Comparing Modern North America to Nazi-Occupied France
This was one of my final assignments for my French degree. If I were to re-write it today, I am not sure I would structure it in the same way; in fact, I think the "Occupation," as I so eloquently dubbed it, is actually just what happens in a fiat system. Had I only learned about Bitcoin sooner...
The people, government, and society of the United States demonstrate very comparable symptoms to an occupation of a country, primarily that of the Nazis in France as witnessed in World War II. Throughout this essay, I will introduce and discuss the basic idea that our lives as Americans are occupied in similar manners to those of the French in the early 1940s, beginning with a brief explanation of facts and perspectives regarding the German Occupation (primarily through literature, as there is no concrete history nor defined memory of the brief era), and continuing with simple, rational questions of logic relating them to our own culture through various articles and case studies found in research on the subject.
To those who haven’t thought about such history since high school, here’s a recap : during Hitler’s quest for the consolidation of his power he conquered France, continuing the Holocaust as we know it in his ethnic “cleansing” of a continent of all the people not smart enough to leave—in the United States we call it genocide. Uncertain is the question that France surrendered willingly or not with its own social agenda in mind regarding the Jews; case in point is that France was put under a new regime to correspond with the Nazi empire’s goals. It was called le régime de Vichy, and was lead by a collaborative leader one Marechal Pétain—there is debate surrounding his motives (personal power versus lack of alternative option), but this is not the subject of this piece. Jews were exterminated, the French were rationed on food and living situations, and German soldiers would roam the streets of Occupied France (in the North). Free France in the south and east seemed to have witnessed more of the search to eliminate clandestine Resistance.
As Henry Rousso’s Syndrome de Vichy has shown us, the Occupation of France has been all but a firm memory in the minds of the French. Observing media & society of the decades following the Occupation shows us more of an affected, coping era of the people than that of the repressed epoch itself: 1945 through 1954 were coined by Rousso the years of le deuil inachevé, grief and sorrow still unable to be circumvented by the people. 1955 to roughly 1968 is represented by les refoulements, or years of denial, as French films and media chose to exemplify the number of French Resistants during the war and the struggle against Vichy as opposed to the oppression and denial one was commonly habituated to remembering. Many historians label this attitude that of le mythe De Gaulle, where the number of Resistants was exaggerated in an effort to remember the Occupation as less repressive and dismal towards the spirit of France, a country as prideful and nationalistic as it’s been created to be since the age of Louis XIV.
With the Algerian war of independence (from French control) clearing into focus in 1968, the phase of le miroir brisé, the shattered mirror, came to be as the country began to realize that denial isn’t always a conscious effort. With the aid of la nouvelle vague of French cinema in writer-directors such as Louis Malle, or of le nouveau roman in French literary figures such as Patrick Modiano; new methods of portraying the memory of the Occupation were developed by using the aesthetics of a piece itself to help recount the story it’s trying to tell. This existential employment of ambiguity is to represent ambiguity : Modiano after all had not even been born until the end of the Occupation, yet became one of the prominent writers on the subject—or rather the perception of the subject. The crisis of le miroir brisé never simply subsided like a southern Californian storm, as ever since 1974 Rousso termed the present phase l’obsession, as any research or discourse on the matter is related to deciphering history versus memory. The whole matter in itself is so ambiguous that it is not worth touching as something that could be tangibly understood : it is truly a chaotic endeavor.
The German Occupation of France is a complex subject to be remembered or documented, but the issue of occupation itself remains constant : a government was implemented to correspond with the principles of its occupier and society in turn was obligated to transform to obey. Ideologies and revolutionary propaganda were force fed to the populations (both French and German and everyone surrounded), and without conscious effort one could easily find themselves believing these new convictions merely by the length and subtle power of its exposure. As Third Reich minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels affirmed : the greater the lie, the greater its power. Furthermore, understanding the mentalities and/or proper sentiments regarding any undocumented aspect on the Occupation could not be any more impossible. If there is one certainty of the Occupation, it is the definitive uncertainty that has vigorously produced a concise haziness surrounding its perceived history.
This piece will explore the possibility that North American society predominantly mirrors the syndromes and the encompassing ambiguity of the Nazi Occupation of France. Starting with the root of the Occupation and analyzing it in our terms today, we see quite simply that our society is nothing different to that of the French under the Vichy regime. Jean Bruller, a clandestine writer during the Occupation who wrote under the pen name Vercors, presented to us a character Werner von Ebrennac, who symbolizes the general ambiguity of the German : he is a friendly soldier, and in spite of his lack of understanding of passing events on the French during the war, the French narrator and his niece with whom von Ebrennac stays have no desire to accept him as a friend, let alone acknowledge his friendly conversation and talk with him. One could say that these French characters know and understand what the Occupation inflicts, firsthand through the eyes of the oppressed; and in turn have no reason to engage in any extracurricular social contact.
