BEFORE MAKING THE POINT HERE
I must admit that I received three traffic-related tickets in the last three years in my home state of Maryland. The tickets came from a variety of policing agencies: state, county, municipal. I was required to take one day’s worth of driving school or face having my license suspended. I took a 40 question test and that was that, unless of course I get another round of tickets. To be sure, I’ve become a better driver as a result.
I reflected a bit on this, at first wondering how and why my driving skills and/or luck had deteriorated so much in the recent past. I should note that in over 30 years of driving history, I’ve in general received about one ticket every five years. What changed?
What changed, I believe, was the aggressiveness of Maryland’s law enforcement and the amount of officers in the field, and specifically the amount of officers assigned to traffic control. I’m not sure where all the money for all of these new cops came from; probably a combination of healthy property taxes and Homeland Security. At any rate, I began to observe, and I don’t believe I’m being paranoid, that at least in our state of Maryland there are significantly more uniformed officers out there willing and waiting to ensure that I do things correctly on the road and if not that they will certainly make sure I know about it.
In my youth, the ideal law enforcement officer was Andy of Mayberry. Law enforcement was considered from a humanistic standpoint; that is, there was no enemy, only service to the population. That attitude has shifted.
Now my observations in Maryland are completely anecdotal and it's not clear that statistics on what is called “force ratio” (number of police officers per one thousand of population) for Maryland or in fact the US in general are kept and/or are maintained uniformly. My somewhat limited research indicates that a “force ratio” is normally about 2.5 per thousand in a normal suburban, peaceful situation. In cities, force ratios can be somewhat higher. In war zones, the force ratio goes of course even higher still. Military analysts believe that a force ratio of twenty-to-one is necessary to adequately maintain control of a occupied territory (such as it was with the British in Northern Ireland). Interesting, the force ratio of Iraq is about ten-to-one or less. Some analysts indicate that a twenty-to-one force ratio in Iraq would require a force of about 500,000 troops.
My gut sense is that force ratio statistics in the US domestically (of police to population) would show a spike since 9/11, as law enforcement has ramped up with a combination of federal and local money.
Moreover, the attitude of law enforcement has noticeably changed.
In my youth, the ideal law enforcement officer was Andy of Mayberry. Law enforcement was considered from a humanistic standpoint; that is, there was no enemy, only service to the population. That attitude has shifted. Now, the enemy is everywhere and nowhere; terrorists could be anyone, and/or any “normal” looking individual could in fact prove out to be the opposite, putting a law officer in danger. Hence the over cautiousness of officers while approaching people in cars even for minor traffic violations.
But while often understandable, this new attitude can also be overblown and disproportionate to the situation. The film ‘Babel’ depicted perfectly the potentially over-reactive attitude of law enforcement to the population – in this case immigrant populations. At the border, the security guard in ‘Babel’ enters into a confrontation with a young Mexican man driving the car in such a way that presumes guilt and promotes an adversarial attitude. The underlying subtext is paranoid and racist, nationalistic and protectionist. The border officer in some ways creates the very situation he is trying to avoid by prodding the “suspect” in a certain way. In this case, the young man panics and drives away in a hurry, prompting a chase that could have been avoided had the officers had a different attitude.
If you ever happen to watch the cable show 'Cops' you'll also note that any higher force ratio of police officers is apparently aimed disproportionately at the homeless, the poor, high school dropouts and drug addicts. Many seem under-educated and clueless, like deer caught in the head lights of a very large Wal-Mart truck.
In my own case, the last traffic ticket I got was particularly frustrating, and I expressed it ever so slightly to the officer. I think I did something like briskly handing my license in such a way that I brushed his hand. The officer warned me that if I continued that behavior he would arrest me and charge me with assault on a police officer. I might also note that all this occurred on Christmas Eve – so much for “an officer of the peace” and Andy of Mayberry!
In airports, we are warned that even joking about bombs and other threats could land you in trouble. Danger is taken quite seriously, and we are all apparently potentially part of the problem. We are also, in a sense, recruited into a larger effort, drawn into the mindset of the military as they demand that we, in essence, understand that in “wartime” it is they that hold the authority, not us.
If you ever happen to watch the cable show ‘Cops’ you’ll also note that any higher force ratio of police officers is apparently aimed disproportionately at the homeless, the poor, high school dropouts and drug addicts. Many seem under-educated and clueless, like deer caught in the head lights of a very large Wal-Mart truck. These shows, supposedly underpinned by the motive for “public awareness” are little more than an exposé on our growing inhumanity and cruelty. Not only do we not provide for the “criminals” in such a way that we could better their situation (like provide more educational opportunities), we laugh at them and use them as fodder for entertainment. We are throwing the homeless and underprivileged in the center of a media circus when we should be helping them. There is a growing sense of an unknown “we” that “they” – the police and war machine – are protecting. This unease stems from the fact that many feel “we” are not always the people under protection. This is not to say that the motives and intent of law enforcement or “the troops” is bad—I’m not saying they are—but rather that leaders and policies must be buttressed by a vigilant awareness that democracy is fragile and can be eroded over time if the protectors of democracy lose sight of who they’re serving, even if the motives of officers and servicepeople remain essentially good.
