Rockstroh examines the explosive mixture of Puritanism and corporatism in US society and how it fuels a growing and helpless rage at our futile drive for righteous perfection.
Having an unexciting occupation may increase your risk of a heart attack, believe researcher.
— Healine from BBC, 7th June 05
IT NOW APPEARS the dire consequences that puritanical hysterics have attributed to human sexuality — from ill-health, early death, and societal decay, to being the flat-out progenitor of nearly every aspect of worldly travail — is applicable to the very act they hold more sacred than chastity: work.
Ever since the first fantasy-prone Puritans trudged upon the shores of North America, intent on establishing the New Jerusalem, that ever-shilled-for Shining City On A Hill (now in an ongoing state of brownout, on to the way to a full scale blackout), they and their descendants have carried on the conviction that the only impediment to the construction of a godly municipality — where grace, piety, and purity would reign and whose glowing righteousness would serve as a beacon of divine light to drive the darkness from the face (not to mentioned those Satanically besieged genital regions of the human anatomy) of this sin-blinded earth — was human sloth, vitality-sucking carnality, and a general disobedience to the admonitions of the Holy Bible… that cosmic interoffice memo circulated to increase heavenly dividends by maximizing earthly efficiency.
Ergo, anyone perceived as thwarting the progress of their goal of achieving earthly perfection fell subject to public scorn. Over the years, social conservative activists have refined and commodified the process down to an art form — if not a fetish — delivering ever more graphic displays of exhibitionistic outrage for public consumption. Capitalizing on this, cable television news networks now give over large segments of their programming to legions of finger-wagging, right-wing performance artists, all straight out of the school of perpetual moral indignation (not to mention the time allotted to coverage of the ceaseless circle jerk of self-righteousness partaken by the Washington press and political establishment). Most recently, upon the acquittal of Michael Jackson, we were treated to another in a series of their formulaic performances, the tone of which was nearly identical to the contrived umbrage that ensued after Super Bowl audiences in 2004 caught a glimpse of his sister's chemical ball facsimile of a female breast.
The tone and tenor of our times seems retrograde, pre-enlightenment, possessed of an overall aura that harkens back to time periods when daylight hours were dominated by a feudalist order and the night was ruled by the superstitious terror of a demon-haunted cosmology. Stricken, we obsess that the forces of moral decay endeavor to drain, like some medieval hallucination involving a nocturnal visitation by a succubus, our essence from our pristine souls, by way of seducing our sullied flesh.
How did we come by these morbid imaginings? And by the equally preposterous notion that the present day mass media is capable of being a purveyor of any portrait of existence that might run counter to the agendas of neo-Puritan corporatism? Even a cursory examination of media content — with its constant procession of media show trials, the ascendancy of CNN's Red Queen, Nancy Grace, and other programming hosted by thin-lipped, over-coiffured fascist furies, produced to pander to the desires of a dim, bored, overworked public that seems ever ready to party at a public hanging — reveals that its narrative is closer in tone to the punitive social codes and conventions evinced during the Puritan era, when the public square stock and block was in use, those early American exercises in shame and humiliation, whereby unfortunate wretches, charged with moral impurity, were placed on public display… in short, an early form of news/infotainment.
At the present time, in accordance with the fantasies of our Puritan ancestors, even commercial advertising, interwoven throughout these media spectacles, pitches the attainability of earthly perfection. The dogma of faith-based commodification is relentlessly promulgated. Informing us: We cannot experience, nor do we even deserve, peace of mind without perfect teeth; without a face botoxed into the paralysis of paradise — a born again visage, as blemish and wrinkle-free as the deified butt of the newborn baby Jesus; nor without our constant acquisition of gleaming appliances and high end (higher, more elevated, closer to God) products and accoutrements. We are pummeled with the gospel that the garnering of these things is imperative if we are to join the blessed ranks of the Select who dwell in the guarded gate, communal bliss of consumerist Eden. The Kingdom of Heaven is spread before us — only we do not possess the proper debt-to-credit ratio to enter it.
