I have mixed feelings about this essay. I don’t agree about some of her examples. I find the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop too weird. It sounds like a conspiracy theory. It might be true, but I have trouble believing it. But I like the idea of society as a spectacle.
I have felt for years that it would be extremely difficult and expensive to change society in the ways that humanity needs. But it would be comparatively cheap and simple to distract people with media.
What is interesting right now is that we don’t have a dominant message, as we did — for example — in America in the red baiting era of the 1950s. What I remember — aside from as sense of darkness, as if it were always night — was fear of Communists and nuclear war, and the bright, white vision of suburban American that was on TV. Taken all in all, it was a simple spectacle.
Now we have a fragmented spectacle. A kaleidoscope of many conspiracies: QAnon; the stolen election; Hunter Biden’s laptop; weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; all the stories told about Covid 19, which is still with us and still killing people, especially older people… Seeing past this broken spectacle to reality is very hard.
There is tendency, I think, for progressives to try and change reality (which does exist behind the spectacle) by changing descriptions of reality. I don’t think this works. Social change requires working in and on reality.
And working in reality requires that we see and understand reality. We need a good analysis, as my political friends used to say.
My favorite way of shopping, something I have barely done in the past year and a half, is to go with a friend. We wander around, chatting, and go into stores now and then. Sometimes one of us buys something. Often we do not. Then we have lunch — or did, before the plague. This is classic American recreational shopping. I think it would be better if Americans did not do this. Too much crap is made and bought and then tossed away. Capitalism is built on landfills. It used to be built on railroads and steel mills.
Of course capitalism has always overused natural resources and created too much environmental damage. I am not saying that capitalism is the only culprit. Ordinary, old-fashioned agriculture can do a lot of damage. Iceland used to have trees. The settlers cut them down, and the sheep then cropped the little seedlings that tried to grow up. And now there are no trees, except in Reykjavik and a few, carefully protected, new forests. There used to be forests in a lot of countries that now have barren mountains and worn-out fields.
This brings us to Mencius, translated by I. A. Richardson:
Master Meng said: There was once a fine forest on the Ox Mountain,
Near the capital of a populous country.
The men came out with axes and cut down the trees.
Was it still a fine forest?
Yet, resting in the alternation of days and nights, moistened by dew,
The stumps sprouted, the trees began to grow again.
Then out came goats and cattle to browse on the young shoots.
The Ox Mountain was stripped utterly bare.
And the people, seeing it stripped utterly bare,
Think that the Ox Mountain never had any woods on it at all.
Our mind too, stripped bare, like the mountain,
Still cannot be without some basic tendency to love.
But just as men with axes, cutting down the trees every morning,
Destroy the beauty of the forest,
So we, by our daily actions, destroy our right mind.
There is more to the Mencius quote, but this gives the idea.