Saturday, October 08, 2016

The magnificent quest for Shinola and its dangers - (updated)

This is a revised version of something I wrote several years ago, which I felt with a few minor changes would be more timely today than when I first wrote it.

Shinola, take a whiff
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 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 never ending antics of the Republican House of Representatives or the appearance of a nightmarish buffoon like Donald Trump, are any sort of leading olfactory indicators of the nation's mental health. 

Contemplating the mere possibility that something that should only be handled with forceps like Trump could now lead a party once led by Abraham Lincoln or Dwight Eisenhower; one gets the feeling that the spirit of the republic is a little like the Bruce Willis character in The Sixth Sense, dead, but doesn't know it yet. 

In that film, only one small boy seems to understand the situation. Today the social media are crowded with "small boys" of every political, or conspiracy stripe, all of them shouting out their versions of the system's multi-odorous shoe.

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 nearly twenty five years ago. Twenty five years may seem a long time to someone under forty, but in historical terms it is nothing more than a blink of the eye. After all, from the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 to the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 was only twenty years.

Absurd, you say, the two systems are totally different, like oil and water ... on the contrary, I would say that the similarities between them are more interesting than the differences and that America has simply been more efficient than the USSR ever was in resisting the same acids that are eating away at its structures of social control in much the same way as they devoured 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 were 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 by government officials before publication, after previous censorship ceased 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, (with often curious results). There were private radio stations, but they all connected to the state radio for 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 in 1975, 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 such as Twitter or Whatsapp.

Getting back to the Soviet Union I have read that you needed very high level permission to even have access to a photocopying machine there. Thus the modest mimeograph machine was an important instrument in the USSR's downfall.

Bottom line: A system of social control cannot operate successfully in an environment of free movement of information.

This is where, until now, 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 access to information  that brought down the Soviets and would have made Franco's regime impossible, have in America morphed under the combination of military technology,' hooked to an insatiable consumer society, and are now even eating away at the US system.

As we observe in the political paralysis of today, we can see that the Founding Fathers of 18th century, in an America then WASP, religiously and ethnically quite homogeneous, created a political structure that was not designed to reflect a society as complex and multifaceted as contemporary America's has turned out to be.

The centrifugal forces of a country as huge and diverse as America's were 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" in the first place required enough  money to buy a press, 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. Compare this to Twitter and cellphone videos of the police shooting black people.

Herein lies the importance of the recent idea of the "people" being 99% and everything being owned and run for the benefit of the "one-percent": this is a self generating phenomenon, which has required minimal capital outlay to influence the opinion of millions of people, and which is helping a critical mass of opinion to "tell the shit from the Shinola". The downside of all this being political instability.

This phenomenon is totally outside the control of those who have always manufactured consent until now. As an example: Walter Cronkite's role as the symbol of unified national opinion would be impossible today.

This is only the beginning, in a couple of years we will be look back on this present moment tenderly like watching a home movie of a baby's first steps.

However "our" system has been reacting to this danger which its own technology and marketing have produced and under the cover of the war on terrorism, the National Security Agency. the FBI or the guardians of intellectual property, are putting mechanisms in place that only await a "national emergency" to tug on our leash.

In short this is a fight that is never fully won, but never must be lost.

A toast to Shinola! DS