NEW YORK — In 1964 Jeff Brown’s The Adventures Of Flat Stanley first appeared. Growing up during the New Left period of U.S. history, Stanley was a witness to the struggle to end a destructive and unjust war and to secure civil rights for the disenfranchised. As a two-dimensional being, the young protagonist who would become a classic children’s hero needed only a postage stamp to travel the globe, spreading his message of friendship and international solidarity. And that is precisely what he did – and continues to do.
ONE DIMENSIONAL THINKING
It is unclear if Stanley read it, but a book that profoundly influenced the New Left was published in 1964 — the year in which Stan made his appearance on the world’s stage. Ironically, just as Stanley, accidentally flattened when a bulletin board fell on him as he slept, lamented his two-dimensional form, philosopher Herbert Marcuse was arguing that 2D Stan was twice the man of his contemporaries.
Herbert Marcuse, a founding member of the famed Frankfurter Schule (Frankfurt School – unrelated to the fast food item sold at baseball games or Tim Curry’s best known film), argued that the working stiffs in the “advanced industrial society” of the United States and other western nations had been sold a bill of goods. Marcuse noted that, following World War Two, capitalism had reduced western democracy to a game of Three Card Monte — a rigged game, such as you might find on a New York street corner. Marcuse noted that the men running the game had used a number of sophisticated parlor tricks to bamboozle people into adopting a “one-dimensional” view of reality.
Marcuse’s “one-dimensional” theory revolved around the idea that the inner dimension, the private mental space where critical thinking takes place in individuals, had been “invaded and whittled down” by a mass produced external reality. This was done mainly by “implanting” — a technique used by advertisers — what Marcuse called “False Needs” in the consciousness, the inner dimension, of the target audience. The outer dimension, thus internalized, obliterated the inner, collapsing consciousness into a single, externally defined, dimension — eradicating critical thinking. In the absence of a private, inner, dimension, the external aspect, the political dimension of organized resistance, is non-existent. The One-Dimensional Realm is complete.
TRUE OR FALSE?
“False Needs” are not essential things like jobs, health care, education or food and shelter. According to Marcuse, who coined the term, “False Needs” include consumer goods like SUVs, room-sized flat screen televisions, and the latest electronic gadgets: iPhones, laptops, etc. According to Wikipedia, “Consumerism is a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods or services in ever greater amounts.” False Needs feed Consumerism, False Needs function like a Trojan Horse — transporting an ideology into the consciousness of the consumer.
Marcuse (and many who later critiqued his work — see “Marcuse: From The New Left To The Next Left“) noted that society’s electronic gadgets have become the metaphorical equivalent of slave shackles. The goods and gadgets serve multiple purposes — as a source of corporate profit, as a narcotic for consumers, and as a mechanism for promoting Consumerism itself. Advertising for the gadget contains a double imperative: “Buy this” — and “Buy into Consumerism.” The gadget-hungry Media celebrates each new toy and trumpets the idea that conspicuous consumption is “good for the economy.” This and similar statements provide a justifying ideology for Consumerism, a patriotic rationale for going along even when the arrival of the credit card bill causes consternation.
As social psychologist Stanley Milgram noted, “Ideological justification is vital in obtaining willing obedience for it permits the person to perceive his behavior as serving a desirable end.” (Obedience To Authority, p. 142).
False Needs and Consumerism, according to Marcuse, are themselves features of a belief system, an overarching ideology, that holds that technology is a value-neutral entity with immutable laws and obvious benefits. It is certainly true that technology can improve the quality of life. But is what’s good for the gadget always good for the society?
Democracy, a fragile entity guarded by the Constitution, has been gradually eroded into an entertainment by those who elevate technology into a corporate state ideology: advertisers — the high priests of Consumerism. Democracy has become a “reality show” that consists of a target audience watching some very wealthy people in expensive suits calling each other names and accusing one another of largely hallucinatory crimes in an effort to get elected to a job they don’t intend to do. The language of what little political debate does go on between the two contestants is the language of advertising — “impact lines” are used to “implant an image,” not to educate or facilitate discussion.
