The Middle Mind
Why Americans Don't Think for
by Curtis White
HarperSanFrancisco, 2003, paper
In the summer of 2001, in the course of my habitual dipping into
and out of what passes in American culture for Culture, it felt
as if my nose were being rubbed in something. Something unpleasant.
I kept finding things that purported to be cultural commentary,
social commentary, high cinematic art, or even theology while
being, to my eyes at least, something very different and very
much less than what we had a right to expect. The examples that
piled at my feet were often from the virtuous and beneficent world
of public radio and public TV: Terry Gross' National Public Radio
interview program, Fresh Air, and Charlie Rose's Public T\7 interview
program in particular. These programs exude an air of independent
inquiry that is never demonstrated in fact. Commercial publishing
performs a similar disservice through books like David Brooks'
Bobos in Paradise, John Seabrook's Nobrow, Joe Queenans's Balsamic
Dreams, and Dinty W. Moore's Accidental Buddhist. These books
purport to be social, cultural and even theological commentary
while being something a good deal less. I had to ask myself, were
these things out there on every car radio and on every beach-reading
lap all just independently hopelessly mediocre, or were they part
of what might be called a Mind? The new American Mind. The numbing
(if not dumbing) Middle Mind?
I concluded that in fact they did have
something in common, a shared cultural DNA of some kind. So I
began to think about how this Mind could be described politically.
Would this Mind like Bill Clinton? Was it liberal or conservative?
In fact, I think the Middle Mind is generally liberal and did
like Clinton more than it might have cared to confess in certain
dark moments of that regime. In this country, conservatives have
no particular need for the Middle Mind since they have been quite
content to have demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Chris Mathews,
and Bill O'Reilly do their nasty thinking for the for them for
many years. More importantly, I asked what the Middle Mind wanted?
What was its reason for being? My conclusion was: it didn't want
us to think. If conservatives have no desire to think, while liberals
imagine that they do, the Middle Mind is there to provide a culture
of thought that ensures that it all amounts to the same thing:
no thought from any quarter that is a threat to business as usual.
Public radio and TV provide Americans with the illusion that they
are not wholly dependent on a culture that is provided for them
by commercial interests. We pay for public radio and T\7 with
tax dollars and through charitable contributions to our local
stations, certain that by doing so we create a space for noncommercial
work, for independent work. Of course, as everybody knows quite
well, the "public" media is thoroughly dependent on
giant corporations and foundations like Exxon-Mobil and the MacArthur,
Rockefeller, and Ford Foundations. When these entities create
independence, it is an independence in their own corporate image.
... stupidity is one of the ways in which we are oppressed. We
are denied the kind of intellectual experience that would allow
us to be smart.
We must free ourselves of the illusion that we are free ...
We have the lovely pretense of serious inquiry, no one gets hurt,
and no one has to worry that something undesirable might come
Like a demand for real thought, we are free to say anything we
like as long as what we say does not suggest, to paraphrase Noam
Chomsky, that the ruling order has no right to rule.
The most familiar and recent creations of our political imagination
are the characterizations of the crisis of "September 11"
and the "War Against Terror." These narratives suffer
from an inability to think beyond a truth that is persuasive because
it is also trite. I hope I need say very little, in this regard,
about the script that 90 percent of the nation has been following
(if our friends the pollsters at CNN, Gallup, and elsewhere are
to be believed). America has been attacked; we're "at war
with terrorism"; but "America will strike back,"
because we're a "beacon of freedom to the rest of the world,"
because "innocent people lost their lives," because
"America has lost its innocence," because there are
"evildoers" afoot. We'll "smoke them out of their
holes," because our cause is just and we are united. After
two years, there is still substantial credence given to these
propositions, and there is little sign of a "credibility
gap" of the type we experienced during the war in Vietnam,
with its "domino theory" of Communist aggression.
