Sunday, May 23, 2010

Deconstructing Dumbo: The Disneyland Discourse on Suburban America

“Sorry, folks! We're closed for two weeks to clean and repair America's favorite family fun park. Sorry, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh!”
-Marty Moose, Walley World National Lampoons Summer Vacation (1983)

“Sorry folks, park's closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya”

- Lasky, Walley World Security guard, National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation (1983)

The Griswold family’s disappointing arrival at the mythical Walley World resulted in a semi-armed standoff in which bb gun wielding family patriarch Clark Griswold overran park security, ferrying his family to ride after ride, ultimately gaining forgiveness from Walley World’s owner. The Griswold family’s punishing trek from Chicago across the western U.S remains the National Lampoon’s series most popular production. Though Walley World was meant to be a gentle parody of Anaheim’s Disneyland, its ridiculous finale spoke to disappointment in the American Dream. Griswold confides in Walley World owner Roy Walley:

Clark: Roy; can I call you Roy? Have you even driven your whole family cross-country?
Roy Walley: Oh, hell yes. Once I drove all of them to Florida. The smell coming out of the back seat was terrible.
Clark: I know that smell, Roy; but what if you had driven all that way and Florida was closed?
Roy Walley: Closed? Uh, they don't close Florida.
Clark: I just want you to ask yourself one thing. If you were... if you were me, wouldn't you do the same thing for your children?
Roy Walley: No.

In 2009’s
Adventureland, James Brennan (played by Jessie Eisenberg), a recent college grad with a degree in Renaissance Studies, finds his postgraduation hopes of escape to 1987 New York squashed by recessionary pressures as an alcoholic father’s demotion necessitated James’ gainiful employment. Forced to work a summer gig at a local Pittsburgh amusement park, Disneyland it was not. Roger Ebert described the park as “shabby” where “all of the rides look secondhand, all of the games are rigged, and all of the prizes look like surplus.” New York Times critic A.O. Scott noted an atmosphere of “suburban discomfort”, characterizing the establishment as “a sad little amusement park that serves as the employer of last resort for the area’s misfit young.”

Films like Adventureland and National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation represent a cultural pushback against the idyllic vision of suburban America that Disneyland has long symbolized. Disneyland’s famously scrub brushed employees, “attractive, white, young men and women” often “college students, grads, or teachers” contrast sharply with the downtrodden misanthropes of Adventureland. In National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation, the entire process of reaching Disneyland, the migration of Midwesterners to Los Angeles which just happens to be a large part of Los Angeles’ creation, and the destination itself are beset with obstacles, torturing the family, undermining Clark Griswold’s authority as father. When the final destination is closed, Clark’s masculinity knows only one way out, fake plastic guns.

As has been recounted numerous times, Walt Disney himself created Disneyland, in part as a reaction to the “vulgarity” of Coney Island. For many of Disney’s generation, Coney Island’s unsupervised ethnically diverse heterosocial spaces represented a degraded sort of leisure, one founded on a heterogenous ethnic diversity and “sexual ambiguity”. As Eric Avila points out in Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (2004), Disney “renounced the contradictions and uncertainties of modern urban society. The very heterogeneity and dissonance that defined cosmopolitan urban culture inspired [him] to create a counterculture of order, regimentation, and homogeneity.” (Avila, 119)

Started in the mid 1950s, Disneyland’s pervasiveness as a neologism has become ubiquitous. John Findlay, in Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940 (1992), notes that by 1956, the public had brightlined Disneyland’s cultural meaning such that “it had come to mean “any fantastic of fanciful land or place; a never never land.” (52) Employed in numerous settings, phrases like “’Disneyland for adults’ was invoked to publicize (and sanitize the images of both Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs and the gambling resort of Las Vegas.” (Findlay, 52) However, beyond language, Disneyland cast a towering shadow that helped re-imagine popular culture, the urban-suburban divide, and landscapes across the country. In addition, Disneyland perpetuated patriarchal suburban domesticities while reifying racial inequality.

