Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Our Networked Existence

“Last night Howard Beale went on the air and yelled bullshit for two minutes and I can tell you right now that tonight's show will get a 30 share at least.” – Faye Dunaway playing Diana Christensen, 1976

Over the past few weeks, every one of the vaunted old giants of the American journalistic world – you know them, the Atlantic and the New Yorker, the Times and the WaPo, have been at something of a crossroads since the national auto-pederasty of the 8th of November. Their op-ed pages have been flooded with countless “how could this happen?” articles, countless articles about the “disconnect” with rural America (and how the fuck did it take them that long to figure that one out?), countless earlier, predictions from heretofore ignored Cassandras, countless articles about the “white working class” (a term that, despite my beliefs that the working class is larger in scope than we'd like to admit, conveniently ignores the relative wealth of the average Trump voter, despite the heavy dose of po' whites who gravitated towards his message). For the past few weeks, these and the repostings of the same have populated my impeccably azure-blue Facebook news feed.

These are paired with the inevitable follow-up from the American literary and political intelligentsia, the “what the fuck do we now?” message. The common theme is the need for a new militancy among the Democratic Party, that Bernie's clarion call should have been heeded, that the American people are well and truly sick of a political system that only favors Goldman Sachs et al, that if those desperates in the American ass-nowhere are to be won over, they cannot be part of a party that coddles the nation's fiscal elite.

And this is probably the right approach. But what is forgotten is that there is a part of the American populace – 20 percent at a bare minimum, almost certainly more, whom I can safely deem to be absolute fucking lost causes. These are the people whose gut instinct is the very limit of their potential knowledge. These are the people who pontificate about the looming threat of sharia law, having never met a Muslim, who talk about the rise of socialism and Marxism on American soil, despite their complete lack of understanding about what socialism actually is, or having read any Marx, who live in terror of illegal immigrants, while blithely ignoring any immigration statistics. They have a certain skepticism towards establishment media sources, which is fair, but really at the end are just as ovine – the sheep who would simply rather follow the intellectually callow shepherds representing their preferred “new media” rumormongers.

This isn't a new phenomenon, and a number of international examples can be illustrative. Analogies to Putin are frequent, and the Americans living on the tattered fringe of the empire are often compared to the Russians who seek authoritarian comfort as they live in the crumbling, polluted industrial ruins of the Soviet era. But analogies are everywhere. You could compare Trump to the Philippines' national carnival barker, Rodrigo Duterte, to Turkey's Recep Erdogan, who routinely courts Islamists while declaiming the “Islamist threat” to hold power. And you could compare his followers to China's fenqing, the nationalistic and Internet-savvy “angry youth” who, like Trump's deplorables, turned the slur against them into a badge of pride. Or the vigilante mobs in Venezuela, defending Nicolas Maduro's crumbling government. Or we could bring up Japan's netto-uyoku, the annoyingly vocal Japanese troll army that refuses to acknowledge their country's history of war crimes and fumes about supposed loss of Japanese territorial and spiritual integrity, and compare them to the alt-right of today – how different, really, is this Japanese cartoon below different from the average American portrayal of the meme-happy, misogynistic neckbeard?

What ties all of these disparate ideologies together, despite their supposed adherence to political ideologies ranging from the far-left to the far-right is their blind rage towards a world they don't seem to fully understand, to throw analysis and quiet reflection under the bus in favor of the hoary values of nation and identity and power. And so they find a populist vision in the media that, to use a brilliant line from a certain old movie “articulates the popular rage.” This impulse towards irrationality, to favor anecdote over pattern, reaction over analysis, suspicion over assessment, is an eternal cancer in the human condition, and, with enough fear, with enough uncertainty, metastasizes to erstwhile healthy cells and threatens the body as a whole.

It is easy enough for America's so-called left to dismiss. After all, Hillary supporters' confidence was based on its own assumptions, its presumption that the experienced politician would win, its almost religious faith in Nate Silver and Co's social media-friendly electoral prediction map, its belief that America had truly become a place where smart people made smart decisions and where the prejudices of the past had safely been locked away in what was assumed to be a culturally irrelevant flyover country. After all, all their Facebook friends agreed.

The ugliness is that we remain mired in a political landscape where cultural markers have displaced policy, the content on your iPod mattering more than economic strategy.

It's in times like these that that aforementioned certain old movie, Network, with its absolutely virtuoso script by Paddy Chayefsky, gets brought up, especially its most memorable line “I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore.” The plot is simple enough. Mid-mental breakdown, an aging news anchor becomes propped up as an unhinged “mad prophet of the airwaves,” vocalizing the internal malaise of mid-1970s America, much to the delight of his corporate masters. It has become touted by all manner of journalistic voices, ranging from left-wingers who claim that Howard Beale is speaking truth in the era of monopoly capitalism to right-wingers who claim that Howard Beale is speaking truth in an era of godless globalists. And what they forget, ultimately, is that his truth is ultimately marred by his profound mental illness, his sickness that ultimately becomes an organ of capital just as much as it is an individual voice. The popular rage is ultimately shaped by and subordinate to media forces, to the nihilistic drive towards capital.

People forget Beale's last speech, where he notes that “it's the individual that's finished.” Subsumed and eventually confronted, Howard Beale resigns himself to his fate of living in a dehumanized and corporatized society, before eventually being almost casually executed by the board of directors. Chayefsky ends his script with a voiceover. “This was the story of Howard Beale: the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”

We can analyze all we want, and yet we are in the same place. We can take note on appropriate strategy for the opposition in the era of Trump, but forget how to adopt a political value system, as individuals rather than as parties, that is strategic rather than authentic is both a capitulation, and a weird sort of narcissism where we assume that our individual voice is our camp's voice. I can do nothing about the rage. I can sit here, and watch the American government suffer under incompetent and narcissistic pseudo-leadership, and hope it gets better, I can donate my income to causes I deem worthy. I can offer up my opinions, to whatever end, but that's it.

And as an American overseas, it's a bit like watching when an old school friend, after years of dissolution and chaos, finally gets locked up for a crime that they committed out of desperation and was busted for thanks to their own stupidity.