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(A commentary on Noam Chomsky’s talk “Public Education and the Common Good.”)
“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub”
The United States before nineteen sixty were for the European expatriate an unknown quantity only exposed in color ads in glossies such as the Saturday Evening Post, Life magazine and so on. One saw artificial air brushed images of well-fed white men and women in an aseptic suburban environment with appliances that seemed to us in Europe rather unnecessary but gleaming with a chrome embellished pride. The cars were like machines from way into the future with a comfort and bland opulence that simply was unheard of in Europe. I speak here of the period when America still had the promise of happiness as liberator from Nazi times compared to a war torn Europe. Little did we know or realize then what dark undercurrents flowed through American society. Granted the movies depicted a reality which seemed brash and superficial and often one wondered why colored people were shown in such an appalling and denigrating way, but surely we thought then, most Americans would be quite well fed and happily on their way to work each morning with carefully brushed shining teeth and fortified by an over abundant breakfast zooming along in their glossy automobiles.
When I immigrated to the United States as a graduate student with a scholarship in the late summer of 1960, I arrived on a boat full of American students returning from visiting Old Europe where they polished their tableware before using it to eat, where they insisted on having sterilized water from a plastic bottle and where they marveled at the quaint old fashioned way of European people’s behavior. These American students were excited by seeing mechanical improvements not as yet introduced to their technologically advanced nation, objects which did not particularly impress us Europeans because progress meant more to us than just the production of use goods. When the boat approached New York harbor early in the morning, its skyscrapers appeared far above me emerging from a thick mist like the steep walls of a canyon and I will never forget that immensely overpowering image. Ellis Island was out of use and we docked in Hoboken, where I was greeted by a far-off cousin of my mother who had immigrated here long ago.
But what struck me immediately were the monotony and grayness of New York’s long streets and its identical blocks of many storied buildings. Greenwich Village where I live now was to me no different from any other part of Manhattan. What impressed me were the huge lanes of traffic on the George Washington Bridge and the car lots full of used Jaguar cars. And I went off to Indiana where my graduate scholarship was waiting for me. The Greyhound bus which brought me from Indianapolis to the pretty university campus in Bloomington passed through a landscape which appeared dismal with brush and meadows, large bill boards and here and there uninteresting buildings and uniform houses. The bus smelled inside of heavy meat eater exhalations. Once on campus I felt isolated from any kind of mellow signs of civilization and though I was shocked to find some scurrilous anti-Semitic literature in a campus coffee house so soon after the war, the lack of intellectual curiosity left me actually freer than I expected in comparison with the university that I had attended in Europe. Fun seemed far more important than rigorous thinking which was fine with me as it required much less effort on my part.
It was the time of the election debates on television between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon and I marveled at the reaction of the fraternity students I stayed with, who were all mesmerized by Kennedy, thinking he won the debate. It seemed to me that Kennedy used sales techniques and emotional arguments, while Nixon appeared to me as a thinking man with real debating skills. It was the first time of my immersion into the American mind, which to me was an unknowable quantity with curious Victorian era hang-ups and mainly directed to personal goals, excluding any kind of communal solidarity. Because I was an experimental psychology grad student, I was supposed to assist with some professors’ laboratory studies. And I was appalled at the casual but to me extreme cruelty with the lab animals, one of which was a live monkey strapped into a response machine, cut open on one side to reveal brain and nerve connections.
After my marriage I entered the arena of all young men here expected to perform in the straitjacket of competitive consumerism, with a routine of going to the office in suit and tie, to a Baptist church each Sunday morning with my wife in gloves and hat and to Sunday lunches with my loathsome in-laws, who despised me because I was not from a noted Memphis family. I felt as if I could not breathe because the genteel Southern atmosphere at that time was that of ancestor worship without any warmth, insular to the extreme, seeing anything that was not familiar as a threat and exhibiting a quite typical disregard of one’s fellow human beings. The excessive antagonism expressed by my boss against Kennedy shortly before his assassination in Dallas was indicative of the kind of environment we lived in.
Escape seemed near when I had to leave Memphis after my marriage broke down from forces beyond my control and driving Westwards in my small open car along Route 66, I marveled at the real beauty of the landscape and the sameness of the unattractive cities. Arriving in Big Sur from Los Angeles after traveling the extraordinarily beautiful seaside Highway 1, I was hired as a dishwasher/waiter/janitor at the Nepenthe Inn, then run by a bohemian family and center of California’s hippy life. The anti-establishment joy of the flower children was in full swing although imbued with drugs of all kinds. It remained a cosmetic revolt rather than that of substance and the politicization process was halted at superficial protestations and never really became a basis for conscientious social change.
