What do Sigmund Freud, Joseph Goebbels and Betty Crocker have in common? Ever wonder why anyone would choose to buy a Rolex when a Timex keeps time just as well? Hint: some smart people figured out how to tap into our unconscious fears and desires and over the past century we’ve been the unwitting subjects of a wildly successful mass experiment in consumer manipulation and social control. Adam Curtis of the BBC reveals who they were and how they did it…
Shortly after his release from prison in 1990 Nelson Mandela visited Oakland. Mandela came to thank the Bay Area because Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco were among the strongest defenders of ordinances calling for divestment of stocks in American companies doing business in South Africa. The leading voice in that struggle was our congressman Ron Dellums. In 1986 the U.S. House of Representatives passed Dellums’ anti-apartheid legislation, calling for a trade restriction against South Africa and divestment. A primary precondition for lifting the sanctions was the release of all political prisoners. President Reagan vetoed the bill; however, his veto was overridden. I was at the Oakland Coliseum 29 years ago today, June 30, 1990. Mandela also thanked area longshoremen (ILWU) who refused to unload South African goods.
Sarah Sanders is leaving us. Turning in her tin star to ride off into the sunset. A snake oil saleswoman raised by a snake oil salesman fronting for one of the greatest American con men. It’s the great American story. From PT Barnum and Buffalo Bill to Bernie Madoff and the TV evangelists (and TV Generals too) America’s history is littered with “heroes” whose only great talents were for fooling us for a quick buck.
There is a reason that Hollywood is known as the “Dream Factory.” A primary exercise in movies and television is the production of contrived experiences. The TV product is specifically tailored to be interspersed with fantasy images designed to sell us things we probably don’t need. A by-product of this simulation is the creation of the celebrity. A person who, as Daniel Boorstin points out, is well-known for no good reason other than for his/her well-known ness. The existence of public relations and marketing, one of the most profitable of American businesses (fantasy image makers that have actually made themselves into a fantasy image–Madison Avenue and Mad Men), is dependent on hoodwinking the masses into buying things simply for status. In fact capitalism probably can’t stand on its own if people only buy what they need to survive.
In this age of media saturation we live in a country that has defined itself through its deceptions. We the people are delusional about who we are and who we’ve been. We have constructed our self-image based on received stories consumed through mass communication. We are never satisfied because our extravagant expectations rarely match up with reality and so we are forever searching for the next big thing, or hitting it big, or making the big time. Much of our national story is set on these shaky grounds of designed misconception. The art of the con itself is based on creating illusions, and the best artists are the most deceptive ones.
Within this communal hallucination one space where the real continues to transfix us is in the realm of true crime reporting. We are fascinated with the spontaneity of crime, it’s one of the rare experiences that is not totally contrived, that’s why its influence is outsized proportionally in the news cycle.* We love to make fun of the incompetents, we secretly admire the masterminds, but we are always afraid of being a victim, thus we are easy targets for the personal security rackets. Even so, that spontaneity soon evaporates since everything is fed to us through the filtering medium of the lens and the slanting pens of editorial offices. Kennedy won the election because Nixon didn’t have a close enough shave, but Nixon really won because Kennedy cheated in Texas and Chicago. Kennedy was a good guy killed by a lone outlaw (really?) and Nixon was an outlaw killed by a two good guys, a deep throat and a tape recorder. Kennedy goes down as hero, Nixon as villain. As unseemly as it all sounds it has all become national folklore. The real has become laborious, its minutiae too difficult to comprehend and its details too boring to memorize. The condensed, filtered, repackaged fantastic interpretation becomes more appealing, more exciting, easier. It’s almost as if we like to be duped. As if, like Barnum told us, being suckered is part of the experience of being American. We’re all on reality TV.
