“If I said, “Boy, I really love corn dogs!” it doesn’t mean I actually love a corn dog. Because love has nothing to do with corn dogs. But it’s just language. It’s a state of mind. You take for granted that my intention is really to express that I enjoy them a lot and I want to eat one right now. That’s what it’s meant to do. But if you have an agenda and you want to take my sentence apart, you could certainly say, “Oh, my God! You love a corn dog? What do you mean by that? Do you want to marry it? Do you want to put it inside of you?” It’s like, “That’s not what I meant and you actually know that’s not what I meant and you’re only using it because you have an agenda so that you could get attention for whatever reason you have.”
We face daily pressure to behave according to gender, race and sexual norms, so it’s ironic that we use the same progressive values that aim to challenge these norms as a new standard of conformity.
In my pretty middle class, inner-city suburban existence, progressive values are mostly a given and something we strive to prove on a daily basis, not only as a personal aspiration but also for social credibility. It usually takes little to align this social-political algorithm, just the occasional Facebook post of a Ta-Nehisi Coates article or an Instagrammed Green Party ballot selfie every election.
Equally important is to avoid accusations of the opposite: racism, misogyny, classism, homophobia or transphobia, the recriminations of which are amplified in the digital age. As a result, personal ‘brand’ purity has become a dogmatic virtue. Our social media identities increasingly resemble political agendas, where our worth and effectiveness is measured by our ability to identify and call out marginalisation and privilege in face-to-face and online feeds. We’re easily wound-up and prone to react, with the onus always on the other, readily diagnose statements with ‘White, cisgendered straight male privilege’ – the predictive text judgement of these times – and respond to skepticism with privsplained logic akin to Hare Krishna or Scientologist street-bothering screed. Our focus has shifted from concrete political, legislative and social change to battles over academic and campus experiences. So dedicated to our new approach that proven allies who oppose our blanket judgements are criticised as enemies and the context of good satirical TV comedy is misinterpreted humourlessly.
These social media scraps against moral depravity is, in my view embarrassingly similar to those of the moral right – the same talkback callers, social conservatives and religious activists whose moral panic on welfare, sex and violence on TV, sacrilegious art and the role of certain musicians in social breakdown we snidely deride. Like them, we fear morally permissive values as driving bad behaviour and seek open confrontation to judge perceived transgressions. Like many born-again evangelists, there’s a tendency to blame others for preventing utopia. While certainly a combination of class, race, gender and sexuality reflect certain overall privileges or disadvantages, privilege, to me, is like meditation or prayer – a good exercise in self-reflection and contemplation of the state of the world. Yet, diagnosing others according to broad formulas that often rely on blanket assumptions simplifies complex individual human motivations and experiences and can easily misinterpret opinions and language without context.
Actions motivated by moral zealotry are always driven by political agendas. As social media users with the ability to play the role of moral arbiters in public, too frequently we act disproportionate to the situation and context to justify our political outlook and to accumulate gravitas as legitimate commentators – including those white, straight, middle class cisgendered males who appropriate others’ experiences. In a New Yorker article on this issue, the generational gap between an English lecturer at Oberlin College in Ohio and her students was noted: “Her generation, she said, protested against Tipper Gore for wanting to put warning labels on records. “My students want warning labels on class content, and I feel—I don’t even know how to articulate it,” she said. “Part of me feels that my leftist students are doing the right wing’s job for it.” Moral politics is ironically turning us into the very people we oppose.
Humanity chafes under moral conformity and history shows progress tending towards the blurring of gender, sexual and racial norms. Feminism, LGBTI and ethnic rights movements have made gains because they have rebelled against such conformity. Not only through protest but by developing concrete goals for bold political, legal, economic and cultural change, working with similarly-minded allies – many of whom they disagreed with on many issues – they have gradually won widespread public support.