Thus, the two candidate system that defines democracy today is just another commodity, another False Choice. Democracy has been cheapened by the devaluation of intellectual currency into a knock-off made in China. Parents had better check the content of lead and other toxins before exposing children to it.
The False Choices offered to viewers of the new and improved “Totalitarian Democracy” reality series are very narrow in scope, even in what are presented as political “issues.”
On public television news shows two “experts” argue the best way to do the same thing — without ever questioning the sanity of the thing they propose doing. The Media, functioning much as it did during the CIA’s “Operation Mockingbird,” duly reports the pronouncements of the experts, not as opinion, but as unquestioned fact. In the ideology of technology (gadget envy?), anyone with a shirt, tie and title is an expert. It’s scientific. And whether the experts appear on “public” television or a major network show, they are all underwritten by corporate sponsors.
After listing dozens of corporate sponsors (some of whom previously contributed to other scientific endeavors like eugenics, e.g. the Carnegie Institute and Ford Foundation), PBS will mention “viewers like you” as a source of funding. How much influence do “viewers like you” have? Donating would appear to be similar to buying a single vote — in a rigged election. The modern democracy is called “totalitarian” by Marcuse because it is in effect a merger of the “Monopoly” board game economy with the old Soviet system of governance: the U.S. is a society run by administrators who maintain a permanent war economy as the country and its people — but not the CEOs — go bankrupt.
Additional falsehoods accompany False Needs, False Choices and False Media.
False Arrest is common — so people of color don’t feel left out. The notion of the existence of a Prison Industrial Complex is based on the fact that, statistically, people of color appear to be somehow more deserving of arrests, convictions and harsher sentences. Some critics have called this system “modern slavery.” Does it help our society? It is profitable for privatized prison owners as prisoners are obliged to produce consumer goods in exchange for the equivalent of bus fare. The taxpayer picks up the tab (paying for facilities, guards, and administrators), the society is cheapened, and the jailer pockets the profits.
Arguing in support of the ideology of Consumerism, False Patriots abound. On television and the Internet, they offer bobblehead support for whatever right wing policy is being discussed — these “law and order” types are fancy suits with enamel flag lapel pins and stirring rhetoric who explain why the latest military intervention is needed to save Western Civilization. And when ethics problems, sex scandals and other issues arise, these False Patriots are often able to undergo rehabilitation and return to the platform of choice.
False Memories — collective amnesia about painful things like the U.S. war in Vietnam and the Great Depression — complete the package. A people’s historical memory, or lack thereof, is a very valuable commodity to control. Numerous dystopians (Orwell, et al.) have commented on this.
Describing the One-Dimensional, False, consciousness, radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing noted that “The group becomes a machine — and that it is a man-made machine in which the machine is the very men who make it is forgotten.” (The Politics Of Experience, p. 96)
So how did it come to pass that We The People bought “Totalitarian Democracy” on an endless installment plan that defunds health care and education — in order to maintain a permanent “Warfare State” that enriches arm traffickers and jailers and impoverishes the rest of the nation?
As predicted by biblical media expert St. Mark (13:22), during the economic boom that followed World War Two false prophets marketed a range of electrical gadgets and other consumer goods to seduce, if it were possible, even the electorate. And yes indeed, it was possible. Lo and behold, powerful internal combustion engines, populuxe furniture and TV dinners loomed larger than the democratic process as a source of meaning in the lives of ordinary people who had suffered deprivation during the Great Depression. It was a bargain that Faust — and Wal-Mart — could appreciate. Before they could say, “I want my money back,” hard working citizens who wanted, most of all, a future for their kids, had been turned into consumers. And as the economist Lou Reed noted, the consumer is very dependent on the supplier. Did the consumers really need a color TV in every room, a two car garage and a “Sport Utility Vehicle” with exploding tires? Probably not, but once they had these items people were loath to give them up — and in return Big Business and its subsidiary — the U.S. government — pulled the strings. Consumerism as social control. In every dream home, a satellite dish. But who is watching who?