These threads converge in the Trump scenario. The ascendance of Donald and Sarah, both celebrities, both only recognizable for being recognized in the media, neither with any appreciable “real” talent, is the predictable reappearance of two of the foundational forms in the American drama- the con man and his trusted sidekick. But here the Donald takes it to a new level by representing the merger of several archetypal character types found in the American mythological narrative. Depending on who you ask Trump assumes the role of con man, outlaw or tough lawman. Sometimes all three at once, and that is somehow ok for many of his supporters. The fact that he seems to stand out above the sordid crowd alerts us to what is most sinister about him. He and Sarah spin up a show that is patently outrageous, they are the attention getters. Yet the true crime, the ongoing stagecoach robbery and swindling of the passengers, continues relatively hidden behind the scenes. The equivalent of throwing a smoke bomb in the other direction– I’ll create a diversion while you rob the bank.
American history is a mythical history. From the frontier days to the modern world the outlaw, the con man and the lawman have been, and continue to be, central characters in that myth. The overarching theme is the struggle for the acquisition of wealth, property and security between the powerful and the powerless, haves and have nots, whites and non-whites, bosses and workers etc. Depending on the time and circumstances the fortunes of the groups have changed in relation to each other. But the long term trend, albeit not entirely linear, has been the consolidation of victory for the few. Historically a reliable brake against the greed of the powerful, many of them legalized outlaws, con men and law men, has been their fear of the masses. That is, the fear of democracy. Now the stage in the theatre of democracy, upon which our national mythology has been acted out, is in danger of being condemned for its rotting foundations. Historian Eric Hobsbawn put it succinctly– “One of the worst things about the politics of the past 30 years is that the rich have forgotten to be afraid of the poor.” Not only do they no longer fear us they have actually convinced many of us that the outlaw con man is the best lawman. And every good sheriff needs a loyal deputy–adios senora Sarah…
With so many unfilled posts in his administration the next feature on the Donald double-bill: The Searchers…
* A side note: This may be why sports are so popular? They are one of the few remaining forums for spontaneous non-contrived experiences. That’s not to say that the spectacle surrounding sports isn’t the equivalent of a PT Barnum event– a circus– but the game itself still maintains a sense and tension of the real. Anything can happen. The popularity of pro wrestling on the other hand informs us that the power of the contrived still remains immense in the American psyche, even in the domain of sports.
Bukowski’s autobiographical anti-hero, Henry Chinaski: ‘The problem was you had to keep choosing between one evil or another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little bit more off you, until there was nothing left. At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidate who reminded them most of themselves.” – Ham On Rye 1982
Bukowski’s Los Angeles Tour:
5124 De Longpre, Hollywood – residence 1964-1973. Post Office, Notes from a Dirty Old Man, South of No North, Mockingbird Wish Me Luck, The Days Run Away like Horses, and Factotum written there.
Frolic Room (6245 Hollywood Blvd) – Alcohol.
Musso & Frank Grill (6667 Hollywood Blvd) – Alcohol. Ruben no longer.
Pink Elephant Liquor Store (1836 N Western Ave, Los Feliz) – Alcohol.
Richard J. Riordan Central Library (630 W 5th St., Los Angeles) – Books.
USPS Terminal Annex (900 N Alameda St., Los Angeles) – Work 1952-1955 and 1958-1969.
Cole’s French Dip (118 East 6th St., Los Angeles) – Alcohol.
Smog Cutter (864 N. Vrigil Ave., Los Angeles) – Alcohol
Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center (681 Venice Blvd, Venice) – Shrine.
Barkowski (2819 Pico Blvd, Santa Monica) – Shrine.
Santa Anita Racetrack – Horses.
Huntington Library (1151 Oxford Rd, San Marino) – Papers.
San Pedro – Residence. 1978-1994. Ham on Rye. Near Bandini Street and Elementary school (Fante).
Downtown Books (414 W 6th St, San Pedro) – Books.
Green Hills Memorial Park Cemetery (27501 S Western Ave, Rancho Palos Verdes, Plot: Ocean View #875) – Grave. “Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. — Hank — “Don’t try” — 1920-1994.”