Surely, genuine public belief in progressive ideals is more preferable, which depends on opposing moral panic of any political stripe. While real bigotry is inexcusable and should be challenged, not every perceived slight is worth a reaction nor every bigot merely the value of their transgression or their perceived privileges. Rather than replace one set of moral norms with social algorithm and forumla as another, real change must question all norms.
What always baffled me about Tony Veitch’s return to the airwaves is why Radio Sport considered it worth the effort. Surely, there must have been an equally talented ‘larakin’ with good commentary, banter, and man cave prizes who hasn’t committed multiple acts of domestic violence over a five year period. Consider how much effort Radio Sport must invest on caller screening, online comment monitoring, and security at public appearances. One wrong comment could easily remind us of his past crimes and elicit the rattled response from Veitch that eventually occurred.
Radio Sport clearly thinks Veitch is worth the effort because a large segment of the public both loves him and/ or doesn’t care enough about his past. His expert sporting commentary and banter brings in ratings. John Key’s multiple appearances on his show indicates the public – even those who dislike Veitch’s actions – generally abides by his return.
His continued popularity symbolises a broader dilemma of the separation of consumer choice and personal ethics. To some degree, all of us appreciate the work of someone whose personal life contradicts our sense of right and wrong. We watch the films of Woody Allen but put aside both his marriage to his adopted daughter and gruesome allegations concerning another daughter, Dylan. Same with the photography of Terry Richardson and the music of Chris Brown, James Brown, and now Lou Reed. We readily justify our consumption through arguments such as being able to love the artist’s work and hate their personal life, citing their personal upbringing as a reason to be more understanding, or dismissing allegations entirely. With Veitch, the narrative tends to be ‘He apologised, gave her $100,000, spoke out against domestic violence, and lost his career; forgive and let him move on.’
Absolute separation of a person from their work is extremely difficult if there’s doubt. It’s difficult to listen to Lou Reed and not think ‘you allegedly beat up ex-girlfriends and called Bob Dylan a ‘pretentious kike’.’ Washing away the foul taste requires the ethical equivalent of downing a 1.5 litre Coke in 30 seconds. We pain ourselves into quickly ignoring and supressing our concerns for our fulfilment. Instead, we often reserve our righteous anger for the trivial. In Veitch’s case, consider many sports fans still fume over decades-long feuds: Australian underarm bowling, All Blacks food poisoning in South Africa, or Russell Coutts’ defection from Team New Zealand to Oracle. An ethical consumer approach isn’t the solution as it cannot end physical, sexual, or mental violence. The aforementioned celebrities are ultimately dependent on their loyal fan-bases. Besides, we’re not merely the sum of our bad deeds and if we express remorse for wrongs, take punishment, and change our ways we are capable of at least some forgiveness – unless you’re Jimmy Savile. The only satisfaction that both sides of this debate can have is that, as celebrities, they will always be both publically loved but also reviled. They’ve chosen to continue in the public limelight so must accept the good and the bad. Veitch could have chosen any number of career paths after his fall but he had to go and choose THAT one, the price being continued pot shots for the remainder of his broadcasting career.
Greater understanding could be gained if we acknowledge these hypocrisies. If we could admit that we all sometimes prioritise some form of cultural attainment over ethics for self-interest, we’d more easily understand that media outlets’ more baffling choices tend to mirror our own.
Fashion retailer American Apparel filed for bankruptcy yesterday. The flagship of mainstream hipster fashion, this was less the end of an era and more of a maturing of Indie culture. The main reasons for this downfall were numerous. The marked price increase in products, bad financial management, and the sexual allegations against founder and deposed CEO Dov Charney. Symbolically though, the exposure of what lay underneath the brand exposed us to hard truths about the values of Indie culture.