Even now the socialization process for US children is strictly slanted to bourgeois standards and geared towards security, consumption and materialist competition. It is a yoke not easily shed, which sadly later on often leads to desperation amidst a fulsome artificial happiness. Listening to that what cannot be thought of is lacking, preventing all access to an inner life. Individual materialist isolation unfortunately creates strangulated human souls. Any deviation from this set pattern is discouraged in pre-school children as being anti-social, nerdish and not mentally normal. Those who infamously broke away were those sensitive individuals who shielded themselves by eccentricity, chemical or alcoholic dependency gathering then in enclaves like Big Sur, San Francisco and the Village and if they could afford it, fled abroad.
Imagination is already silenced in small children when their abundantly produced toys of all description or type pre-empt the eagerly growing mind from wandering beyond the limits of daily reality. Thus isolated from an early age and carefully conditioned to conform to a competitive emptiness, as soon as they are removed from their familiar environment they feel defenseless and out of anxiety react with aggression. This appears daily within the Republic, where threats of unfamiliarity and displacement are counter acted immediately by violent acts and Big Sur was no exception despite its bohemian isolation.
The limitations of an underdeveloped imagination were recognizable to me when taking LSD with my friends on the banks of the Big Sur river. Soon after the experiments by Leary and Alpert at Harvard, the use of this drug spread to the West coast. A fear of the unknown was visible when this drug took away all familiar preconceptions and securities and often resulted in a desire for self destruction when faced by the depth of the human soul’s abyss. It was a very tragic experience to see so clearly exposed the unbreakable bonds that kept these children tied to a dry, undigested and superimposed materialism.
Nothing much seems to have changed to this day, except maybe that the young are more cynical and more profoundly disillusioned.
The definition of totalitarian in Webster is: ‘designating of, or like a government or state in which one political group maintains complete control’. One could well expand this definition from the actual political structure of this Republic to a singular mind pattern that seems to define its people. In fact when a human being is fully dependent on outer rules of behavior and when these are internalized as the sole allowable mode of thinking, the individual’s personality is forced to function at the exclusion of any other potential human reality. Even when eagerly seeking enlightenment from the various gurus that came to ply their trade in California the participants in meditation were hampered by their inability to abandon the commands of their positivist indoctrination.
Capitalist reality is the intense conditioning to prevailing standards of a binary either/or social control, like the twin towers of the former World Trade Center in New York which were fully identical but symbolically signified together the indestructible monopoly of American economic power. Similarly the thoughts of US citizens appear to veer between two alternatives which are equal, like the Republican and Democratic parties, as Twiddle Dum and Twiddle Dee, fragile identical twin white eggs with attitude. Either/or exercises of by rote learned and from an early age on deliberately inculcated modes of thought that operate chiefly by what are erroneously called multiple choices, only signify a cosmetic binary difference. But these binary choices are firmly anchored in the underlying tough monolith of established capitalist values. Imagination is entirely suppressed as it would threaten the status quo of socially approved behavior. It prevents a functioning healthy democracy because that demands a manifold spectrum of untainted choices in one’s private as well as in one’s social life.
This totalitarianism of binary thinking is what keeps the Republic in business because its various cultural divergences are a strong centrifugal force. However it impoverishes the exploration of different realities and equally of all political discourse. You are either my comrade or my opponent, either complicit in creating profit or a ‘mark’ to be exploited, either a productive or an unproductive person and in all of these cases of fictitious alternatives the protagonists are unhappily tied into an unbreakable mental bondage. The question is how to successfully disrupt these chains of mechanical thought and how to liberate minds from false opposites. So far the totalitarian base for domination remains untouched. Only when the sheer illogicality of the present system becomes exposed by a slow attrition of these prefabricated beliefs can there be any hope for the struggle of what was already expressed in a Swiss revolutionary song of 1810: ”Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten …” (our thoughts are free, who can guess their content ?).
Gui Rochat is an art dealer and consultant, specializing in in seventeenth and eighteenth century French paintings and drawings. He lives in New York.
Theodor Adorno, “Dialectic of Enlightenment”, 1944
Herbert Marcuse, “One-dimensional Man”, 1964
John Zerzan, “Running on Emptiness”, 2002