Between & Beyond: Consuming Ideas

What do we do? There’s no shortage of voices floating around telling us what to think or feel when it comes to political issues. There’s no shortage of debates about who is wrong or right or who is dumb or superior. So, I mean, seriously, what do we do? Let’s say you reading this and I writing this actually share the same ideas: corruption has eaten the heart of all American institutions; policy makers are deaf to public need while Pavlovian to the tune of lobby money; and deep at the rotten core of it all is the consumer-oriented value system peddled and perpetuated by our centralized mass media culture. So, what do we do about it?

The problem starts with our relationship to ideas. Adam Curtis’ amazing BBC Documentary series called The Century Of Self documents the rise of consumerism and marketing and how it played snugly into the burgeoning study of psychology through the 20th century. Marketing schemes since have been carefully crafted to appeal to our sense of identity. We buy who we want to be. What we consume makes us who we are. In the spectrum of Americans who are currently alive, those of the oldest generation are the only amongst us who know any existence other than a consumer existence. The act of consumption has become deeply ingrained in our way of life. It’s often an aspect that is entirely taken for granted, and with the advent of the information age, it has metastasized beyond some kind of simple lifestyle choice with amoral implications.

The point here being that with mass media breaking free of its chains and the development of the internet, the blogosphere, podcasts and the like, we have begun to consume ideas in the same way we have always consumed products. Prepackaged ideologies are readily available in the information marketplace. And while we don’t have to pay for them, we still consume them. There are those who consume let’s say conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ output and are preparing for the next step of the New World Order, but they still get up every morning and go to work. Similarly, there’s those we could call psychedelically inclined, putting faith in the universe or 2012 or the singularity, trusting that things are going according to some larger plan, and sure it’s quite dark now, but dawn is bound to follow. In the meantime, of course, might as well get in a totally average American life while we wait. The list is endless: be it traditional party lines, going green faux environmentalism, or the vitriolic tag team of atheism and scientific materialism, no matter the flavor, ideas and values are consumed and we wear them like so many fashion accessories, thusly satisfying a personal sense of identity and never taking action. No matter what brand of ideology we favor, we all turn right around and continue to participate in the American way of life.

These are the strange results of mass media. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard saw it coming when he wrote about simulacra and hyperreality. When events are recorded, either through film, audio, or the written word, reality becomes data. Data can be interpreted and manipulated and objectified (rewind/slow motion/freeze frame) in ways that direct felt experience can’t. This creates a second skin to the world, one that we tend to call reality. This distances us from the immediacy of the Earth, the immediacy of community, and the immediacy of survival. In spite of the fervor of political rhetoric that suggests otherwise, one does not need to be right in order to survive. Scientific materialism (merely the research & development branch of our oligarchy) and its figureheads (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, et al.) would have us believe that human beings have never been more right in the history of the universe. Yet, to the sensitive among us, things feel very, very wrong.

So, what do we do? Political scientist Andrew Bacevich was interviewed by Bill Moyers in 2008, and it remains the most lucid interview I have ever seen. He stated that until the American way of life becomes negotiable, not much will change, and at the core of that idea resides what we value. So much hinges upon what we value. What do we do? We must become. Not adorn ourselves in consumed identity, but make choices that speak to what we value. Political action is worthless. The system is broken. There is a great deal of futility in standing up and demanding that wicked men behave themselves. The system has long since turned its back on the people. It’s time we turn our backs on it and turn toward each other. Find out what your neighbor thinks. Share a meal. Decide what’s valuable. Be humble. Be gracious. Act like we are allies and that the enemy is those who would lie to us, steal from us, and manipulate us. There’s hope in the fact that I was able to name the fragmented camps of the dissatisfied and disaffected. We are finding our footing. All we need is that divine spark of a good idea.