American Apparel resonated with my generation, with most friends my age and myself still having a t-shirt or socks somewhere in our wardrobes. The brand symbolised an aesthetic and an ethical call to arms. Indie branding owed in many regards to the backlash against corporate greed. After increased publicity of corporate greed and greater awareness of sweatshop clothing scandals of the 1990s, we wanted more. Fashion-wise, this often meant a rejection of labels in favour of plain, functional tops balanced with bright colours and good quality. Their production was American-based and paid their workforce double the national minimum wage. They were sex-positive and defied moral criticism by prominently displaying the gay magazine Butt in-store. It was a new kind of brand that promised cheap, aesthetically-pleasing, ethical clothing in which we could have capitalism and ethics.
Rather than achieving liberation, we ended up worshipping an aesthetic while ignoring an exploitative undercurrent. Indie culture has been as notably bad as everyone else in terms of misogyny, classism, and ethnic homogeneity. Perhaps we never initially noticed because of our reliance on nostalgic irony as central to our aesthetic values. American Apparel has certainly captured the public imagination through their homage to 1970’s porn imagery in advertisements. This appeal to nostalgia promoted an ideal of sexually-driven human beings free from moral Puritanism. Yet like with the hippie movement, the ideal of sexual liberation has been often used by misogynists to use their power to their own benefit. Quite fittingly, there have been multiple allegations of sexual inappropriateness against Dov Charney as well as his self-promoted sexual objectification. Numerous claims of sexual harassment, sex for employment, keeping an assistant as a ‘sex slave,’ and attending meetings and walking around the office near-nude. Similarly, the continued popularity of photographer Terry Richardson within Indie culture, mainstream fashion, and establishment figures confirms that brand image matters more than ethics.
In this case though, the weakness of irony as a fig leaf is the gradual rejection of irony applied to sexuality or gender. The downfall of American Apparel and Terry Richardson is that they depend on such a narrow brand image and, like Nike or McDonalds before them, are vulnerable to changing social attitudes. Third wave feminism has provided an antidote to corporate branding for a generation of men and women fluent in social media and new journalism. Protests against brands and their maestros have exposed Indie lifestyle brands to be as hollow as those corporates we originally derided decades ago.
With the legal and ethical bankruptcy of American Apparel, there is an opportunity for the broader Indie culture to move away from lifestyle brands and in favour of individual reasoning both through challenging hierarchy and through individual interpretation of ironic value. Nostalgic irony is fine as long as you can easily separate the fashion from the out of date values of the time it’s associated with. For me, that’s Carry On Films without holding many of the gender attitudes of the 1960s and Nancy Sinatra without Frank Sinatra. For the American Apparel ideal, you can easily both appropriate 1970’s porn chic fashion and enjoy a freer sexuality and not treat people solely as extensions of your sexual desires and power. Imbuing pieces of apparel with imagined qualities provides neither solace nor substitute for ethical reasonings we must negotiate ourselves daily.
The use of language to create visual spectres is an effective approach for politicians, their supporters, and allied interest groups to develop a narrative that can become the media narrative.
A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a work report related to asylum seekers in Australia, and had noticed two significant changes made by the Australian Federal government to legal and bureaucratic terminology. First was a change to the term used for those who arrive by boat from ‘Irregular Maritime Arrival’ to ‘Illegal Maritime Arrival’. The aim of this was to legitimise PM Tony Abbott’s assertion of the illegality of arriving without a visa, which legally speaking isn’t true.
Second was the renaming of the ‘Department of Immigration and Citizenship’ – which oversees asylum seeker applications – to the ‘Department of Immigration and Border Protection’. This reinforces the shift from multiculturalism and legal process to gatekeeping, which began under Howard, revived by Gillard and Rudd, and now simply confirmed by Abbott. Even the costs of changes to departmental website, new logo, stationary and letterhead, updating of legal documents, and new business cards often proves expensive, but is trumped by politics, regardless of accuracy.
These changes institutionalise an image of asylum seekers as criminals deserving to be sent to the Pacific version of Devil’s Island. The irony of sending ‘criminals’ to a South Pacific prison colony seems lost on the Australian public.
