by Chris Hedges, one of the leftists whose understanding of the world is most deserving of respect…
Barack Obama is a brand. And the Obama brand is designed to make us feel good about our government while corporate overlords loot the Treasury, armies of corporate lobbyists grease the palms of our elected officials, our corporate media diverts us with gossip and trivia, and our imperial wars expand in the Middle East. Brand Obama is about being happy consumers. We are entertained. We feel hopeful. We like our president. We believe he is like us. But like all branded products spun out from the manipulative world of corporate advertising, this product is duping us into doing and supporting a lot of things that are not in our interest.
What, for all our faith and hope, has the Obama brand given us? His administration has spent, lent, or guaranteed $12.8 trillion in taxpayer dollars to Wall Street and insolvent banks in a doomed effort to re-inflate the bubble economy, a tactic that at best forestalls catastrophe and will leave us broke in a time of profound crisis. Brand Obama has allocated nearly $1 trillion in defense-related spending and the continuation of our doomed imperial projects in Iraq, where military planners now estimate that 70,000 troops will remain for the next fifteen to twenty years. Brand Obama has expanded the war in Afghanistan, increasing the use of drones sent on cross-border bombing runs into Pakistan, which have doubled the number of civilians killed over the past three months. Brand Obama has refused to ease restrictions so workers can organize and will not consider single-payer, not-for-profit health care for all Americans. And Brand Obama will not prosecute the Bush administration for war crimes, including the use of torture, and has refused to dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws and restore habeas corpus. Brand Obama offers us an image that appears radically individualistic and new. It inoculates us from seeing that the old engines of corporate power and the vast military-industrial complex continue to plunder the country. Corporations, which control our politics, no longer produce products that are essentially different, but brands that are different. Brand Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state any more than did Brand George W. Bush. The Bush brand collapsed. We became immune to its studied folksiness. We saw through its artifice. This is a common deflation in the world of advertising. So we have been given a new Obama brand with an exciting and faintly erotic appeal. Benetton and Calvin Klein were the precursors to the Obama brand, using ads to associate themselves with risqué art and progressive politics. This strategy gave their products an edge. But the goal, as with all brands, was to make passive consumers confound a brand with an experience.
Obama, who has become a global celebrity, was molded easily into a brand. He had almost no experience, other than two years in the Senate, lacked any moral core, and could be painted as all things to all people. His brief Senate voting record was a miserable surrender to corporate interests. He was happy to promote nuclear power as “green” energy. He voted to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He reauthorized the Patriot Act. He would not back a bill designed to cap predatory credit card interest rates. He opposed a bill that would have reformed the notorious Mining Law of 1872. He refused to support the single-payer health care bill HR 676, sponsored by Reps. Dennis Kucinich and John Conyers. He supported the death penalty. And he backed a class-action “reform” bill that was part of a large lobbying effort by financial firms. The law, known as the Class Action Fairness Act, would effectively shut down state courts as a venue to hear most class-action lawsuits and deny redress in many of the courts where these cases have a chance of defying powerful corporate challenges.
Obama’s campaign won the vote of hundreds of marketers, agency heads, and marketing-services vendors gathered at the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference in October. The Obama campaign was named Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008 and edged out runners-up Apple and Zappos.com. Take it from the professionals. Brand Obama is a marketer’s dream. President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what the advertisers want because of how they can make you feel.
Celebrity culture has leached into every aspect of our culture, including politics, to bequeath to us what Benjamin DeMott called “junk politics.” Junk politics does not demand justice or the reparation of rights. Junk politics personalizes and moralizes issues rather than clarifying them. “It’s impatient with articulated conflict, enthusiastic about America’s optimism and moral character, and heavily dependent on feel-your-pain language and gesture,” DeMott noted. The result of junk politics is that nothing changes — “meaning zero interruption in the processes and practices that strengthen existing, interlocking systems of socioeconomic advantage.” Junk politics redefines traditional values, tilting “courage toward braggadocio, sympathy toward mawkishness, humility toward self-disrespect, identification with ordinary citizens toward distrust of brains.” Junk politics “miniaturizes large, complex problems at home while maximizing threats from abroad. It’s also given to abrupt unexplained reversals of its own public stances, often spectacularly bloating problems previously miniaturized.” And finally, it “seeks at every turn to obliterate voters’ consciousness of socioeconomic and other differences in their midst.”
