Media

This American Strife

Be it on "Survivor" or in the White House, sore winners take it all in our polarized culture. Author John Powers talks about the "social Darwinism" that has become the order of the day.
Americans began a long, strange journey on the fateful day when George Bush scrambled his way into the White House and ushered in four years of color-coded hysteria, untrammeled corporate abuse, and a power-worshipping media. Welcome to "Bush World," as John Powers describes it in his new book, "Sore Winners."

But unlike the recent spate of president-bashing tomes, the LA Weekly columnist attempts the daring feat of taking on not just the man but also the cultural zeitgeist he both exemplifies and helped create. Who is better suited than Dubya to be president at a time when robbing grandmothers, invading distant foreign lands, and kissing up to The Donald is just business as usual? John Powers talked to AlterNet from his office in Los Angeles.


Unlike a lot of the anti-Bush books coming out these days, your book does not focus narrowly on him or his administration. You see him instead as a president of his times who exemplifies the larger culture we live in – the Bush World, as you call it. So did George Bush create this nasty culture we live in or is he a product of it?

Both. Initially, he was a creation of a particular time. Bush has been the beneficiary of the various cultural trends – advanced consumerism, the triumphant free market, the militarization of the country, the centralization but also the careerist bent of the media. And all of those things served his rise to power.

But after Sept. 11, a different kind of president could have created a very different climate in the country. When Bush told people to go shopping because otherwise the terrorists would win, there's an entire worldview in that statement. He didn't say we have to sacrifice or pull together. What he said instead was: We'll take care of it; your job is to go on with life as usual. It's a very paternalistic attitude.

This clear delineation between the elite and the masses seems to be a defining characteristic of Bush World.

We have a two-tiered society, though it is a lot more complex than one divided merely between rich and poor. There is a small group of people in both parties who make the big political and cultural decisions. Those people tend to be extremely well-paid, powerful, and celebrated in the media. These people are the "winners" in the society. And then there are the "rest of us" – ordinary people who are made to feel like losers.

It's not as tyrannical as being actually poor, but in a cultural sense, we feel that our lives are somehow irrelevant in a world dominated by the worship of power.

One of the characteristics of Bush World as you describe it is the return of "social Darwinism," which essentially justifies this winners/losers paradigm.

The crude version of social Darwinism is the idea that in economic life, as in biological life, the strongest prevail. The poor deserved to be poor and it is ordained by the very structure of the cosmos. This is an idea that is obviously very popular with people who are doing well.

The idea, which dates back to the 19th century, survived until the Great Depression, when it was discredited. Many of the New Deal programs were antithetical to this notion. But the paradoxical thing is that the very programs that created the safety net and prosperity for Americans made people question their value. In the Reagan years, we began to think that we're all entitled to and can be prosperous; social programs have nothing to do with it. The idea began to emerge – once again – that the rich should get more because they are worthy. Moreover, if the poor are poor, it's their own damn fault.

The current version of this doctrine is even more ruthless because it is now wrapped in populism. In Tom Frank's new book, "What's the Matter with Kansas," he does a very good job of showing how economic losers tend to transform their frustration into action not on economic but on cultural issues. The gist of that book is about the Right's success in casting itself as the populist party that is attacking cultural elites – when in fact there is an economic elite that is really running the country.

And yet, as you point out in your book, the popular culture mirrors these categories of winners and losers in the reality shows on television.

Here is where the cultural angle becomes interesting. At this point when you have the most naked celebration of winners in my lifetime – in economic terms – you also have TV shows that are about the survival. What's more Darwinian than "Survivor"! You put a bunch of people on an island, and week after week, all but one of them becomes extinct and who then wins a million dollars.

What really speaks to the brilliance of popular culture is that at the time that I was writing about the reality shows and Bush's economic policies, no one else had written about that connection. But even as I was writing about "Survivor" as subtext, the creator of that show (Mark Burnett) was turning it into text in "The Apprentice."

"The Apprentice" itself reflects the reality of the corporate culture as you describe it - especially in the case of Enron.

The system they had in Enron was called "rank and yank." It was structured like a game where you amassed points, and therefore more money and power. It was absolutely Darwinian. The logic of the system wasn't simply to rise. In order to go up, you had to vote somebody else down exactly like a reality show. On these shows, it isn't that we can all pull together and get 12 million dollars. In order to get ahead, I have to plan and scheme to get somebody else off this island.

That's why you can have someone thinking it is perfectly okay to gut the pension system and pay himself a bonus because that's how the game is played.

The title of your book comes from your observation that in fact these people at the top, especially Republicans, are "sore winners." Who is a sore winner?

It has always been an American fantasy that we are good winners. We win World War II and hand out Hershey bars and rebuild your country. But there has always been a strand in our culture of gloating about being wealthy.

I've never seen a time - at least in my lifetime - when successful people have been as angry and aggrieved or less generous. When Bush, who scrapes by in the 2000 election, then proceeds to rule as though he's won 90 percent of the popular vote, and then acts as though no one has the right to question him, that's classic sore winner behavior.

The funny thing about Bush is that no one could have anticipated that he would turn into this grim figure. His skill during 2000 was to make self-deprecating zingers, joke around with reporters, and in general seem like this affable frat boy. He was conveying the sense of fun that Americans like in their leaders. One of the mistakes of his presidency has been losing that image.

But he is not the only sore winner around.

Not at all. In the media, for example, Bill O'Reilly always seems so angry. If I wrote books as rotten as O'Reilly's and was on the bestseller list, I'd be thanking God every day.