Political convenience can also treat similar humanitarian cases differently. Consider the S.S Exodus, the people-smuggling boat run by the Jewish Haganah containing European Jewish refugees captured en route to Palestine by the British in 1947, which has become symbolic of a humanitarian cause. Comparatively the Hazara,the vast majority of Afghan people who arrive to Australia by boat and have experienced centuries of persecution and genocide up until today, have an equal case for humanitarian protection. But due to political reasons, public bigotry, and the need of politicians and media to gain an audience, the narrative suggests a “wave”, “swamp”, “flood”, “surge”, or other water-based metaphors coming to take our jobs and blonde virgin daughters.
Key to a successful narrative is a convincing visual spectre which we can project our own hopes and fears. The image of asylum seekers reflects a fear of the foreign other coming to dominate us. Locally, one of the most successful narratives is the fear of a large, interventionist state.
The most prominent concept is the ‘Nanny State’ – the use of state coercion to achieve results. The visual spectre reminds me of Hyacinth Bucket: telling you how to do things and being overbearing. This narrow definition only touches on perceived state intervention in personal choices rather than one that includes accumulated state powers such as spying and collection and storage of internet data. Instead this is limited to purchases, parenting, and dietary choices where freedom is treated similar to personal consumer choice and verging on paranoia. A “quick, hide the non-regulation lightbulbs or the state will collectivise our children” school of thought.
Another successful narrative, on the size of the state, uses language suggesting a large state as akin to a morbidly obese person. Less Nanny State, more ‘Fatty State’. When the public sector is deemed too large, it’s referred to as a ‘bloated bureaucracy‘, akin to an overweight person winched out of the house by crane. Solutions entail weight loss metaphors: ‘belt tightening’, “a leaner, more efficient state”, ‘trimming the fat’ through cutting backroom administrators and to free up or hire front line staff
If you assume the state was similar to an obese person, administration is the ‘fat’ and the front line staff the ‘muscle’. Weight loss requires healthier eating, exercise, and in some cases a stomach staple or liposuction. In reality, redundancies aren’t necessarily healthy choices. Redundancies often shifts admin to remaining staff, who work on tasks previously done by backroom staff. To cope, a government department may hire contract workers or temps at a higher price, albeit usually short term. Governments may subcontract state responsibilities to not-for-profits, not as partners as before but to carry out state functions, political agendas and admin for cheaper notable with the successor to NZ AID, the Sustainable Development Fund. Then there’s private consultants hired to advise redundancy processes, who are expensive and often have offered bad advice such as “pray, do yoga, and get a pet” – the equivalent of a dietary coach who suggests a lemon cleanse diet for a month. This part of the solution equivalent to wearing spanx: no ‘fat’ is really lost, more or less rearranged into more convenient areas.
Interestingly, right wing governments who use this approach also tend to favour more accountability measures for government spending which requires even more admin, often done by front line staff. With National Standards in primary school, teachers must spend more time measuring progress of every child against standards, which means more admin and teaching preparation. Metaphorically, fat can useful when exercise can transform it into muscle, but removing fat can hinder muscle performance and growth.
This metaphor undermines state functions with exactly what it promised to eliminate, like a bad diet and exercise plan. The linguistic metaphor works because of a body conscious society, in which our own fears over our weight are used to describe the state where even the littlest thing is unhealthy “pork”. In that sense, ACT and the Taxpayers Union claims of pork and waste are often the equivalent of the yelling of militant ‘fat camp’ coaches with a strict sense of outward discipline but with occasionally let slip.
Political language can be dangerous when used improperly. The narratives of the asylum seeker and the state trivialise rational debate and confine it to narrow ideas of legality, scope, and size based on prejudice and political convenience. In the case of asylum seekers, political agendas, media simplicity and public prejudice have institutionalised unhealthy realities. One person’s suffering is another person’s criminal punishment. The Nanny State concept is narrow and selectively misses the point about a broader encroachment of state power from all sides. The linguistic ideal of a state akin to a near zero body-fat All Black is a projection useful in a body-conscious society. The state could improve, sure, but isn’t obese. Both physical and metaphorical bodily ideals of perfection are deluded, unachievable, and unhealthy. Inclusive narratives with apt metaphors help, narrow ones are more likely to hurt people.
