We American workers are more beguiled than we are oppressed.
These words in the first few pages of Curtis White’s book, The Middle Mind, simultaneously touch multiple strands that explain and characterize the current tenor of our society. Beguilement is aligned with mystification, wishes, dreams, fantasy, and imagination; it is the province of the deep hope of human beings to be happy and free. To the extent that the existing state of things—our society in all the complexity of its relationships—appears more beguiling than oppressive, the yearnings that lead and drive most people’s lives will be effectively harnessed to the status quo.
White makes clear that play, especially as imagination, is serious business. William Saroyan’s famous statement that “The play’s the thing” assumes new meaning when we consider that the genius of contemporary techno-capitalist society is to not squelch fantasy, instead encouraging, participating in, and finally packaging our desires as products and services to be sold back to us. In this way, capitalist social relations present the pleasant appearance of a “democratic” range of choices in the consumer marketplace, which creates a continuous loop of hope-representation-product-consumption that steadily reinforces and strengthens the status quo.
None of this is exactly new, but the realization that something else is possible, that this parade of commercial products and images is neither the meaning of life nor of freedom, is not widely realized by the general public. This is substantially the case because the means of communication are not controlled by and for public purposes, but by governmental agencies substantially devoted to serving private purposes. Ralph Nader has frequently commented upon the urgency of increased public access to the means of creating its own programming and expanding areas of media broadcasting for the purpose of non-commercial communication. A recent, ongoing struggle undertaken by the Nader-founded Public Citizen and other groups has been to bring public pressure on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has considered changing regulations limiting how many and what kind of media any given corporate enterprise can control within specified markets. While a necessary and worthwhile effort, even winning this temporary victory falls far short of what is needed: a permanent and increasing beachhead of creative information exchange within the public domain.
What would such a medium potentially bring to our nation? Something as simple as a program showing people being affectionate, reveals “subversive” content: a couple of women cuddling on a couch; a parent feeding, talking to, and playing with an infant; adults playing with children, with no commercial products, messages, or object other than the natural good feeling inherent in such an exchange; a couple of kids looking at a book, sharing things they made, or being curious about something; a person reflecting on the life they have lived and the world as they have seen it change. What these present is the real world, the one that existed, exists, and can exist without commercializing every human transaction. Such programming presents an opening, a lifting of the veil of corporate messages.
Real “reality TV”—not the contrived and degrading thing we have come to associate with that name—might involve a walk through my neighborhood, with stops and exchanges with people along the way. Perhaps there could be a program that shows your home and contrasts it with that of your slum landlord…and another installment could show someone else’s comfortable home, giving some history about what that spot used to be like. Was it wild and undeveloped? Was there a series of other buildings? What occurred in that area, and who lived there? Was there a mom-and-pop store, where people knew each other, even in the course of pursuing their livelihood?
Public TV might contain religious programming not controlled by churches—programs in which there would be real dialogues, perhaps live and unrehearsed, on subjects about the religious life and what it requires, its challenges, etc. This would inevitably reveal differences and areas of commonality that cut across the scripted clashes and lines of division presented by the corporate media. “How to” programs might teach how to deal with loan sharks, usurious creditors, misleading advertising, and other legal scams that affect the daily lives of millions of people.
The point of these brainstorming ideas is to show that it is easy to see another world, the one we live in and that has connections with values lost and values yet to be achieved. People want to have a sense of place and genuineness that can only be simulated by corporate media. Real life can be endlessly faked, but the difference between a merely imaginary life versus the one that people really live, is as wide as the difference between real feeling versus the Britney/Madonna kiss.
Given the importance of public media, the well-documented and abundantly evident corporatization of “public” TV is a sign of how far our society has slipped in a regressive direction. Now subscribers are not only subjected to frequent appeals for money, but programming is also typically accompanied by corporate-sponsored commercials. This erosion has taken place over a period of decades, and has accelerated in the recent past. During the course of FCC administration variably by Democrats and Republicans, never have any nationally elected officials attempted to create a space for true public broadcasting and access on a par with the predominant corporate presence.
This should not surprise. Considering that most of the time of elected public officials is spent “dialing for dollars” with lobbyists, it follows that the remainder of these public servants’ time is spent rendering unto corpocaesar services due in return for payoffs. Thus, the answer to the absence of a public media must be the same answer to the absence of real representation in the halls of government: it must be insisted upon and created.
