The Middle Mind

Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves

by Curtis White

HarperSanFrancisco, 2003, paper


In the summer of 2001, in the course of my habitual dipping into and out of what passes in American culture for Culture, it felt as if my nose were being rubbed in something. Something unpleasant. I kept finding things that purported to be cultural commentary, social commentary, high cinematic art, or even theology while being, to my eyes at least, something very different and very much less than what we had a right to expect. The examples that piled at my feet were often from the virtuous and beneficent world of public radio and public TV: Terry Gross' National Public Radio interview program, Fresh Air, and Charlie Rose's Public T\7 interview program in particular. These programs exude an air of independent inquiry that is never demonstrated in fact. Commercial publishing performs a similar disservice through books like David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise, John Seabrook's Nobrow, Joe Queenans's Balsamic Dreams, and Dinty W. Moore's Accidental Buddhist. These books purport to be social, cultural and even theological commentary while being something a good deal less. I had to ask myself, were these things out there on every car radio and on every beach-reading lap all just independently hopelessly mediocre, or were they part of what might be called a Mind? The new American Mind. The numbing (if not dumbing) Middle Mind?

I concluded that in fact they did have something in common, a shared cultural DNA of some kind. So I began to think about how this Mind could be described politically. Would this Mind like Bill Clinton? Was it liberal or conservative? In fact, I think the Middle Mind is generally liberal and did like Clinton more than it might have cared to confess in certain dark moments of that regime. In this country, conservatives have no particular need for the Middle Mind since they have been quite content to have demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Chris Mathews, and Bill O'Reilly do their nasty thinking for the for them for many years. More importantly, I asked what the Middle Mind wanted? What was its reason for being? My conclusion was: it didn't want us to think. If conservatives have no desire to think, while liberals imagine that they do, the Middle Mind is there to provide a culture of thought that ensures that it all amounts to the same thing: no thought from any quarter that is a threat to business as usual.

Public radio and TV provide Americans with the illusion that they are not wholly dependent on a culture that is provided for them by commercial interests. We pay for public radio and T\7 with tax dollars and through charitable contributions to our local stations, certain that by doing so we create a space for noncommercial work, for independent work. Of course, as everybody knows quite well, the "public" media is thoroughly dependent on giant corporations and foundations like Exxon-Mobil and the MacArthur, Rockefeller, and Ford Foundations. When these entities create independence, it is an independence in their own corporate image.

... stupidity is one of the ways in which we are oppressed. We are denied the kind of intellectual experience that would allow us to be smart.

p viii
We must free ourselves of the illusion that we are free ...

We have the lovely pretense of serious inquiry, no one gets hurt, and no one has to worry that something undesirable might come of it.

Like a demand for real thought, we are free to say anything we like as long as what we say does not suggest, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky, that the ruling order has no right to rule.

The most familiar and recent creations of our political imagination are the characterizations of the crisis of "September 11" and the "War Against Terror." These narratives suffer from an inability to think beyond a truth that is persuasive because it is also trite. I hope I need say very little, in this regard, about the script that 90 percent of the nation has been following (if our friends the pollsters at CNN, Gallup, and elsewhere are to be believed). America has been attacked; we're "at war with terrorism"; but "America will strike back," because we're a "beacon of freedom to the rest of the world," because "innocent people lost their lives," because "America has lost its innocence," because there are "evildoers" afoot. We'll "smoke them out of their holes," because our cause is just and we are united. After two years, there is still substantial credence given to these propositions, and there is little sign of a "credibility gap" of the type we experienced during the war in Vietnam, with its "domino theory" of Communist aggression.

The idea that CNN is right and 90 percent of the populace continues to believe this palaver is perhaps more frightening than the threat of receiving a suspicious piece of mail postmarked New Jersey. The odds of receiving anthrax in the mail (or a pipe bomb from an undergraduate art major from Wisconsin, one of America's own pure products gone crazy) are statistically minute, but the yahoos with Old Glory rippling from the roofs of their suburban assault vehicles are everywhere, bearing who knows what malice for those lacking proper patriotic fervor. Much worse and more dangerous than this, of course, are organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, formed in 2001 by Lynne Cheney and Joseph Lieberman. For this group, any movement away from the grossly patriotic is a "failing." They would save American culture by removing from it any thought that isn't utterly conformist with the opinion of "the public at large." (Doesn't the fact that Cheney and Lieberman are in sync on this issue say something depressing about our democratic choices in the last election?) With attorneys general like John Ashcroft, the possibility that such a desire could acquire legal teeth through "anti-terrorism" legislation is frighteningly real. Like a persecutor, some McCarthyist nightmare of the 1950s, Ashcroft has made it his business to know what books we check out of the library' and what sites we visit on the Internet-all in the name of national security ...

