Thursday, March 17, 2011

Language, too? Language, too

Lots of you commented on the Descent of Man. Let me note here that the every-man-for-himself mentality is the byproduct of commodity salesmanship and was around long before speculative capital. Remember Michale Milken's famous utterance: “Who can we make a profit off of, if not our friends?” Change the euphemism of “making profit off” to “living off” and you have the script for the Night of the Living Dead, where friends and neighbors come to eat you up. That “conduct” – whether of Milken or the living dead – is the logical next step in a society in which every man is for himself. Speculative capital merely exacerbates it.

And it is not only the conduct. The language, too, reflecting the degraded relations, becomes degraded.

Let us look at two news stories. One is from the Financial Times of Monday, March, 14. Under the heading ‘Beijing rejects any N Africa analogy’ the paper reported:
China’s premier has rejected any comparison between his country and the troubled autocracies in the Middle East and north Africa … Wen Jiabao, in his annual press conference on Monday, said … that any attempt to draw an analogy between events there and situation in China was “not correct”.
FT wants to make us believe that there are people in the West who compare China to Tunisia or Egypt. Maybe there are – no doubt the offspring of Paul Samuelson who wrote at length comparing the U.S. navy and an apple.

To this nonsense, the Chinese premier merely says “not correct”. No ridiculing, belittling, shouting, cursing, mocking, intimidating, attacking, accusing, or slandering. Simply “not correct”, which is quite strong. If you think that one plus one is 3, “not correct” is all you need to be told. It is necessary and sufficient feedback and no expression can top it.

Now think of the language of Glenn Beck or O’Reily. They are not politicians? How about Newt Gingrich? Or that all-around thug, Rahm Emanuel, now the lord mayor of Chicago? And don't limit yourself to the U.S. Think Sarkozy, Berlusconi, or Tony Blair; this last one put a different kind of violence into the language, but it was due to moral certitude, no doubt.

That these characters merely reflect their societies is clear from the second story, this one from yesterday’s New York Times, under the heading From Cee Lo Green to Pink, Speaking the Unspeakable:
It’s some kind of milestone: Three of the Top 10 hits on last week’s pop music chart have choruses that can’t be played uncensored on the radio and won’t have their original lyrics quoted in this family newspaper. All three use variations on a familiar, emphatic, percussive four-letter word.

Chalk it up to post-World War II realism, demographic changes, bravado, freedom, permissiveness, the Beats, the 1960s, hip-hop, the Internet, the decline of Western civilization or all of them at once. Cussing in public has become more the rule than the exception, sometimes even on formal occasions.
I have a different take on the subject. I discuss it at length in the upcoming Vol. 4. Let me give you a sneak peek. Consider it a soft sales pitch:
When the “conduct” of the salesmen changes in a fundamental way, the effects reverberate across the social and cultural spectrum.

One such fundamental change took place after the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1973. The change which began gradually and continues to date was the intensification of competition due to the falling rates of profit. Coupled with the gradual desensitization and resistance of the population to the advertising pitches, the increased competition made selling a more stressful occupation than it was in the heydays of the U.S. industrial power. This gradual, but persistent and grinding trend demanded that the salesman be more “productive”; he had to sell more than before in less time than before.

But other salesmen faced the same conditions, so it became tough for everyone to make a living.

The ensuing stress darkened salesmen’s mood, with the result that passive Willy Loman gave way to the obscenities spewing, conniving and downright criminal salesmen of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. How much can a man take!

Given the salesmen’s social influence, his darkened mood and conduct have affected society in several unflattering ways.

One is the acceptance and institutionalization of rough language in the daily conversation. Salesmen are the point of contact of a business with the outside world, so their conduct, considered as the response of adults to the real-life conditions, is taken as the proper, logical and “natural” conduct. If the salesmen are cursing, then it must be how people in the “real world” communicate, how things get done in the real world.

This has been especially pronounced in the salesman-shaped and sales-man dominated cultures of the U.S. and U.K., where TV and movies, those reliable disseminators of salesman’s culture, incessantly propagate the message. Anyone comparing the language of a TV sitcom or a Hollywood “action movie” in 2010 with 20 and then 40 years ago cannot help being surprised at the tremendous downward spiral of language and manners.

The right-wing politicians in these countries blame the breakdown of the family and manners and even “the rap singers” for the spread of profanities. But rap singers, mostly young black men in the ghettos, could have never had a cultural impact on suburban whites if the groundwork had not been prepared by the salesman – many of them suburban white men. The rappers simply followed a road that was paved for them by the real cultural trend setters.