As for us, today, it would seem that we want to speak to and accept what appears friendly; we do not seek to look any further. We eat fast food despite the common knowledge it’s quite unhealthy, we complain about exercising though we know we must, given our lifestyles of sitting in front of a computer screen or television. We drive cars as we’re daily exposed to the problems of global warming through media or political messages. We do not seek beyond what is pleasurable to our personal luxury; simply put, we are happy and content being comfortable and complacent.
Jean-Paul Sartre writes of one symptom of the Occupation, which he calls l’ennemi invisible. “Such is in any case the primary aspect of the Occupation : that one thus imagines this perpetual coexistence of a phantom hate and of a too familiar enemy that one cannot manage to hate” (Sartre, Paris sous l’Occupation, 23). The enemy is of a psychological nature, instilling a fear of betrayal, a paralysis of emotions, because there exists an odium that remains visible whilst the enemy himself remains completely, and undeniably ambiguously, equivocal. The soldiers that one would see every day in the streets of Paris resembled Werner von Ebrennac : polite and nice, even sympathetic in certain manners; but one knew that come evening they would be the ones that would seek out the hidden Jews and expel them to the concentration camps.
I would say that the term rat race begins to fittingly characterize our own equivocal enemy in this equivalent occupation. We know and are very familiar with the term in its everyday application, quoting it and even using it in jokes, but how often does the average North American stop to think that a life could exist outside of this “rat race?” We only think of beating it, competing with our very best. “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat” (Lilly Tomlin in People, Dec 1977). One could compare it to the Stockholm Syndrome, where one expresses admiration and positive feeling towards ones captor as they sympathize with their hostage.
Sartre writes in Huis Clos, “hell is other people (l’enfer, c’est les Autres).” The perception of other human beings and their judgment is the worst that one could be subjected to : Sartre was an atheist and thus we know he is not metaphorizing hell but what can be attributed to the existence of someone’s hell. It’s quite an existential thought, at the most basic analysis. One could say that here in the United States we worry but over our physical portrayal towards others and even our manners of speaking and discussing, but as well with whom we’re seen. What, thus, is this hell in which we don’t see that we live? We have no desire to confirm that our lives without others could be more at ease. Sartre continues to speak of the temptation of irresponsibility, in which he references certain French writers such as Flaubert, Balzac, Proust, or the Goncourt prize. These writers never took the true initiative to write of the important social events of their times, but rather they wrote for the interest of the bourgeoisie and for their personal fortunes. They wrote for posterity, simply put; as Sartre sees it, literature is a social function : it can instigate change, it can unify. During the Occupation, literature required a renaissance.
In North American society, what do we have as social function? What is it exactly that could instigate change or unity, when we read very little nor speak of writers and philosophers outside of the petit academic world and what the average citizen knows of politics and politicians is what’s portrayed on conglomerate-owned mass media networks? The lives of these commercialized politicians, celebrities and pop stars are more important than those of artists, writers, or groundbreaking academics; more important than our own lives, it would sadly seem at times. Films could quite possibly be a medium to merit a social function, yet in our world of media, a film cannot be created without being accompanied by its goals of obtaining profit. No attached moral message could be reliably deciphered among the required formula for pleasing a general audience, as seen with James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar, where the story does not stop when the developed-world invaders destroy the home of the natives. The fantasy must continue and the bad guy must be vanquished—exactly opposite of the actual events these similar stories mirror.
In regards to the Resistance of the German Occupation, the Resistants generally fought for change and to combat the physical Occupation itself. Paul Eluard, a founder of surrealism, transformed his own poetry into that of the engaged : for “transforming the [inked] feather into a sword.” Much of this poetry became contraband so the people could not be exposed to it, and thus much engaged poetry began to hide its true sense in medieval metaphors that a non-native French speaker would not understand. This never-commercialized clandestinisme was seen very little outside the eyes who sought it out, if ever. What therefore is the punk music movement, political art or war protests in our own society if not a similar Resistance, never commercialized for the general public to be familiar with and understood, rarely focused on in the mainstream news? We frequently see these movements come and go and never regard them as anything other than a fad, and the problem rests therein the fact that these movements change nothing substantially. If the day comes when they are put on television/the radio, then that is the end of their positive possibility of hope, as this piece will discuss further on.
Where is the third option? For us, all is forever black or white—we don’t stop to think that a gray could exist among all the terror and fear—and we allow ourselves to be blinded towards the true natures of this black and this white. As the facts demonstrate in regards to the Occupation in France, you collaborate (2% of the French population) or you resist (2% of the French population). Those who remain, the grand majority, remain complacent and do as they are told with little thought towards the matter, without realizing that they’ve even made this choice. We have two political parties in the United States and a third could never win : when a third is even spawned as a “grassroots” campaign, this seems to be merely purposefully hidden propaganda for the ideals of the certain party it detached itself from; and thus for this third party winning was never even an option to begin with. Less than 5% of our American population owns over 90% of our country’s wealth. We won’t even know the number of true Resistants.