In every record store in Melbourne, in the rock section exists under ‘G’ a collection of never to be purchased Gary Glitter LPs. You can bet that Rock & Roll (Part 1) has ceased to be stadium sports anthem worldwide. On Youtube, Jimmy Savile’s song ‘Jingle Jangle Jewelry’ is a downright creepy obituary and in hindsight a window to his mind.
Surely Savile has set a possible precedent for the exposure of past entertainment industry practice or inaction over sex crimes – which shocked most in terms of not being caught over many decades. BBC investigations revealed it was well known or suspected within the BBC, entertainment circles, and charities and hospitals where offences were said to have taken place, and was hinted at by musicians and comedians. Savile himself was aided by his celebrity which brought connections and access to royalty and Conservative and Labour prime ministers who wanted to be associated with his popular brand, his profitability that led to less questions being asked, police ambivalence and in some cases evidence of protection from complaints, and a time when pedophilia was not discussed.
Today, the cover-up of sexual impropriety is more difficult, but in spite of this popular artists accused of sexual impropriety and/ or criminal acts – most notably Woody Allen, Terry Richardson and Roman Polanski – have remained relatively unscathed by allegations and continue to be popular with consumers and entertainment executives, high calibre artistic collaborators, and colleagues.
Rather than address concerns, more can be understood from the reasons why these three examples remain popular and profitable in spite of claims.
Firstly, attitudes towards sexual assault may have changed but not excessively, as the open trivialisation of claims in public, not a court of law, can attest. With Allen, some garbage person who made a documentary about him wrote a shitty defence refuting claims and pointing fingers. Richardson labels himself ‘Uncle Terry’ – denoting a seedy man but who doesn’t overstep the line – and it’s noted that he ”loves” women. Roman Polanski was defended by a bizarre definition of “rape” v “rape-rape” by Whoopi Goldberg.
Secondly, interconnections within the entertainment industry, best demonstrated by collaborations between the accused with celebrities we like, which may cloud our both artistic judgement about speaking out and our judgement as consumers. Allen’s recent film Blue Jasmine included Cate Blanchett and Louis CK. Terry Richardson has photographed Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Barack Obama, Lena Dunham, the male cast of Girls, and regularly contributes to Vice Magazine. Roman Polanski’s last English language film Carnage starred Kate Winslett, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, and John C. Reilly. Lena Dunham – best friend of Richardson’s ex girlfriend – to her credit expressed regret in appearing in Richardson’s partially nude photographs, but perhaps why the shoot took place indicates pressure for her to associate with a comparable commodity of cool as defined either by Vogue, industry executives, or both. However, many celebrities would also readily associate themselves with popular artists for artistic and career reasons, regardless of ethical endeavours. Not only are profitable artists popular, but also powerful and well-connected. As another artist, actor, or executive, to question allegations openly might cost yourself opportunities you would rather not lose. The interconnection of power, profitability, and branding make a tough choice for the consumer. We may not love Richardson but will we not question Beyonce, Miley, or Lena or boycott their collaborations to make that point.
Thirdly, there is an entrenched ideal of separation of unethical and/ or criminal behaviour and artistic merit. Broadly, it can be agreed that private lives of adults, for example instances of adultery, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental illness, should be left alone unless specifically addressed by the person in question. However, a complete separation of allegations of unethical and/ or criminal behaviour removes ethics and makes our decisions a pure consumer choice. This itself reveals a double standard considering current consumer trends. The rise of ethical consumerism movements such as organics, fair trade, and ethical investments could easily include entertainment. The discovery of unethical or illegal behaviour in entertainment is equivalent of discovering the canned tuna we buy from the supermarket contains over the safe level of mercury per serving or that our coffee is farmed by slave labour – something we currently treat with a double standard. Since the artist is now a commodity, their actions should receive the same level of scrutiny we hold for any other product.