One of the great creeps in journalism is Robert Novak, who always screams "class war" whenever anyone mentions the gap between the rich and the poor - and is nasty and sneering about it. That's a sore winner. It is now the cultural style of being successful to lord it over other people.

What is really comic is that 15 years ago, all these respectable white pundits decried the vulgarity of hip hop culture - rap stars boasting about how big their dick or gold chain or crib is. So it is ironic that we now have hip hop style meshed with Wall Street bragadoccio to produce this class of leaders that is always boasting.

But the important difference is that rap stars have a good time; these guys don't. There is this joylessness that is part of sore winner behavior. The problem with the Bush camp is that they can't make anything seem appealing or fun or human.

That's because they have such a limited conception of the world. Isn't that one of the defining characteristics of Bush World?

When I started writing the book, what depressed me about Bush World is that it is so small. The Clinton or JFK attitude was: it is a great, big world out there. We want to go out, meet all these different people, do good things. That it's a really exciting time to be alive.

Bush, on the other hand, has no intellectual curiosity about the world. He doesn't like to travel abroad or even around the country. This is a guy who takes his own pillow with him everywhere. He is the only president to complain about jet lag when he traveled to Europe. It is probably the most embarrassing thing any president could have done – to be grumbling about a really short flight that you took on Air Force One where you had an entire room to yourself. That indicates something about how he experiences being out in the world. During the 2000 campaign they basically had to pad his travel resume because they realized that it looked weird that this son of a multi-millionaire had never really been anywhere. Most Americans with the same opportunities would have been all over the world.

How does this worldview express itself in his politics?

The Bush message is: We'll protect our way of life. It's all about protecting your own. The essential job of the president, according to him, is to make sure our life isn't stolen from us. It's such a negative idea.

Nor is it a grand vision of what that life is about. When a radio interviewer asked me what George Bush thinks about at eight o'clock at night when his work is done, I realized that I didn't really know. He's not discussing policy. He knows nothing about popular culture. He's not a great reader. Maybe he's watching sports on TV. I literally don't know what he cares about.

All the personal stuff you hear about him has been test-marketed. For example, Bush cuts brush in his ranch at Crawford. This is a ranch he essentially bought in order to run for president - so he could be photographed cutting brush just like Reagan. And while it's supposed to make him look "regular," the comical thing is that no working person – say someone who works in a tire factory – would think, "Great! It's 98 degrees outside. I can't wait to go home and cut brush."

In the book, you also criticize liberals for their own brand of joylessness. Where did the Left go wrong?

In a culture built around consumption, the Left is always telling people that they are wrong to consume. It is the denial of pleasure. And it is more deeply embedded in the Left than it should be. In the book, I quote the really good writer Ellen Willis who says, "Anticonsumerism is the puritanism of the Left." There is a deep truth to that.

In an advanced capitalist consumer culture, a huge amount of what people do is consumption. And to be priggish about the sunglasses that people buy is out of touch with how people live their lives. The Left has not come up with an analysis of consumption that shows both what is positive and what is not.

What was always good about the Left in the '60s was that it was for the pleasure-seeking side. It lost a lot of that in an attempt to be respectable. It's an enormous disaster.

But you also point out that activism today takes the form of consumption - the clothes we wear, food you eat, movies we see, etc. So is that good or bad?

Like most things, it's double-edged. Anybody in their right mind knows that there are a lot of things about consumerism that are really terrible. It's hard to imagine Buddha or Christ telling people to shop till they drop. There is a fetishization of shopping as cultural expression at the moment that is bad for the soul.

One of the ways consumption has moved over to the left is the idea of consumption as political statement. Take Michael Moore, for example. Back when he made "Bowling for Columbine," one of the weird things was to watch the audience cheer at the end as though they had done something. All they had done was to choose to go see Michael Moore sort-of do something. That is activism as consumption.

At the same time, in a consumer culture this process of activism-as-consumption is part of the way Michael Moore did influence politics. In many ways, he says the same things as Ralph Nader. But Nader is seen as a dreary loser, whereas Michael Moore is a winner whose status has been confirmed at the box office. What that means is that he has to be treated with respect by the media. He has been able to get out a whole set of ideas that probably would have been mostly ignored.

But part of how he achieved that is by shameless self-promotion and hustling. He marketed himself as a commodity: a working class hero. And because what he did was ratified in the marketplace, politicians got courage to follow him. In a capitalist system the final marker is always financial.

So what do these trends suggest about the future of the Left?

It's remarkable how important the election will be in determining that. If we were somehow able to get rid of Bush, there is a risk that a lot of this leftwing energy will dissipate. It happened under Clinton, when most of the Left, including Michael Moore, mostly disappeared. They are still in for a struggle because the Right will continue in its usual way.

But if Bush were to win, I worry there will be the same sense of exhaustion that overtook many of my English friends during the Thatcher years. They couldn't stand Margaret Thatcher but still thought of her as unbeatable. If you look at the great sweep of history, we would have had 20 years of Republicans as opposed to only eight years of Clinton, who in fact fulfilled a great part of their agenda.

You don't offer any prescriptive in the book. How do we dig ourselves out of this nasty culture we live in?

Actually, for once in my life I can actually see quite clearly what the Left ought to be doing. Bush is bad enough that even for those of us who are much to the left of the Democratic Party it is a priority to get him out. The structural damage that Republicans can wreak over the next four years is just scary in terms of democracy. So in the short-run, beating Bush is about the most important thing any person on the left can do.
Lakshmi Chaudhry is senior editor of Alternet.
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