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The Simulacra Democracy

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Photo by William Brawley | CC by 2.0

… a nation in which 87 percent of eighteen- to twenty-four year olds (according to a 2002 National Geographic Society/Roper Poll survey) cannot locate Iran or Iraq on a world map and 11 percent cannot locate the United States (!) is not merely “intellectually sluggish.” It would be more accurate to call it moronic, capable of being fooled into believing anything …”

— Morris Berman

I cannot remember U.S. culture ever being quite so compromised by ruling class control. Hollywood turns out one jingoistic and militaristic and racist film and TV show after another. Corporate news is completely controlled by the same forces that run Hollywood. It is the complete capitulation of the liberal class to the interests of the increasingly fascistic U.S. elite. And this didn’t start with Donald Trump. Certainly in its current incarnation it goes back at least to Bill Clinton, and really it goes back to the end of World War Two. The ideological trajectory was formed under the Dulles brothers and military industrial complex — representing U.S. business interests and exhibiting a demand for global hegemony. But once the Soviet Union collapsed, the project was accelerated and intensified.

Another starting point might well be the 1960 Bay of Pigs fiasco, or the 1961 CIA (and MI6) assassination of Patrice Lumumba. Or Kennedy’s 1962 speech at American University calling for the end of Pax Americana. We know what happened to Kennedy soon after that. Pick any of these incidents. But it was the fall of the U.S.S.R. that signaled to the governing class, the proprietor class, that the last real obstacle to global domination had been removed. In the interim, one finds the Iran/Contra affair, and the invasion of Iraq. The real and the symbolic meaning of the Soviet Union is forgotten today, I think. Its meaning for the developing world, especially.

The next conscious trial balloon was Clinton’s attack on the former Yugoslavia. A test run for expanding NATO. And it worked. The propaganda machine has never been as successful as it was when it demonized the Serbs and Milosevic. Then came 9/11. And the well honed PR machine spewed an endless barrage of hyper-patriotic rhetoric and disinformation. American exceptionalism was given full credibility. And remember Colin Powell and his cartoon visual teaching aids at the UN? Nobody was going to argue. Certainly not the white liberal class. And Hollywood upped its game in churning out military fantasies. And in just churning out fantasies. A genre that lent itself to obvious neo-colonial messages. By 2007, when Barack Obama announces he will run for President, the master narrative for America was firmly entrenched. The biggest hit from Hollywood in this period is Avatar (2009), a neo-colonial fable that fit seamlessly with Obama’s reconquest of Africa.

Dan Glazebrook recently wrote:

The year 2009, two years before Gaddafi’s murder, was a pivotal one for US-African relations. First, because China surpassed the US as the continent’s largest trading partner; and second, because Gaddafi was elected President of the African Union. The significance of both for the decline of US influence on the continent could not be clearer. Whilst Gaddafi was spearheading attempts to unite Africa politically, committing serious amounts of Libyan oil wealth to make this dream a reality, China was quietly smashing the West’s monopoly over export markets and investment finance. Africa no longer had to go cap-in-hand to the IMF for loans, agreeing to whatever self-defeating terms were on offer, but could turn to China – or indeed Libya – for investment. And if the US threatened to cut them off from their markets, China would happily buy up whatever was on offer. Western economic domination of Africa was under threat as never before.

The US response was to increase base building, upgrade AFRICOM, and then murder Gadaffi. Hollywood hits from this period include The Hurt Locker and The Dark Knight. Meanwhile domestically Obama was giving the OK for militarizing of police departments across the country. On another front….Danny Haiphong wrote…

What isn’t discussed often enough is how Obama has worked tirelessly to protect and fulfill the interests of the corporate healthcare system. In 2009, he collaborated with the monopoly health insurance industry and its pharmaceutical counterparts to repress the demand for single payer healthcare. The conditions at the time appeared ripe for a single payer system. Popular discontent with Republican Party rule was at its highest point. A relatively organized movement for single payer care was represented by organizations such as Healthcare Now. The Democratic Party possessed a majority in both the House and Senate.

