The alternative culture of the ’60s offered a generalized revolt against structure, responsibility, and morals. Being a youth culture, and following out of the Bohemian and the Beatniks, this was predictable. But a rejection of all structure and responsibility ends ultimately in atomized individuals motivated only by self interests, which looks rather exactly like capitalism’s fabled Economic Man. And a flat out refusal of the concept of morality is the province of sociopaths. This is not a plan with a future.
Take the pull of the alternative culture across the left. Now add the ugliness and the authoritarianism of the right’s “family values.” It’s no surprise that the left has ceded all claim to morality. But it’s also a mistake. We have values, too. War is a moral issue. Poverty is a moral issue. Two hundred species driven extinct every day is a moral issue. Underneath every instance of injustice is a violation of what we know is right. Unrestricted personal license in a context that abandons morals to celebrate outrage will not inspire a movement for justice, nor will it build a culture worth living in. It will grant the powerful more entitlements—for instance, the rich will get richer, and the poor will be conceptually nonexistent, except as a resource. “If it feels good, do it” isn’t even the province of adolescence; it’s the morality of a toddler. For the entitled individual, in whatever version—Homo economicus, Homo bohemicus, or Homo sadeus—pleasure is reduced to cheap thrills, while the deepest human joys—intimacy, belonging, participation from community to cosmos—are impossible. This is because those joys depend on a realization that we need other people and other beings, ultimately a whole web of existence, all of whom deserve our protection and respect. In return we get rewards, rewards that can accrue into profound satisfaction: from the contented joy of communal well-being to the animal ecstasy of sex to the grace of participation in the mystery.
Currently, the right places the blame for the destruction of both family and community at the feet of liberalism. The real culprit, of course, is capitalism, especially the corporate and mass media versions. But as long as the left refuses to fight for our values as values—and to enact those values in our lives and our movements—the right will be partially correct. They will also have recruitment potential that we’re squandering: people know that civic life and basic social norms have degenerated.
It is a triumph for capitalism that the right is winning the US culture war by pinning this decay of family and community on the left. But the right is willing to take a moral stance, even though the man behind the curtain isn’t Sodom or Gomorrah, it’s corporate capitalism. Meanwhile the left might identify capitalism as the problem, but by and large refuses a moral stance.
The US is dominated by corporate rule. The Democrats and Republicans are really the two wings of the Capitalist Party. Neither is going to critique the masters. It is up to us, the people who hold human rights and our living planet dear above all things, to speak the truth. We need to rise above individualism and live in the knowledge that we are the only people who are going to defend what is good in human possibility against the destructive overlapping power-grab of capitalism, patriarchy, and industrialization.
We can begin by picking up the pieces of community and civic life in the US. People of my parent’s generation are correct to mourn the loss of the community trust and participation that they once experienced. And as Robert Putnam makes clear in his book on the subject, Bowling Alone, social trust is linked to both civic and political participation in ways that are mutually reinforcing—or mutually reducing. My mother and her friends have the addresses of their state and federal congress-people memorized. Twenty years behind them, I at least know their names. And the current college-aged generation? They explain earnestly how the government works: “The President tells Congress what to do, and Congress tells the Supreme Court what to do.” In two generations, there goes every advance since Magna Carta.
We’re getting stupider, crueler, and more depressed by the minute. Oliver James calls the values of the corporate media “Affluenza,” likening it to a virus that spreads across societies. He points out that anxiety, depression, and addiction rise in direct proportion to the inequity in a country. The values required to institutionalize inequality are values that are destructive to human happiness and human community. Injustice requires reducing people—including ourselves—to “manipulable commodities.”74 James writes, “Intimacy is destroyed if you regard another person as an object to be manipulated to serve your ends, whether at work or at play.… This leaves you feeling lonely and craving emotional contact, vulnerable to depression.”75
How did this happen? When did people stop caring? One insight of Marxist cultural theorists like Antonio Gramsci is that in order for oppression to function smoothly, ideology must be transferred from the oppressors to the oppressed. They can’t stand over us all with guns twenty-four hours a day. This transfer must be consensual and actively embraced to work on a society-wide scale. If the dominant class can make the ideology pleasurable, so much the better. Nothing could have done the job better than the passivity-inducing, addictive, and isolating technologies of first television and then the Internet.