The war in Iraq does not stop with a new president from the other side of the spectrum, as we’re told when we elect him; in fact, his regime is sure to send more soldiers and request more federal financial support for its purposes. Tax dollars going towards our soldiers to go die and implement our own skewed ideals are consciously paid by us to allow grand enterprises and conglomerates to profit by subcontractors, logistics providers, transportation, and armory; but what do we question besides our own personal welfare regarding these taxes? About what do we complain besides the $250 dollars taken by the government from our $800 fulltime paychecks?
The differences between these symptoms of the ambiguity can be quite varied depending on how we could choose to perceive them : at times the similarities are more physical and more directly obvious; others could be more psychological and simply parallel. What must be said, in any case, is that there are too many of these similar symptoms in our society and that of the French in the early 1940s. The goal of this piece is to raise an awareness towards these thoughts that prove, through pure logic and use of human rationality, which oftentimes in the political or academic world is overlooked because of its lack of science; or concrete research & statistics, that history will always repeat itself, and it’s up to us to make ourselves conscious of what is slowly deteriorating the minds & souls of a population.
Throughout the duration of any type of occupation, we see the collaboration above all else. Collaboration begins with a government, where a people is always seen under its direction, despite its own ideologies, perhaps stating that the government itself is merely an extension of the hand of the public. The Fourth Republic of France never tried to escape nor hide the fact that it wanted to simplify its people: the country’s new Tryptique stressed work, family, and patriotism, preaching the return to the earth. This retour à la terre was preached as the return to working with the earth to form communities, more sustainable and less dependant on exterior sources of nourishment or work. Basically, it told the public to go hide in the dark to not recognize what’s going on. Such a memorandum is easy to understand and does not offer harsh implications to the public; thus from where could the complaints of the complacent come? This Révolution Nationale is a prime example of a government controlling the attitudes and mindsets of its people : to reconstruct the national soul is to rotate the perceptions of the individual.
One has to look no farther than our own war/revolution against “terrorism” and the post 9/11 battles against whomever we could conjure up reason. Look no farther than the influence of the mass media in our lives : from that point on we have been constantly bombarded with advertisements for fear, to be wary of the turban and the spoken Arabic. Generally, with a television in almost every household being used almost daily, the average citizen watches the “news,” listens to it on the radio, or keeps “informed” via an online or print publication owned by the wealthiest few percentage of our country. Attributed to an unfamiliar status quo developed by to what we nonchalantly expose ourselves daily, the norm of material desire can be simplified to nothing more than a comfortable amount of money and love, and everything that manifests itself with them : a house, a family, and entertainment. The adventure of travel or goals to change the world have disappeared. “Cultural studies, drawing on a Marxist view of the production of reality, draw attention to the essential role of mass-mediated messages in sustaining the status quo, including the interests and perspectives of media managers and the interests they serve, which often are at odds with the everyday life experiences of audiences who use this popular culture content” (Altheide 478). While this is not a government telling us to “return to the earth,” it is one telling us to sit in the dark to deal with these petty issues they’ve thrown upon us and fail to understand what is truly happening. This occupational symptom is unquestionably of the same psychological nature, affecting how a people believe they should be spending their time.
Other parallels of a government’s effort to control its people could be spoken of in more direct and physical terms, which in this case will be the fluoride in the United States (among many other countries’) drinking water. All public water that we drink, including much bottled water, is artificially fluoridated, in the same manner and reasoning we see fluoride in commercial toothpastes : for the health and strength of the teeth. Despite the truth behind this fact until adolescence, a case study in which children of two similar Chinese villages were compared after one village was given fluoride in their water and one without fluoride in their water uncovered an interesting fact : “fluoride can produce detrimental biochemical and functional changes in the developing human brain… Intelligence [is] inversely related to the level of fluoride in both drinking water and urine. No confounding factors such as population size or differences in social, educational, or economic background explained the relationship” (High Fluoride water and intelligence in children, 77). This study, conducted ten years ago, has clearly never been brought to the public’s attention despite the ten IQ point difference seen between the two groups, and it allows us to ask a question : does intelligence affect free thought, which in turn could affect the desire to be complacent? A passive public does not call to stand up against something it knows oppresses it, if it chooses to realize it at all. What are we, if not congruent to the 96% of non-collaborators and non-Resistants of Occupied France?
The Vichy government was put into place to manage France’s collaboration with the Nazis to create an authoritarian French society, completely anti-republican. Vichy wanted to deny liberty, “[traiter] les français comme des malades et faire une propagande psychiatrique ([to treat] the French like diseases and to make a psychiatric propaganda)” (Déat in Contrôler ou Encadrer, Peschanski 68), and this was visible in the occupier, the Nazi regime itself in Germany : “the police would ensure the suppression of public liberties and in the absence of democratic means of expression would monitor public opinion on behalf of the government” (Kitson 373). As we know, racism played a large part in what was the Vichy regime, and the Jews soon became the scapegoats of the problems in the country—namely the defeat of France to the hands of the Germans. “Foremost among those considered guilty were the communists, the socialists, the trade unions, the freemasons, and, of course, their bête noire: the Jews. Believing that a majority of French were anti-Semites, and that they would support the restrictive measures, the Vichy authorities blamed the defeat on the Jews” (Adler 1069). And we know well the results of this anti-Semitism.