Fourthly, as mentioned earlier about Savile, he was protected by entertainment industry interests and brand, but when his work and brand was considered antiquated and unprofitable were claims taken more seriously. Before Savile’s death, he was already under greater scrutiny: in ‘When Louis Met Jimmy’ where Louis Theroux strongly implies accusations, the BBC Panorama documentary on claims against Savile that was initially repressed by BBC executives then released after a scandal, and the police investigation into Savile in 2009. As a result of revelations, the UK police launched Operation Yewtree that put the spotlight on potential and actual sex crimes in British entertainment from the 1960’s to the 1990s. Resulting investigations have indicated incompetence, willful ignorance, and even some tolerance of Savile’s behaviour. Prior to this, Savile and Gary Glitter were implicated. Yewtree has led to accusations and arrest of celebrities including Rolf Harris and potentially charge other famous musicians and politicians. Allen, Richardson, and Polanski remain profitable, popular and powerful, so face less scrutiny.
If it were revealed coverup of criminal behaviour of hugely famous past and current actors, musicians, directors or ‘creatives’, by studio executives protecting corporate and brand image, this could expose yet another sector to scrutiny. An excellent comparison is the high profile case of Louisiana Catholic priest Gilbert Gauthe in 1985, which opened the floodgates to reveal systematic church coverups of abuse in America going back decades. As a result, the Catholic Church has been seriously damaged through revelations of the misdeeds of self-preserving leadership. Already studios, actors, and many in the public and prominent people within the entertainment industry place so much capital in defence of certain artists. To admit they or we got it wrong would damage reputations and reveal truths within industries and our own motivations as consumers wishing to enjoy a product without thinking of the origins – which like with our food or clothing is now impossible.
Rather than point fingers of guilt or innocence, it’s worth it to consider our own enjoyment versus the interconnection of our entertainment to potentially unsavoury elements. Like with other purchases we can be more aware of where our entertainment comes from. Who knows what will be known within the next 20 or so years. Hypothetically, Richardson’s books could end up pulped or in discount bins and Woody Allen’s puttering clarinet might be considered as creepy as the sound of jingling, jangling jewelry.
The previous post explored the relationship between economics, politics, and public culture as influential on generational thinking from the Great Depression to the free market democracy of today. This post will specifically address media and public criticism of Generation Y within the context of these structures.
If Generation Y is in any way different, it is that it we were not raised with memories of the welfare state which – for all the faults one could claim – embedded a sense of shared sacrifice and collective support for others in economics, politics, and society. We were instead raised with free market values that emphasised individual freedom, especially moral, ethical, and political decisions reduced to something akin to an individual consumer purchase only to be made individually within the marketplace. Certainly, my generation is more socially tolerant as a result of socially liberal identity activism as result historical progression. Without the economic security that welfare provided, certain myths arose to defend the free market: chief among them that ultimately merit and hard work would allow you to succeed and those who didn’t succeed aren’t trying hard enough.
The two prominent critiques of Generation Y from Part I argue within these myths of meritocracy and blaming others for failures. One was last year’s Huffington Post blog meme about Lucy the hapless Millennial, which touches on some truths about the negative side of positive reinforcement and unrealistic expectations, but reduces the roots of the generational unhappiness solely to overinflated ego and comparing yourself to others – ie individuals in isolation. The other critique was Adbusters Article ‘Hipster: The End of Western Civilisation’ argues that Generation Y cares for little but status through consumerism. “Hipsterdom is the first “counterculture” to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations. Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion.”
