There are four subjects the polite American avoids discussing in public: Politics, Religion, Sex, and Money. The ostensible reason for this taboo is to avoid offending anyone. But here I argue that this over-correctness is a causative factor in the decline of a civilization.
Let’s do money, first. As far as I know, this is a particularly American obsession. My European parents had to learn not to talk about money when they came to this country. Other places, the question, “So, how much do you make?” is as normal as “Are you married?” But in the U.S.A, we maintain a fiction of a classless society. We ask the same question only obliquely: “Where did you go to school?” is a good indicator of family income and social position. It is to the advantage of the landed class employers that their serfs employees not compare incomes, as well. By not allowing people to honestly gauge their economic value, they stay insecure. And insecurity leads to all manners of submissive behaviors, shoring up the security of the ruling classes, both secular and religious.
Sex is a more generally repressed topic. There is no stronger drive, yet we must never directly say what we feel about it. Western churches even teach that one should deny and ignore the strongest drives within ourselves, leading to all sorts of perverse (read as counter-social) behaviors. To discuss it in public would allow people to see how normal their lusts really are, removing a major source of insecurity. Minor curiosities would not blossom into obsessions and perversions. Such openness would reduce the influence of those very organizations that profit from its repression, like churches and (other) marketing firms, whose urgent short-term goals are only occasionally and accidentally in line with continuing our civilization.
Religion is a big one. People wear “subtle” symbols to let others of the same brand know they can be approached on the subject. The third eye, a cross or fish, a Koranic verse, and a star are some of the more obvious “secret” symbols. But it is a major faux pas to overtly declaim about your own faith to someone who may not agree. Unless, of course, the purpose is to stir controversy or solicit, two disreputable (completely human) drives. Again, by not knowing when and to whom you may come out,one feels insecure. This gives the leaders the upper hand. Especially when they strive to sow divisiveness, as in malignant fundamentalist sects.
Finally, politics. This is the least stringent of the social prohibitions. I think this is in part because the churches and marketing firms rule the field, anyway. In our land, there are basically two sides: The established American parties, and those who can barely tell them apart. The parties do have differences. One wants to conserve our resources, reduce capitalist predation, and protect the underclass in hopes of a better tomorrow, and the other wants government to protect the minorities (specifically the rich, the unborn, and corporations) and let God (or the invisible hand) sort out the others until the imminent judgment day.
So it occurred to me that hiding from these basic topics destabilizes civilization. Social groups balkanize into small, trusted segments that define themselves by their perceived differences. Each of the 30,000 Christian sects publicly claim the sum of all members of all denominations as supporting them, yet privately know that most of the 30,000 others are wrong and hell-bound. We have been divided, and conquered. If the people knew where they stood, and knew where the leaders stood, we would have actual checks and balances as were envisioned by our founders. Without such things, our nation may well founder.
Michael Moore is well acquainted the the track record of corporations who want to spread misinformation in order to crank up profits:
[W]hen “Sicko” was being released in 2007, the health insurance industry’s PR firm, APCO Worldwide, discussed their Plan B: “Pushing Michael Moore off a cliff.” But after looking into it, it turns out it’s nothing personal! APCO wants to push everyone off a cliff.
APCO was hatched in 1984 as a subsidiary of the Washington, D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter — best known for its years of representing the giant tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris. APCO set up fake “grassroots” organizations around the country to do the bidding of Big Tobacco. All of a sudden, “normal, everyday, in-no-way-employed-by-Philip Morris Americans” were popping up everywhere. And it turned out they were outraged — outraged! — by exactly the things APCO’s clients hated (such as, the government telling tobacco companies what to do). In particular, they were “furious” that regular people had the right to sue big corporations…you know, like Philip Morris. (For details, see the 2000 report “The CALA Files” (PDF) by my friends and colleagues Carl Deal and Joanne Doroshow.)
Right about now you may be wondering: how many Americans get pushed off a cliff by Big Tobacco every year? The answer is 443,000 Americans die every year due to smoking. That’s a big cliff.
With this success under their belts, APCO created “The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition.” TASSC, funded partly by Exxon, had a leading role in a planned campaign by the fossil fuel industry to create doubt about global warming. The problem for Big Oil speaking out against global warming, according to the campaign’s own leaked documents, was that the public could see the “vested interest” that oil companies had in opposing environmental laws. APCO’s job was to help conceal those oil company interests.