The propaganda and the censure were as well considerable elements of Vichy’s control—quite similar to that in Germany at the same time. “Si des articles politiques étaient écrits par des journalistes de leur propre initiative, le texte devait en être envoyé en trois exemplaires à la Censure régionale qui le transmettait aux services centraux; Vichy le renvoyait avec ou sans visa ou sous réserve de modifications (If political articles were written by journalists of their own initiative, the text had to be sent in three copies to the regional Censure that would transmit it to central services; Vichy would then return it with or without certification or under subject to modification)” (Peschanski 72). There were plenty of levels of censure, and again, the results demonstrate that the leaders were very familiar with the process, “pour obtenir une propagande plus efficace[:] il faut une presse plus diversifiée, et donc une censure plus souple (to obtain a more effective form of propaganda[:] a more diversified press was necessary, and thus a more flexible censure)” (Peschanski 72).
In the United States, we choose not to look at our government like each powerful empire that proceeded it : a struggle for power. “No more fearsome research frontier exists than the secret and covert foreign operations of governments in war and peace. Fearsome, because hard evidence is elusive… [T]ens of thousands of persons have been engaged in a variety of secret activities costing billions of dollars. Most of this activity has occurred beyond public scrutiny. Indeed much of it has gone forward beyond the span of control of executive, let alone legislative authority” (American Political Science Association, 1436). Perhaps this is not the subject of this article, nor relevant, nor confirmed true; but could one say that he has never heard the simple idea that the United States invaded Iraq for the oil? I would say, despite the truth that rests below, that every North American has heard this accusation, if not believed it. This thought alone creates a feeling of fear from any side that the truth may find itself. What Benito Mussolini had said of his fascism in Italy of the early twentieth century, il corporativismo (corporativism), has been compared by economists of our own society to the contracts of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal : “’corporativism,’ an ill-defined industrial policy involving official state sponsorship of industry cartels and labor unions, remained something of a taboo topic… Finally, to the extent that a government systematically delegates such licensing or compelling power to private organizations, it is a corporatist government” (Whitman 749-753). Putting aside the United States government’s hiring of private military companies like Blackwater Worldwide (now called Xe) to assist in the situation in Iraq or Hurricane Katrina relief (through which, among others, the government has paid over $1 billion dollars in less than two decades), let us pose a hypothetical question : imagine China wanted to buy Boeing, a sizeable supplier of our country’s arms. How would the United States government, knowing this acquisition represents a direct threat to the armed forces of the country, act? We know the purchase could never happen, yet it’s against a capitalist democracy to deny it happening. As ambiguous at the moment as in Occupied France, such situations cannot be properly defined because it is not possible; therefore, all we can do is ask the question.
Stemming from the events following 9/11, Northern Arizona University’s sociology professor Kathleen Ferraro makes a direct, and thought-provoking, comparison of George W. Bush to Hitler : “Once in office, [both] passed laws suspending constitutional rights: the Enabling Act for Hitler, the Patriot Acts for Bush. Both men generated support for military aggression by control of the media and inaccurate portrayals of threats to national security” (2). All the average American proletariat knows of terrorism is that it is bad; the word inflicts fear, and the images we see concerning the subject are never short of horrifying. Consequently, this is not so strange to affirm that the media—the news, the cinema, advertisements: our daily medicine/exposure—reinforces the government’s regime. Ferraro continues:
And both men promoted images of a mythical past of harmony and unity of people that they would restore through purging of both polluting foreign and degenerate domestic elements… It includes the uses of language, film, music, photographs, stories and myths, and the spectacular physical landscapes that influence the kinds of questions and answers that people are able to articulate. (2)
Meaning, put your people in the cardboard box of the “good old days” and they’ll never be able to draw conclusions outside of the smelly darkness they know as reality.
James Fallows, news analyst of the National Public Radio and regular contributor to The New York Times and Atlantic Monthly, observes that “all countries fall into two categories: those that are so messed up we shouldn’t waste time thinking about them, and those that are messed up in a way that threatens our security […] We have a system of news media that tells people constantly that the world is out of control, that they will always be governed by crooks, that their fellow citizens are about to kill them” (cited in Held, 195). Today’s administration has succeeded in instilling fear, not only because we choose not to disbelieve it, but because this invisible status quo has disabled the development of the instinct to see the ambiguous gray within the good white and the evil black.