The idea that CNN is right and 90 percent
of the populace continues to believe this palaver is perhaps more
frightening than the threat of receiving a suspicious piece of
mail postmarked New Jersey. The odds of receiving anthrax in the
mail (or a pipe bomb from an undergraduate art major from Wisconsin,
one of America's own pure products gone crazy) are statistically
minute, but the yahoos with Old Glory rippling from the roofs
of their suburban assault vehicles are everywhere, bearing who
knows what malice for those lacking proper patriotic fervor. Much
worse and more dangerous than this, of course, are organizations
like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, formed in 2001
by Lynne Cheney and Joseph Lieberman. For this group, any movement
away from the grossly patriotic is a "failing." They
would save American culture by removing from it any thought that
isn't utterly conformist with the opinion of "the public
at large." (Doesn't the fact that Cheney and Lieberman are
in sync on this issue say something depressing about our democratic
choices in the last election?) With attorneys general like John
Ashcroft, the possibility that such a desire could acquire legal
teeth through "anti-terrorism" legislation is frighteningly
real. Like a persecutor, some McCarthyist nightmare of the 1950s,
Ashcroft has made it his business to know what books we check
out of the library' and what sites we visit on the Internet-all
in the name of national security ...
The idea that there is any sense in which the American public
could be said not to know what we do is finally not credible.
Are we dupes of propaganda? Is the truth censored? To a degree
the answer to both of those questions is yes. It's not as if the
network news folks are eager to help us put together a diagnosis
of our imperial objectives and methods. But the weightier answer
is that we operate under a New Censorship which functions by making
everything known and naked to a paralyzing degree. Is there anyone
who doesn't understand that the Sudanese pharmaceutical lab that
Clinton blew up with eighty cruise missiles was producing ...
pharmaceuticals? Is there anyone who doesn't understand that this
was an act of state terrorism and a violation of every principle
of international law? We will pillory and impeach a president
for getting a blow job literally "in office" (a scenario
most honest fifty-something males will envy wistfully))), but
an utterly irresponsible act of militarism with who knows what
consequences for the patients who will now not be able to receive
the drugs the factory produced-well, this is something that needs
to be pondered. Clinton was, after all, looking after national
interests, was he not? Should Clinton have been impeached? Bet
your ass. But not for anything having to do with a certain cherubic
brunette, a vision out of the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens.
Clinton emerged unscathed from this crime against the people of
the Sudan because of a) racism (the unspoken assumption being
that it's okay to bomb little brown people-it happens so often,
they ought to be used to it by now; it's rather like the weather
for them), b) the unacknowledged understanding that American military
activities really do support our privileges stateside, such as
those privileges are, and c) the stupefying effects of the New
The New Censorship does not work by keeping
things secret. Are our leaders liars and criminals? Is the government
run by wealthy corporations and political elites? Are we all being
slowly poisoned? The answer is yes to all of the above, and there's
hardly a soul on these shores who doesn't know it.
The betrayal of public trust is a daily story manipulated by the
media within the narrative confines of "scandal," when
in fact it's all a part of the daily routine and everyone knows
it. The media makes pornography of the collective guilt of our
politicians and business leaders. They make a yummy fetish of
betrayed trust. We then consume it, mostly passively, because
it is indistinguishable from our "entertainment" and
because we suspect in some dim way that, bad as it surely is,
it is working in our interests in the long run. What genius to
have a system that allows you to behave badly, be exposed for
it, and then have the sin recouped by the system as a sellable
By any traditional standard, the United States is a corrupt society
because it refuses to be responsible before ethical facts that
it knows perfectly well. This is corruption: after years of disgraceful
shilly-shally, in the spring of 2002 the administration of George
II acknowledged that there is a scientific basis to global warming
but that there is nothing to be done about it (or nothing to be
done that wouldn't piss off Detroit, Exxon-Mobil, and so-called
"soccer moms," who are now, according to Republicans,
the wild card in national energy politics). So, we'll just have
to adapt. Truth without consequences is a good working definition
Paul Virilio's Pure War (1983), a book which combines social,
political, and military analysis with a unique and encompassing
vision of the real that qualifies, for me, as an act of the imagination.