The idea that there is any sense in which the American public could be said not to know what we do is finally not credible. Are we dupes of propaganda? Is the truth censored? To a degree the answer to both of those questions is yes. It's not as if the network news folks are eager to help us put together a diagnosis of our imperial objectives and methods. But the weightier answer is that we operate under a New Censorship which functions by making everything known and naked to a paralyzing degree. Is there anyone who doesn't understand that the Sudanese pharmaceutical lab that Clinton blew up with eighty cruise missiles was producing ... pharmaceuticals? Is there anyone who doesn't understand that this was an act of state terrorism and a violation of every principle of international law? We will pillory and impeach a president for getting a blow job literally "in office" (a scenario most honest fifty-something males will envy wistfully))), but an utterly irresponsible act of militarism with who knows what consequences for the patients who will now not be able to receive the drugs the factory produced-well, this is something that needs to be pondered. Clinton was, after all, looking after national interests, was he not? Should Clinton have been impeached? Bet your ass. But not for anything having to do with a certain cherubic brunette, a vision out of the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens. Clinton emerged unscathed from this crime against the people of the Sudan because of a) racism (the unspoken assumption being that it's okay to bomb little brown people-it happens so often, they ought to be used to it by now; it's rather like the weather for them), b) the unacknowledged understanding that American military activities really do support our privileges stateside, such as those privileges are, and c) the stupefying effects of the New Censorship.

The New Censorship does not work by keeping things secret. Are our leaders liars and criminals? Is the government run by wealthy corporations and political elites? Are we all being slowly poisoned? The answer is yes to all of the above, and there's hardly a soul on these shores who doesn't know it.

The betrayal of public trust is a daily story manipulated by the media within the narrative confines of "scandal," when in fact it's all a part of the daily routine and everyone knows it. The media makes pornography of the collective guilt of our politicians and business leaders. They make a yummy fetish of betrayed trust. We then consume it, mostly passively, because it is indistinguishable from our "entertainment" and because we suspect in some dim way that, bad as it surely is, it is working in our interests in the long run. What genius to have a system that allows you to behave badly, be exposed for it, and then have the sin recouped by the system as a sellable commodity!

By any traditional standard, the United States is a corrupt society because it refuses to be responsible before ethical facts that it knows perfectly well. This is corruption: after years of disgraceful shilly-shally, in the spring of 2002 the administration of George II acknowledged that there is a scientific basis to global warming but that there is nothing to be done about it (or nothing to be done that wouldn't piss off Detroit, Exxon-Mobil, and so-called "soccer moms," who are now, according to Republicans, the wild card in national energy politics). So, we'll just have to adapt. Truth without consequences is a good working definition of corruption.

Paul Virilio's Pure War (1983), a book which combines social, political, and military analysis with a unique and encompassing vision of the real that qualifies, for me, as an act of the imagination. I then thought I could use Virilio's ideas for the purpose of reimagining the world implied in the "recent events."

Virilio argues that the history of Western societies is really the history of their militaries. The social hardly counts at all for him except as a consequence of the military. According to Virilio, we have moved on from a time in which we had simple War, which was limited and tactical. War was once something that happened outside of the moat or city wall or Maginot Line, on this side of which civilian life went its way with its own priorities. War gave way to Total War, which overwhelmed the entirety of the social system as well as the economic and industrial capacity of the state because of the need for ever-faster, evermore-powerful war technology, and because of the need to supply the logistical demands of its dispersed military presence. Total War was about logistics, not battlefield tactics. The American Civil War inaugurated Total War, and the two world wars fulfilled it. It was industrial capacity and transportation, not brilliant military tactics, that allowed the North to win the Civil War.

Beyond Total War is Pure War. In Pure War the state is on an implicit war footing even in times of peace. (I suppose we know this condition best as the Cold War, but I suspect we will soon see an even purer example of it in President Bush's War Against Terror, the "task that never ends.") Technology, the media, industrial production, the economy, and certainly politics are first about a war so diffuse and ubiquitous that few people even recognize it for what it is. Hence, the trompe l'oeil in our current situation is the appearance that the hot war in Iraq is categorically different from the peace which preceded it. This, of course, means that we are asked to believe that we are still citizens of the nineteenth century and that our campaign against Saddam and al-Qaeda is purely tactical. This is a description of a poverty of imagination with the most dire consequences, because it commits us to continue on a course that all but ensures that there will be future terrorist tragedies on our own ground.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this situation is the near dead certainty that not only are our middle-class flag-wavers living in utter misrecognition, but it is likely that the leaders of our country (from George II to Teddy K) are every bit as deluded and, moreover, impotent. Randy Hayes of the Rainforest Action Network once told me of a talk he had with the uber-CEO of the Mitsubishi Company. Hayes said he was able to convince this CEO that Mitsubishi's program of global devastation for short-term profit was not in the long-term interest of either the planet or the company. Hayes achieved this moment of clarity only to have it followed by a far larger and more monstrous clarity for both himself and the Mitsubishi head: Mr. Mitsubishi had no idea how to change the practices of the company, because the logic that drove the company was both systemic and autonomous. This system at which even CEOs must look with apocalyptic horror is part of the ecology of Pure War and is not available for political discussion, let alone democratic debate. In short, it is not responsive to the will or the interests of the human beings living within it. Virilio calls this situation the "State as Destiny."