If as Lizabeth Cohen argues in A Consumer Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003) that postwar government policies as represented by the G.I. Bill, VA/FHA home loans, and new tax polices sought to create a “consumer republic” that enhanced purchasing power, conflating citizenship with consumerism, this new orientation reverberated politically, socially, economically, and spatially. If most writers have focused intensely on housing and school desegregation struggles, others have employed a broader lens, employing critical race theory to popular culture of the age. Prominent among such methodological turns stands Eric Avila and his aforementioned Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight. Examining meanings behind film noir, urban sci-fi, Disneyland, Dodger’s Stadium, and freeway construction, Avila locates an attempt by Southern California elites and others to construct Los Angeles as suburban “white spot” immune to the dangers of the city, protected by homogenous suburbanization. According to Avila, popular culture not only reflected the changing perceptions and normative values associated with suburbanization but also “prefigured the rightward shift of American politics during the postwar period.” (228)

As American postwar demographics changed, whites attempted to construct a “white suburban” imaginary to prevent what many saw as the excesses of a dark or racialized city. Few regions represent this shift as clearly as Southern California. Within Southern California few metropolitan areas illustrate this development as lucidly as Los Angeles. Avila explores the construction of a “privatized, consumer oriented subjectivity premised upon patriarchy, whiteness and suburban home ownership.” As government policies attempted to reconstruct American identities along consumerist lines, white suburbanites attempted to build a “classless” ideal that separated them from the “darkened” inner city, as Avila writes, “Blacks, women, homosexuals, and Communists ran rampant in the noir city, threatening the prospects for a return to a class vision of white patriarchy that defined suburban idealizations of the American Way.” (Avila, 104). Reinforcing such ideals were the perceived post war decline of neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and Watts, a decline due in great part to HOLC/FHA policies, and the rise of suburban enclaves like South Gate meant suburban residents hoped to differentiate themselves from the evils of urban living. Thus, as “the expansion of suburban California provided a mythic space for the construction of a new “white city””, Bunker Hill, Boyle Heights, and Watts provided convenient straw men for the emerging “cinematic vision of a black and alien Los Angeles.” Here Avila juxtaposes the portrayal of the inner city in Los Angeles film noir with the rise of Disneyland, each representing an idealized/demonized version of metropolitan regions.

Of course, noir did not monopolize such imaginaries alone. Sci-fiction films also contributed to this dynamic. War of the Worlds, Them!, He Walked By Night and other movies promoted white middle class suburban domesticities as much as their noir counterparts. For example, Avila points to a “climatic scene” in War of the Worlds in which “masses of Angelenos take refuge inside a church shortly before the imminent holocaust, a white family – mother, father, son, daughter – huddles together in prayer, gazing up toward the image of Christ altar.” (Avila, 100-101) Editing and lighting techniques emphasize the image of the white family under alien attack. Urbanites under the attack of “alien” minorities and the structural deficiencies of cities necessitated white flight, if only to preserve whiteness and the nuclear family. Still, the visions supplied by both noir and urban science fiction provided suburbanites with equal parts horror and fascination. Though these films encouraged fear over “alien invasion” they “simultaneously preserved a psychic tie between the city and suburb.” (Avila, 103) The “Other” remained integral to Cold War interests defining subversives from communists to blacks to homosexuals “upholding its centrality in post war American popular culture [inserting] itself into the very heart of Southern California’s cultural milieu.” (Avila, 103).

While film noir and urban science fiction highlighted the threats of a city inhabited by untrustworthy women and non-white citizens densely and dangerously packed into urban spaces, Disneyland symbolized the epitome of decentralized, privatized white suburbia, functioning to provide “a space where white Southern Californians could affirm their whiteness against a set of racial stereotypes.” (Avila, 137) In terms of family structure, Disneyland delineated a “social order” that appealed to the tastes and desires of both a growing middle class and an “embourgeoised working class” emphasizing patriarchy and the nuclear family. (Avila, 137) Here Disney’s message meshed perfectly with postwar Federal economic policies such as the G.I. Bill that privileged patriarchal domesticities. Once again Lizabeth Cohen acknowledges such developments, writing, “If the G.I. Bill privileged some groups over others, the tax code in the late 1940s was altered in ways that reinforced the G.I. Bill in favoring the traditional male breadwinner headed family and the male citizen over the female within it.” (Cohen, 144) In this way, Disneyland as an appendage of a larger consumer republic that privileged the nuclear family, thus forcing women to remain financially dependent on men. Disneyland situated itself nicely in such an atmosphere.

