If everyone is cashing in on a false image, a soon-to-burst bubble, does the truth matter?
Frank Rich is taking the words from my mouth! Our culture continues to believe in a newfound god of "marketing" -- the idea that the truth can finally be done away with. Tiger Woods, Sarah Palin, Wall Street and a whole host of people are cashing in on media-industrial complex. We've held out hope that Obama had actual substance; I read his book. I still have "hope," though.
As cons go, Woods’s fraudulent image as an immaculate exemplar of superhuman steeliness is benign. His fall will damage his family, closest friends, Accenture and the golf industry much more than the rest of us. But the syndrome it epitomizes is not harmless. We keep being fooled by leaders in all sectors of American life, over and over. A decade that began with the “reality” television craze exemplified by “American Idol” and “Survivor” — both blissfully devoid of any reality whatsoever — spiraled into a wholesale flight from truth.
But these scam artists are pikers next to the financial hucksters. I’m not just talking about Bernie Madoff and Enron’s Ken Lay, but about those titans who legally created and sold the securities that gamed and then wrecked the system. You’d think after Enron’s collapse that financial leaders and government overseers would question the contents of “exotic” investments that could not be explained in plain English. But only a few years after Enron’s very public and extensively dissected crimes, the same bankers, federal regulatory agencies and securities-rating companies were giving toxic “assets” a pass. We were only too eager to go along for the lucrative ride until it crashed like Tiger’s Escalade.
After his “indefinite break” from golf, Woods will surely be back on the links once the next celebrity scandal drowns his out. But after a decade in which two true national catastrophes, a wasteful war and a near-ruinous financial collapse, were both in part byproducts of the ease with which our leaders bamboozled us, we can’t so easily move on.
This can be seen in the increasingly urgent political plight of Barack Obama. Though the American left and right don’t agree on much, they are both now coalescing around the suspicion that Obama’s brilliant presidential campaign was as hollow as Tiger’s public image — a marketing scam designed to camouflage either his covert anti-American radicalism (as the right sees it) or spineless timidity (as the left sees it). The truth may well be neither, but after a decade of being spun silly, Americans can’t be blamed for being cynical about any leader trying to sell anything. As we say goodbye to the year of Tiger Woods, it is the country, sad to say, that is left mired in a sand trap with no obvious way out.
Regarding the cultural phenomenon Rich discusses, the dagger of cynicism for me was the "Chase Bank cares about volunteerism" ad I saw splashed on Facebook. It holds a number of characteristics essential to late-phase postindustrial kitsch-culture capitalism:
1) Web 2.0 -- "you" control the "decision"
2) Visual design created by artist-level marketing strategists
3) Titanic hypocrisy of how JP Morgan Chase Manhattan makes its money -- i.e. nuveau robber-baron-era usury and middle-class backed bailouts, versus
4) The microscopic benefit to the needy from Chase
Were I a mathematician or economist, I'd be more accurate, but I bet the ratio of "benefit to JP Morgan Chase" and "benefit to the people receiving aid from the faux-volunteerism-philanthropy Facebook sweepstakes" somewhere on the order of 1000 : 1. In other words, each "positive citizen impression" allows Chase bank to expand their exploitative business model on 1000 people. Every time a person naively gets a positive impression of Chase bank because of the Facebook sweepstakes, it enables Chase to exploit 1000 customers -- with phantom late charges and so on -- and taxpayers -- as bailout capital going straight into Wall St. barons' pockets. If anything, a positive impression of Chase, in our example, makes life more difficult for everyone except for the Chase executives.
Someone is cashing in on that 1000 : 1 ratio -- it's a complete lie, and so many are actively fooling themselves for short-term profit. But like Frank Rich points out, America itself is becoming a Potemkin Village. Will the standard of living rise for my generation, and the generations to come? The indicators say no. The lie is that a rising tide lifts all ships. Behind every fortune is a crime. A country funded by debt, defended by mercenaries, and governed by corporations may not collapse, but things sure won't be getting better for the collective.