Thursday, May 18, 2017

Reading is Resistance: Culture as Weapon

I'm going to say something and it is going to feel like pustulent garbage under a hot plate when it hits your brain, but it is true. Are ye brain-stuffs girded? OK. Here goes. Bill O'Reilly, of accused of serial sexual harassment fame, is the most important public intellectual in America of the last twenty or thirty years.

Deep breath.

OK. It is now clear that, as much as we want to blame it on things the kids use like Twitter, Fox News is a primary driving force in the polarizing of American politics and that it has radicalized almost an entire generation of white men. Fox's use of the myth of liberal bias in the media to relentlessly and dishonestly present a particular narrative is a big reason why we elected Donald Trump. Could Fox News have pulled off this twenty-year grift without the veneer of decency cast by O'Reilly? Could they have maintained the necessary attention to indoctrinate (or at least manipulate) without O'Reilly's skills in communication? Could anyone have transferred the vein-popping bluster of conservative talk radio to television better than O'Reilly?

And it's clear that O'Reilly is an extremely talented communicator. From his now cliché use of “folks,” to the direct and simple graphics, to overall delivery and body language, he was able to affect the codes of your white uncle who's really into politics, who will give it to you straight and who (courageously, of course) doesn't care who he might offend in the process. I am certain that, over the years, many people came to feel almost as though O'Reilly was their politics savvy uncle Bill and looked forward to checking in with him every day to see what he thought about what went on. (I'm tempted to describe him as the anti-Mister Rogers.) To put this another way, he used a persona (who knows how far it is from his real personality) to make coded racism, class warfare against the poor, Republican talking points, and alternative realities, emotionally compelling. When presented through O'Reilly's techniques, his ideas and opinions felt right and felt good, especially when they leveraged existing fears and biases. It would probably be a step too far to say that Bill O'Reilly is an artist, but he certainly used many of the techniques of the artist to build connections in our brain between certain emotions and ideas, policies, and (most importantly) other public figures. Obviously, O'Reilly himself would bristle at the label “public intellectual” but ultimately, given that until his recent ouster for serial sexual harassment, he discussed, analyzed, and presented ideas in public for money, he is (regardless of how bad his ideas are) the definition of a “public intellectual.”

Nato Thompson's brilliant new book, Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life , has a simple thesis; culture—art, communication, social relationships—is really a set of tools that can be used by anyone for any purpose. What makes us enjoy a painting or a song or a story or a public park can be used to sell us crap we don't need, make us loyal to corporations, and even get us to vote against our interests. This use of culture for purposes other than enriching our lives is most obvious in advertising and public relations, but it goes deeper than that to corporate strategies, store design, and, even though Thompson doesn't take it in this direction, the Republican use of tribal identity and community to keep voters Republican policies historically harm voting Republican.

For the most part, this book is a starting point, with Thompson setting the stage and proving his thesis (you should see my copy, I must have tagged over a hundred of Thompson's points, phrases, and ideas) and leaving it to readers and activists to explore and apply his conclusions. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Thompson's ideas, and why they are so relevant today is that, from the Dada rejection of sense in response to Europe's disastrous decay to the community building of the Civil Rights Movement to the leveraging of social media messaging by Black Lives Matter, culture is usually used to oppose unjust powers in service to a commitment to a greater humanity. If culture can be used by the wealthiest corporations and the already powerful and unjust governments, if Pepsi feels like it has the right to use images of protest, how exactly are we supposed to use art and culture to fight today? If an earnest attempt to imbue humanity and justice in our systems of government through image, story, and community can be turned into an ad, are those attempts and are those techniques effective anymore? If part of the fundamental argument of culture and creation is the value of all human beings, how do you use it to influence people who clearly do not believe all humans are valuable? How do you fight a reality TV star?

I don't have a good answer to those questions, but there is something of a silver lining here. We are exploitable because we seek connections, because we strive for empathy, because we want to help, because we want to provide for our families, because we want strong communities. So much of how we are exploited through cultural weapons are based in the angels of our better nature. On the one hand, it makes us easy targets; just slap the label “family values” on yourself and you get almost free rein for hate and bigotry, but on the other hand, it also proves we have those angels, that even if we disagree on the process, we all want the same things. In a strange way, the most shortsighted, cynical, greedy systems of research and production have, in a way, proved the existence of our core of human decency.

Furthermore, I think it is important to point out that there is probably a reason why most artists, intellectuals, professors, creators of culture, tend to be humanist (or at least aspire to humanism even if they often fall short), to create works that inspire and empower, rather than items that compel consumption or leverage fear of the other for personal gain. Yes, there are plenty of talented, brilliant, content creators, embedding GEICO slogans into our brains and creating talking points for fascism, as there were always plenty of talented, brilliant artists willing to paint Jesus a thousand different ways for popes and cardinals, but still. There's a reason why the Right hates Hollywood. There's a reason why Evangelicals hate artists and creative expression. There is a reason why Conservatives are afraid of higher education. This is not to sanctify artists and intellectuals, but to argue that there is at least some historical, statistical implication, that engaging in the creation of culture has a close relationship with wanting to make the world a better place for everyone.

But there is still a gap between this idea and actions we can take today. On the one hand, it seems to imply the possibility of reaching out and across and finding those better angels in the people who put Trump in power and who are keeping him there, that if we could just tell the right story in the right way, we could breakthrough with at least enough of them to alter our elections, but at the same time, there has already been tons of that reaching out and the result of that, more often than not, seems to somehow distill into the idea that we need to be nice to certain white racists in order to reclaim their votes for other white Democrats.

Technique aside, it raises a question that I don't have a good answer for: can works of culture overcome tribalism in individuals? Or rather, since we know this does happen, since much of the social progress we have experienced over the course of humanity can be attributed to this very phenomenon, perhaps the question should be asked: why do some people respond strongly enough to works of culture to break out of their tribal (racist) dogmas while others do not? Can acts of humanist culture every truly gain more than temporary reprieves and incremental (often technology driven) improvements against the acts of tribalist culture like the works of Bill O'Reilly?

We like to assume the arc of history bends towards justice, but there is a chance, a good one, that the post WWII rise of democracy and egalitarianism is actually the fluke, and that we are now, to our doom, returning to the humanity's typical organization of small groups of powerful people using their power to enrich themselves and those they identify as belonging to their tribe, but that doesn't mean we give up. Each individual person raised up over the centuries of struggle for humanist societies, makes the fight worth it and works of culture, even if their techniques have been appropriated, are part of that fight. Furthermore, acts of resistance in the form of works of culture, along with whatever they may or may not do in terms of stopping the rise of fascism in the U.S, result in themselves. They have a value that outlives whatever they do or do not accomplish.

And they persist during the times of injustice, they are solace and strength for the oppressed, they are connections across cultures and across time between all those who fight for justice, and they are proof that we can create a better world even if, ultimately, we never do. They are evidence of the fight and creating evidence of the fight matters. Ultimately, Thompson's main point is not that we should reject culture as a method of positive change or resistance, but that we need to be mindful of its limitations and prepared for systems of power to respond in kind. I don't know what that looks like. I don't know if we really have time to figure out how to apply Thompson's insights while we still have a democracy. But I do know we've got to do something.

So, fight and create evidence of your fight.