Blinded by the Ideological Bubble
Old Mole Variety Hour
March 26, 2012
A report from the Census Bureau last fall showed that the number of people in this country who are either poor or just scraping by from paycheck to paycheck, is much greater than previously supposed. “One in three Americans — 100 million people — is either poor or perilously close to it,” is how the NY Times summed it up
. Among the things “increasingly out of reach for the poor and near poor [are] education, health care, child care, housing and utilities. “just over half of the country’s nearly 17 million poor children lived in households that reported at least one of four major hardships: hunger, overcrowding, failure to pay the rent or mortgage on time or failure to seek needed medical care.” Barbara Ehrenreich concludes a recent article
, “…a new discovery of poverty is long overdue. This time, we’ll have to take account not only of stereotypical Skid Row residents and Appalachians, but of foreclosed-upon suburbanites, laid-off tech workers, and America’s ever-growing army of the “working poor.”
If one of every three Americans is poor, why wouldn’t it be as obvious to everyone as it would be if a third of us were, say, blind? And yet the existence of this mass of unmet human need has to be “discovered” or brought to our attention by the press. Why is this? How could we overlook the appalling condition of one out of three of us? One reason given in a study
cited by the Times is
that Americans are increasingly living in areas that are either poor or affluent. The isolation of the prosperous…threatens their support for public schools, parks, mass transit and other investments that benefit broader society.
But it’s not only that the 100 million poor and near-poor people among us live in different parts of town where we don’t have to see most of them most of the time. It’s also that we all, even the poor themselves, live in an ideological bubble, or a house of distorting mirrors, which makes the world at large look like ourselves , or like ourselves as we are forced to imagine ourselves. Let me explain this.
The Times editorial begins this way: “What is it like to be poor? Thankfully, most Americans do not know, at least not firsthand.” To whom is this addressed? Obviously it speaks to the “most” Americans who do not know firsthand what it’s like to be poor.” This illustrates how the establishment media reaches out to us and calls us by a name which we then find ourselves wearing. We are the “most Americans” who, thankfully, don’t have to know poverty up close. Then, since we are reading the New York Times, let’s turn the pages, or click and scroll through the website, with this question in mind: who is the audience for all this – the business pages, the articles about the latest tech gadgets, the restaurant reviews, the travel section with its advice about tours, luxury resorts, and fine hotels all over the world? Quite obviously, as you read all this and look at all the glossy pictures of young happy people enjoying these amenities, you are assumed to be someone who can choose to enjoy them too, all you need is the enticement here being offered to you. Of course it’s not only the New York Times, but the entire commercially saturated world in which every surface carries an ad and every commodity is an advertisement for itself.
The ads, often explicitly, call out to you: they say “try it now,” or “locate a dealer near you.” The French philosopher Louis Althusser would say they hail you into existence as a consumer, as one who is looking to buy, one who desires commodities. It is not only advertisers who do this: Althusser’s own example is of being hailed on the street by a police officer who shouts “Hey, you!” When you turn to answer, you are stepping into the role of the citizen who is subject to police authority. We are hailed into our social identities from the moment of birth, registered and called by our names which locate us on the map of family, gender, and nation.
Early in Walter Mosely’s novel Little Scarlett, African-American detective Easy Rawlins is hailed bythe law:
It was a question asked in a voice filled with authority. It was a white man’s voice. Putting those bits of information together, I knew that I was being addressed by the police.
We are all hailed thousands of times a day as citizens, as employees, as men or women – and as consumers who both desire to consume and are able to do so. This is the bubble of ideology that reflects back to us only ourselves in the act of wanting, buying and enjoying what capital has to sell. Absent from this picture, of course, are people who are unable to participate in this scene of consumer enjoyment – the poor and the near-poor. So while we may read about them and acknowledge them intellectually, they remain foreign to our social imagination, out of place in the convivial scenes of consumer pleasure we see on billboards and TV screens.
So what the corporate-state educational, informational, entertainment communication system does is to normalize life in the bubble, life in which one has or can buy whatever is on offer from the system and is content to be a good patriotic American. But like any fantasy, the bubble has a massive blind spot : the millions of people of our neighbors and fellow citizens who are in no position to acquire consumer goods. We cannot see them even if we see them because they don’t belong in the picture.
If we are among the poor or near poor, and not free to make the choices on offer, we may be blind to ourselves, alienated from what we think we should be, from what we are supposed to be. We cannot occupy the position into which we are constantly hailed. Whenever an ad comes on, or a desirable car drives by or a slick gadget like an iPad comes into view, we are made invisible
There is, however, an arena in which we can see ourselves free of the veil of commodities, and that is in the community of political struggle. The Occupy Movement of the 99% aspires to be a public space where the poor and near poor are made visible. In occupied space, homelessness, home foreclosures, and the corporate control of our imaginations is not just talked about but engaged and challenged where they are really happening – in the streets, banks, and on the doorsteps of foreclosed homes.
That’s what can burst the isolating, alienating bubble of self-centered striving for things: working together to change the world, cooperating in the construction of a cooperative world where human relationships matter infinitely more than possessions.