“Especially important for Petain’s regime was that the police were a symbol of the prerogatives and legitimacy of a sovereign state. Sovereignty was this government’s obsession; the police were its means to secure it” (Kitson 374). Louis Malle’s new wave film Lacombe Lucien (1974) showed us the French Gestapo of Free France, and the ambiguous possibilities of collaborating with Vichy. The police were a very important element in combating the Resistance, and with the almost untouchable power they held, it was well and possible. What one does not often realize in regards to the Occupation was that Vichy’s anti-Semitism existed well before the Occupation (well before unified France as we know it, as issues with religion has forever dominated the Western World), and this power given to the police to seek out hidden Jews would have been present anyway. “The professional and middle classes [of Third Republic France] had previously pressured governments to introduce restrictive measures aimed at foreign Jews in particular… When war broke out in September 1939, police regulations directed at foreigners were already in place” (Adler 1067). The Fourth Republic continued to implement these regulations, but above all on the Jews. One sees a very similar relation to nation-changing events the country witnessed a century and a half earlier, with the bourgeoisie’s influence on Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution in the late 18th century : the upper classes will forever play large economic and political roles in a nation’s decision making.
The media in the United States touches on the corruption of its police force, but as always, there is more to the story that is hidden from us, so we suppose what we will. “Police appear to cast a wide net of suspicion in neighborhoods that they view as especially troublesome, resulting in more indiscriminate treatment … blacks who live in neighborhoods perceived as having serious crime problems and who are heavily exposed to media accounts of police misconduct are especially likely to believe that misconduct is common in both their neighborhood and city” (Weitzer 322). This creates another aspect to this invisible status quo : that of racism. As soon as there is the perception or affirmation of its concept, one will find hints of it in the smallest allusion, despite the absence of fact. This racism of which we’re told has been defeated can be seen in our police and our law, in the media, and in our government; if it were truly conquered it would no longer be taught in schools or mentioned as if it played the smallest factor.
On another level, the punishments for crack-cocaine as opposed to cocaine show us that there is another, more elusive element floating around in the murky, indecipherable ambiguous swamp of the law. The laws on the punishments for the possession of crack-cocaine had to be changed recently, as one caught with five grams of crack-cocaine would automatically have acquired a five year prison sentence; meanwhile, straight cocaine resulted in a five year sentence only after 500 grams (Richards). Why? In general American society, crack is consumed more by blacks, the poor; and cocaine by whites : think of movies, think of whom we naturally associate with crack. It is quite less expensive, and thus found in the ghettos, as we call them; cocaine is more expensive and more of a bourgeois drug, thus would it not make more sense to see it consumed by the dominant social class? Sadly, it took almost twenty years to recognize this injustice, when the drugs come from the same class & family.
Weitzer’s study concludes that “whites tend to be favorably disposed toward the police and inclined to deny the existence of police misconduct… Blacks and Hispanics are more inclined to believe that these abuses occur frequently, and to subscribe to the view that police misconduct is very common in their city and in their residential neighborhood” (32). The facts and actual feelings are no longer founded on personal experience but on what one has read or seen in some form of media, and in each film and news report in which we are exposed to an oppressed minority in an oppressed area, this pushes the status quo along all the further. Ferraro brings up a point from the historical sociological perspective:
[M]ainstream sociology participated in the marginalization of black intellectual work on desegregation and internationalism. The state and popular media characterized these struggles, as well as those of American Indians, Chicanos/as, and labor organizations, as Communist-inspired and traitorous. The COINTELPRO files, the FBI program to infiltrate and destroy resistance movements, and the exile of black intellectuals, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, and James Baldwin, are historical markers of the state's agenda to destroy resistance both within and without the United States. The Black Panther Party and American Indian Movement were infiltrated, Anna Mae Aquash was murdered, Leonard Peltier was and is still imprisoned illegally [and has still not had his case presented], and the ‘truth’ of these state-sponsored crimes is still difficult to untangle… [Some sociologists] were openly, fiercely critical of both collusion with the government intelligence apparatus, corporations, and scholarly work that minimized, rationalized, and distorted evidence of racism. (9)
Like Vichy, we blame those who we do not like nor appreciate; and again, we see that there is not concrete evidence on such a subject as a hidden agenda behind racism, or the falsehoods taught regarding national racism : and why? Exactly like the Vichy regime, our government has plenty of motives within their agenda that the people are not privileged to know (and why should we be?); racism is but one quite visible example in society. Through an unfamiliar, invisible status quo in the eyes of a people, we do not seek to untangle these curiosities—in fact, we don’t even know they exist!
The leader of an occupied regime symbolizes and further demonstrates the heart of the intentions of the occupation itself. Marechal Pétain had absolute power as long as he didn’t interrupt the Nazi’s agenda. The question arrives in such a situation, therefore, was he aiding himself for attaining his own power and sovereignty, like many authoritarians before him, or was he in reality aiding France since he had little choice? If we employ him as the only option for leading, if he hadn’t conformed to what the Nazi regime demanded, the French would have been killed, or enslaved, or subjected to something equally horrible.
