Friday, May 22, 2009

Mass Culture as Weapon of Mass Destruction

Twelve years ago, Ralph Peters wrote, “Contemporary American culture is the most powerful in history, and the most destructive of competitor cultures [called elsewhere “noncompetitive cultures, such as that of Arabo-Persian Islam or the rejectionist segment of our own population”—emphasis mine].

Peters, now retired from the U.S. Army as Lieutenant Colonel, writes novels (under his own name and the pen name Owen Parry), essays, and newspaper columns.

In the same article, Peters cites celebrities like Bill Gates, Madonna, and Steven Spielberg and television programs like Dynasty, Dallas, and Baywatch for inciting international unrest by purveying “America’s irresponsible fantasies of itself … a devilishly enchanting, bluntly sexual, terrifying world” from which the normal Third-World citizen is barred.

But Col. Peters is not altogether hostile to this devilish enchantment. For most of the article, he praises American mass media—particularly action movies—as effective in quashing ideologies (inside and outside the U.S.A.) that resist exploitation by American-style corporate capitalism.

“The genius, the secret weapon, of American culture,” he says, “is the essence that the elites despise: ours is the first genuine people's culture. It stresses comfort and convenience—ease—and it generates pleasure for the masses. We are Karl Marx's dream, and his nightmare.”

I might add that we are also Aldous Huxley’s nightmare in Brave New World—a culture titillated by “feelies” while rejecting actual sex and turning human reproduction into technology … for profit. A populace enslaved and intellectually enfeebled by its gadgets and incapacity for the independent thought and effective cooperation needed to resist its masters.

He continues, making a point that Noam Chomsky (on the other end of the sociopolitical spectrum) agrees with: that current labor practices exhaust workers, leaving them fatigued and incapable of research into and critical thinking about current events—thus the average worker is drawn to the seductive fantasies of mass entertainment, an American specialty.

He says, “Secular and religious revolutionaries in our century have made [a] mistake, imagining that the workers of the world or the faithful just can't wait to go home at night to study Marx or the Koran. Well, Joe Sixpack, Ivan Tipichni, and Ali Quat would rather ‘Baywatch.’ America has figured it out, and we are brilliant at operationalizing our knowledge, and our cultural power will hinder even those cultures we do not undermine.” [Emphasis mine.]

Unsurprisingly, Col. Peters is taken less with Madonna’s “irresponsibly” open and assertive sexuality or the independent, neorealist stories of struggling masses or hapless individuals than with Hollywood summer blockbusters: “The films most despised by the intellectual elite—those that feature extreme violence and to-the-victors-the-spoils sex—are our most popular cultural weapon, bought or bootlegged nearly everywhere.”

Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris are, for Col. Peters, America’s answer to Tokyo Rose, Axis Sally, and Hanoi Hannah. Violence becomes the working man’s alternative to thinking about the information so readily at his fingertips—and his only tool in dealing with the reality of rising unemployment and poverty: “As more and more human beings are overwhelmed by information, or dispossessed by the effects of information-based technologies, there will be more violence.”

As highly individualistic, vigilante-style heroes begin to dominate the world’s imagination, Peters (rightly) predicts, nationalism will fail and terrorism will rise:

“We will see countries and continents divide between rich and poor in a reversal of 20th-century economic trends. Developing countries will not be able to depend on physical production industries, because there will always be another country willing to work cheaper. The have-nots will hate and strive to attack the haves.

“… Beyond traditional crime, terrorism will be the most common form of violence, but transnational criminality, civil strife, secessions, border conflicts, and conventional wars will continue to plague the world, albeit with the ‘lesser’ conflicts statistically dominant. In defense of its interests, its citizens, its allies, or its clients, the United States will be required to intervene in some of these contests. We will win militarily whenever we have the guts for it.

“… The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault.” [Emphases mine.]

No wonder, then, that the attacks on September 11, 2001, so closely resembled—in their gaudy visual spectacle—a Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay film. No wonder, then, that the shock-and-awe bombings of Baghdad looked like a video game. No wonder, then, that President Bush found it expedient to dress up like a Top Gun cadet to boast about the U.S. victories in the Middle East.

But what do we do when the mass entertainments and independent (non-embedded) investigative reporters begin to sway in another direction—away from grandiloquent, corporate-inspired logos on the evening news (so effectively lampooned on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report), and away from multimillion-dollar spectacles of computer-generated stunt work and testosterone-fueled explosions?

What happens when new, inexpensive computer and recording technologies make it possible for Joe Sixpack, Ivan Tipichni, and Ali Quat [the stereotypes Peters so arrogantly calls on to denigrate working classes and “noncompetitive” have-nots] to make their own documentaries and narrative films—telling their own stories, not just the propagandistic fantasies of corporate-owned, corporate-controlled, and corporate-idolizing mass media?

What happens when blogging and YouTube allow unsponsored, not-for-profit expressions and analyses of current events? What happens if and when the public wants to see more humane, empathetic, and cooperative images of American life?

Writing in the Spring 2009 Journal of International Security Affairs, Col. Peters complains that, once undefeatable, we Americans no longer have the guts for military victories to ensure the success of our economic interests and “cultural assaults.”

For this, he apportions blame everywhere from “academic theorists” to the end of the military draft to atheism to fewer bloody noses in school playgrounds, jaundicing America’s backbone. Further, we have “cheapened” our respect for war itself—“our enemies view the home front as our weak flank.”

But the worst thing of all, he says, is the “killers without guns”: “There will always be a hostile third party in the fight, but one which we not only refrain from attacking but are hesitant to annoy: the media.”

So however bloodthirsty American media make us citizens of the world and however much their airbrushed images of wealth and glamour make us dissatisfied with our ordinary lives, pushing us to terror and despair, there are chinks in the empire’s best secret weapon!

What’s a good neocon militarist to do?

Col. Peters strongly implies a solution: “Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty. But win.”

But, first, let’s kill the independent media … literally: “Although it seems unthinkable now, future wars may require censorship, news blackouts and, ultimately, military attacks on the partisan media.” [Emphasis mine.]

Given his uncanny (no, “creepy”) foresight twelve years ago, Col. Peters’ new report raises chilling prospects for American democracy in 2013 … if not sooner. A “democratic” nation that declares war on its “partisan media”! —By which, no doubt, Peters does not mean Fox News, CNN, or PBS, on which he regularly appears as an expert on military and cultural affairs.

And, as Jeremy Scahill reminds us, 189 journalists have been killed while on duty covering the Iraq war alone—at least 16 of which killed by U.S. forces.

But it looks like Peters, at least, is already thinking the “unthinkable.”

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