And boy, have they ever succeeded.
I don’t follow gossip columns, or even broadcast news. But I do read a few blogs. Yesterday FriendlyAtheist posted Tony Danza’s Funeral Outburst Makes Sense. I don’t particularly care about the actor or the author involved. But apparently he has gotten some negative press for an action that I wish I’d had the cojones to do a couple of times. He cut off a a cleric who was in full stride in a fire and brimstone recruiting speech at the funeral of a friend, to redirect focus to the friend.
Personally, I think the cleric was misbehaving, not the friend. And I wish more people would stand up at funerals and demand that the subject be of the life departed, not of the faith of the orator. Better yet, make sure the minister knows beforehand that bald propagandizing will not be tolerated.
If the deceased had been a pious person, then discussing the faith and piety of the departed meets with my approval. But using the occasion simply as a recruiting drive is too common of an occurrence. I’ve been to a few funerals where the cleric/priest/minister had nothing particular to contribute about the guest of honor, but went on and on about how doomed the rest of us were unless we took his preferred sacrament. He simply knew a captive audience and marketing opportunity when he had one. Very dissatisfying to those of us who knew the decedent.
I have also been to good memorials, where the focus was on the life as lived. My two favorite memorial services ended with a participatory kazoo performance, or recessional music by Groucho Marx. They were fully celebrations of the life departed, not dire warnings to the audience. Unless as a cautionary example to enjoy life while you can.
Here is an example of an appropriate farewell, although NSFW:
I was on my way to lunch today, when I saw an ad on a local ‘mega-church’ billboard. It was promoting a “Restoring America Conference”.
This is a church. It pays no taxes. It should have no say, as an entity, in our political process.
Based on the speakers, this will not be about Restoring America in any social sense – something that a church should indeed participate and lead. This ‘conference’ will undoubtedly be a rabidly right-wing diatribe from start to finish.
I have absolutely no problem with free speech, not do I have a problem with Partisan speech. I do have a problem when political speech is not only associated with religion, but sponsored and promoted by a religious organization.
What do people with money really care about? I assume that most of the people in airports have some extra money to burn; you generally don’t see poor folks in airports. I also assume that airport magazine shops know what they can most easily sell to people with some money to burn. It’s natural selection in action at airports–the magazines that didn’t sell have been weeded out of our airports.
What do Americans with money care about? They care about the things that loom large on the covers of the magazines you can see in big airports. At a major airport I recently visited, I took six photos to give an idea of all of the types of magazines on display (click the title of this article to see the gallery of photos). In airport magazine shops, you’ll see things such as movie stars, how to make money without much effort, the coolest electronic gadgets, almost naked bodies, romance, status symbols such as luxurious trips, fancy clothes and expensive cars, eating food and talking about dieting, corporate filtered news, how to impress others, and looking young, looking young, looking young . . .
But can you really determine what people think a lot about by looking at the magazines they buy? I think so. This is definitely the sort of thing a Martian anthropologist would do to find out what people with at least some money really cared about.
What don‘t they care about? Everything else. You won’t see magazine covers featuring starving children or homely people. You won’t find magazine covers telling you how to give up your wealth to others in need, how to speak truth to power, and how to hang around criminals, sick people and prostitutes like Jesus supposedly did.[gallery link="file"]
Noam Chomsky doesn’t put any value in polished oratory skills, a point he made clear in an interview he gave Nigel Farndale at Telegraph.co.uk:
I am no Barack Obama,’ he says to me now. ‘I don’t have any oratory skills. But I would not use them if I had. I don’t like to listen to it. Even people I admire, like Martin Luther King, just turn me off. I don’t think it is the way to reach people. If you are giving a graduate course you don’t try to impress the students with oratory, you try to challenge them, get them to question you.’
What does Chomsky think of Obama?
I take it he didn’t buy into Obama’s message of hope and change. ‘Elections in the United States are expensive extravaganzas run by the public relations industry. The PR people looked at the polls and picked slogans accordingly. ‘Did you know Obama won the best campaign of the advertising industry in 2008? It was politicians being marketed as a product, like toothpaste. What does that have to do with democracy? If you read his statement you find yourself asking what was the hope? What was the change? These were empty words.’