Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Did We Ignore the Miliraty-Industrial Canaries?

We took the kids to see the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying last weekend. A light, funny comedy, I could not help but think about the connection between our current economic crisis and Eisenhower's farewell address that was written two years before the book on which the play was based. We are where we are now because we handed our economy over to corporate interests. What is good for General Motors is good for the country, we were told by Charlie Wilson, the head of GM, and we reflexively bought it.

The large scale social and economic changes that accompany industrialization usually brings about deep consideration and serious social strife. In England, the Luddites led a movement. In France, the running battle between romanticism and modernism was a constant conversation. In Germany, Ferdinand Toennies' book Community and Society was the pinnacle of a strand of thought that tried to make sense of the new industrial order that so radically changed the culture in a way that made sense -- how ought we think of people now that we no longer live primarily in communities based on similarity, but in society which is thoroughly heterogeneous?

But for us, the suburbanization of America after the war, the corporate control of our economy, our food supply, our work and leisure, our entire lives went largely unchallenged. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman was there. Eisenhower's famous speech, How to Succeed, The Sid Caesar Your Show of Shows, a few canaries were there in the coal mine, but anyone who made the case was marginalized as anti-American in post-war, McCarthyist America. Was it the threat of world-wide annihilation that led us to unreflexively hand the chicken coop to the foxes? Was it the sense of progress that accompanied the simultaneous end of the Depression and rise of technology, that is, since there did seem to be better living through chemistry and no soup lines, don't rock the boat? Why were there precious few works that truly led us to question the way we were reorganizing our society, giving rise to a new set of robber-barons? Was it that we believed after the GI bill that with a degree and a house in Levittown we were fooled into thinking that we were being made part of the haves? Why did we ignore the military-industrial canaries?