Friday, October 04, 2013

The magnificent quest for Shinola (updated)

David Seaton's News Links
This is a revised version of something I wrote a couple of years ago, which I felt that, with a few minor changes, would be more timely today than when I first wrote it.
In American-Speak someone of little understanding is said to be unable to distinguish between excrement and shoe polish, we say then that he or she "can't tell shit from Shinola." It appears that in the Occupy Wall Street movement, a perhaps critical mass of Americans have taken it upon themselves to investigate the why and the how of the odor coming from the collective "shoe" and have set about to do something about it. Not a moment too soon if the the recent antics of the Republican House of Representatives are any sort of a leading olfactory indicator of the nation's mental health. One gets the feeling that the spirit of the republic is a little like the Bruce Willis character in The Sixth Sense, he's dead but doesn't know it yet and only one small boy seems to understand the situation. Perhaps the Occupy Wall Street movement is that "small boy."
There is certainly a sense that something is terribly wrong, something mysterious, but I think it could be something quite simple, if intractable, that is afflicting the system. Like the Bruce Willis character, we really don't understand our true situation. In my opinion we are going through something similar to what the USSR went through only a little more than twenty years ago. Twenty years may seem a long time to someone under forty, but in historical terms it is nothing more than a blink of the eye. From the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 to the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 is only twenty years.
Absurd, you say, the two systems are totally different, like oil and water ... I would say that the similarities are more interesting than the differences and that America has simply been more efficient than the USSR was in resisting the same acids that are eating away at its structures in much the same way as they did at the Soviet's.
Both the USSR and the USA have relied on huge government spending to propel their economies. The role of government funded research has been essential in almost every high tech area: computers, the Internet, aviation, etc, in all of them the input of the state has been paramount. Where the United States won hands down was in turning the sophisticated technology so expensively acquired into affordable consumer products and fomenting never-never credit to keep them affordable when salaries stagnated.
"What about freedom?" you say, to which I would reply that the social control of the Soviet system was extraordinarily brutal and primitive compared to our system of social control, which is infinitely more sophisticated than theirs was. I never lived in the Soviet Union and my experience of how a well-oiled dictatorship controls public opinion comes from having lived in Franco's Spain. Franco lasted forty years and the Soviets lasted seventy. Although the USSR was communist and Spain's regime was authoritarian/fascist, the similarities in maintaining control would be great.
Under Franco, all newspapers were of course owned by people approved of by the regime, however until very late into the dictatorship, all articles appearing in them were previously censored before publication, after that any violation of the regime's standards could be punished by imprisonment and fines. There was only one television channel to begin with, later two, both state owned and censored, as were all books, stage plays and films, which were previously dubbed into Spanish. There were private radio stations, but they all connected to the state radio for all their hourly news programs. Here is something that will give you an idea of how paranoiac such a regime can be: radio dispatched taxis came into use in the USA in the late 1940s, but they were still forbidden in Spain until well after the dictator's death, as they constituted an independent communication network outside state control. There is no way that the Franco regime could have ever tolerated the Internet, cell phones, SMS or social networks.
Getting back to the Soviet Union I have read that you needed very high level permission to even have access to a photocopying machine. A system of social control cannot operate successfully in an environment of free movement of information.
This is where the USA has always been more sophisticated and effective, however, like the mysterious intruder in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," you can run, but you can't hide and the same forces that brought down the Soviets and would have made Franco's regime impossible, have morphed under the combination of US military technology, hooked to an insatiable consumer society and are now even eating away at the American system.
As we observe in the political paralysis of today, the Founding Fathers of 18th century, WASP, America created a political structure that is not designed to reflect a society as complex and multicolored as contemporary America's has turned out to be.
The centrifugal forces of a country as huge and diverse as America's have been kept more or less under control until recently by what Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann called, "the management of consent," that is to say the American science of public relations applied to forming public opinion. Heretofore "freedom of the press" required the money to buy a press in the first place, therefore the creation of opinion was in the safe hands of people with enough money to pay to play. The major newspapers, radio and TV networks and of course Hollywood all worked together naturally to manufacture a national opinion leading to political consensus.
Herein lies the importance of the OWS, with its 99% slogan: this is a self generating phenomenon, which has required minimal capital outlay to influence the opinion of millions of people, which is helping many millions to tell the shit from the Shinola. This is totally outside the control of those who have always manufactured consent until now. OWS is only the beginning, in a couple of years it will be looked back on tenderly like watching a home movie of a baby's first steps.
However "our" system has been reacting to this danger its own technology and marketing have produced -- again with much more sophistication than the USSR or Franco could have ever have mustered -- and under the cover of the war on terrorism, or the protection of intellectual property, is putting mechanisms in place that only await a "national emergency" to tug on our leash.
In short "shoe sniffing" is a fight that is never fully won, but never must be lost.
A toast to Shinola! DS

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