibility for their actions (unlike, of course, bank executives and government regulators).
To control the world nowadays, it may seem helpful to carry a big stick and have lots of money. Yet this is really a consequence and not a cause. To dominate in the modern world, one must be able to control the distribution of three types of stories:
1. The spectacle I wish I was;
2. The spectacle I desire; and
3. The spectacle that I’m glad I’m not.
Don’t believe it? Take a look at any of the big social networking sites and ask what meanings lie beneath so much of that information. What are the most popular concepts that so many people seem so concerned with? For additional examples, take a look at some advertisements, Hollywood movies, or plain old television shows. These three points compose the recipe used to make much of this stuff.
Who Do You Aspire to Be?
Since the stories that most people consume come from the corporate monarchy, this web site will receive these stories as the folk tales they, by default, represent. The goal will be to try to analyze them to better understand the meanings they convey. Who are their characters and what are their predicaments and challenges? Are they accurate expressions of today’s ordinary people? If not, who do they represent? What identity do they bestow? What do they tell us about ourselves? Moreover, who and what do these stories exclude? This should prove most revealing of all. These untold stories represent the other side of the looking glass. These are the other modern folk tales that this web site is trying to find. A mirror has two sides: a light and a dark. The boundaries of the included demarcate those of the excluded. Which folk tale do you think will best reflect your situation?
There’s an old maxim, that you are what you eat. Another similar one involving one’s friends. What shall we say about the stories we ingest? About the words and images that compose our mental diet? Doesn’t it make sense that these are the building blocks of our beliefs? Don’t these even have something to do with how we perceive our individual identities?
Scientists like to say that certain parts of man’s anatomy were instrumental in his evolution. Like the thumb. We can certainly see how this gave him the ability to draw on cave walls. But there must have been some other crucial factor in his development. Reasons why he went beyond the cave. There must have been something that inspired him to reach the point we’re at now. Or should we just put it down to mere appetite?
Is it possible that the caveman had somehow caught a glimpse of an idea that there was a life beyond the warmth and comfort of the cave? Perhaps this idea was remembered and talked about among peers. Possibly it even became a story and is represented on one of those caves somewhere—an initial spark of imagination shining out of the gloom. And, for better or worse, maybe this was enough to turn ignorance into inspiration, an impulse towards a higher conception of what could be. Inertia gives way to movement and now a crouching step forward. Then another. Stretching forth toward the light. Hesitation becomes yearning. Steps turn into a run. And he we are. At the edge of our limits. What are the stories we possess to help us continue? What shall we aspire to be?
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||The word independent can also be misleading nowadays. There is a big difference between the amount of money that some so-called independents can raise and what others can. There are those independents who somehow end up consistently getting financed and distributed through Hollywood-type channels and still maintain their “independent” brand. Needless to say, there are many other filmmakers who cannot raise the necessary financing or get any distribution.|
|2.||↑||This problem has also popped up in many other countries around the world|
|3.||↑||“Foreign Investment in China”, The US-China Business Council,|
last updated 03/14/05 [accessed 11/05/09
|4.||↑||“As NAFTA removes final agricultural tariffs, Mexican farmers protest against US subsidies”, Global Subsidies Initiative,|
|5.||↑||RUPERT CORNWELL, “Gore trounces Perot in Nafta debate: Vice-President’s triumphant TV performance boosts White House hopes of congressional approval for pact”, The Independent, 11/11/1993,|
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/gore-trounces-perot-in-nafta- debate-vicepresidents-triumphant-tv-performance-boosts-white-house- hopes-of-congressional-approval-for-pact-1503459.html
|6.||↑||Tessie Borden and Sergio Bustos, “NAFTA effects: Mexican Farmers Head North”, The Arizona Republic, 7/28/2003, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=GlcLAAAAIBAJ&sjid=5FIDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3248,4770120&hl=en [accessed 11/05/09]|
|7.||↑||Amy Goodman interview, “Vandana Shiva on Farmer Suicides, the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal, Wal-Mart in India and More”, Democracy Now, 12-13-2006, http://www.democracynow.org/2006/12/13/vandana_shiva_on_farmer_ suicides_the [accessed 11-04-2009]|
|8.||↑||Analysis Of Senate Appropriations Committee Action On The Fiscal Year 2010 Defense Appropriations Bill (H.R. 3326), National Priorities Project, 09/29/2009, http://www.nationalpriorities.org/publications/2009/09/24/Analysis-of-Senate-Appropriations-Committee-Action-FY-2010-Defense-Appropriations-Bill [accessed 11/4/09]|