"The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media works as environments." — Marshall McLuhan
The most brilliant thing the American system does is make reform the agenda of change — and reform, necessarily, is constitutive of the very system it seeks to change. Real change — systemic change — becomes impossible.
Consider professional football, a subject that has received a lot of press recently. For over 100 years, there has been a steady movement to reform the sport, to make it safer. The forward pass and discrete play, for instance, were instituted to prevent injuries associated with the scrum. But that means more open space, more acceleration, and harder hits. So they began making more robust padding. Which, in turn, allowed players to hit harder which, of course, led to more injuries. So they changed the helmet from leather to plastics. Which, in turn, led to players leading with their heads which led to increased head injuries. And so on.
The point is all the changes operated within the very logic of the game so of course not only do things not "improve," the system becomes more focused, better engineered: injuries increase.
Now, this is true of the American political system. The most ardent call for change in this country in recent years was a presidential candidate running under the same old rubric of parties and corporations and wars. The only thing radical about Obama is that he's smart. But, in a sense, that only makes him more dangerous because now we have a smart man refining the system that is destroying us.
Take the Jon Stewart show. I like Jon Stewart. He's funny and smart. His show is funny and smart. I see why people like watching it. But, c'mon, all it does is recapitulate the terms of the system it critiques. The thought is: if only we acted differently, things would be better. But there is no critique of the system itself! Look at the format: it is a news show. And who perpetuates the system? The news! His show acts like every other show, only smarter and funnier.
Where, in this country, do we have any — any! — critiques on a systemic level? We mock or ignore the radicals and communists who hand out pamphlets at subways and street corners. In other countries, this was the norm — think about the Communist movements in China and Russia. They were not fucking around. Critique began at a systemic level; change was then enacted systematically.
Now, I am not supporting the Cultural Revolution: it was a violent, cruel movement. But I am saying that change can only come at the level of the system and that begins with systemic critique. And yet we lack the tools, not to mention the will and desire, to perform such critique.
Look at our movies. Look at our literature. Look at our tv shows. They are all about the individual trying to work things out — to get a better job, to love his or her family, his or her life. Nowhere is there any critique of the system. Sure, there are critiques of the politicians, of the wars, but not of the system itself.
I think the first move is to institute a culture, a vocabulary, of critique. We have to teach people, teach kids, how to think on the level of a system. We have to teach them to consider the terms of a system, the terms of media, the terms of the conversation and not the conversation itself. We need an active press that discusses the terms, the environment, rather than focusing on the content.