CAPITALISM STUNTS YOUR GROWTH
According to Marcuse, and some other critical theory types, the government likes people to be predictable. The message is clear: conformity is the sincerest form of democracy. The name for the type of conformity desired is “individualism.” This False Individualism is measured by the number of status items a person possesses. It could be a luxury car, a fancy mobile phone, a really big television, a pit bull terrier with a studded leather collar or, as a band called The Tubes once put it, “a baby’s arm holding an apple.” The point being: whatever the status symbol of the moment might be, we all have to have it. Why? Because this is how we express our individuality. And why not? We can afford it, right? Maybe. But chasing the elusive status symbol is a time consuming distraction with a high price tag.
Brian: Please, please, please listen! I’ve got one or two things to say.
The Crowd: Tell us! Tell us both of them!
Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals!
The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!
Man in the crowd: I’m Not…
– scene from Monty Python’s Life Of Brian
Racism, sexism, poverty, pollution, crumbling infrastructure, infant mortality, childhood obesity, diabetes, cancer and numerous other social problems are still with us today, despite our post-World War Two prosperity. Exacerbating these problems is a two front War On Terror that is going nowhere fast. But our leaders prefer not to talk about these things — it’s better to buy a yellow ribbon magnet for your car and show your support for the troops. Don’t ask (and don’t tell) why the troops are fighting or why the wars are not going well. Also not mentioned — the wars’ role in the skyrocketing national deficit. Someone has to pay for the rockets’ red glare — but the deficit can be best managed by cutting health care and education. The debate on which essential service to cut leaves no time for any superfluous discussion about defunding military adventures.
The bottom line is that monopoly capitalism stunts your growth – personal and economic. But “you can’t fight City Hall.” Besides, “it’s a free country” and you can always “strike it rich.” “All you need is a dollar and a dream,” if you believe the state lottery commercials.
(It is an interesting phenom that no one ever asks why the State has replaced organized crime in running the numbers rackets. New York City’s Napoleonic Mayor Mike Bloomberg — he’s a complex guy — is puritanical about smoking and drinking Coca Cola but has no objections to promoting gambling addiction. Perhaps because the city gets a cut.)
All of the Get Rich Quick and Instant Weight Loss infomercials on television are symptoms of a larger problem, gnawing just beneath the surface of the Happy Consciousness. Not to worry, the pharmaceutical companies offer a nightly array of solutions for every nagging problem. You can get your own bottle of happiness by telling your doctor to write you a prescription. If you have insurance.
But why do we need Prozac in the morning, Viagra in the evening and Ambien at night? Why is One-Dimensional Thinking so pervasive — and yet so painful?
IF TERRORISM DIDN’T EXIST WE’D HAVE TO INVENT IT
Making a case for conformity, and a name for himself, a young senator named Joseph McCarthy said, sometime around 1950, that our government was completely infiltrated by communists who should be black-listed or detained in camps. “Tail Gunner Joe” (who never actually served in the military) said that the “Red Menace” was everywhere. Anyone he regarded as a bad patriot — he kept a list — was an enemy of the people. Although McCarthy fell out of favor after accusing some Army generals of being secret communists (he drank a bit) his red-baiting approach has proved enduring and remains popular. Making this sort of tomfoolery work, according to Marcuse, requires an “Absolute Enemy” — a very special commodity that makes people really anxious — and compliant.
It is the job of law enforcement and the “intelligence community” to manufacture the Absolute Enemy that binds us all together, justifies military spending, and stops us from feeling silly about running shoeless through airports. We had some frightening enemies during the Cold War — Bela Lugosi (or his chiropractor) had nothing on Leonid Brezhnev. But after the Vietnam War caused a student movement to question damn near everything (kids today!) things got tougher for the advocates of conformity here in the States. However, all was not lost. Right after the U.S. war on Vietnam ended the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan to prop up the secular Afghan government — under attack from insurgents. The CIA funded, armed and trained some leaders of the Afghan resistance so that the Soviet Union could experience their own Vietnam while capitalism’s “Power Elite” regrouped and prepared to ply the U.S. public with more and more amazing goods and gadgets.
