Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Universe Runs Amok

One of the chapters of my dissertation is essentially about the concept of universality: there are many things in life that are so entrenched in people's belief systems that we assume their universality. The classic example, for instance, is the racial category "white." Whiteness is always assumed. When "we" see a white man on the street (and by we, I mostly mean white people, but the dominance of this ideology is such that this is not guaranteed) we might say to a friend, "There is a man." When "we" see a black man on the street, we are likely to say, "there is a black man." This presumption of universality is a classic way of maintaining power. Richard Taruskin likes to point out that when Germans wrote German music, it was called romanticism, but when Czechs wrote music, it was called nationalism. The most popular music on the charts is always called pop music, no matter what it sounds like, whereas all of the other music charts are still basically defined by the minority communities who listen to it: Country (rural white folk), R&B (originally called "Race music" by Billboard), and so on. My chapter looks at this concept at one particular moment: in pop music right after World War II, the world of people like Patti Page, Jo Stafford, Vera Lynn, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, and so on. As I have blogged before, this music was so universalized, it did not even have a name. And it was played just as Joseph McCarthy was using that same power of universality to fictionalize a new vision of the United States, a tabula rasa from which was wiped any people who were not "everyday Americans." Musicologists call this "covert and casual values," the rest of the academic world calls it hegemony.

I was reminded of this by an article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times about the Bush Administration's recent about-face in administering the Iraq colony. Like many, I have grown disillusioned over the past six years of war, and often don't take the time to stay informed about the mundane details of the occupation. Randomly, however, the new general in charge of coalition forces in Iraq is a cousin of mine (just by marriage, and I don't think we've ever met, but still) so I gave the article a read.

There are a lot of shocking things about what is happening in Iraq. But this article in particular highlighted the fact that our nation is still under the sway of Cold War ideologies. And the two biggest keywords are the post-WII concepts of "democracy" and "capitalism."

Now neither capitalism nor democracy is a natural thing. Neither systems have existed forever, and neither will continue to do so for all future. As a good leftie I am obviously a fan of the latter, suspicious of the first. But I do at least recognize that these are simply ideologies, and not realities. They are culturally produced. If you were to take a town in, say, feudal England, and tell the inhabitants that there are no longer any feudal loyalties, you would not suddenly have a democratic society or a capitalist economy. Ideologies take time to worm themselves into people; after all Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, and I don't think capitalism became completely universalized in this country until the Clinton administration. (Thanks, Bill.) And the United States still does not give the vote to all of its citizens, nor is its leader elected democratically.

And how do these entrenched ideologies work in the world at large? One of the stories this article tells is of the state-run factories in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. Iraq was, after all, a basically national-socialist state, and the economy was heavily controlled by the government. When the United States occupied the country, they closed down all institutions run by the government, including the factories. This of course left thousands unemployed. The article tells the story of an American named Timothy Carney who was sent to Iraq to run the "Ministry of Mines and Materials." Quite reasonably, he assumed that it would be a good idea to repair and reopen these factories. Unemployed and impoverished Iraqis=badness.

But no, the American authorities in Baghdad didn't allow it. Because, although supposedly we were invading Iraq to install Ideology #1 (democracy), we were more covertly there to install Ideology #2 (capitalism). And so, no government money was going to be used on these factories. Instead, these spectacularly hubristic Americans assumed that "private investors" would buy the plants, repair them, and hire workers. Of course, there would be a gap in which there would be higher unemployment, but that magical invisible hand of Adam Smith would reach down from on high and set things straight before long. Because, after all, capitalism is natural, and inevitable.

Well, guess what. It wasn't. Six years later, the factories are still closed, unemployment and poverty have reached untenable levels, and violence has inevitably skyrocketed accordingly. There is neither democracy, nor capitalism, nor even everyday safety. 14th century feudalism would be better than this. Our nation's belief in the universality of our ideologies has amazingly managed to beat Saddam at his own game. Saddam tried so hard to run his country into the ground, but it took us, with our democracy and our capitalism, to really do the job properly.

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