The same ambiguity can be seen in relation to the President of the United States and the war “against terror” : is it for our security, or for another motive? What can be seen more clearly with the Vichy regime, who’d wanted public to believe and follow it, is that there was a prevailing power behind all that happened throughout the actions of the directly visible government. In the United States, one can visualize the agenda of the prevailing controlling power through the illogical actions of the government itself:
The invocation of evil terrorists as the most immediate and lethal threat distract from problems that we need to address. The acceleration of income disparity within the United States and globally, and the destruction of hope among millions of young people without education or prospects of finding a job with a living wage are not resolved, but are actually exacerbated, by fighting a “war on terror.” (Ferraro 13)
We do not realize this exacerbation as we see the government and its news as a force above us and more intelligent, under which we must live without question nor power to influence. “A major reason the media, in news reports, attend to acts of [political] violence and ignore the reasons for them is that coverage of such acts is relatively inexpensive, and the media, including their news divisions, are driven by commercial interests” (Held 195). Already given that we are influenced by this North American media, could we suppose that there is more present than what we are told in the “news?” The following statistic may create a bit more apprehension: “the United States has been the aggressor in 196 military incursions since the end of World War II and has spent $7.1 trillion on defense between 1949 and 1999 (Vidal 2002); [i]n the words of [historian] Charles Beard, we live in a state of ‘perpetual war for perpetual peace’” (Ferraro 1). The only remaining question is the why, when nothing ends well—and rest assured, we always be informed of this fact. Expanding further, why are the lives of politicians, those who we are imagining we entrust to running our country, pop culture? What do we truly know of their political opinions and plans when we preoccupy our attentions with their personal presentations, their bad habits, their sex & gender, and their marital problems? Why would the brand new president receive a Nobel Peace prize right before his political regime changes in an extreme manner—where does the power of the people come in when 100% of the working class is unhappy and not a single person thinks they can make a difference aside from an insignificant vote? There are no responses, only questions—ambiguity.
The element of society is the final factor of which this piece will discuss. The naïve mentalities of the occupied French are universal in many aspects, beginning with the country folk and not ending with government individuals. Exemplified in Lacombe Lucien is the fact that not everyone had the opportunity to witness and understand the horrors of the Occupation like the Parisians is often neglected. Lucien is a young farm boy who did not understand the happenings of the Holocaust and, after being denied entrance to the French Resistance, collaborates with the Nazis by being employed by the French Gestapo; yet begins to date a Jewish girl. His actions, ambiguously portrayed thanks to la nouvelle vague are seen to be for satisfying his own need for accomplishment and power and to feel a personal importance, all without consciousness of the concept of the Occupation nor that of collaboration.
Just as Pétain collaborates as leader of the country and Lucien collaborates on a local level, we see in our own society a hierarchy, if you will, of collaboration. If the wealthy 5% minority of the population are the collaborators at the highest level, and the chiefs of state fall under that, we ourselves who live lives of daily consumption are collaborating as well : not only by purchasing commercial brand coffees or chic clothing cluttered with company logos, but merely by turning on the television, driving a car, or walking outside. If we didn’t allow ourselves to be exposed as relentlessly to what we fail to realize we can’t live without, at what intensity would advertising and marketing end?
Ferraro parallels our own consumer situation in relation to Josef Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda, who “recognized the importance of leisure and entertainment that distracted people from the terrors of the Third Reich.” (12) Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 Inglorious Basterds portrays this notion to an accurate degree, as the film’s main plot is centralized around the premiere of Goebbels’ own propagandist war film. As for us, “our distractions are technologically sophisticated and complicated. Mainstream media, owned primarily by several transnational conglomerates, occasionally highlights cultural tensions and resistance, but generally endorses consumerism and conventionality” (12). When one cannot even walk down the street without seeing a billboard, or read an online news article without advertisements popping out of the page, what are our thoughts if not 100% distracted? If the existence of collaboration is but a pleasant/indifferent distraction that aids us in dealing with our lives of eight working hours per day, there can exist no denial; there cannot even exist awareness, a prerequisite for denial. We feel a need to consume—to collaborate—this is thus an internal infection, the antidote for which we instinctually throw out to replace with poisonous pleasure.
Statistics show us the engagement of the government in this collaboration, as these overshadowing conglomerates sponsor the media. “A comparison between spending on public broadcasting in the US and several other countries shows us how marginalized everything but the commercial media are in the US. In the late 1980s, Japan was spending $14 per person per year on public broadcasting, Canada $23.60, Great Britain $24.52, while the US was spending only 77 cents” (Held 198). What this frightening fact shows us is that general broadcasts are primarily financed by advertising, since it isn’t being paid for by the government. And why? We know by now that we do not turn the television on to watch a scant few minutes of a popular television show’s milked-out storyline, because in reality we’re exposed to more advertising in that hour long time slot than news (as genuine as it can be), comedy, or drama; if we choose to count the program’s internal promotion, this exposition is much longer. If the media pushes consumerism on the people and at the same time is paid for by consumerism of the people, it’s no one but us that allow the cycle to rotate, as we are those who pay more than some make in a month to be exposed to it.
