It’s my own fault: I’ve been using facebook to stay in touch with friends from the US while living far, far away, and it’s acted as an unofficial news filter at the same time1. I know this is not how you get news. I know that real news comes from newspapers, from public media outlets, from reliable publications that aren’t self-censoring because of the advertisers or donors on their boards of directors, not people’s facebook posts, but I get sucked in anyway. And I find that more and more the picture I have of even left-leaning friends’ “political engagement”2 is making me feel sad and hopeless. First, there is the “cultural criticism”3 masquerading as genuine political engagement. Then there is the overweening conviction that the power we have as consumers is real and effective and, increasingly, the only power that my fellow Americans can even imagine existing. Between these two phenomena, I feel sadder than Kayne West being denied entrée into the world of fashion.
So let’s talk cultural criticism. Jezebel, ladies, I WANT to like you and your site so much, I really do, the idea that there are still young women in America who will actually label themselves feminists, publicly, and go out there is such a good thing. But in the end, I am even more disappointed by this site than had they not raised my hopes to begin with, and the fact that my female facebook friends seem to view Jezebel as coterminal with feminism itself and also as a verifiable authority on all questions of feminism, race, and class, well, this depresses me.
Because here’s what: a close reading of someone’s music video is not political engagement. What’s more, because it LOOKS like political engagement, it sucks away the energy that could be directed towards stuff like knowing who your state senator is and what he’s voted for recently into endless empty celebrity worshipping bullshit pseudo-querelles, like whether or not that video by that singer I’d never even heard of before the fucking Jezebel piece came out is racist. You know what a good answer to that question is? WHO CARES. That’s a good answer. That woman does not need your free publicity, and this is not what it means to fight for equality and justice4. If religion is the opiate of the masses, then this poseur cultural criticism bullshit is the opiate of the leftist intellectual, and it’s your own damn fault that the Koch brothers are eating your country and you DIDN’T EVEN NOTICE, because you were too busy with Miley Cyrus, while they were out ALECing it up because, evil as they may be, at least they know how to get shit done.
Add in the everyday petty likecount that facebook always elicits, and you end up with me, baffled that not ONE PERSON I know on the liberal left can take 20 minutes to watch a documentary piece about how corporations are actually writing legislation FOR senators, but there is on that very same day a TWO PAGE DEBATE about whether or not Woody Allen is a child molester. And that evil mélange of genuine outrage and personal affront (not even one like, really?) leaves me feeling lonelier and less American than ever. Are these people, my friends (or “friends”, since it’s facebook?) really able to get it up to troll the net for hours looking for dirt on Mia Farrow but don’t have the time to watch or read a piece by an actual journalist? Really? Am I seriously alone in this?
And where did it come from? Is it an American thing? Is it really cultural difference writ large and showing itself symptomatically in post after post about how women movie stars and black professional athletes are oppressed? Or is it more something about the small sample set of Americans I know on facebook (many of whom went to the same liberal arts college and are hence predisposed toward the pointless close reading)? And which of these scenarios is the worse?
Here’s the other cultural criticism what, and listen closely children, because you are being exploited here. Celebrities are not oppressed. Like, ever. Once you are a rich and famous and, more and more often, politically powerful celebrity type person, you cede the right to complain that there are celebrities who are even richer, even more famous, even more powerful than you because they are white or straight or male or whatever. Being slightly less ridiculously overprivileged than the other people in your ridiculously overprivileged class is not, I repeat NOT, the same as being oppressed. You are the new ruling class. You are the owners. When Jenny McCarthy has more power over public health decisions than the NIH, she doesn’t get to step into the role of marginalized other. And when I see my friends (“friends”) out sticking up for the poor little rich ones, I honestly don’t know how we can have come from the same place. Does four years in France really make that big a difference? It can’t be the country change and yet the alternative – that even my favorite Americans, the ones closest to me in history and politics and experience are dupes and celebrity worshippers – well the alternative is even worse.
Either way, you need to go look up incompetent judges and vote in mid term elections instead of sticking up for an American football player who got called a thug one time while he was out earning his obscenely large salary for throwing an oval ball around. Seriously. WHERE ARE YOUR FUCKING VALUES? No wonder they are steamrolling right over you: you’re not even fighting back, you’re STICKING UP for your new ruling class. Writing long blog posts about how terrible they have it. Remembering their useless, pointless, waste of skin names. And I’d let it go, I’d let it slide right down into the you deserve the government you’ve got category if it weren’t for the fact that EVERYONE ELSE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD ends up with your government too, by default, and we don’t get a vote5 or a say.