Obama came to power as Wall Street went into meltdown, 2008. But instead of hope and change we got almost 5 trillion dollars moving to the top 1% of the financial elite. Poverty increased every year under Obama, as did inequality. Social Network came out in 2010 and Wolf of Wall Street in 2013. Both were big hits. The message from Hollywood never changed. And part of that message is that wealth is its own justification and a symbol of virtue. Hollywood, and U.S. liberals just naturally gravitate toward the rich.

Obama attacked Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. And it is perhaps that last venture that will prove to be his most significant. Arming, training, and coordinating the Saudi aggression (and now that has escalated to boots on the ground) against the helpless Yemen has resulted in the largest humanitarian catastrophe in five decades.

The U.S. now has all but formally criminalized dissent, especially if that dissent is aimed at Israel.

None of this is to create exact corollaries between political action and studio product. But rather that the overriding message of Hollywood in both film and TV is to validate U.S. exceptionalism. And to hedge criticism with faint token protest. But its not just Hollywood, its theatre and fiction and all the rest of the arts. The erasure of the working class is the most pronounced truth in American culture today. There are no Clifford Odets (a high school drop out) anymore; they have been replaced by a steady stream of well groomed compliant MFA grads. Mostly from elite and expensive schools. Hemingway and James Baldwin were not college grads, nor was Tennessee Williams, the son of a traveling shoe salesman. Even more recent authors such as Thomas Pynchon were college drop outs (to join the Navy), but the point is that today mass culture is carefully controlled. Dreiser was a college drop out, and Twain was a typesetters apprentice. Others like Faulkner, went to University, but also worked. In Faulkner’s case as a postman. Same profession as Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. Stephen Crane and Hemingway worked as journalists, when that was an honorable profession.

The decision makers in mass culture are mostly firmly entrenched in the Democratic Party ethos (witness stuff like House of Cards, Madame Secretary, or Veep). If one only gets one’s news from MSNBC or FOX or CNN then one will take away mostly pure propaganda. Rachel Maddow has a career based on craven parroting of DNC approved talking points and conclusions. Bill Maher, whose show is on HBO, is of late pimping for war. Sunday news talk shows do not invite radical voices, not ever. Michael Parenti isn’t on those shows, nor  are Ajamu Baraka or Glen Ford Mike Whitney or Ed Curtin or Dan Glazebrook or Stephen Gowans. No, but there are plenty of retired generals and politicians. This is a media that exerts absolute control of message.

The loss of the working class, of class diversity, has been a far bigger blow to the health of the culture than anything else. One might argue that culture has always been, in the modern era, a province of the bourgeoisie, and that’s true. But there is still a rather pronounced change that has taken place. But Americans are discouraged from thinking in terms of class. They see individualism and identity. Get me more women directors they cry….which would give us more versions of Zero Dark Thirty, I guess. Gender equality matters, something every single socialist country in history has emphasized. Something Chavez saw fit to write into the Bolivarian constitution on day one. Chavez, who liberal avatar Bernie Sanders dismissed as a “dead communist dictator”. Chavez, who feminist avatar Hillary Clinton worked overtime to oust from power.

People are shocked…shocked I say…that US soldiers are killed in Niger. Darn that Donald Trump. When it is pointed out that it was Obama who sent troops there in his pivot to Africa, one is met with blank stares. The concern over U.S. soldiers dying is simply mind numbing in its hypocrisy and blinkered exceptionalism. I mean just count the numbers of dead civilians due to U.S. drone strikes from just one year. Pick any year you like.

Under Obama, the US African Command (AFRICOM) has penetrated every African country but Zimbabwe and Eritrea. AFRICOM has locked African nations into military subservience. In 2014, the US conducted 674 military operations in Africa . According to a recent Freedom of Information Act request by Intercept, the US currently has Special Forces deployed in more than twenty African nations.