To cut a long war short, many of the Afghans funded by the CIA didn’t much care for democracy (at least the U.S. brand) and turned on their benefactors once the war in Afghanistan was over. As Ron Reagan (the wacky scientist who converted ketchup into a vegetable) and his heirs were basking in the glow of the collapse of the Soviet Union this group of disgruntled former CIA employees plotted to attack the U.S. from bases in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The first successful attack on U.S. soil came during the presidency of George W. Bush. Our erstwhile trainees hijacked some airplanes and drove them into New York’s World Trade Center, killing two thousand innocent people. Bush failed to prevent this from happening perhaps because he was busy deregulating the banking system. But he was quick to use the attack for his own purposes.
Rather than going after the criminals, W, as he was known, decided to show that he had learned from history. W invaded Afghanistan, like the Soviets and the British before him. Osama bin Laden was supposedly holed up in Afghanistan, which provided the rationale for the invasion — but W never found him. And alas, W found it was hard to leave Afghanistan, even after he tortured some hapless prisoners to get valuable “intelligence” as a means of defeating the group of thugs who controlled Afghanistan before the invasion, harbored bin Laden, and who became insurgents after the U.S. occupation. W’s “harsh interrogations” were done offshore, at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, as a means of circumventing Constitutional protections which forbid human rights violations — on U.S. soil. Naturally, it costs money to kidnap, imprison and torture people in exotic locations — “Freedom Isn’t Free” as the bobbleheads would say. Guess who picked up W’s tab?
A year after attacking Afghanistan, W invaded Iraq claiming that “strongman” (a nifty “impact” phrase that implants an image and provides some foreshadowing) Saddam Hussein, another former CIA employee, was a bad person who had some terrible weapons that he might use any day now. The “weapons of mass destruction” plot device was reminiscent of the Gulf of Tonkin “attack” that was crafted as a rationale for open war with North Vietnam. In the end, it was far easier to attack Iraq, kill thousands of people and destroy the ecology of the Mesopotamian region (the “cradle of civilization”) than it was to get out. In fact, we’re still there — long after W declared “Mission Accomplished.” Obama, who pledged to end the fiasco, doesn’t want to make a mess of things so he is keeping 50,000 troops there to shore up the fine job we’ve done installing democracy. It’s complicated because the Iraqis can’t seem to elect a viable government.
Today, unlike during Vietnam, people aren’t complaining much about the W wars. In fact, the “One-Dimensional Man” that Marcuse described in the Sixties remains inert politically, here in the Teens, even though opinion polls measuring the public’s views on the government and its policies are not favorable.
There is some opposition to the government deregulating — and subsequently bailing out — Wall Street, there is anger surrounding the “subprime mortgage” scandal that caused thousands of Americans to lose their homes, and there is anxiety about the dramatic rise in unemployment, a painful symptom of the “Great Recession.” But the two interminable wars are not burning political issues, in part because economic issues are closer to home but also because Terrorism is effectively marketed as a “real threat” and the expense is somehow not connected to the country’s financial woes — or written off as “essential.” And so the two front “War On Terror” remains well funded, despite the fact that there is less return on investment from the War than one would get during the final days of a Ponzi scheme.
We know that the never-ending, always imminent, Terror threat is real because every so often the FBI arrests a number of people whom the Bureau has supplied with means, motive and opportunity — not to mention phony missiles and vast sums of money — to commit dastardly deeds. Apparently, as long as the Bureau remains capable of breaking up its own plots we are safe — from ourselves if not from the end result of our foreign policy blunders.
Wouldn’t it be cheaper to simply change our foreign policy to something predicated on benevolence? Or at least something other than military intervention as the first resort?
Wouldn’t it be better to reign in Consumerism as well as Militarism?
Consumerism and False Needs help fund Militarism. Misery is the end product.