While writers such as Matt Lassiter have argued for an end to scholarly studies that divide suburbs and cities into discrete unconnected entities, Avila seems to have addressed this relation in the negative. For Avila, in many ways like a post war American Orientalism, the “vanilla suburbs’” identity depended on the symbolic “chocolate city” as the “other”. Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right explored Orange County’s middle and upper class residents’ contributions to the construction of the conservative ideology that fueled the Reagan Revolution. Avila credits Disneyland for cradling this “racialized conservatism that informed the nascent political struggles of the New Right,” providing a popular culture touchstone for a burgeoning social movement. Findlay points to similar developments, suggesting Disneyland contributed to the O.C.’s “distinctive suburban identity” but paradoxically also helped to “transform Anaheim, a small and subordinate town on the fringes of Los Angeles, into the equivalent of a central business district for urbanizing Orange County.” (Findlay, 54) Thus Disneyland, though serving as a symbol of postwar suburban planning, also drove local urbanization.

Undoubtedly, Los Angeles’ role as cultural producer influenced such developments. L.A’s suburban decentralized nature, when portrayed in movies, television, and via Disneyland reinforced such conceptions of post war America. In many ways, Disneyland served as a manifestation of film. Movie studio art directors supported by a slew of “architects, writers, special effects artists and other motion picture” trades emerged as the park’s chief designers. These film experts employed techniques such as “forced perspective” - tricking the eye into viewing buildings as taller than in reality - and “scaling down” - the parks features were not life size, for example the trains traversing the parks are built at “approximately five eights scale” -while threading narratives through “the rides, the several lands, and the general park” that reflected those of Disney movies. (Findlay, 68) Employing both “Disney Realism” and “Capitalist Realism”, the park broadcast a worldview that articulated sunny visions of life brought to patrons by corporate sponsors like Monsanto. Disneyland professed faith in suburban corporate living and the future that the Fortune 500 promised. (Findlay, 78) Moreover, noir’s postulation of the city suggested a shift form Enlightenment ideals of urban areas as Avila notes, “In contrast to the enlightenment view of the Western city as the site of individual opportunity and the summit of social progress film noir emphasized the social and psychological consequences of urban modernity.” (Avila, 69) McGirr’s Orange County republicans epitomize this view; Orange County conservatives wanted a return to normative traditions, “but also called for a new one based on a highly modern technocratic defense of ethos, as assertion of an invigoration of the nuclear family unit as the locus of moral authority.” In contrast, noir’s vision suggested that Progressive reforms failed to stem “the degraded culture of the modern metropolis [underscoring] the need for a sociospatial alternative to the chaos of urban modernity precipitating such transformative urban processes as suburban development, urban renewal, and highway construction.” (Findlay, 78)

Ironically, as John Findlay suggests Disneyland represented this awkward balance of modernity and tradition as it privileged “Main Street America” in its design and format but surely benefitted from the Santa Monica Freeway that led patrons to their gates. In addition, Disneyland mirrored the structural changes unfolding in the broader American economy. While it promoted traditional American individualism and the aesthetics of small town America, the park and its masters also employed the tools of modern economics and the developing mass media. Organized “along industrial lines for a type of mass production”, Disneyland manufactured “happiness” rather than “durable goods”, meanwhile the park’s workers illustrated the shift from “extractive and industrial jobs toward the service sector.” (Findlay, 94). Though Walt Disney’s creation harkened back to the days of small business entreprenueralism, the methods it used required the employment of “organization men and women” and alliances with multinational corporations. As John Findlay suggests, “Disneyland conveyed mores that were associated with America’s preindustrial and industrializing past by using techniques specific to America’s postindustrial present and future.” (Findlay, 94).