Danny Haiphong

People are terrified today lest they be called conspiracy theorists. No single pejorative term has exercised such disproportionate power. There is a subterranean subject position associated with this, too. A masculine identity that connects with the presentation of those accepting of the official version of things. It is ‘no nonsense, mature, and sort of tough guy’ pose. Only weak and muddled (feminine you see!) would bother to question official narratives of…well, anything. It is staggering, really, why so few ask why is it OK to assassinate people without due process? Why is it whistleblowers, truth tellers, are being locked away and shunned? Why are there 900 plus US military bases around the world. Why, given the growing poverty in the U.S. do we need an updated nuclear arsenal that will cost trillions? In fact why is the defense budget over 4 billion a day? The liberal educated class seem not to ask such questions. Let alone ask is the U.S. arming takfiri jihadists in Syria? Most of what people call conspiracy is just perfectly reasonable skepticism. Given a history that includes COINTELPRO, Operation Northwoods, Gladio, MKUltra, and Operation AJAX. This is also relevant in terms of the coming war on *fake news*. An idea put forward by Obama and now in enthusiastic Orwellian operation by Facebook, YouTube, and Google. In the U.K. Theresa May proudly announces the government SHOULD control what one can see on the internet. Censorship is pitched as protection.

And then we come to NATO and Europe. Why does NATO even exist one might ask? I mean the USSR doesn’t exist anymore. Well, the answer has been under construction for a few years now, and that answer is the extraordinary anti Putin propaganda of the U.S. The “Russian Threat” is now an accepted trope in public discourse. Or the anti Iranian disinformation. In fact Iran is far more democratic and less a global threat (actually its NO global threat) than U.S. boon allies Israel and Saudi Arabia. Which brings us back to Yemen. The utter destruction of Yemen, poorest Arab country in the world, and now one with the largest Cholera outbreak in history, posed no threat to ANYONE. Certainly not to the United States. Are we to believe the House of Saud is worth supporting? They behead homosexuals and witches in Saudi Arabia. The leader of KSA is a 32 year old psychopath named Mohammed Bin Salman. Someone please explain the U.S. support for this country?

Or Venezuela. The U.S. has waged various campaigns against this sovereign nation for over a decade now. A democracy. But a disobedient one. Where is the outcry? When people are going on about Harvey Weinstein, a troglodyte movie producer that literally everyone knew was a serial abuser, I wonder that the women of Venezuela seem not to count. Or of Libya, or Haiti, or Puerto Rico, or hell, the women of Houston right now. Poor women. Ah, but that is class again. Now perhaps the Weinstein affair will yield good results and some form of collective protection and maybe even unionizing will take place to limit the power of rich white men. I doubt it, but maybe. Still, given that the liberal class today applaud the idea of making it OK for women to bomb defenseless villages in Afghanistan or Iraq or Yemen, just like men, and given that most of these horrified by Weinstein were and are solidly behind Hillary Clinton and the DNC, and laud adulation on figures like Maddie Albright, it seems hard to imagine.

David Rosen:

Sexual abuse and violence in the U.S. is as old as the country. America’s patriarchal culture long legitimized sexual abuse and violence toward women — and children — whether conducted at the workplace, at home, a nightclub or on a deserted street. During the nation’s earliest days, the custom of sexual abuse and violence was legitimized through the notion of “chastisement.” This was a feature of Anglo-American common law that recognized the husband as master of “his” household and, thus, permitted him to subject “his” wife to corporal punishment, including rape, so long as he did not inflict permanent injury upon her. Sexual abuse was institutionalized in the rape of African and later African-American female slaves. As the legal scholar Adrienne Davis notes, “U.S. slavery compelled enslaved black women to labor in three markets – productive, reproductive, and slavery – crucial to the political economy.”