Celebrities take your money, YOURS, and they no longer just use to roll around on in some kind of baroque dollar bill pile sex fantasy with underage hookers, no. They take your money, YOURS, and then they use it as a public platform to influence policy and culture and they substitute this discouse for everything real, and you not only don’t notice or care, no, you sign up to write REAMS OF TEXT defending them and sorting them and analyzing them like some kind of old butler type figure who belongs to the old guard and doesn’t realize that his ideology of service and knowing his place is not only against his personal self-interest but also setting back the entire cause of humanity in its quest for an egalitarian, merit-based world where everyone deserves some respect and people are able to wipe their own goddamn asses. You’re Jeeves6, and you think you’re fucking Karl Marx.
This is not political engagment.
Or rather, it is, but not how you think.
I’ve already typed the word “fuck” like a million times in this entry, and we haven’t even reached the part about how being a consumer makes you powerful yet. Apparently I am filled with rage.
So yeah, about that consumers thing. Here we enter the larger world of internet discussion groups. And again, my own fault. See, I had this idea that I could sneakily, subtly, using nothing but reason and a gentle description of the reader’s self-interest, sneak my communist ways into the back of people’s heads, and maybe make them think twice about a thing that they take for granted (in this case, the idea that Amazon.com is good for readers because it is consumer oriented). I posted. Carefully. There were no “fucks” in my post, and I had the good sense to let someone smarter, better informed, and more eloquent than me7 do the heavy lifting8.
I got two responses (this on a discussion board that had 17 posts in one hour for a thread entitled “Any fans of the Lord of the Rings movies?”9). One was the response that should have sent me over the egde into rage and despair for the future of all humanity, but in fact pales in comparison to the pseudo-moderate, fake peace-marker smarm of “compromise” that was the second response. It was the second response that drove me from simply treating my husband to a short rant about how Americans are idiots who defend those who would exploit them for profit into a “fuck”-typing machine who needs to post on a blog that nobody reads and where comments are disabled. Not the first, outrageous, response, the second, seemingly moderate one. That’s where you lost me, America.
So it goes like this.
Someone in that quintessentially american mode, libertarian might makes right because the market always returns the best results, posts that the article is biased against Jeff Bezos (as an individual, apparently), and snotty to boot (for mentioning that he doesn’t know anything about books or appear to like them). She then compares him to other “great” men who built “this country” (where I’m not living when I post, but at this point this kind of automatic imperalism is not even a surprise to me), like Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan, and also to Bill Gates, noted philanthropist. “Yes, they were ruthless, single minded men. That’s what it takes to succeed. Is it always admirable? No. But it is what it is.”10
The debate goes on for a while, and ends, as such exchanges always do with a third poster presenting the bumper-sticker solution to all political problems (and the only political power any citizen needs):
“vote with your dollars. Buy elsewhere.”
I hate this about Americans.
It’s true that consumers have a certain amount of power, but it’s a lot less power than you think, it’s not the only kind of power, and thinking always and only in terms of consumer power has unintended and decidedly negative results for society.
First, as a consumer, you do not have as much power as you think. Every marketing message you’ve ever received is about choice, but that doesn’t make it true, that just means that all of our discourse is couched in terms of buying stuff, which is awfully convenient for the people selling it. But also, we do not live in a genuine free market with perfect competition. Even the choice between products is often not a real choice: the same companies that you can choose between are all using the same models to create legislation11, draft contracts12, and deregulate…well, everything13. I don’t even know what to say to people who think that having a choice between two brands of processed cheese in a can is the same as genuine political power. The article that this was in response to described a virtual monopoly that was able to successfully sue an oligarchy (its only competitioin) for price fixing, and won, meaning that the consumer went from having a choice between the monopoly and the oligarchy to having no choice at all. And even if I did have total choice, if nobody else goes to my small, independently owned local bookstore, it’s going to close anyway. Voting with your dollars works a whole lot better if you have a billion votes than if you have 10. Unless you are fitted out to be an independent patron of the arts, you have no real power against a corporation unless you band together with a whole lot of other consumers against it, and since my fellow consumers think my concerns are stupid, I’m pretty much out of luck on the voting with my dollars front.
