Wake up, America, you are being exploited, duped and brainwashed. Though political analysts — left and right — differ on their prescriptions on how to save America from decline, there is one thing they seem to agree on: The vast majority of Americans spend most of their lives politically asleep.
Crossroads GPS, an advocacy group founded by Republican operative Karl Rove, recently produced a commercial called “Wake Up,” an anti-Obama attack ad that portrays a woman tossing and turning in the middle of the night who then sits up and reflects on how her faith in President Obama has been betrayed. Obama, the ad implies, is doing things in the White House that disturb what otherwise would be a restful sleep.
At a rally against poverty last month, Princeton professor and political activist Cornel West told a Los Angeles audience, referring to the Occupy movement: “Finally our fellow citizens are beginning to wake up because they have been sleepwalking for so long.
“Are we going to remain awake?” West asked.
There also is a long tradition in American political history of attributing voting behavior, lack of worker militancy or acquiescence in the face of socialist takeover — choose your problem — to the somnolent state of the American citizenry. If you only knew the truth about what is really going on in this country, these critics argue, you would rise up and overthrow the corporate capitalists, the left-wing radicals inside the government or the various false brothers of the “ruling elite.”
In 1854, on the title page of “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau bragged that he wanted to “wake my neighbors up” with the power of his observations and actions. And here is Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs writing in a party newspaper in 1903: “Workingmen, wake up! The time has come to open your eyes and see things as they are. You have been hoodwinked and robbed and enslaved long enough.” Debs ran for the presidency five times, waking up the 6% of voters in 1912 who gave him their support.
And just this month, Lululemon, the popular yoga wear company, posted a blog on its website praising John Galt, the heroic prophet of hyper-individualism from Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged.” The blog suggested that most of us unenlightened boobs lead mediocre and listless, government-controlled lives without even knowing it.
There are countless other examples of this type of rhetoric — and the analytical frame of mind that goes with it — being used to provoke what is presumed to be the apathetic masses. If people are aroused from their slumber and get active, this thinking goes, they can become “agents” of their own history.
There are several problems with believing that the vast majority of Americans are essentially asleep. Whatever the reality behind this image, regarding people as essentially passive recipients of elite manipulation assumes that most of us are simply unable to perceive and thereby act on our own self-interest. Not only is this belief condescending, it suggests that our political, social and symbolic worlds are unified and simple, if we would only “open our eyes” to that fact.
If a structured and orchestrated “system” is oppressing or manipulating us, then revealing the nature of that system is the first step toward freedom. In terms of popular culture, think of the movie “The Matrix,” in which those who were brave were provided a pill that revealed the hidden nature of the reality surrounding them. In the religious context, consider the dominant themes in which the grace of God or the movement toward enlightenment awakens adherents to the illusory nature of mundane experience.
There is a tinge of paranoia in these beliefs, the idea that only those with access to esoteric knowledge can know “what’s really going on.” And as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips points out, paranoia is the self-cure for insignificance, a psychic strategy for assuaging an inner doubt that we might not really matter.
It is the analytical and political hubris contained in this stance that is the problem. If we are asleep, then it is the responsibility of Rove, Debs, West or Lululemon founder Chip Wilson — the ones who are presumably awake — to wipe the political sleep from our eyes.
But my sense is that people live their lives as best they can, sorting through the complex claims on their time, their values and their obligations to families and communities. We weigh the costs of action in the political world against the satisfactions and disappointments of working through the dynamics of everyday life. We live, as historian Aileen Kraditor suggests, within complex and disorderly societies, not within all-encompassing systems.
This election year, we will undoubtedly hear from many people who suggest we wake up and realize the state we’re in. Some of these people might even be candidates. When they do, you might consider this response: “I’m awake, thank you very much — and feeling grumpy.”
Kelly Candaele is an adjunct professor of communications at Cal State Chico.