One need only note the sexual violence that takes place in the U.S. military (See Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War). But that is not the military you see in this season’s TV shows such as SEAL Team or Valor or The Brave. The current Tom Cruise film American Made is a sort of comedy about Barry Seal who worked as a pilot for the CIA, and with various cartels in South America. Yeah, nothing funnier than squashing a socialist government like in Nicaragua. There is not a single Spanish speaking character who is not either a drunk, a sadist, or just incompetent. This stunningly racist revisionism was called “jaunty and bouncy” by the Hollywood Reporter.

The liberal class will always side with the status quo. Always. They do not care if the status quo is fascist. And its suits them much more to lay out bromides about male abuse of women, as long as this doesn’t mean having to untangle the complexity of women in unfamiliar non tourist visited nations like Yemen or Libya or Honduras. Just like the fact that U.S. domestic police departments murdered over a thousand black men in 2015. And continue to do so, along with increasing numbers of black women. That’s just not a jaunty bouncy story, I guess. Obama has never been comfortable talking about or to black people. He did manage to scold Colin Kaepernick recently though, about the pain he, Kaepernick, might be causing. The pain of white billionaire sports team owners I guess. The Uncle Tomism of what Glen Ford called black misleadership has never been greater. And that’s another crime we can lay, largely, at the feet of Barack Obama.

The U.S. House voted unanimously to sanction Iran and North Korea, an absurdity and a crime, and yet one that barely registered on the media Richter scale. What has Iran or North Korea ever done to hurt anyone in the United States? It is Saudi Arabia and Israel that fear a democratic nation like Iran and the influence they wield in the region. Iran is accused of fomenting instability but evidence is never given. Russia is said to control U.S. public opinion, but evidence is never given. The U.S. doesn’t even bother to really try and make claims about Venzeuela, because its just part of inherited wisdom that they are *bad*. Like Castro was bad, like Gadaffi, like Aristide, like anyone exhibiting independence. The world according to media entertainment is made up of bad guys and good guys. Mike Pompeo, head of the CIA, recently stated that his agency would become a “much more vicious agency” in fighting its enemies. Its actually hard to imagine what that might look like given CIA history. More vicious than rendition, drone killing and black site torture? Remember it was the U.S. and its School of the Americas that trained those death squads in Central America. Hollywood makes comedies about this.

In any event nobody in Hollywood complains. Just as none of the actresses assaulted by Weinstein (and countless others) said anything lest they lose career opportunities. Just as nobody complains about the racism and demonizing of Muslims or Serbs or North Koreans or Russians lest they not get the job. Coercion is silent and a given. It is also absolute. Most actors and directors simply don’t think about it, and most know little beyond what they hear on corporate news or read in the NYTimes. But I understand. People have to eat, have to feed their families. The real problem is that power is ever more consolidated. Distribution of films is monopolized. And for most Americans, foreign policy remains a giant black hole about which they know very little. Tell someone Milosovic was actually a good guy and they will laugh at you (this still happens on the left, too, rather depressingly). Tell them Russia is not threatening the U.S. or Europe, and they will laugh at you. Try to explain what Imperialism is and means, and you get that bored look of irritation. A good rule of thumb is if the U.S. targets a country or leader, then its worth questioning the western generated propagated propaganda in mainstream media about said country or leader (think Syria, Gadaffi, Aristide, Milosovic, Iran, North Korea). The U.S. does not go after countries who welcome western capital.