Adbusters singles out youth culture as defined by music tastes, fashion, political beliefs, and consumer choices, but rather strangely for a counter-culture magazine ignores that consumption and identity is embedded in every facet of economics, politics, and society. The article highlights punk fashion as a romantic ideal of previous generational DIY culture, but far more can be gained from exploring the evolution of this second hand fashion to the concept of vintage clothing stores. Op shopping was considered a 70’s punk statement against the traditional labels such as jock, skater, surfer, corporate, high fashion, or any other subcultural labels. As punk culture became romanticised as idealistic and political – by people like Adbusters – entrepeneurs likely of the Generation X age group used retro revival to transform anti-consumer culture into a marketable consumer label. This is no different to the Forrest Gump soundtrack or Time Life Best of the 60’s compilation infomercials as filling a gap with the growing romanticisation of the hippie movement. Similarly, the Huffington Post blog suggests that Lucy shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, yet this is what modern politics and economic structures incentivise us to do. Aspirationalism that means simply consumer and income gain in comparison to others, entrepeneurship that means to do whatever it takes in competition with other companies to succeed, and that your brand image matters to your success whether it reflects reality or not. The rise of Facebook and Instagram is not evidence of our generation’s selfishness but akin to brand management that likely arose from corporate or political party advertising as a response to increased consumer power. All try to convince everyone else that they’re edgy yet acceptable. The Obama-Cameron-Thorning-Schmidt Instagram selfie and John Key in his son’s Facebook planking photo were the ultimate convergence symbolic of societal values, not generational ones.
Unlike previous generations, Generation Y has far less security, more fixed term contracts, and more competition in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis probably hasn’t helped. Especially, the convergence of creativity and the free market through the “creative” industries such as advertising and writing have created both an ideal dream creative job that many in my generation idealise but also with limited places and lax labour laws can potentially encourage exploitation of that dream. Notably in advertising, writing, and politics, numerous people can attest to low to no pay and unpaid internships . Her need for introspection aside, Lucy’s probably working quite hard in an unpaid internship somewhere as a means to getting her foot through the door.
Claims of exceptionalism of our supposed selfishness, laziness, excesses, sexual morals, naivety, and apoliticalism is just an endless cycle repeated every 20 years or so. The names change: swing kids, greasers, hippies, punks, new romantics, ravers, and now hipsters. Even our dancing is no less scandalous; twerking is today’s jitterbug adjusted for inflation. Lucy’s sense of self-importance and shallow consumerism are issues of adolescence might be addressed by her own introspection sure, but that’s called growing older and is only half the job. Her alleged faults are equally reflected in every aspect of economics, politics, and culture. Generation snark and romanticising some past where people worked harder or were more aware or original just avoids important questions.
“Self determination: the choice to be whatcha want to be. And I wanted to be… rich!”
Having ended the previous post on the effectiveness of satire, it occurred to me that none has been more brutally cuttingly of the political right than the 1992 mockumentary Bob Roberts, the story the ‘anti-Bob Dylan‘ folksinger/ Wall Street trader running for the US Senate in Pennsylvania. Roberts effectively lampoons both political slickness in modern election campaigning and the corrupt American relationship between free market institutions, social conservatism, and intelligence operations in the wake of the Iran-Contra Affair. Though an exceptional example, it reminds me of the thread that binds these three seemingly contradictory forces of the right: economic choice as both the ultimate freedom and an effective tool for social coercion, or what I call the Manny State.
Since the 1970’s and 80’s, the mainstream right has successfully blended free market capitalism and social conservatism that now dominates Western political and economic institutional thinking. The rallying cry has been for a minimally regulated free market and the preservation of ‘social order’.
The basis of this approach relies on competing left-right interpretations of freedom. The right emphasises negative liberty, or the freedom to do: speech, movement, ownership of private property. The left places more emphasis on positive liberty, or rights for opportunities such as housing, education, and healthcare.