Given that the power of wealth and the accoutrements of power such as large legal staffs and political connections ensure that such a struggle will be ongoing so far as we can see into the future, it is all the more important that we pose to ourselves the question of what, if anything, can be achieved in the here-and-now. Indymedia is a good existing example of communication training, technology, and political activism that literally crosses continents. Since it is primarily computer-dependent, it is tied into the reality of corporate products and design (primarily those of the Microsoft Corporation), but even there, the emerging popularity of freeware and open-source operating systems like Firefox and other Mozilla applications represent an encouraging trend.
Beyond these limited but encouraging trends, we must seek imaginative ways of breaking the dream cycle of corporate imagery so that we may collectively awake to the possibility of dreaming a true world, the world in which we live liberated through the energies of play. Given that the corporate media are not going to surrender themselves to the “special interests” of the non-corporate world, those who seek such openings in the curtain of entertainment and distraction will have to find alternatives to hours and lives spent sitting in front of the box. We can’t seize control of the airwaves, so we must organize alternative spectacles that simultaneously serve the purposes of community and political work.
What we are considering here is a vital link noticeably lacking in the contemporary progressive movement. In the Sixties, there were a host of projects, institutions, and happenings that both visibly pointed towards the world being born in hope, and provided a momentary taste of the future. Free kitchens, counter-universities, and voluntary collectives of various composition and focus, were interwoven with political awareness. These events and undertakings arose from the spontaneous and planned activity of people freely associating outside of any corporate or governmental umbrella. The be-ins, free concerts, celebrations, and impromptu street theater provided a means of information exchange and sense of living continuity for what would have otherwise been a largely symbolic community. These kinds of transitional expressions embodied imagination, releasing it from a seemingly idle utopianism.
In our current time, a good example of this sort of transitional expression is the series of Rolling Thunder tours conducted across the country. In fairgrounds and at other expansive locales near and in major cities, the Rolling Thunder tours brought together a combination of political speakers, volunteer booths, entertainment, games, and a place to eat and drink. People gathered to talk, listen, and network with others, but the value of these events had an additional morale-building effect similar to that achieved by an effective demonstration. Associating outside of corporate messages and agendas in a relaxed atmosphere served to dispel some of the bad dream, especially because the presence and participation of many others showed we are not alone—something that private viewing of television never reliably conveys. Families came to these events, people mingled, and local farmers offered samples of produce available in the area. In this palpable mingling was the germinal stuff of further, future events…as has proved the case in at least one city.
Times have been hard for national Rolling Thunder; their site shows no activity for fully a year. Whether this is related to their close association with Democratic Party-allied groups is hard to say. What is not in doubt, is that the model is valid and that in at least one case, it spawned a vibrant offshoot. Seattle Thunder has held several events since the national tour came to their area, and it continues to combine the elements of community, politics, and entertainment that are Rolling Thunder’s key elements. Currently successful or not, these specific examples are meant to show a synthesis that can favorably compare with the passive-viewing beguilement daily pouring out of machines in most of our nation’s households. The crucial step is that people stop being viewers of “life” in isolation from other people, stepping instead into the reality where our mutual destiny is to be found.
Those who want this country to change to a more humane and human place must offer venues and places/spaces where human and humane interaction can occur. These transitional forms should be aimed toward the future we anticipate—a world of play, peace, and mutual helpfulness—but not larded with the sort of heavy-handed ideological cant that ensures minimal crowds and limited effectiveness. It is past time to begin showing the future, not because we can create institutions today, here and now, that will supplant the toxic airwaves and corrupted political processes that we oppose, but because they provide a way for the people to imagine the future.
As Curtis White recalled from his own experience growing up in the Sixties:
To live in the San Francisco Bay Area at that time, as I did, and to see those colorful posters with their bizarre appeal stuck up on street corners and handed out at concerts was to experience an utterly rare thing: the imagination driving art to the creation of a new human world, a world whose defining principle was open possibility.
It is the opening of possibility that is the genius of transitional forms of organization. Constantly shifting, adapting, and prospering from the starved need of people for outlets of creative expression, the beguilement of false consciousness and the bad dream of everyday wakefulness to wars of lies, terror, and estrangement can be shaken by the thunder that betokens a renewing downfall.
Dan Raphael has been an activist since the Vietnam war was heating up, and is a member of the Green Party of the United States.
The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves, by Curtis White. HarperSanFrancisco, 2003
Other Articles by Dan Raphael