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The junk politics practiced by Obama is a consumer fraud. It is about performance. It is about lies. It is about keeping us in a perpetual state of childishness. But the longer we live in illusion, the worse reality will be when it finally shatters our fantasies. Those who do not understand what is happening around them and who are overwhelmed by a brutal reality they did not expect or foresee search desperately for saviors. They beg demagogues to come to their rescue. This is the ultimate danger of the Obama Brand. It effectively masks the wanton internal destruction and theft being carried out by our corporate state. These corporations, once they have stolen trillions in taxpayer wealth, will leave tens of millions of Americans bereft, bewildered, and yearning for even more potent and deadly illusions, ones that could swiftly snuff out what is left of our diminished open society.
Obama is a product of a deeper cultural reality that I describe in some detail in my book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
In the contemporary world, celebrity worship increasingly encroaches on reality. And this adulation is pervasive.
The frenzy around political messiahs, or the devotion of millions of women to Oprah Winfrey, is all part of the yearning to see ourselves in those we worship. We seek to be like them. We seek to make them like us. If Jesus and The Purpose Driven Life won’t make us a celebrity, then Tony Robbins or positive psychologists or reality television will. We are waiting for our cue to walk onstage and be admired and envied, to become known and celebrated.
“What does the contemporary self want?” asked critic William Deresiewicz, adding:
The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge — broadband tipping the Web from text to image; social-networking sites spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider — the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self in Romanticism was sincerity, and in modernism was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.
We pay a variety of lifestyle advisers — Neal Gabler calls them “essentially drama coaches” — to help us look and feel like celebrities, to build around us the set for the movies of our own lives. Martha Stewart built her financial empire, when she wasn’t insider trading, telling women how to create and decorate a set design for the perfect home. The realities within the home, the actual family relationships, are never addressed. Appearances make everything whole. Plastic surgeons, fitness gurus, diet doctors, therapists, life coaches, interior designers, and fashion consultants all, in essence, promise to make us happy, to make us celebrities. And happiness comes, we are assured, with how we look and how we present ourselves to others. There are glossy magazines such as Town & Country that cater to the absurd pretensions of the very rich to be celebrities. They are photographed in expensive designer clothing inside the lavishly decorated set pieces that are their homes. The route to happiness is bound up in how skillfully we show ourselves to the world. We not only have to conform to the dictates of this manufactured vision, but we also have to project an unrelenting optimism and happiness.
The Swan was a Fox reality makeover show. The title of the series referred to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling,” in which a bird thought to be homely grew up to be a swan. “Unattractive” women were chosen to undergo three months of extensive plastic surgery, physical training, and therapy for a “complete life transformation.” Each episode featured two “ugly ducklings” who competed with each other to go on to the Swan beauty pageant. “I am going to be a new person,” said one contestant in the opening credits.
In one episode, twenty-seven-year-old Cristina, an Ecuador-born office administrator from Rancho Cordova, California, was chosen to be on the program.
“It’s not just the outside I want to change, but it’s the inside, too,” Cristina told the camera mournfully. She had long black hair and light brown skin. She wore a baggy gray sweatshirt and no makeup. Her hair was pulled back. We discovered that she was devastatingly insecure about being intimate with her husband because of her post-pregnancy stretch marks. The couple considered divorce.
“I just want to be, not a completely different person, but I want to be a better Cristina,” she said.
As a “dream team” of plastic surgeons discussed the necessary corrections, viewers saw a still image of Cristina, in a gray cotton bra and underwear, superimposed on a glowing blue grid. Her small, drooping breasts, wrinkled stomach, and fleshy thighs were apparent. A schematic figure of an idealized female form revolved at the left of the screen. Crosshairs targeted and zoomed in on each flawed area of Cristina’s face and body. The surgical procedures she would undergo were typed out beside each body part. Brow lift, eye lift, nose job, liposuction of chin and cheeks, dermatologist visits, collagen injections, LASIK eye surgery, tummy tuck, breast augmentation, liposuction of thighs, dental bleaching, full dental veneers, gum tissue recontouring, a 1,200-calorie daily diet, 120 hours in the gym, weekly therapy, and coaching. The effect was suggestive of a military operation. The image of a blueprint and crosshairs was used repeatedly throughout the program.
