Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Red Sox.

I often feel like the only person in New England who does not care one iota about The Boston Red Sox. Sports, which are inherently sexist and anti-intellectual, have never held any interest for me. Given that most of today's celebrated professional athletes seem to derive their physical prowess from performance enhancing drugs, I am uncertain what makes these games, won through cheating and deception, appealing to anybody, frankly.

Red Sox fans (which, for reasons I have never fully understood, include hundreds of Mainers, despite the fact the team is based in Boston) can recall, from memory, intricate details and minutia of past World Series games from ten, twenty, even fifty years ago, but most cannot tell you the name of their state's congressional representative. In a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released prior to last year's presidential election, only 39 percent of eligible voters could correctly identify Joe Biden as the vice president.

As for the 54 percent that agreed with the statement, "[Politics] is so corrupt," as their excuse for not paying much attention to politics, I refer you to my previous statement about steroids in professional sports.

If the Red Sox lose a game, the entire city of Boston practically erupts in riots. If Obama guns down an innocent teenage boy with a drone in Yemen, nobody blinks an eye. It is good to know we have our national priorities straight. What's that you say, Sen. Angus King...? Drones are a more "humane" way of killing people? Well, if it's good enough for our junior "independent" senator, it must be good enough for liberals.

"Sports plays a societal role in engendering jingoist attitudes," Noam Chomsky once said. "They're designed to organize a community to be committed to their gladiators."

Baseball fans gush evangelically about the sport's "cultural tradition," its embodiment of essential values of "competitiveness," and "teamwork," often with an almost spiritual reverence. Many sports reporters even cast the Red Sox's World Series win as a symbolic "healing" of the city in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this year.

Get real, people!

Baseball, like all major league spectator sports, is commercial entertainment, pure and simple. Don't believe me? Just consider the Red Sox's major sponsors this year:

Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Poland Spring (which is owned by Nestle), Verizon Wireless and Dunkin Donuts. (The New York Times sold its share of the Red Sox last year.) The very purpose of these games is not to create any sort of community bonding experience, or even provide pleasurable entertainment. It is to sell ad-time to viewers.

These corporations do not care at all about the citizens of Boston--or anywhere for that matter. They do not even care about baseball. They just want your money. Feel stupid yet?

Sports, Hollywood movies, television and pop music make up what Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno called "The Culture Industry." Their seminal 1944 essay, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, proved eerily prescient in its portrayal of the then burgeoning popular culture as a system designed to distract and control a passive citizenry to satisfy the aims of the corporate state. As German-Jewish emigres to the  U.S. during the rise of the Third Reich, Adorno and Horkheimer observed ominous parallels between the Nazis' repressive propaganda machine and America's own commercially driven systems of mass media.

"Culture today is infecting everything with sameness," the authors wrote. "Film, radio, and magazines form a system. Each branch of culture is unanimous within itself and all are unanimous together. Even the aesthetic manifestations of political opposites proclaim the same inflexible rhythm."

Not only does this system of commercial culture, the authors warned, come at the expense of more emotionally and intellectually gratifying art, but it also creates within citizens a set of false needs--or "manufactured consent," to use Chomsky and Edward Herman's term--that can only be satisfied through consumer capitalism.

Or, as George W. Bush urged Americans following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, "Go shopping."

"Freedom to choose an ideology," Adorno and Horkheimer wrote, "which always reflects economic coercion, everywhere proves to be freedom to be the same."

For further confirmation of this last point, simply turn on any given commercial radio station anywhere in the country. Nearly every new song and artist sound the same. Clear Channel Communications, the world's largest radio producer and concert promoter, owns over 850 Top-40 radio stations in 300 cities nationwide.

The music featured on their stations is hook-laden, upbeat, obnoxiously overproduced and about as slick and soulless sounding as you can get. Most of the songs sound as if they were literally assembled in a factory. And, try as one may to fight it, listen to any of these stations long enough, and about a dozen of these tracks are bound to get stuck in your head.

Pop stars of the moment like Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, and Katy Perry stand in stark contrast to the messy, dissonant proto-punk of Lou Reed, who passed away last week. With the Velvet Underground, one of the great unheralded bands in rock history, Reed created music that was angry, cerebral and sonically volatile. His noisy, experimental rock challenged and provoked listeners as all great art should.

Yet, Reed and his contemporaries--Patti Smith, The Ramones, Television, The Stooges, The Sex Pistols--were never deemed safe or suitable enough for the corporate-owned airwaves. Their music always existed on the margins outside of popular culture. Thus, the culture industry ensures audiences are not exposed to true artists whose work could rouse them to dissent, rebellion, or protest.

The great media scholar Neil Postman was correct: We are amusing ourselves to death.

Postman opens his 1985 anti-TV polemic of the same name with an oft-cited comparison of the equally bleak though starkly different totalitarian futures depicted in George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contending that "Huxley, not Orwell, was right," Postman observes:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.... In 1984... people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
But rather than "rage, rage at the dying of the light," as Dylan Thomas urged, Americans prefer to relax, relax at the throwing of the opening pitch at the next game at Fenway Park.

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