This shift of attitude in law enforcement, subtle as it may seem, could bode ill for the future, particularly if more terrorists attacks and threats ever occur in the future – as they likely will. But it is a symptom of a larger problem. The real problem is political manipulation of the terrorist threat mindset that, along with another patently insane-as-normal idea known as “mutual annihilation” made popular during the Cold War, take the cake for willfully unenlightened agendas being touted by leaders as both unifying and unquestionable. These agendas are put forth as an organizing principle of society – a society unified around fear. Fear then fuels the culture in such a perverse way that it becomes the lens of how a society views itself and, most importantly, a driver for economic growth. That fear should become a principle driver of wealth is a significant shift for the United States (remember that Roosevelt railed against it); we have always been considered such an optimistic country – one that is constantly looking forward, not succumbing to fear, either individually or collectively. Our entrepreneurial economy is, in fact, based on a collective optimism. If we lose it eventually we may lose our entrepreneurial drive.
Of course looking forward today means looking at what could be a rather bleak landscape of environmental collapse, ironically wrought in many ways by the very prosperity that was engendered through the optimism we embraced in the past. The issue is of course that optimism was channeled by some very intelligent (I guess!) people into ways to increase personal profit and wealth, and not as a rule in ways to increase the general welfare and/or individual enlightenment, and all at the expense of the environment. The result is that the United States’ very laudable optimism, channeled as it has been for generations into primarily selfish activities, is a legacy of consumerism and shallowness that, when spread across the world, is not sustainable environmentally or, one could argue, psychologically. Virginia Tech and Columbine are woeful reminders of the price we pay, as is the War in Iraq. But more on that later.
Because our current economic system is not sustainable on a global scale, leaders must use diversions, like the War on Terror, to manipulate us in the short term while they ponder their options for creating new economic engines for capitalism to feed from – all, dangerously, based on fear. One option is to fuel economic growth via ramping up the “security state” (hence more cops on the street); another is to fuel economic growth by fighting the very ills we have created, mostly environmental; yet another is to fight illnesses (either real or created) for the body and mind (i.e., pharmaceuticals and biotechnology). Some politicians like Al Gore work to channel a society’s energies in creative ways: the Internet, the fight for a clean environment. Strangely, what used to be in fact a dialog between left and right has become a debate on how to fuel economic growth, and on which emotion to fuel it: fear or hope.
Dissatisfaction is, at its heart, the motivating principle behind consumerism, which requires a desire to be fulfilled temporarily and fleetingly, then fueled and/or created by advertising. The goal is to keep us incessantly in a state of ultimately unfulfilled desire, for that will create an engine for further consumption.
Historically, the expansion of Capitalism has sought to be unfettered by the shackles of humanistic notions of social justice and equality, and distribution of the fruits of labor equally, as this will prove to be a disincentive to an economy driven primarily by the desire for personal gain. In fact, egalitarian talk (although also the basis for democracy) smacks the capitalist as too socialistic or worse, altruistic. The business of money is, after all, serious and pragmatic and, ultimately, classist and elitist. However, the language of business has been recently changing. The words “sustainable” and “green” pop up everywhere now. Corporate America, at least on paper, is embracing a “green” future and perhaps even an altruistic one. But buyer beware; corporate interests have a funny way of turning things on their head: don’t forget the irony of SUVs, for years touted as a way of getting closer to nature in advertisements always associating them with the freedom of the outdoors, with the underlying truth being that these vehicles in fact destroy nature. Innate altruism, advertisers have long understood, can be manipulated.
Importantly, recent scientific studies have indeed shown that it is altruism, not selfish hoarding of personal wealth, that promotes happiness. The hoarding of wealth by the few (it is a well known fact that 1% of the population holds up to 1/3 of the assets of this country) actually engenders an environment ripe for unhappiness – or looked at from another way, a society of dissatisfaction. It’s not that people are unhappy –they aren’t really happy or unhappy – rather they are dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction is, at its heart, the motivating principle behind consumerism, which requires a desire to be fulfilled temporarily and fleetingly, then fueled and/or created by advertising. The goal is to keep us incessantly in a state of ultimately unfulfilled desire, for that will create an engine for further consumption.