Cristina was shown writing in her diary: “I want a divorce because I think that my husband can do better without me. And it would be best for us to go in different directions. I am not happy with myself at all, so I think, why make this guy unhappy for the rest of his life?”
At the end of the three months, Cristina and her opponent, Kristy, were finally allowed to look in a mirror for “the final reveal.” They were brought separately to what looked like a marble hotel foyer. Curving twin staircases with ornate iron banisters framed the action. A crystal chandelier glittered at the top of the stairs. Sconces and oil paintings in gold frames hung on the cream-colored walls.
The “dream team” was assembled in the marble lobby. Massive peach curtains obscured one wall.
“I think Cristina has really grown into herself as a woman, and she’s ready to go back home and start her marriage all over again,” said the team therapist.
Two men in tuxedos opened a set of tall double doors. Cristina entered in a tight black evening gown and long black gloves. She was meticulously made up, and her hair had been carefully styled with extensions. The “dream team” burst into applause and whoops.
“I’ve been waiting twenty-seven years for this day,” Cristina told host Amanda Byram tearfully. “I came for a dream, the American dream, like all the Latinas do, and I got it!”
“You got it!” cheered Byram. “Yes, you did!”
Reverberating drumbeats sounded. “Behind that curtain,” says Byram, “is a mirror. We will draw back the curtain, the mirror will be revealed, and you will see yourself for the first time in three months. Cristina, step up to the curtain.”
Short, suspenseful cello strokes were heard. There was a tumbling drumroll.
“I’m ready,” quavered Cristina.
The curtain parted slowly in the middle. An elaborate full-length mirror reflected Cristina. The cello strokes billowed into the Swan theme song.
“Oh, my God!” she gasped, covering her face. She doubled over. Her knees buckled. She almost hit the floor. “I am so beautiful!” she sobbed. “Thank you, oh, thank you so much! Thank you, God! Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for this! Look at my arms, my figure … I love the dress! Thank you, oh! I’m in love with myself!”
The “dream team” burst into applause again. “Well, you owe this to yourself,” said Byram. “But you also owe it to these fantastic experts. Guys, come on in.”
The crowd of smiling experts closed in on their creation, clapping as they approached.
At the end of each episode, the two contestants were called before Byram to hear who would advance to the pageant. The winner often wept and was hugged by the loser. Byram then pulled the loser aside for “one final surprise.” The double doors opened once more, and her family was invited onto the set for a joyful reunion. In celebrity culture, family is the consolation prize for not making it to the pageant.
The Swan’s transparent message is that once these women have been surgically “corrected” to resemble mainstream celebrity beauty as closely as possible, their problems will be solved. “This is a positive show where we want to see how these women can make their dreams come true once they have what they want,” said Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia North America, producer of The Swan. Troubled marriages, abusive relationships, unemployment, crushing self-esteem problems — all will vanish along with the excess fat off their thighs. They will be new. They will be flawless. They will be celebrities.
In the Middle Ages, writes Alain de Botton in his book Status Anxiety, stained glass windows and vivid paintings of religious torment and salvation controlled and influenced social behavior. Today we are ruled by icons of gross riches and physical beauty that blare and flash from television, cinema, and computer screens. People knelt before God and the church in the Middle Ages. We flock hungrily to the glamorous crumbs that fall to us from glossy magazines, talk and entertainment shows, and reality television. We fashion our lives as closely to these lives of gratuitous consumption as we can. Only a life with status, valued physical attributes, and affluence is worth pursuing.
Hedonism and wealth are openly worshipped on shows such as The Hills, Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, My Super Sweet 16, and The Real Housewives of … series. The American oligarchy, 1 percent of whom control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, are the characters we envy and watch on television. They live and play in multimillion-dollar beach houses and expansive modern lofts. They marry professional athletes and are chauffeured in stretch limos to spa appointments. They rush from fashion shows to movie premieres, flaunting their surgically enhanced, perfect bodies in haute couture. Their teenagers throw $200,000 parties and have million-dollar weddings. This life is held before us like a beacon. This life, we are told, is the most desirable, the most gratifying.