Unfortunately for the bobbleheads, the consumerist driven Permanent War Economy can’t last. Prosperity isn’t just around the corner any more. Unlike in Marcuse’s time, deprivation is no longer “selective” — it’s no longer confined to the ghetto. We are all downwardly mobile. Millions are out of work and millions more have lost their homes — an average of 300,000 a month. How long can the One-Dimensional ideology survive in this climate? It is resilient but clearly it’s time to stop buying into the Permanent War Economy, underwriting what Marcuse called the “Warfare State” and its profiteers. We can’t afford it – capitalism is sliding into chapter eleven. Mirroring the economy, our elected officials also appear bankrupt, morally, and in terms of their imaginative prowess. Devoid of ideas, politicians ratchet up the name calling and finger pointing. These tactics are not as effective as they once were — foreclosures and firings are hitting close to home these days. Some workers have been unemployed for over a year. And others have had life-saving medical procedures denied by their insurance company.
In an effort to keep things tidy, and to prevent what Marcuse called “the subversive contents of memory” from disrupting the collective amnesia of One-Dimensional Society, the authorities in the corporate state have taken to encapsulating the protest movement in so-called Free Speech zones — where no one can hear the cries of protest. These Free Speech areas are recognizable by the blue police department barricades that surround the occupants. Occupants who have surrendered their civil rights. As if this weren’t bad enough, the abrogation of civil rights flows beyond the Free Speech zones — federal law enforcement agencies have been caught repeatedly spying on U.S. citizens in recent days. All of these encroachments on Free Speech, both the quasi-legal and the surreptitious, are designed to redefine Free Speech by reminding its practitioners that they have the right to remain silent. The law enforcement personnel who are redefining Free Speech have sworn oaths to defend the Constitution, including the First Amendment. Terrorism, like Communism before it, allows law enforcement to play a game of redefinitions in which they defend the Consitituion by shredding it — much as they would a videotape of a harsh interrogation — in the name of “National Security.”
Mahatma Gandhi once said that nothing we do matters but it is very important that we keep doing it. Empires collapse, secret police practices are revealed and reviled, history moves forward. According to Marcuse there is a mechanism responsible for this phenomenon. This mechanism is cause for Hope.
THE GREAT REFUSAL
Commenting on the American war in Vietnam — decades before Abu Ghraib and Gitmo — Marcuse noted that the residents of the Warfare State had allowed torture to be “reintroduced as a normal affair but in a colonial war which takes place at the margin of the civilized world. And there it is practiced with good conscience for war is war.”
But Marcuse also noted that there was resistance to the Warfare State, to Death Squads, to torture, to McCarthyism and even to Consumerism itself. He called this resistance the “Great Refusal.”
Marcuse was moved by the student uprising in the Sixties and it was this upsurge by anti-war and civil rights activists that convinced him that the struggle against One-Dimensional thinking might not come from inside the matrix – it might come from the “margins.” It might come from people of color, from women, from LGBT communities — and it might come from students. In later years, Marcuse became convinced that the vehicle that best serves the refusal is Art.
THE AESTHETIC DIMENSION — BEAUTY, CREATIVITY AND IMAGINATION
Marcuse envisioned a struggle between students/practitioners of the “Laws Of Beauty” and exponents and enforcers of One-Dimensional thinking. A struggle where “participatory creativity” and imagination could develop techniques for destroying the misery produced by the reification of technology in the 1D society. A means of freeing the “unfree mental apparatus” and uniting all of the social sciences — sociology, political economy and psychology — in a life affirming Movement that uses an Art that embodies Hope to create a civilized, humanized, world.
There are many, many ways to do this.
Here is but one: in a One-Dimensional World that encapsulates Freedom, redefines Reality and truncates Truth — there is a two-dimensional protagonist who might be able to reach those who will be most affected by our actions, those who will inherit the world we leave them.
Flat Stanley is an ambassador of hope, peace and tolerance who speaks to children. He has been struggling for a more civilized, humanized world since his birth.
On page 56 of “Flat Stanley,” author Jeff Brown’s “Stanley Lambchop” tells his mother that being two-dimensional is painful. He isn’t like other kids and they ridicule him: “They don’t like me anymore because I’m different. Flat.”