For the right, the exchange between consumer and producer is an ultimate expression of freedom. With all individual actions within the marketplace, all public decisions become consumer ones – whether purchasing a TV, ethical ones such environmentally friendly lightbulbs or shower heads, choosing a party to vote for, or how to discipline your children. A commercial enterprise also becomes an individual, so is free to make decisions and use resources with minimal restriction – evident in the US Supreme Court case Citizens United v Federal Election Commission in 2010 that ended limits on corporate political donations as an individual right. In their critique of Pope Francis and the Catholic pronouncement against free market capitalism, the Economist defends market society, arguing that “Markets should create possibilities, within which moral choices can be made, not iron certainties” – or that moral choices are market ones. Even collective consumer action is being challenged. The recent Australian Government proposal to ban consumer boycotts even attempts to redefine consumer social or environmental intervention as a barrier between individual consumer and producer exchange.
Social conservatism, when allied with free market thinking, preserves traditional family roles that were influenced by Industrial Revolution capitalism. Women provided unpaid labour such as child rearing, housework, and care for sick relatives – which underpinned the sole breadwinning male. Gays, lesbians, and transgendered defied traditional reproductive roles (hence the evolution of homosexuality from sin to mental illness during the 19th century/ Industrial Revolution). This similarly applies to welfare. Excessive government monitoring of welfare payments to the unemployed, solo parents, and those with disabilities divides society between two camps: the idle who defy traditional economic roles and the taxpayer with oversight akin to a 12 month consumer warranty. The replacement of universal welfare, health, and education with often less spending on more targeted assistance reinforces a perception that a person’s position is based on individual choices alone and possibly fosters resentment towards those who receive forms of assistance that others are not. Similarly, the correlation between higher imprisonment rates and the increase in poverty and inequality in countries that have adopted both free market policies and usually consequent law and order policies effectively denies the negative social consequences of society where economic freedom of choice is paramount.
There is an attempt to extend this concept of economic freedom to a globalised world through intelligence sharing and multilateral trade agreements. States have historically used coercion to open markets rather than extend democracy. Examples of this are explored in-depth by British filmmaker Adam Curtis in his documentary ‘The Trap’. These include Reagan’s support for Contra rebels in Nicaragua through arms deals with Iran in the 1980’s, deregulation and privatisation in Russia in the early 1990s, and invasion and use of unsuccessful free market economic policies in Iraq in 2003. Recent revelations of cooperation between the Five Eyes, increased judicial power these intelligence agencies to obtain and share personal information of individuals, cooperation between agencies and search engines and social media sites, and allegations of spying on foreign rival corporates raises the questionable relationship between state and private sector to potentially violate personal consumer privacy with minimal oversight.
Also indicative is the movement towards regional trade agreements such as the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which go beyond past efforts at tariff and subsidy reductions towards creating narrow definitions of competition that reject the role of state intervention for ethical reasons – including environment concerns, bulk pharmaceutical purchases by state authorities, and single payer healthcare. This concept is broadly accepted by mainstream left politicians as enforcers of these agreements when in power. Noted globalisation academic Jagdish Bhagwati claims that the decline of more accountable appeals approaches by states through the WTO in favour of regional agreements and mechanisms influenced by corporate lobbyists undermines national sovereignty. This is especially relevant with TPP negotiations and proposal for corporates rather than singular sovereign states to challenge national regulations in court – similar to NAFTA.
Despite popular belief in a domineering, left-wing nanny state, both mainstream left and right institutions, thinkers, and politicians use different conceptual approaches to freedom that often overreach. The nanny approach is well-meaning but is often unwilling to go challenge the roots of injustice, maintains the fundamentals of a free market society, and often relies on consumer choice as a solution. The manny approach favours an idea of freedom, but one so narrow that it must depend on subtle or overt coercion to maintain itself – whether ideological rejection of economic intervention or the resultant possibility of manipulation of prices, legislation, or labour standards by individual companies, monopoly or cartel networks, lobbyists, and traditional cultural institutions. Both are ill-suited to serving the complex nature of human relationships and our relationships with and between institutions.