In a study concentrated on fear through the media’s promotion of it, Altheide and Michalowski conclude that “from the standpoint of media content as ‘cause,’ researchers ask whether news reports can ‘cause’ or ‘lead’ people to focus on and fear crime, including the extent to which relevant values and perspectives may be ‘cultivated’ (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorelli, and Jackson-Beeck 1978). From this perspective, the mass media play a large role in shaping public agendas by influencing what people think about.” (Shaw and McCombs 1977 in Fear in the News, 478). What’s more is that if a program doesn’t generate enough profit, it clearly does not hold enough effective influence on its audience and as we witness with the seasonal cancellation of new television programs, that program is terminated, just like that.
Commercialism has joined in on our sex lives with Trojan or LifeStyles, barged in on our personal lives with Scott and Tampax, and has dominated our spiritual lives with every branch of the Protestant church and “eastern” yoga. The Internet is no longer a realm of obscure or obtainable information, rare or risqué jokes, nor a new community of clashing cultures : it is merely an opportunity to creatively conceive & spawn further consumption. Our clothes are no longer worn for wearing but for promoting sports teams, expensive clothing brands, or foreign alcohols. It is no longer an argument of a consumer’s choice but of his obligation, as “the commercial media culture shapes consciousness so thoroughly that most people find it hard to imagine a culture not dominated by commercial interests” (Held 200). Commercialism and consumption promoted by the media has become more powerful than the government in many cases—as wealthy men like Rupert Murdoch own news networks like Fox News—and asking ourselves why, we can imagine that the reasons behind such a situation could be functioning side by side. “A media culture has emerged in which images, sounds, and spectacles help produce the fabric of everyday life, dominating leisure time, shaping political views and social behavior, and providing the materials out of which people forge their very identities” (Douglas Kellner cited in Held, 201).
If we reflect in the events that passed during the Vichy regime, we recall Pétain’s new Tryptique, propaganda, and social control : the French knew that Nazis were occupying their country, and Vichy was presented to instill a sense of security and comfort. Thus what is the mainstream media that lays us at ease, has us believe that there is nothing left to learn, preaches the what and the how without the why, or presents fear through a black or a white? We see ourselves paying to wear promotion, paying to be further exposed, paying to forget that there is more to a life of constant work, little play, and years of headaches until a soothing retirement on a fake exotic beach. Be conscious that we ourselves are paid nothing for the times we spend being exposed to this publicity, collaborating. Not a penny, not a meal, not an extra minute of life.
If collaboration is everywhere, then what is Resistance? Today violent revolution comes as a haring thought, as a patriarchal nation molded from some bizarre logic says that “reform” is what makes change as situations decline. The great Resistants of racism are defeated the moment they attain power & influence, and as we know, society no longer finds itself interested in what a powerful writer has to say, nor does it listen to groups of people other than the celebrated. Art and music will always be forms of Resistance but the problem is the commercialization they will never receive while they are genuine forms of protest, thus never taken into account by the public. Punkers to the average person are G.G. Allin or Joey Ramone who died of drugs and/or were crazy : therefore it is clear that their opinion and frame of mind is invalid, as would be those of Robert Plant or John Lennon had they put more vehemence into their words—how do remember the Beatles today? George Orwell was put on the NSA’s watch list : and what is sci-fi now but the expression of imagination? J.D. Salinger’s famous book Catcher in the Rye was banned and by studying it today we take effort away from analyzing congruent literature of today’s society. Graffiti is illegal and the destruction of property, thus it is clear that the why cannot be taken into account because the what has cost the city X amount of dollars. Visual violence on canvas often merits a psychoanalyses and a possible restraining order, so of course that couldn’t be put exhibited at LACMA. FEMINISM ELABORATE?
What’s worse is that “when songs or musical styles that begin as expressions of protest become popular, they are turned into the background music of television advertisements” (Held 200). And why wouldn’t they be, after seeing the amount of figures on that paycheck? We saw it with the Beatles and the Ramones, we saw it with Andy Warhol. We would have seen it with Bill Watterson but the enraged creator of Calvin & Hobbes told the Universal Syndicate to fuck itself as he reportedly creates work after work of art in his home and burns them so no one can destroy them with a dollar sign. More and more, we see the destruction of this possibility to protest, enveloping the world of art like the smog of Los Angeles. “Styles of dress originally developed to oppose the commercial hold on people by the fashion industry are themselves taken over by the designers and manufacturers of the ‘looks’ promoted through endless advertisements in magazines whose pages of editorial material are increasingly indistinguishable from their advertising pages” (Held 200).
The University, to mention briefly, suddenly began to suffer in a sudden few years as any expressive art has suffered in fifty. The idea of higher education was essentially developed/installed in the late Middle Ages to make the people smarter, so society as a whole could progress and expand thought with newly developed sources of innovation. Now, it would seem the only point of attending a higher education is to ensure a future source of income. The possibility for a student to focus time & energy towards developing a radical, new thought to the contrary of what is taught in the university rarely exists before a second degree of achievement—if it comes into existence at all. The idea of today’s university all but continues its original goals of secular & imaginative thought, but rather holds intact a status quo encouraging the expansion of thought within the cardboard box since nothing exists outside of it. A more local example to this collective issue is religion : every religious person is in their own, smaller cardboard box within the limits of the universal cardboard box, and non-religious people witness this and feel bad for them. This thought as we know it has infected much of the developed world today, with the consumption thought that more is always better, and has physically manifested itself as “academic freedom is threatened by the pressure exerted on faculty to bring external funding into the university and to adopt a corporate perspective on education” (Ferraro 11). It is sad and almost frightening, but it is not possible to breath without inhaling its omniscient presence within our society.