The consumer model is patently un-enlightened, as Western enlightened thinking guarantees us our right to seek happiness, not be manipulated into a state of chronic dissatisfaction. Here’s the difference between the two ideas: one presumes happiness is attainable, while the other presumes it may be, but should be always kept just out of reach. Moreover, the mystical traditions of religion and Eastern Enlightenment actually promote metaphysical understandings where desire is transcended altogether and reality directly accepted. Therefore, the idea of anyone being enlightened on any level puts advertisers into an immediate panic attack.
But back to Iraq. In this case the customer was Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and friends, including President Bush. The provider of the product is Boeing, Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon, the National Guard and assorted others.
It is chronic dissatisfaction that also leads to a culture ripe for situations like Iraq. While some will argue that Iraq is the result of a conspiracy, I will argue that it is more of a cultural event springing from generations of advertising-manipulated people and the heirs of those that thought up the consumer society in the first place: those able minds of the 1920’s who mapped out how to manipulate people so effectively that they didn’t even realize they were being manipulated.
Because the situation in Iraq springs out of a consumer culture, I’ll call it the first consumer war supported by a willfully stupid ignorance of the facts. For one, it is a war that, whether consciously or not, is perpetuated by a low force ratio that keeps it in a continued state of chaos. Now be clear: I am not promoting a higher force ratio in Iraq at this time, although early in the war some unpopular generals indeed said we needed more troops, and were ignored. I am simply pointing out the fact that the way that the Iraq war has been conducted comes out of a consumer mindset and culture. How so?
First, the consumer mindset has it that the customer is always right. By extension, in our society, the customer is not only always right but the consumer of the product is always right. This particular attitude has been carried forward in such a way that literally hundreds or thousands of years of tradition of ancient societies have been discarded wholesale (like in Latin America and Asia) simply by the force of this idea and the “freedom” it touts. The idea is, somewhat perversely, associated with democratic individualism, which, I might add, has nothing to do with the customer being right, but more to do with individual responsibility. In China the notion of democracy doesn’t even come into play: just buy and you’ll be free, because after all you’ll live the same way as the Americans do on television.
But back to Iraq. In this case the customer was Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and friends, including President Bush. The provider of the product is Boeing, Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon, the National Guard and assorted others. The customer—meaning the government— with consumer attitude in hand, dismissed the warnings of experts and instead listened to their short term desire for instant gratification.
Moreover, being inculcated with the morality of advertising, they (consciously or unconsciously) created the perfect situation of perpetual war to feed a perpetual war machine: a consumer war that is unwinnable but great for the bottom line of all the companies involved, who in no way shape or form would question whether or not the customer was right, because the customer was, as would any good consumer, coming back for more product. And that, according to capitalism, is a good thing.
You will note on any product packaging that the provider always says you should use it at least twice. Shampoo especially. And Alka Seltzer. Using one Alka Seltzer is probably just about as good as using two; and shampooing once is probably just as good as shampooing twice. But that’s not what is on the label. You always take two Alka Seltzer, and you always shampoo twice. And you always, by extension, have troops go back for more than one tour of duty. Because that way, you see, they use more products that can be replaced and bought.
Fear then fuels the culture in such a perverse way that it becomes the lens of how a society views itself and, most importantly, a driver for economic growth.
In fact, cynics and conspiracy theorists have often pointed to Iraq as the perfect war for the MIC (Military Industrial Complex): long, with ambiguous end dates, well-funded but not funded so well to make it winnable. However, others will say that the government is much too inept to think in this conspiratorial way. Such planning requires long term, strategic thinking, and, one could even argue, a little genius – none of which the government in general possesses. This is why I said earlier Iraq may in fact be as much a cultural
event as a conspiratorial one; that the war in Iraq sprang naturally out of a consumer culture.
That culture has it that from the consumer’s standpoint they are king; and from the product provider’s standpoint they want the consumer to keep buying more product. To this end, the provider creates a need. Once the need is created, a situation is engendered where the need cannot be removed.
In sum, the war in Iraq is a consumer war because it is the first war in which we have been convinced that we cannot do without it. The need has been created and now must be sustained. If we leave, we are told there will be chaos, even though we were responsible for creating that chaos in the first place. If we stay, there will be more death for Americans, problems with the national debt, the value of the currency and the sustainability of the National Guard. To ramp up the force ratio is impossible, because we don’t have the military to sustain it because we don’t have a army of volunteers ready to line up to be serviceproducts – ah, sorry – servicepeople.
This impossible situation is perfect for those that seek to profit from it. And the companies involved will continue to keep it that way for as long as the public remains willing to be stupid consumers and buy the goods they are being sold.
And for many people, that will be a long, long time. Or at least as long as they continue to shampoo twice. If things keep going the way they are, the label will soon say to shampoo five times, and we will do it.