I then thought I could use Virilio's ideas for the purpose of
reimagining the world implied in the "recent events."
Virilio argues that the history of Western
societies is really the history of their militaries. The social
hardly counts at all for him except as a consequence of the military.
According to Virilio, we have moved on from a time in which we
had simple War, which was limited and tactical. War was once something
that happened outside of the moat or city wall or Maginot Line,
on this side of which civilian life went its way with its own
priorities. War gave way to Total War, which overwhelmed the entirety
of the social system as well as the economic and industrial capacity
of the state because of the need for ever-faster, evermore-powerful
war technology, and because of the need to supply the logistical
demands of its dispersed military presence. Total War was about
logistics, not battlefield tactics. The American Civil War inaugurated
Total War, and the two world wars fulfilled it. It was industrial
capacity and transportation, not brilliant military tactics, that
allowed the North to win the Civil War.
Beyond Total War is Pure War. In Pure
War the state is on an implicit war footing even in times of peace.
(I suppose we know this condition best as the Cold War, but I
suspect we will soon see an even purer example of it in President
Bush's War Against Terror, the "task that never ends.")
Technology, the media, industrial production, the economy, and
certainly politics are first about a war so diffuse and ubiquitous
that few people even recognize it for what it is. Hence, the trompe
l'oeil in our current situation is the appearance that the hot
war in Iraq is categorically different from the peace which preceded
it. This, of course, means that we are asked to believe that we
are still citizens of the nineteenth century and that our campaign
against Saddam and al-Qaeda is purely tactical. This is a description
of a poverty of imagination with the most dire consequences, because
it commits us to continue on a course that all but ensures that
there will be future terrorist tragedies on our own ground.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of
this situation is the near dead certainty that not only are our
middle-class flag-wavers living in utter misrecognition, but it
is likely that the leaders of our country (from George II to Teddy
K) are every bit as deluded and, moreover, impotent. Randy Hayes
of the Rainforest Action Network once told me of a talk he had
with the uber-CEO of the Mitsubishi Company. Hayes said he was
able to convince this CEO that Mitsubishi's program of global
devastation for short-term profit was not in the long-term interest
of either the planet or the company. Hayes achieved this moment
of clarity only to have it followed by a far larger and more monstrous
clarity for both himself and the Mitsubishi head: Mr. Mitsubishi
had no idea how to change the practices of the company, because
the logic that drove the company was both systemic and autonomous.
This system at which even CEOs must look with apocalyptic horror
is part of the ecology of Pure War and is not available for political
discussion, let alone democratic debate. In short, it is not responsive
to the will or the interests of the human beings living within
it. Virilio calls this situation the "State as Destiny."
Let's look at a few passages from Pure
War to see what sort of light they might shed on our current situation.
First, "In the end, unconsciousness is the aim of Pure War."
(124) In the Grundrisse Karl Marx argued that one of the most
conspicuous products of capitalism is stupidity. There is no shortage
of stupidity around at present. Still, Virilio's idea that we're
"unconscious" (rather than stupid) has more explanatory
power. Unconscious in what sense? North Americans are not speaking
to their culture; they're being spoken by it. (s I've said, this
is a curious sort of "unconsciousness" which functions
in the context of a lurid revelation of all, the brutal exposure
of everything. The better way of thinking of it might be the unconsciousness
of the pure and passive "spectator," to borrow from
the vocabulary of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. The spectator
sees all but takes responsibility for nothing) The media is a
function of the war effort, foreclosing on all deviant perspectives,
constantly reaffirming the orthodox rubbish we think we already
And certainly we are "unconscious"
in the sense that we are so blithely irresponsive to, if not unaware
of, the fact that our "lifestyle" has for the last half-century
been the equivalent of a state of war between ourselves and those
folks who will provide us cheap, cheap natural resources and,
more recently, cheap, cheap consumer goods or pay the price. This
is emphatically true of people in the Middle East, who have been
told, essentially, "You will suffer the injustice and indignity
of a military-client-state-of-last-resort (Israel) established
in your midst by Western fiat.' You will suffer and live in poverty
in spite of the opulence of your rulers, who will rule at least
in part because we guarantee them. And in return you will give
us cheap oil so that General Motors and Big Oil can continue to
profit, Americans can drive any sort of steel nightmare they like,
and metropolitan areas can be organized around the great suburban
principle 'Get in your car or stay home."