Keeping in mind the thought of the original idea of higher education, to progress society—sciences, literature, art, politics & philosophy—we can affirmatively see that attendance of today’s university is hardly aimed towards improving our own humanity but for our own personal progression. This personal progression is hardly something negative for us, be it for the objective of wealth or personal intellect. Relate it to computers & technology : the studies of sciences, philosophies, arts, and economics as we know them will forever progress and further to improve on our methods of their implementation in society. The most complicated physics as we know it will one day be as Newton’s gravity is to us now. Pertinent economic problems could ideally be eradicated. New ways of analyzing the success of Emile Zola’s writings or the failures of Richard Nixon will revolutionize politics. This is fantastic, from a consumer standpoint : everything gets better.
Yet if continuing on to college-level education is encouraged only by the prospect of acquiring a higher-paying job, and/or continuing higher education is encouraged by personal aspirations to understand a subject better—say, history—where does the concept of evolution enter? How is it possible to escape the paradigm of the cardboard box? Through childhood and all forms of education we are never informed of the gray, and often mentions of the color between black and white is described as lacking sufficient evidence, unscientific conspiracy, or just plain impractical. We never ask of a third option, if we are ever even lucky enough to realize it exists : what if black was actually white? and then in turn, what of gray? Republican would be Democrat and we’d realize that no green campaign could reflect itself on something that sees monochromatically.
Such a status quo is exemplified in the media with the continuation of racism, as mentioned earlier. “People who frequently read or hear about incidents of misconduct, as presented in the media, are inclined to believe that misconduct is a common occurrence in both their city and their neighborhood (Weitzer 321).” The word nigger is the perfect example of taboo racism—only blacks are not politically incorrect in saying it, yet it holds none of its original connotation to one in the current youthful generation of any race in the United States. We hear it on television and in music as if it’s a word more special than others; but what does this word’s force do to its own sense? It keeps it alive, dons it posterity.
Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of the fact that when the Allies arrived in France following D-day, they saw the French in their usual clothes, in proper health, with intact establishments, and believed at first that perhaps they hadn’t lived as horribly as previously thought; after all, London was bombed to pieces. A basic parallel but interesting : what would happen if we experienced our own liberation and were seen? Things don’t seem so bad, with food and water and daily purpose.
There is no question that the French—not solely the Jewish but all—lived in complete fear during the years of the Occupation, each day naturally unsure of what would happen in the war and their lives as they were being dominated by a force conquering all of Europe. This fear is the most powerful parallel, as it is so engrained in us through daily injections of subtle propaganda in all facets of media with various targets and boundaries in which to frame it—disease and infections, risk of unemployment, or terrorism—that it would take generations to conquer its artificially natural occurrence in our being. “Fear has become a staple of popular culture, ranging from fun to dread. Americans trade on fear. News agencies report it, produce entertainment messages (other than news), and promote it; police and other formal agencies of social control market it. And audiences watch it, read it, and according to numerous mass entertainment spokespersons, demand it (Clover 1997).” Our lives are regulated by what makes us tremble, and so comfortable are we with it that we don’t think to travel, to change careers, to not follow the average life paradigm of studying, marrying, and working. The reek of the cardboard box is attractive.
Our government carries itself in a questionable manner as our media acts as its accomplice, but what preoccupies us day by day is fear. Just as the manipulated views and ideas of international Jewish conspiracies were instilled in Europeans throughout time, our whole system of morals and rationality does not come from our own individual thought but a collective consumer mentality that manages to progressively mold and shape the evolution of society and civilization as a whole. “Media culture helps shape the prevalent view of the world and its deepest values: it defines what is considered good or bad, positive or negative, moral or evil (Held 201).” The human perception is thus lead by the chain tied around its neck towards a produced/invented enemy that is always present within us in one form or another but never has relation to the rotating gears of power. The enemy is fabricated to divert our attention anywhere but on the source of the contemporary societal situation.
Our system functions like an occupation, perhaps without wanting to or perhaps wanting to : this ambiguity parallels just one more facet of the mirroring Vichy society. The unique thing is that the parallel cannot be refuted, because of the evidence on the matter; but what’s more interesting and ironic is that isn’t refuted, as it does not figure into the discourse of politics/media—the thoughts lie on the brims of this cardboard box analogy. Just as then, the public, government, and society of the United States demonstrate similar symptoms to the Occupation in France of the early 1940s. What is produced in ourselves is a dependence on certain elements, playing the integral part of the tools of the Occupation.