The saturating effect of this ceaseless proselytizing has defined downward the range of our experience of the world. So much so, large numbers of us no longer seem able to exist within our own less-than-perfect skins — much less engage in communal activity, without risking crippling anxiety. Whenever I visit my native south and speak with Bush supporters, I'm struck by how limited their experience of life has become. The criteria that forms their reactions to the world at large is dominated by the image of enclosure: insular, guarded gate communities; isolation during time-devouring commutes within the sealed confines of their oversized pickup trucks and SUVs; long work hours comprised of meaningless labor where they are cutoff from nature and resonate human contact — an existence as redolent of the aromas of life as plastic wrapped cheese-food. It's as if they themselves have been wrapped in plastic… simply rendered Body Bag People.
This paradoxical mix of excess and isolation creates an inner emptiness and free-floating sense of unease. Nevertheless, the princes of corporatism have managed to exploit even these pathologies for profit: palliatives are dispensed to fill the void and dispel the tedium and tension created by a life lived in accordance with the demands of Puritan/corporatist hegemony. So we are provided with: Fundamentalist fulminations of approaching Armageddon (it would seem only total global destruction might serve to break up the tedium) and the resulting Rapture (and a bottomless supply of anti-depression and anti-anxiety meds to render us benumbed until that moment arrives); enormous portions of high fat, high carbohydrate, high sugar content food served up by franchise food chains and its carnal equivalent — porn; the giddy lies of salesmanship and its subterranean simulacrum — the surge of energy and confidence attained from crystal meth tweaking; the steroid-induced mass psychosis of professional sports hype and its foreign policy equivalent — neo-con delusions of American Military invincibility.
Beneath it all, we sense something has gone awry, but it's simply beyond the range of the American character to look inward. Resultantly, the punitive nature of Puritan corporatism: We have a compulsion to force somebody (queers, druggies, show biz types) to admit the crimes they committed against us, then punished them for their transgressions. From Dr. Phil/Nancy Grace-type, mediascape Torquemadas to right-wing machinations to rig the Federal Judiciary with hanging judges, Americans are desperate for somebody to blame — for someone, anyone to be punished. Because we desperately need to believe this might absolve us of our shame and subliminal self-loathing, that it might serve to dissipate the cloud of nebulous dread roiling at the edge of our minds involving our inability to measure up to the elusive standards of success held up to us by the corporatist classes.
Anger, resentment, and shame seethe beneath it all. As a consequence, the culture develops the mood of old-time public lynchings. Look closely at the faces of the good, salt-of-the-earth, ordinary folk (homicidal hicks, in other words) photographed at those all-American events, then take a look at the faces of people sitting in their vehicles during rush hour traffic, listening to right-wing radio — just freaked-out, run-of-the-subdivision, suburban psychopaths, who believe the road to paradise will be paved with the ground bones of the godless.
In a culture where success is deemed the end all/be all of all things — even the measure of God's love and grace — when contemporary Americans risk straying from the mainstream and fail, the repercussions are terrible, more than most people can endure, economically as well as psychologically. And within a corporate structure — rigged for the benefit of a privileged few — failure is altogether likely. Then combine those noxious realities with the puritanical idea that failure is due to some character flaw, and you have one pissed-off populous; a populace that is conformist, terrified to risk, but cling to the defining delusion that they live in a society where industry, innovation, and pluck are rewarded with success. Or it would be, they fume, if it wasn't for _____ insert here your favorite object of displaced resentment: homosexuals, the poor, drug addicts, "career criminals" (three strikes and you're caged for life), the so-called coming generation of "super-predators" (better execute them before their testicles drop or else no one will be safe) — the whole gallery of groups who are easy, safe, and sanctioned targets of public scorn.