More from [Paul] Virillo:
The military class is turning into an
internal super-police. In the strategy of deterrence, military
institutions, no longer fighting among themselves, tend to fight
only civilian societies-with, of course, a few skirmishes in the
We have internalized the military and its imperatives. We police
... in order to have a moral and peaceful relationship with the
rest of the world, especially the Third World, we will need to
radically reimagine urban and suburban space so that it is not
all about accommodating the automobile; we will need to accept
less prosperity in the form of discretionary income to purchase
consumer items because we will need to let more of the wealth
generated by the work of people in the Third World stay in Bangladesh
and the maquiladoras of Mexico; we will need to radically reduce
our dependence on our cars; and we will need to stop thinking
of ourselves as the one great military (and nuclear) exception
in world relations. We will also need to do the work to wrest
political authority over our own society and culture from corporations,
our own military, and their international allies. If these are
not things which we are willing to accept, if we like the life
that corporate culture, international capital, and the military
class provide for us, we must be willing to accept as the price
for these privileges the understanding that a significant percentage
of the rest of the world will see us as something ranging from
Great Satan to imperialist. know, it's not much of a ranges We
will also have the periodic obligation of dropping bombs, killing
a few civilians in the process, and "accidentally" destroying
the occasional pharmaceutical lab in places such as the Sudan,
thus obliging our political leaders to behave like state terrorists.
And we will still need to send our own soldiers off to fight and
die in international police incidents in the name of the preservation
of these privileges. But it is a sacred lifestyle!
But even ... if we could imagine bringing these issues successfully
to consciousness, if we could oblige truth to stand before the
threat of real consequences, my fear is that the choice would
be, "I accept the premises of Pure War. I understand that
the maintenance of my privilege is dependent on others' misery,
and I'm willing to suffer the occasional terrorist attack and
consequent military policing to maintain it. And I'm willing that
in the name of Homeland Security a dominant part of civilian life
be war in the form of an eternal declaration of our willingness
to make war."
What bin Laden seems to understand is that Pure War, understood
as the techno-militarization of the human world, can be pushed
where it has been headed all along but where perhaps it would
rather not go on someone else's command: techno-military apocalypse.
In this sense, his destination is not all that different from
the anticipation of our own fundamentalist Baptists: the End of
Days. Revelation. The Antichrist. The Second Coming. This is the
conclusion of the confrontation between the Holy Warrior and the
Global State Technician. Unlike the gruesome Cold War relationship
between the nuclear couple, the United States and the Soviet Union,
in which deterrence provided the Peace of Pure War (the peace
of the "balance of terror," or "mutually assured
mass destruction"), our new antagonist has no illusions about
that grim dance. Muslims of bin Laden's stripe will have the life
they imagine (however cruel and medieval) or they will have death,
about which they have no fear or illusions because the religious
thinking at the heart of their activities makes death irrelevant.
Pascal's divine wager (I believe in God because I have nothing
to lose if he doesn't exist, and much to gain if he does).
journalist I. F. Stone once wrote,
The only kinds of fights worth fighting
are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight
them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes
as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major
fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing
- for the sheer fun and joy of it-to go right ahead and fight,
knowing you're going to lose. You mustn't feel like a martyr.
You've got to enjoy it.
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