In terms of class, Disneyland obviously supported middle income domesticities. However, as is usually the case with consumerism, it proved difficult to limit its appeal. Certainly, Disney felt little connection to the nation’s poorer residents. Even in its conceptualization Walt Disney “did not necessarily intend even to admit the lower classes. [Disneyland] aimed instead to harmonize and refine the respectable middle classes with middlebrow culture.” (Findlay, 87) Despite its racialized use of the “other”, Disneyland attracted Southern California’s working classes, many of whom were non-white. Avila recounts Theresa Hernandez’s trip to Disneyland, where despite the park’s “othering” of non-whites, it appealed to the Hernandez family, “for a working class families of color who labored to reap the fruits of the American Way” writes Avila “an annual trip to Disneyland may have signaled a rite of passage into the materially abundant universe of the middle class . . . “ (Avila, 143)

Regionally, writers frequently conflated Disneyland with the West’s national parks, attributing to it a legitimacy that provided greater meaning. Not only did the park lend Anaheim and Orange County a cultural significance, upon which both capitalized, but it also served as a “California based critique” of both Eastern cities and the problems Walt Disney believed these cities brought to American culture. However, by the 1970s as white flight accelerated and communities’ racial make up changed, Disneyland symbolized refuge rather than escape, “For a resident of a white suburban neighborhood threatened by juvenile delinquency and racial succession, Disneyland offered a reassuring vision of domestic harmony and ethnic homogeneity and modeled the social order white suburban Americans sought to create within their own communities.” (Avila, 142) Disney officials recognized this shift. In a 1984 publication, the park claimed Walt Disney “had included Main Street U.S.A in the park as a counterpoise to ‘the rootless society and ugliness’ of Los Angeles … In later years it became standard to view the theme park not as natural outgrowth of Los Angeles but as an aberration and an antidote to it.” (Findlay, 97) That the park had been created in a manner as to be “timeless” and more in response to its “vulgar” Coney Island predecessor mattered little to such observers. Contemporaries of the day endorsed the idea that Disney’s “urban/suburban” vision merited worth. Science Fiction writer Ray Bradbury lauded Walt Disney for mayor in 1960 arguing that “Disney is a city builder. He has already proven his ability to construct an entire community, plus rivers, plus mountains, from the gaslines up. He has already solved, in small compass most of the problems of Los Angeles.” (Findlay, 96)

One final irony deserves attention. Orange County’s prosperity rested on Cold War military and national infrastructure expansion. Yet, many if not most of its residents articulated an anti-government ethos. Disneyland also benefitted from these developments. Walt Disney proved a fierce Cold War warrior displaying little to no reluctance in imbuing Disneyland with a pro-capitalist foundation, even refusing Russian Premier Nikia Krushuchev entry in the 1960s. Though these Cold War messages faded as Disneyland’s existence continued, like Orange County, anti-communism served as a unifying and in Disney’s case, profitable force. Moreover, Disneyland surely benefitted from the highway infrastructure created in the 1950s which situated the park along the Santa Monica Freeway. A freeway, Eric Avila notes came at the expense of numerous communities of color in Southern California. Despite benefitting from government largesse, both Orange County residents and Disneyland itself exuded an anti-government positioning. For Orange County this can clearly be seen in its contributions to the New Right, while Disneyland displayed its own anti government bias in its 1963 refusal to allow a Sheraton Hotel to violate the park’s “visual integrity”. Disneyland forced architectural revisions to the building, ostensibly suggesting the Anaheim skyline belonged to it rather than the city’s residents. Even some local conservatives bristled at such attitudes. (Findlay, 97)

By the 1980s, Disney’s cultural power remained dominant. As that decade drew to a close and the 1990s began, Victorious athletes announced triumphantly that they were “going to Disneyworld.” Yet, the shifting sands of American culture pointed to some uncomfortable truths for Mickey Mouse et al. In a 1984 legal proceeding, a gay couple challenged its expulsion from the park for holding hands. To the surprise of many, the Orange County jury ruled in favor of the couple, a direct affront to Disney’s ideals. By the mid-1990s even its main propaganda arm, its animated features, no longer commanded the attention of the American public as newer companies like Pixar and Dreamworks produced more innovative works. Moreover, the changes in national demographics and corporate America meant that pursing a suburban white ideal no longer sufficed. Increasingly self consciously diverse advertising campaigns grew more common as corporations attempted to tap into expanding minority markets (of course those markets had always existed but had been largely ignored). Though Adventureland’s amusement park failed to match Disneyland in any way, the protagonist escapes his suburban hell for late 1980s New York, a cauldron of mixed ethnicities, urban conflict, and economic decline. Granted a movie made in 2009, when cities have become safer and more attractive to young professionals and older couples, might look back with rose colored glasses, but certainly it hints at wider shifts that leave Disneyland’s suburban ideal less than it was.