The working classes, composed of tens of millions of struggling Americans, are shut out of television’s gated community. They have become largely invisible. They are mocked, even as they are tantalized, by the lives of excess they watch on the screen in their living rooms. Almost none of us will ever attain these lives of wealth and power. Yet we are told that if we want it badly enough, if we believe sufficiently in ourselves, we too can have everything. We are left, when we cannot adopt these impossible lifestyles as our own, with feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. We have failed where others have succeeded.
We consume countless lies daily, false promises that if we spend more money, if we buy this brand or that product, if we vote for this candidate, we will be respected, envied, powerful, loved, and protected. The flamboyant lives of celebrities and the outrageous characters on television, movies, professional wrestling, and sensational talk shows are peddled to us, promising to fill up the emptiness in our own lives. Celebrity culture encourages us all to think of ourselves as potential celebrities, as possessing unique if unacknowledged gifts. It is, as Christopher Lasch diagnosed, a culture of narcissism. Faith in ourselves, in a world of make-believe, is more important than reality. Reality, in fact, is dismissed and shunned as an impediment to success, a form of negativity. The New Age mysticism and pop psychology of television personalities and evangelical pastors — along with the array of self-help bestsellers penned by motivational speakers, psychiatrists, and business tycoons — all peddle a fantasy. Reality is condemned in these popular belief systems as the work of Satan, as defeatist, as negativity, or as inhibiting our inner essence and power. Those who question, those who doubt, those who are critical, those who are able to confront reality, and those who grasp the hollowness of celebrity culture, are shunned and condemned for their pessimism. The illusionists who shape our culture, and who profit from our incredulity, hold up the gilded cult of us. Popular expressions of religious belief, personal empowerment, corporatism, political participation, and self-definition argue that all of us are special, entitled, and unique. All of us, by tapping into our inner reserves of personal will and undiscovered talent, and by visualizing what we want, can achieve (and deserve to achieve) happiness, fame, and success. This relentless message cuts across ideological lines. This mantra has seeped into every aspect of our lives. We are all entitled to everything.
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Human beings become a commodity in a celebrity culture. They are objects, like consumer products. They have no intrinsic value. They must look fabulous and live on fabulous sets. Those who fail to meet the ideal are belittled and mocked. Friends and allies are to be used and betrayed during the climb to fame, power, and wealth. And when they are no longer useful they are to be discarded. In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future dystopia, people spend most of the day watching giant television screens that show endless scenes of police chases and criminal apprehensions. Life, Bradbury understood, once it was packaged and filmed, became the most compelling form of entertainment.
The moral nihilism of celebrity culture is played out on reality television shows, most of which encourage a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness, and betrayal. Education, building community, honesty, transparency, and sharing are qualities that will see you, in a gross perversion of democracy and morality, voted off a reality show. Fellow competitors for prize money and a chance for fleeting fame elect to “disappear” the unwanted. In the final credits of the reality show America’s Next Top Model, a picture of the woman expelled during the episode vanishes from the group portrait on the screen. Those cast aside become, at least to the television audience, non-persons. Life, these shows teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition. Life is about the personal humiliation of those who oppose us. Those who win are the best. Those who lose deserve to be erased. Compassion, competence, intelligence, and solidarity with others are forms of weakness. And those who do not achieve celebrity status, who do not win the prize money or make millions in Wall Street firms, deserve to lose. Those who are denigrated and ridiculed on reality television, often as they sob in front of the camera, are branded as failures. They are responsible for their rejection. They are deficient.
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The cult of self dominates our cultural landscape. This cult shares within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation; and the inability to feel remorse or guilt. This is, of course, the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. In fact, personal style, defined by the commodities we buy or consume, has become a compensation for our loss of democratic equality. We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy, and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. Once you get there, those questions are no longer asked.
It is this perverted ethic that gave us Wall Street bankers and investment houses that willfully trashed the nation’s economy, stole money from tens of millions of small shareholders who had bought stock in these corporations for retirement or college. The heads of these corporations, like the winners on a reality television program who lied and manipulated others to succeed, walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and compensation. In his masterful essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity.”
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And boy does it make us look stupid: