Divided, Distracted, Downtrodden: The Social and Political Reality in America Today

Consumerism1

W.J. Astore

The American people are being kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden.  Divisions are usually based on race and class. Racial tensions and discrimination exist, of course, but they are also exploited to divide people.  Just look at the current debate on the Confederate flag flying in Charleston, South Carolina, with Republican presidential candidates refusing to take a stand against it as a way of appeasing their (White) radical activist base.  Class divisions are constantly exploited to turn the middle class, or those who fancy themselves to be in the middle class, against the working poor.  The intent is to blame the “greedy” poor (especially those on welfare or food stamps), rather than the greedy rich, for America’s problems.  That American CEOs of top companies earn 300 times more than ordinary workers scarcely draws comment, since the rich supposedly “deserve” their money.  Indeed, in the prosperity Gospel favored by some Christians, lots of money is seen as a sign of God’s favor.

As people are kept divided by race, class, and other “hot button” issues (abortion and guns, for example), they are kept distracted by insatiable consumerism and incessant entertainment.  People are told they can have it all, that they “deserve it” (a new car, a bigger home, and so on), that they should indulge their wants.  On HGTV and similar channels, people go shopping for new homes, carrying a long list of “must haves” with them.  I “must have” a three-car garage, a pool, a media room, surround sound, and so on.  Just tell me what mortgage I can afford, even if it puts me deeply in debt.  As consumerism runs rampant, people are kept further distracted by a mainstream media that provides info-tainment rather than news. Ultimately, the media exists to sell product; indeed, it is product itself.  No news is aired that will disturb the financial bottom line, that will threaten the corporations that run the media networks, that will undermine the privileged and the powerful.

The people, kept divided and distracted, are further rendered powerless by being kept downtrodden.  Education is often of poor quality and focused on reciting rote answers to standardized tests.  Various forms of debt (student loan debt, credit card debt, debt from health care and prescription drugs costs, and so on) work to keep the people downtrodden.  Even workers with good jobs and decent benefits are worried.  Worried that if they lose their jobs, they lose their health care. So much of personal status and identity, as well as your ability to navigate American society, is based on your position.  For many it’s lose your job, lose your life, as you’re consumed by debt you can’t repay.

Divided, distracted, and downtrodden: It’s a recipe for the end of democracy in America.  But it also serves as a roadmap to recovery.  To reinvigorate our democracy, we must fight against divisiveness, we must put distractions behind us, and we must organize to fight for the rights of the people, rights like a better education for all, less debt (a college education that’s largely free, better health care for everyone, and far less emphasis on consumerism as a sign of personal and societal health and wealth), and improved benefits for the workers of America, who form the backbone of our nation.

We can’t wait for the politicians.  Most of them are already co-opted by the moneyed interests.  Meaningful change will have to come from us.  That is, after all, the way democracy is supposed to work.

Yes, Education is about Social Control

Don't ask questions. Don't seek answers. Enjoy the spectacle. (Image: Wiki)
Don’t ask questions. Don’t seek answers. Enjoy the spectacle. (Image: Wiki)

W.J. Astore

Education in my sense of liberating and strengthening (making articulate and uncompromising) the intellect is of course antithetical to much of what is going on in our schools and universities, which I would rather refer to by such terms as training, molding, socialization, mystification, memorizing of facts, obfuscation of meaning–all processes designed to produce intelligent citizens who are ready to execute jobs faithfully and not ask any questions about their meaning or purpose or value to fellow human beings.

(Christian Bay, Strategies of Political Emancipation, 1981)

Corporate society takes care of everything.  And all it asks of anyone, all it’s ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions. 

Mr. Bartholomew (played by John Houseman) in Rollerball, 1975

As a professor and lifelong learner, I see education as equal parts empowering and enlightening.  Knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon said, and the lamp of learning helps to illuminate our lives.

But is education also about social control?  Sadly, the answer is “yes.”  Education that is simplified and standardized is often little more than indoctrination.  Education that is too regimented, too centralized, too much like a factory, prepares students for a life of unquestioning obedience and unreflective conformity.