His mother’s response is telling: “Shame on them…It is wrong to dislike people for their shapes. Or their religion, for that matter, or the color of their skin.”
A humanist at heart, Stanley is ultimately a symbol of kid power. He is a symbol of what the Buddhists call Beginners Mind. The ability to see the world as it is — and to affirm and celebrate Life.
In the years following the publication of Jeff Brown’s “Flat Stanley,” teachers began to assign their students a “Flat Stanley Project.” Students were asked to make a Flat Stanley figure and take him (and sometimes her) along on their summer vacations — writing a journal about their shared adventures and reporting back in the Fall. Sometimes the kids mailed Stanley and the journal to a kid in another country — who then continued the story before mailing back the figure and the journal. This process, repeated one adventure at time, unites the world, one child at a time.
In this way The Flat Stanley Project can be a cure for One-Dimensional Thinking, a bridge to connect children so that, together, they can shape the world they will inherit.
FLAT STANLEY FOR PEACE — ENDING THE WARFARE STATE
At a time when Democrats are talking about introducing austerity measures that target education and health care — e.g. newly elected New York governor Andrew Cuomo — in order to pay for two wars started, and bungled, by a former president now on a book tour, Flat Stanley’s message of hope and unity is right on target.
At a time when former New York City school chancellor Joel Klein has stepped down from bashing public school teachers (and their union) in order to work for Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation (parent of the corporate “news” service, FOX NEWS, which in turn spawned and promoted the venomous Tea Party), Stan’s 2D challenge to One-Dimensional Thinking needs to be spread far and wide.
The propaganda machine, at one time called “The Mighty Wurlitzer” and now known as FOX NEWS, continues to trumpet that running shoeless through airports is a guarantee of security — although full body scans and hard pat-downs add a bit of extra insurance — and that prosperity is just around the corner. This is the rosy forecast — as entire neighborhoods are foreclosed. If we are to believe the propaganda machine, you can help the economy by buying more stuff — and more tall tales. Coke adds life. The iPhone will keep you connected. Aggressive wars are “spreading democracy” and health care reform is “socialism.”
In the bobblehead realm of One-Dimensional reality, anything other than military spending is “socialism.”
“…if the welfare program of enlightened capitalism is successfully defeated by labeling it ‘socialism,’ if the foundations of democracy are harmoniously abrogated in democracy, then the old historical concepts are invalidated by up-to-date operational redefinitions. The re-definitions are falsifications which, imposed by the powers that be and the powers of fact, serve to translate the falsehood into truth.” — Herbert Marcuse
In this time, it is time for a two-dimensional being to stand up and speak truth to power. It is true, going a little beyond the original purpose of the Flat Stanley Project involves a use of poetic license. It might also require use of that “ruthless creativity” and life affirming imagination that Marcuse prized. It also might involve technology. Again, Marcuse would approve — because technology can be used to emancipate as well as to imprison. We can use the Aesthetic Dimension to restore the Inner Dimension and to restore Reason.
It is time for Flat Stanley to spread the message of peace, not just to kids but to their parents as well.
PEACE — A PRODUCT FOR KIDS OF ALL AGES
Parents can combat the propaganda machine by teaching their children about peace and justice. Stanley and his message of internationalism can help.
Kids can use Stanley (and other tools, including social networks) to talk to one another, and grown-ups too, about building a better world.
“Kids – if YOU keep your sense of humor, and reach out to other kids in ALL the world, and get them to reach out to you in their own way, there may be a human race here in another 100 years!”
Read about Flat Stanley. Make a Flat Stanley for yourself. Take Stan — and your child — to visit an elected official, to a family-friendly protest, to a soup kitchen, a veteran’s hospital, wherever the spirit moves you. Talk about peace, tolerance, ending war, funding jobs. Take photographs. Write about your adventures with Stanley. And if you like, send your materials to NLN (e-mail stanley AT nextleftnotes.net) — copies of your journal, digital photos, etc. We’ll add the photos and stories to the Flat Stanley for Peace gallery.
The Great Refusal means Stop Believing The Lies and start affirming Life.
We’ll see you in the streets.