Corporations have managed to coerce a huge percentage of the population into abandoning the values and behaviors that make people happy—to act against our own interests by instilling in us a new mythos and a set of compulsive behaviors. There is no question that television and other mass media are addictive, leading to “habituation, desensitization, satiation, and an increasing level of arousal … required to maintain satisfaction.”76 Clearly, there is an intense short-term pleasure capturing people, because the long-term losses are tremendous. Literally thousands of studies have documented television’s damage to children; indeed, a coalition of professional groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, put out a joint report in 2000 declaring media violence a serious public health issue to children, with effects that are “measurable and long-lasting.”77 The American Academy of Pediatrics reports, “Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.”78 The most chilling studies link television to teen depression, eating disorders, and suicide. If the destruction of our young isn’t enough to get us to fight back, what will be? As a culture, we are actively handing over the young to be socialized by corporate America in a set of values that are essentially amoral. The average child will spend 2,000 hours with her parents and 40,000 hours with the mass media. Why even bother to have children?
If culture is a set of stories we collectively tell, the stories have now been reduced to the sound bites of profit, offered up in a tantalizing, addictive flash that barricades access to our selves, if not our souls. Writes Maggie Jackson, “The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention—the building blocks of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress.”79 For the young, those barricades may be permanent. Children need to experience bonding or they will end up with personality disorders, living as narcissists, borderlines, and sociopaths. They must learn basic values like compassion, generosity, and duty to become functioning members of society. They must have brains that can learn, contemplate, and question in order to have both a rich internal life and to have something to offer as participants in a democracy. For the developing child, bonding, values, and expectations create neurologic patterns that last a lifetime. Their absence leaves voids that can never be filled. The brain gets one opportunity to build itself, and only one.
The job of a parent is to socialize the young. Until recently, parents and children were nestled inside a larger social system with the same basic values taught at home. Now, parents are being told to “protect” their kids from the culture at large—a task that cannot be done. Society is where we all live, unless you want to move to Antarctica. Even if you managed to keep the worst excesses of consumerist, violent, and misogynist elements out of your child’s immediate environment, the child still has to leave the house. If the culture is so toxic that we can’t entrust our children to it, we need to change the culture.
The values taught by the mass media encourage the worst in human beings. If people are objects, neither intimacy nor community are possible. If image is all we are, we will always need to be on display. Social invisibility is a kind of death to social creatures. We buy more and more, whether higher-status cars or lower-cut jeans, so that we can have a better shot at being noticed as the object du jour. People surrounded by a culture of mass images experience themselves and the world as depersonalized, distant, and fractured. This is the psychological profile of PTSD. Add to that the sexual objectification and degradation of those images, and you have girls presenting with PTSD symptoms with no history of abuse.80 The culture itself has become the perpetrator.
Yes, we can try to inoculate ourselves and our children against the mass media, both its messages and its processes. But why should anyone need to be protected from the culture in which they live? And what good are all your heartfelt conversations and empowering feminist fairy tales when your girl child is surrounded by people who are not fans of Gaia Girls, but Girls Gone Wild?
As Pat Murphy bravely writes,
Suggesting that media is in general harmful and should be eliminated (or a dramatic reduction in the time spent imbibing it) at first seems absurd. But it is no more absurd than suggesting the age of oil and other fossil fuels is over. Media, energy and corporate control have evolved together. We need different concepts and new world views to transition away from fossil fuels and its infrastructure of corporations (including those of the media).81
Again, the right does not have a monopoly on values. We can reject authoritarianism, conformity, social hierarchy, anti-intellectualism, and religious fundamentalism. We can defend equality, justice, compassion, intellectual engagement, civic responsibility, and even love against the corporate jihad. We have to.