“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” ― Jiddu Krishnamurti
It shouldn’t come as a shock to any of us. The sadism of the uber rich in American society was bound to morph into a reality show. This month CBS, whose CEO Les Moonves earned over $54 million last year alone, saw the release of “The Briefcase.” The premise of the show is to place poor people in the predicament of having to decide whether to keep $101,000 all for themselves, or give away half or all of it to another struggling family. The mainstream media is fond of depicting the working class, recipients of welfare or the homeless as having no motivation to improve their situation and, thus, deserving of their plight. This soothes their conscience (that is if they are even in possession of one), while they amass more and more material wealth at everyone else’s expense. But this latest display of blatant exploitation signifies a new low, even for them.
Being poor in America is not an easy road. Working class families and those in poverty must routinely choose between healthcare, food or shelter, and are much more likely to be harassed or arrested by the police for non-violent offenses. The homeless, too, are often brutalized by law enforcement and gangs of privileged and disaffected youth. But the pernicious effects of neoliberal economic policy, the final and most merciless manifestation of capitalism, can now be seen in practically every facet of popular culture in the United States. It is a system which glorifies the wealthy while demonizing or rendering the poor invisible.
From reality shows to books and movies, wealth accumulation and narcissism are incessantly extolled as virtues. Professional socialite Kim Kardashian’s autobiography (if one can call it that) is emblematic of the oblivious conceit of the uber rich. Filled with a plethora of monstrous “selfies,” it is a testament to the worship of the banal vulgarity of celebrity. And, unsurprisingly. Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation was characterized by this same culture, placing more value upon her outward appearance than her inner life as a transgender person. This spectacle masks the tremendous cruelty meted out by this society on economically disenfranchised, transgender people, particularly people of color; and reinforces misogynistic and ageist prejudices. But dehumanization and objectification are the signatures of American mass media. Depth and nuance are discouraged. This unrelenting message has had deleterious effects seen in the explosion unnecessary plastic surgeries and eating disorders that have come to characterize young adulthood, especially in women.
Arguably, popular culture today is one of the most effective methods of social control. It plays on our society’s obsessions, neuroses and angst, albeit in rather superficial styles. This extends out from an establishment that is sustained by internalized authoritarianism or, as political philosopher Sheldon Wolin expressed, inverted totalitarianism. An example of this is in the enormous amount of television series, from the early days of television up to today, that glorified the police, corporate executives and law professionals. For example. the long running series “Cops” turned the plight of crime plagued neighborhoods into sport and mockery. They divided Americans into worthiness classes and instilled a false notion that these institutions are impervious to reproach. And they served the interests of the power class perfectly.
There is little doubt that our society is, as Jiddu Krishnamurti stated, profoundly sick. But the disease does not lie in a lack of moral codes. In fact, American culture is among the most moralistic in the world, with shades of its historic and oppressive puritanism clouding virtually every human rights issue, from marriage equality to reproductive rights. The rot at the core of this culture lies in its acquiescence to the dictates of corporate capitalism, a system predicated on dissolving all communal bonds, and replacing them with shallow consumerism and exploitation of the weakest among us, and the natural world on which we all rely. To it, human suffering is a commodity and an opportunity for exploitation. Given all of this there is little wonder that dystopic themes in science fiction have gained so much currency in the wider public. They offer the only form of popular culture that resonates with ordinary people because they speak to their suffering and fears; and they portend a reality that, in many tangible ways, is already here for billions of people around the world. Even though most of these books or movies deal with non-existent threats, e.g. zombies, there is a collective angst that is common to all of them. It is one that recognizes our shared, dire state and the existential threats that we, and countless other species, face.
American culture is becoming more and more fractured in the crumbling days of the empire. In the midst of this uncertainty and malaise the power class, who own all of the mainstream media, are scrambling to produce programs that pit the poor and other marginalized segments of society against each other to provide misanthropic forms of entertainment. But they are incapable of grappling with reality itself and, if history is any guide, they will not here the drums of revolution on their doorstep. The elite, ownership class gutted their souls long ago to make room for their obsessive penchant for wealth; and they have become drunk on the fruit of their own hubris. They dismantled the commons that afforded a space for community, and insulated themselves behind gilded, gated communities, immune, for now, to the suffering that surrounds them. Their media is bound to reflect this indifference; and it will only grow more cruel in the coming years as the weather grows angrier, and the oil, on which all of this is built, begins to wane. Without a doubt, our conformity to their culture of cruelty is not securing our own survival in the slightest. On the contrary, it is merely perpetuating a system destined to self destruct.
Kenn Orphan 2015