Let's look at a few passages from Pure War to see what sort of light they might shed on our current situation. First, "In the end, unconsciousness is the aim of Pure War." (124) In the Grundrisse Karl Marx argued that one of the most conspicuous products of capitalism is stupidity. There is no shortage of stupidity around at present. Still, Virilio's idea that we're "unconscious" (rather than stupid) has more explanatory power. Unconscious in what sense? North Americans are not speaking to their culture; they're being spoken by it. (s I've said, this is a curious sort of "unconsciousness" which functions in the context of a lurid revelation of all, the brutal exposure of everything. The better way of thinking of it might be the unconsciousness of the pure and passive "spectator," to borrow from the vocabulary of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. The spectator sees all but takes responsibility for nothing) The media is a function of the war effort, foreclosing on all deviant perspectives, constantly reaffirming the orthodox rubbish we think we already know.

And certainly we are "unconscious" in the sense that we are so blithely irresponsive to, if not unaware of, the fact that our "lifestyle" has for the last half-century been the equivalent of a state of war between ourselves and those folks who will provide us cheap, cheap natural resources and, more recently, cheap, cheap consumer goods or pay the price. This is emphatically true of people in the Middle East, who have been told, essentially, "You will suffer the injustice and indignity of a military-client-state-of-last-resort (Israel) established in your midst by Western fiat.' You will suffer and live in poverty in spite of the opulence of your rulers, who will rule at least in part because we guarantee them. And in return you will give us cheap oil so that General Motors and Big Oil can continue to profit, Americans can drive any sort of steel nightmare they like, and metropolitan areas can be organized around the great suburban principle 'Get in your car or stay home."

More from [Paul] Virillo:

The military class is turning into an internal super-police. In the strategy of deterrence, military institutions, no longer fighting among themselves, tend to fight only civilian societies-with, of course, a few skirmishes in the Third World.

We have internalized the military and its imperatives. We police ourselves ...

... in order to have a moral and peaceful relationship with the rest of the world, especially the Third World, we will need to radically reimagine urban and suburban space so that it is not all about accommodating the automobile; we will need to accept less prosperity in the form of discretionary income to purchase consumer items because we will need to let more of the wealth generated by the work of people in the Third World stay in Bangladesh and the maquiladoras of Mexico; we will need to radically reduce our dependence on our cars; and we will need to stop thinking of ourselves as the one great military (and nuclear) exception in world relations. We will also need to do the work to wrest political authority over our own society and culture from corporations, our own military, and their international allies. If these are not things which we are willing to accept, if we like the life that corporate culture, international capital, and the military class provide for us, we must be willing to accept as the price for these privileges the understanding that a significant percentage of the rest of the world will see us as something ranging from Great Satan to imperialist. know, it's not much of a ranges We will also have the periodic obligation of dropping bombs, killing a few civilians in the process, and "accidentally" destroying the occasional pharmaceutical lab in places such as the Sudan, thus obliging our political leaders to behave like state terrorists. And we will still need to send our own soldiers off to fight and die in international police incidents in the name of the preservation of these privileges. But it is a sacred lifestyle!

But even ... if we could imagine bringing these issues successfully to consciousness, if we could oblige truth to stand before the threat of real consequences, my fear is that the choice would be, "I accept the premises of Pure War. I understand that the maintenance of my privilege is dependent on others' misery, and I'm willing to suffer the occasional terrorist attack and consequent military policing to maintain it. And I'm willing that in the name of Homeland Security a dominant part of civilian life be war in the form of an eternal declaration of our willingness to make war."

What bin Laden seems to understand is that Pure War, understood as the techno-militarization of the human world, can be pushed where it has been headed all along but where perhaps it would rather not go on someone else's command: techno-military apocalypse. In this sense, his destination is not all that different from the anticipation of our own fundamentalist Baptists: the End of Days. Revelation. The Antichrist. The Second Coming. This is the conclusion of the confrontation between the Holy Warrior and the Global State Technician. Unlike the gruesome Cold War relationship between the nuclear couple, the United States and the Soviet Union, in which deterrence provided the Peace of Pure War (the peace of the "balance of terror," or "mutually assured mass destruction"), our new antagonist has no illusions about that grim dance. Muslims of bin Laden's stripe will have the life they imagine (however cruel and medieval) or they will have death, about which they have no fear or illusions because the religious thinking at the heart of their activities makes death irrelevant.

Pascal's divine wager (I believe in God because I have nothing to lose if he doesn't exist, and much to gain if he does).

journalist I. F. Stone once wrote,

The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing - for the sheer fun and joy of it-to go right ahead and fight, knowing you're going to lose. You mustn't feel like a martyr. You've got to enjoy it.

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