Authorities have often been keen to restrict or outlaw forms of knowledge that they see as undermining their privileges and power.  Writing from Australia, Dr Teri Merlyn reminded me that:

There have been very direct, coordinated battles [against knowledge and reformers] – witness the censorship battles over Tom Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’, when you could go to gaol for simply owning a copy, and the 19th Century ‘Church and King’ mobs sent to punish radical writers and publishers by burning down their houses … There are powerful social forces at work that have their self-interest at heart and see what they do in that context.  Witness the great educator of the working class, Hannah Moore, writing to her Bishop at the turn of the 18th Century, assuring him whilst she was teaching these working class girls to read, sufficient for their service duties, they would never learn to write, for that would encourage them to aspire beyond their station.

Education today still largely teaches students to stay within their station.  Today’s focus on vocational education is both salutary and one-dimensional.  Students are told to get degrees as passports to a job.  They’re not told to aspire to be skeptical citizens who dare to question (or even to supplant) authority.

And there’s the rub.  We face difficult, seemingly intractable, problems in the world today.  Global warming.  Fossil fuel dependence.  A widening gap between rich and poor.  A military-industrial-intelligence complex that dominates our foreign policy as well as much of our domestic policy.  Worrisome budget deficits.  Unaffordable health care.  The list goes on.

But our students are not being educated to address these challenges, at least not in any radical way, in the sense of getting to the roots of the problem.

Education, in essence, has largely become training, just another form of careerism.  And the high student debt that many students incur in obtaining their “passport to success” ensures they are essentially indentured servants, forced to keep working to pay off their debt (and often to keep their health care benefits as well).

Even as students incur debt in the process of training for a career, higher education brags most loudly about its close ties to business and industry.  Yet business and industry, as Teri Merlyn notes, “has effectively [outsourced] its responsibility to train its workforce, diverting that cost onto the public purse.  In order to do that, it has infested educational language with its own terminology.  The dominance of the Business Paradigm is now absolute.”

Just as college football is a feeder to the NFL, higher education is increasingly a feeder to business and industry.  It’s a Rollerball world dominated by violent sports and corporate conglomerates.

Education, in short, has lost any sense of higher purpose.  “Adapt to the world as you find it” is both the implicit and explicit message. And whatever you do, don’t rock the boat.

Part of the method is to destroy any sense of class identity among students.  Today, virtually all my students self-identify as being members of the “middle class,” even though many are working class (just as I am a son of factory workers).  In American society, we’ve lumped blue-collar with white-collar jobs, so that now janitors and fast-food workers (for example) think of themselves as middle class.

This is not to denigrate janitors or fast-food workers.  Rather, it’s to highlight the calculated decline of class identity and solidarity in the U.S.  If we’re all middle class, if we’re all bourgeois, why bother uniting in unions to fight for our rights?  If we allegedly inhabit a post-class society of social mobility, education can then ignore ethical and societal questions of fairness to focus on workforce training and professional development.

As my Aussie correspondent, Dr Teri Merlyn, astutely noticed:

“That phenomenon of working class identity is a most unwilling one, so the strategy to co-opt the working class as nominal members of the owning class through the share and property markets was very successful.  One might even suspect this recent ‘economic crisis’ [of 2008] as the ‘owners’ simply taking back what they see as rightfully theirs.”

Put differently, you can’t see you’re being screwed as a worker when you view yourself as an “owner” in your own right.  And when you’re educated to conform, to produce the standard answer, to aspire to a respectable job (with your identity confined to that job), your consciousness will never be raised to challenge the system in any radical way.

In fact, your goal is to become the system, to reap its rewards for yourself, just as those that you now work for have done and are doing.

As we witness uprisings around the world, from Egypt to Greece to Brazil and elsewhere, we should ponder why there are not similar uprisings in the U.S.  Is it because the U.S. really is, pardoning Voltaire, the best of all possible worlds?  Or is it because our educational system immunizes us against any form of “socialism” (a curse word in American politics) or class consciousness?

Education, when it’s about getting the right answer that leads to the right job without ever questioning prevailing authority, becomes a status quo operation in social control.

To recognize that is not to surrender to it.  Rather, it’s to begin to fight it.