As was the case with the Jews of Medieval Europe, scorned groups and social outcasts suffer the dangerous stigma of being branded well poisoners, baby eaters, and the like. These are the dark fantasies that arise when people are overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness, by people who become desperate for a narrative by which they can displace their sense of being violated and their unbearable feelings of helplessness created from being degraded daily by an inhuman system.
Whether it's the proliferation of tales involving aliens who transverse infinite distances of space and time simply to examine the rectal cavities of us obscure hominids dwelling in a far-flung section of this vast galaxy, or the post-cocaine-induced, Medievalist psychosis manifested by Mel Gibson directing swarthy, beak-nosed heavies to theatrically pummel and pierce the flesh of an actor portraying Jesus Christ, or endless Fox Cable News video loops of a supine Terri Schiavo — the imagery of powerlessness resonates in the culture.
Of course, it's the almost total corporate/ governmental/church control over the lives of the individual — not little, gray extraterrestrial proctologists nor blood-lusting Christ killers — that is responsible for this state of affairs. But these metaphors express the depth of our denial. Aliens express how alienated we are. And only a tough, in fact deathless god — a he-man Jesus — could endure the invasive degradation of corporate rule.
And this is dangerous indeed: It was the collective, hyperventilated breath of the powerless masses that stroked the flames that spread from Nuremberg. When the people of a culture have been conditioned to worship power, yet feel powerless, so-called ordinary folks can become viscous. Jackboot-to-the-throat vicious. As was the case during the Weimar Republic, our culture is saturated with crass imagery; but it is all intermingled with a hysteria that "something must be done" to restore decency. The world around us appears to bristle with threats… repression and war become inevitable. Blood sacrifices must be made to the god of the inner abyss… corpses are tossed into the void.
And if anyone thinks those images are over-the-top, I disagree. I think they're models of understatement given these facts: we have racked-up over one hundred thousand dead in Iraq; we have a government that sanctions and a general public who is indifferent to the use of torture and the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians; we have created a massive, brutal prison/industrial complex that mortifies what's left of the civilized world; and have a significant portion of our nation's population who believe that the Almighty would smile upon us and the world would be set perpetually right if only we could kill every last Muslim sand monkey on earth, and we were to purge our own homegrown Sodomists of their damning sins by shaming them into the love of the One True God.
But as, more often than not, is the case with puritanical repression, our human lusts and longings cannot be entirely snuffed out. Instead they become submerged, and nebulous feelings of emptiness, rage, and dread ensue. The spurious Eros of ceaseless consumption will not, indefinitely, distract us, and history has shown the manner by which the thwarted desires of a repressed populace can rise, collectively, transmuted into manifest Thanatos.
I've heard stories of fires that burned unseen in sealed-off, abandon mines, whereby years later, miles from the original location of the blaze, dead trees burst into flames… the fire having traveled underground the length of the mine and up the dry kindling of the tree's root system to explode in open air. We bear constant witness to these sudden conflagrations: road rage, workplace and school shooting sprees, foaming at the mouth right-wing pundits, George Bush's oscillations between dead-eyed blankness and prickly anger (I don't know which state is more terrifying), and a willingness of the corporate media and general public to follow psychopaths in positions of power without question nor protest.
So then, what are we left with? How do we quell the risen fires of our internalized Puritan pathology, our inhuman rage for unattainable human purity and our pining for earthly perfection — our mind-grinding, soul-defying obsession for work, for the sake of work — and our sense, concomitant to it all, of isolation and free-floating fear that withers the heart, distorting our sexual desires and our innate need for communal revelry into a compulsion for the release that comes through aggression and death?
I think some good news can be found in the report from the BBC that opens this essay. Perhaps, a first step towards saving us (not to mention the rest of the world) an enormous amount of grief might be to spend more time away from work.
We must strive to become serial loafers — it may be the last, best hope for us all.
Copyright © 2005 Phil Rockstroh