Second, even if the power of consumption were huge and effective (and it’s not), it’s not the only source of power available, and I don’t understand why it’s the only one we talk about. I think because it’s easy, easier than other kinds of action, and it’s something we kind of want to do anyway. You get to buy stuff and feel virtuous for doing it. You can make a statement without any personal inconvenience of any kind. Consumer power is to geniune politcal action as a close reading of a music video is to genuine political information.
And finally, and most dangerous, there is a leak backwards now between these meanings. While we say consumers have political power, we have also begun saying that political power is kind of like consumption. A vote is like a dollar that you have to spend, and politicians are looking to get your disposable income. And the more we talk like this, the more an election starts to look just like any other purchase. Two alternatives that say they’re different from one another but are actually pretty much the same? Check. A total absence of transparency and widespread lack of interest and information in how things are actually done in practice? Check. A situation where the largest marketing budget is the key criterion for success? Check. Maybe we should stop making this analogy before it’s entirely too late. If it isn’t already.
There are other kinds of power, engagement, action. There are other sources of information. If you don’t choose to partake, ok, but drop the superior tone. I am done with boho pseudo-engagement, and I am sick of your superior attitude. Having a lot of likes is not the same as being right, and many things worth discussing don’t fit into the twitter character limit.
1Plus also facebook is pure evil, and I know it, and I go on using it anyway because what else will fill that stay in touch with people I kind of know and have vaguely fuzzy feelings toward but who live on another continent hole?
2As always, the scare quotes are there for a reason.
4This is not to even go into the scapegoating and public shaming aspects of this. Sure, the woman who made the video is a performer, and she wants attention and she knew she was getting into the public domain, so I feel less sorry for her than for some random whose tweets are the lastest thing, but it’s still a disgusting display. To pillory someone for doing something that all the criticizers probably do themselves on a daily basis, ruin and shame her, and then pat yourself on the back for a job well done is stomach-turning. We might as well slap a scarlet “R” on her and force her into the stocks. This hypocrisy is the new puritanism, and it’s just as bad as the old one was. Having a discussion about race and racism is important, but picking a single scapegoat to blame for everything that is wrong with America is not doing that. Also, again, as I may have mentioned, it changes nothing, not even at the level of information. It just makes those doing the shaming feel superior and pure.
5Well me. I get a vote and a say on an absentee ballot, but I think you see my point. You elect people because they were pretty movie stars one time, and then you have the gall to laugh at other people’s presidents because they ride a scooter to their girlfriend’s house, like this is some kind of actual issue that matters, like politics is some sort of giant junior high school locker room between periods where the things that matter are who’s got the newest sneakers for fuck’s sake. You want Angelina Jolie deciding whether you get a prophylactic mastectomy instead of, like, an actual doctor, ok, but why does she need to be making everybody else’s health care decisions also? I know I sure didn’t vote for her.
6Actually, not even Jeeves. Jeeves, at least, was smart, much smarter than Bertie ever was. Jeeves at least gave the impression overall of knowing what was what.
7In this case, George Packer who is proof that not all Americans are celebrity worshipping idiots.
8i.e. I pasted in a link to an article that I had read in tradition internet discourse fashion. Lazy? Yes. But at least I had read the article in its entirety, which is more than I can say for some shares. Still, sad. Shame me, I deserve it.
9Granted, it doesn’t take long to type in that you totally heart the Lord of the Rings movies and own them all in extended version of your personal DVD, but it’s also hard for me to see how this is worth even the small effort that it takes. To quote a fictional character in a fairly well-known book, it’s not what you like, it’s what you are like. Totally hearting TLOTR is not an adequate substitute for an identity, a personality, a moral compass, or even a genuine profile as a consumer of art, about which I do, in fact, care.
10Ugh. This kind of power worship makes the celebrity ass kissing look kind of like normal human behavior by comparison.
11Seriously, just watch the damn 20 minute ALEC documentary already. It’s not that long, and it’s pretty important. While you were forcusing on your power as a consumer, you probably missed them taking away all your rights as an employee, for example.
12For example, binding arbitration, which you sign up for with basically every service contract you sign (your phone plan, for example), and which always works in the company’s favor, and which is now your only means for redress of grievances.
13If you’re a hard-core libertarian, you may a well give up on my blog now. I’m not interested in your comments, you won’t convince me, and I won’t convince you (even though there is plenty that should convince you: housing bubble, anyone?)