Thursday, August 19, 2010

Another Piece Breaks Loose

My subject is a powerful, persistent tendency in American culture, but the occasion is a particular event announced today, the “privatization” of Nightly Business Review by its owner, the public TV station in Miami, WPBT-TV. Another particle of a public something has broken off in a relentless process of erosion. The Public Broadcasting Service is the successor of National Educational Television; NET came into being in 1954, thus three years after my family’s arrival in the United States from Europe. It’s not really surprising that people with our background would have found in NET and in PBS later a welcome sign of something that we understood and valued. We found—and let me restrict that “we” to my mother, father, and their children—the relentless commercialism of America something rather alien by contrast. We came from a world where transportation, not least the railroads, communications—including telephone, postal services, radio, and television—were publicly operated and, further, a realm where the public sector dominated, with the widest possible public approval, virtually all aspects of social life. Let me put it like this to you: the notion that “starting your own business” could possibly be a desirable goal in life would never have occurred to anybody in our extended family—but I hasten to add that we are, really, but a random sample of the European population.

This is an example at the micro, the personal level of a genuine culture clash. You never actually loose this sort of feeling once you have grown up with it and experienced its operations in real life. You cannot simply choose another cultural form as you can opt for another brand of something. Life in a commercial culture, with its idealization of the half-truth of individualism, its instinctive revulsion from the “public” retains an irritating quality for someone who has internalized another system of values.

To be sure, the European cultural feeling—and its associated value system—is a minority phenomenon in the United States as well. If it were not, PBS would never have been founded. We ourselves—and in this “we” I now include my wife and children too—have found this system of values nobly represented in many public institutions, not least free education up to and including the university level, in the GI-bill and, generally, in the U.S. military culture, in the intentions behind the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), in the FDA, in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, in the U.S. Coast Guard, in the U.S. Postal Service, in Unemployment Insurance, in Social Security, and in much else.

Some of these institutions predate the Great Depression, others were greatly influenced by it. The constituency behind these programs and initiatives is substantial and, by its existence, works as a brake on the dominant tendency of this culture, which is to fly apart into a thousand pieces. What are these pieces? I think of them as quasi-communities, narrow, self-centered, blinkered interests. They are so blind and stupid that they are able to relate to one another only by means of a market and the brutal and repeating battles of so-called democratic politics. They share no value except greed for money and for power.

In my time I’ve seen the gradual weakening, the piece-by-piece erosion, of virtually every institution that we value. PBS has become the Begging Channel with still limited but more and more explicit advertising. Free university education went the way of the Dodo long ago. The GI-bill has lost its outlines. The U.S. Postal Service was partially privatized and now trembles on the brink of the real thing if we will let it happen. We’ve deregulated the airlines and, but for the saving collapse of Enron, might have completely ruined public utilities too. Freddie has taken to drink, Fannie to prostitution, and the Good Lord save the FDIC. The Good Lord save the Interstate Highway System, too, and all those other things that still make life civilized around here. Oh. There is the National Park System, another endangered species. It does not surprise me, therefore, that we have contrarians among us who secretly pray that things will get worse—so that at least some of the good will remain.

It is curious how in some cultures what seems to me a destructive tendency always seems to have the edge (and, yes, it has some benefits as well) whereas in others (e.g. in Russia) the tendency is always in the other direction (and, yes, that way lie some real evils too). I’m sorry to see NBR go private. It has served us for thirty-one year, but now—you may be sure of it—it will undergo deformations caused by the change. Why did it go private? For lack of sufficient corporate sponsorship. Corporate? Of course. The kind that PBS was founded on was public. But public, in this culture, is a nasty word. It’s something mysterious, I think; it’s something in the air.


  1. A very interesting article.
    I am somewhat inclined to see one of the major sources of the problem in the fact that people "share no value except greed... and for power."

    A shared value of Greed and Power is merely descriptive, meaning that both groups lust for the same things; in no sense do they "share" anything communally. Nay, they would be fighting each other for the scraps available.

    There is no shared vision of the future. Indeed, now we have discovered how frightening
    this can be. We have created a nation wherein the Best, the Brightest, and the Most Privileged actively indulge in scams, schemes, conspiracies, and subterfuges, and our Democracy has been re-defined in terms of Corporate entities and away from individuals.

    It is simplistic: in the Game of Greed and Power, the Enormous, the Gargantuan, the Too-Big-To-Fail will always have an incredible advantage against the Government Service entities who are not beasts of prey.

  2. You've elaborated my sketch, Montag. The fight over scraps is ahead if the peak oil people are right, and they are right; only the timing is wobbly. People have become displaced by institutions as the real constituency, e.g., the recent court decision confirming corporations are real people. As for the core issue, and I agree with you there too, that might be summed up by saying, when all values are equal, no value shall rule.