Religion may have been the opioid of the masses at one time, but since the 1950’s it has been subsumed by television, a dimension of sight, a dimension of sound, a dimension of mind. Our thoughts and feelings are shaped by the images that we see on television and television is more compelling to many of us than “real life.” Harlan Ellison wrote a two-volume book, “The Glass Teat” wherein he described how a young boy of nine stayed in his room watching television while his mother was being raped in the next room. The boy had been trained to ignore what was going on around him and go to the glass teat to care for him, and so he did.
In 1984 NYU professor Neil Postman was asked to give a lecture on George Orwell’s book, “1984” and opine whether life had moved towards that dystopian society. Postman said, no, in fact, America was much closer to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where the masses give up all identity and individualism so that they could remain lulled into a stupor on a drug called “soma.” It’s bread and circus taken to the nth degree and the death of democracy, because democracy is based upon an involved citizenry engaging in civil discourse and civil discourse is made possible only through information. We now live in an age where the bulk of what the average person ingests as information is coming off of television and as we have seen in the past three years — and before, since Fox News has been in the picture — a great deal of that is disinformation. This is how we have come to this perilous point. Huxley arguably did predict this time in history better than Orwell, although shades of totalitarianism certainly are present as well. Will Bunch Philadelphia Inquirer via Raw Story:
“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 that 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.”
We are a trivial culture indeed, and we do not take politics seriously and that’s been the case for quite some time now. We don’t want the man with the best ideas — and we’re so misogynistic we don’t want a woman at all — in power. We want to trust our feelings, like lobotomized Luke Skywalkers and pull a lever for the celebrity candidate we feel is the most cool and who confirms our bias. And what’s why we are where we are right now today with Donald Trump in the White House. He is confirmation bias on legs, telling his supporters that they were right all along to be racist, homophobic, sexist, and most of all — stupid. Even as he is. No wonder they love him so much. Except they don’t love him at all, because there is no “him” except insofar as Trump is a brand and an image on TV.
Postman already saw in the 1980s — when a Hollywood actor was winning his second term as president — that Americans “do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.” Postman died in 2003 — seven years before the launch of Instagram — but he clearly saw it coming. Ditto for the potential nightmare of a general election showdown between Trump and Bloomberg.
In 2015-16, some writers — myself included — saw the rise of Trump as the embodiment of Postman’s 20th century predictions. Here was a soulless demagogue whose mass rallies, with unpredictable rants targeting everyone from Mexicans to CNN, got boffo ratings, in a series that the soma-zonked masses found must-see TV to the point where people would watch the image of his plane on a tarmac.
In little more than three years as president, Trump has been systematically dismantling the basic rule of law and many of other Democratic norms, establishing a modern presidency where stealing elections and other crimes are above the law, where Congress and the courts are no longer a watchdog. The slim majority of Americans who seem to be alarmed by this have been saying that nothing less than the fate of democracy is on the ballot in 2020.
But what if democracy has already died and we just don’t want to admit it. The ascendancy of Bloomberg 2020 has also been something of a slap in the face to those of us who’ve watched the Elizabeth Warrens and Cory Bookers and Julian Castros of the world — appealing for small donors and taking selfies and talking about crazy stuff like making college affordable, only to bore the electorate to tears, as each TV debate saw shrinking ratings. Too many Democrats didn’t want ideas, or even ethics — not when they have the centrifugal bumblepuppy that is Michael the Insult Comic Dog.
Michael Bloomberg is the anti-Trump. He built his fortune on the backs of workers too scared to take bathroom breaks and he’s certainly made his own horrendous sexist comments in the work place and his stop-and-frisk policies belie a racist orientation, to put it mildly. But he is now being considered seriously as a standard bearer by Democrats so desperate to end this hellish episode in American history that their sole qualification for the top of the ticket is, “Can you beat Donald Trump?”
Bloomberg now qualifies for the debate stage in Nevada on Wednesday, because he’s polling at 19%. In December he was polling at 4% in the same NPR/Marist poll. Since then, the sheer volume of television and radio ads, blasting from every frequency, have put him in the game — a game which used to be defined by position papers and grass roots activism. Put those quaint notions in a time capsule and bury them. Being on television is what counts in 2020. New York Times:
Monmouth University released a poll of Virginia this morning showing Bloomberg and Sanders tied at 22 percent each, and Biden with 18 percent. Buttigieg (11 percent) and Klobuchar (9 percent) were in a statistical tie for fourth place, and Warren was at 5 percent. With 99 delegates at stake, Virginia is the fourth-largest prize on the Super Tuesday calendar. Monmouth’s is the first poll to have been taken there since the summer. Bloomberg’s strong showing — this is one of the first polls of any state in which he has broken 20 percent — reflects the intense focus that he has put on the states that vote March 3, both in terms of advertising and in-person appearances.
Bloomberg’s strategy is working. He is making an impression where an impression counts, on television and he’s doing it in a way that counts — bashing Donald Trump. While that is admirable and God knows he’s making points, here’s the rest of the package that we may be buying.
At various times, Bloomberg has bashed the idea of a living wage, waged war on teachers’ unions, endorsed the Iraq War and the war-criminal president who started it, expressed nostalgia for “redlining” policies that discriminated against black and brown homebuyers, and even — shades of Donald Trump — praised authoritarian regimes like China’s Xi Jinping and once said Americans should learn from Singapore which executes drug dealers.
This … this is the Democrat? I’m old enough to remember when there was no liberal principle held higher than that the American White House is not for sale, so why the sudden embrace of this billionaire getting away with it in broad daylight? The quiet part of the Bloomberg revolution is this notion that democracy is broke beyond repair in a time of pure tribal warfare, and so the only way to beat their dictator is with our oligarch. But if this is how 2020 works, then who would even attempt to run for president as a small-d democrat in 2024? Or 2096, if we’re not under 3 feet of water?
This is the justification for Bloomberg, that democracy has broken down into two tribes, two Americas and that the former New York mayor, who started out as a Republican, can bring it home for the Democrats. It is no secret that voters going to the polls are motivated not so much by the delight in their candidate as they are by the fact that they hate the other guy. And the other guy, Trump, got to where he is via television. Bloomberg is fighting fire with fire, he’s taken over television. In the state of play of politics in 2020, television is the arena in which political gladiators will do combat. S/he who controls television controls the minds of the masses and shapes ideas about who to vote for — the debates are merely ritual, most people find them boring and turn them off. The TV ads are what compel voters minds.
Neil Postman wrote that “People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” George Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith said,
“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
Winston Smith learned to love the big image on the telescreen, because all capacity for rational thought and decision making had been tortured out of him. So whether we have a society lulled into a stupor by the drug of television, or a choice of equally bad candidates seeming different, because of the propaganda of television making them appear to be from different tribes, the result is the same — the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan, opined in 1964. The cultural psyche of the global village is shaped by the medium of communication, which is television.
Television and television alone got Donald Trump where he got. Of himself, doing politics the real way, with knowledge, insight and hard work, he never would have been able to get elected to the school board. But he went straight from reality TV to the highest office our land has to confer, an office which makes him the most powerful man in the world, because in 2016 it was all about image. The Republicans were appalled, too, at how well Trump was doing, because they saw the same idiot that we saw. Then they saw that the medium was the message and realized that form was more important than content and they came to love Donald Trump, as Winston Smith had come to love Big Brother.
Now Democrats may have Trump’s twin, in many respects, Mike Bloomberg on the other side of the race in 2020 — although I give Bloomberg enough credit for intellect and street smarts that I believe he would attempt to staff his administration with competent people as opposed to the biased buffoons that Trump has placed. And at least Bloomberg was Mayor of New York City, itself the size of a small country, so it’s not like the concept of government is completely alien to him.
I am appalled that I’m even rationalizing a potential Bloomberg presidency like this, but in all grasp of reality, I think we would be fools if we don’t look at this as a legitimate possibility. I’d give it a 50/50 chance at this point that Bloomberg could get nominated. Biden looks to have washed, Warren is running fifth and it may come down to Sanders v. Bloomberg or conceivably Buttigieg may prevail. He’s been the break out star of the entire season so far.
If push comes to shove, look at it this way. We’re already in the fire with Trump. Bloomberg may only be the frying pan, but when those are your choices, you’re better off getting the hell out of the fire and back into the pan. Welcome to Decision 2020. Let the battle of the billionaires begin in the arena of the glass teat. Maybe it was predictable as Orwell and Huxley said all along, that this is where we would end up.
All I know for a fact is that we were overly optimistic that Hillary was a slam dunk to win in 2016 and that propriety and common sense would prevail over media-stoked buffoonery. And we were wrong. The lesson from 2016 is that politics as usual is dead. Now we have to keep democracy from dying with it. This time we have to win — even if the winning is imperfect. This is not the time for a purity battle. This is the time to get a Democrat in the White House. Period. Full stop. Vote Blue No Matter Who.