One of the things I’ve noticed about Hollywood film is the extraordinary amount of self pity from most characters. Self pity, entitlement, and sarcasm. The people who produce and make film and TV today, by and large, tacitly censor themselves. Some don’t have to, of course. But there is a general group think at work. And it extends to the way characters are written. The problems of affluent white people is the template here. Few examine the wider world, and mostly when they do it is seen as a world of threat and menace. An uncivilized place in need of guidance from the civilized white West (The Lost City of Z comes to mind, which made all the approved anti colonial notes while still creating a colonial narrative anyway.). But it is even more narrow than that. Everything resembles a studio; political discussions, even if they take place in outer space, resemble studio executives discussing opening weekend profits, or Neilson ratings. And since Hollywood itself ever more resembles Wall Street, or some corporate headquarters, that is increasingly what the world looks like. It is a profound loss of imagination. Westerns look and sound the same as melodramas set in Santa Monica or New York. Fantasy worlds resemble corporate headquarters or corporate motivational weekends. It is a world created by writers under thirty, largely, and certainly under forty. These are worlds created by people who themselves know very little of the world. They know even less about having to work for a living. The entire universe of film is absent any class awareness. History is simplified the better to appeal to a wider audience. Everything feels and sounds the same. And it is stultifying. There are films and TV from Europe, even from the U.K. that have merit, have heterogeneous sensibilities, but not from Hollywood. Like White House press conferences, the idea is to stay on message. Black characters sound white (or are given caricature *black* dialect and dialogue), brown characters sound white (or are given caricature barrio dialects), and Muslims sound dangerous and devious. Asians seem lifted from Fu Manchu serials or Charlie Chan. Strange when I hear people make fun of ethnic cliches from the 1940s, because it is really no different today (and check the recent TV incarnation of the venerable Star Trek franchise where the Klingon villains are very dark, live in dark spaceships and utter a guttural invented language all of which suggests something oddly racist and like nothing so much as colonial portraits of savages from darkest Africa).

Fixation on Trump’s crimes distracts from a system in which crime is a built-in factor. Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump. They are only the figureheads that carry water for the system. And the system is the property of the ruling class. People vote as if it crucially matters, and they vote for who they like. Not for policy because mostly they have no idea of policy. Trump is an obvious target, but that’s the problem in a sense. America didn’t become racist and violent overnight. The forces of social unrest have been building for decades. Trump was inevitable. His lack of basic literacy mirrors the nation he nominally heads, and his vulgarity mirrors the vulgarity of America, as does his misogyny and racism. The same advisors are in place and if Hillary had won, those openly fascist thugs applauding Trump would still be committing hate crimes. Has Trump empowered them? To a degree, yes. But an HRC win would likely have provided motivation of a different sort and the same violence would be taking place. You cannot sustain, as a country, this level of inequality. And as more super hurricanes descend on us, as the bio-sphere collapses, none of this may end up mattering. There is something disturbing, actually, about the relentless attacks on Trump. Its like beating up a special needs kid. Where was this hatred and outrage before? I mean Trump’s America, a term I hear a lot, is just America. We have over 2 million people in prison in the U.S. Far and away leaders in the world. Infant mortality however puts the U.S. between 26th and 51st, depending on who is counting. There is no Universal Heath Care, no union protection for workers, no maternity leave, no free education. What is there to feel so special about, exactly? Trump was very popular on his moronic reality TV show. I’m guessing more than few now outraged by this buffoonish reactionary watched that show. I mean it did last fifteen years I believe. Who did they think he was? There is nothing wrong with identifying the crimes of Trump’s administration. But there is something deeply wrong in not recognizing it as a continuation of prevailing policy. Yes, it is worse in many areas. The environment for one. But then again, 47% of the world’s pollution is caused by the military. And the U.S. has a military bigger than the next ten largest militaries in the world. And every president since the first  Bush has increased the military budget. The nightmare did not begin with the swearing in of Donald Trump. But nobody likes him. They liked Obama. And that is why he was able to do so much harm. Trump is dangerous not because of what he thinks (he mostly doesn’t) but because of his ignorance and weakness (and fear). And that weakness generated his welcoming hand to the Pentagon. Foreign policy is really in the hands of a man nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’. One cannot blame this catastrophic situation on one man. This is the creation of American history.

 

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John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwriting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. A collection of plays, Sea of Cortez & Other Plays was published in 1999, and his book on aesthetics, Aesthetic Resistance and Dis-Interest was published this year by Mimesis International.

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