Ryan Reft

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

New on Videri

We have a lot of new stuff to share on Videri, including,
"A Nation of Consumer Republics: Suburbanization, Media, and Cultural Production in Postwar America," an essay that examines the interconnections between the work of Lizabeth Cohen, Ben Bagdikian, Lisa Lowe, and Glen Mimura. We also have new entries on:
  • Sut Jhally and Bill Livant, "Watching as Working: The Valorization of Audience Consciousness" (1986) >
  • Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005) >
  • Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (1997) >
  • Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (2001) >
  • Glen Mimura, Ghostlife of Third Cinema (2009) >
  • Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the rise of American Environmentalism (2001) >

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Re: Media Monopolies Manufacturing Consent: Chomsky, Herman, and Bagdikian in the 21st Century

Originally published in 1983, Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly rattled numerous disciplinary and occupational cages. Asserting that the capitalization of the media has served to consolidate its ownership while diminishing its informational saliency, Bagdikian’s work served as a harbinger of things to come. Later critics built on Bagdikian’s work, arguing that the nightly newscasts and cable news outlets now offered a product more akin to what Bagdikian refers to as “infotainment”. Bagdikian’s updated book, entitled The New Media Monopoly attempts to insert his 1983 offering into the context of the past 25 years.

If the original work suggested that 50 corporate entities exerted too much influence and control over the politics and economics of media, Bagdikian points out that the trend has worsened such that “five global dimension firms, operating with many of the characteristics of a cartel, own most of the newspapers, magazines, book publishers, motion picture studios, and radio and television stations in the United States.” (3) For Bagdikian, it follows that ownership of these firms results in unprecedented “communications power” that exceeds even history's greatest dictatorships.

The New Media Monopoly conflates the action of media with those of cartels, pointing out that though many such firms critique government interference in “markets”, upsetting competition and the laws of supply and demand, yet they “indulge in mutual aid and shared investments in the same media products.”

Though careful not to draw direct causality, Bagdikian suggests this shrinking distribution of media ownership may have contributed to rightward political shifts that frame formerly liberal political positions as fire breathing radicalism. Politically, this has meant Republicans benefited from much larger coffers since corporate and trade associations provided twice the financial support as that of unions, the Democrats primary big money contributor. Going further, Bagdikian notes that news now reflects stories that interest ownership, often the kind of pieces that increase viewership and ad sales. Unfortunately, this means that issues important to the people are obscured and the neutral tone of “modern news” reifies issues rather than interrogating them. Like Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Bagdikian points out that before one takes issue with the news itself, he/she must look at what “is chosen or not chosen – for print or broadcast. Media politics are reflected in the selection of commentators and talk show hosts.” (25)
Manufacturing Consent drew similar conclusions pointing out that government and corporate sources were privileged over others, this resulted in news reports/articles that fundamentally reflected the views of those institutions.

The accumulation of media outlets owned by “the big five” (Vivendi, Time Warner, The Walt Disney Company, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Viacom, and Bertelsmann) translates into political power even if in the purest of worlds they fail to directly exert any influence. The knowledge of their ownership accumulations causes any politician to think twice about passing any sort of media reform legislation. As The New Media Monopoly notes, “Political leaders and parties know that the news media control how those politicians are depicted to the voting public … politicians treat the country’s most powerful media corporations with something approaching reverence.” (29) However, Bagdikian certainly expects ownership to impose its views, “Editorially, corporate causes almost invariably become news media causes.” (161)

In some cases, the connection between politics, money, and media proved even starker. Bagdikian provides evidence that despite Nixon’s assault on the first amendment, numerous newspapers supported his presidency, and in 1972 he received the most endorsements by the papers than any other candidate in the modern era. Moreover, “pro-Nixon” papers illustrated a tendency to ignore or downplay Watergate stories than those newspapers not offering endorsements, as Bagdikian darkly notes, “these included the papers who had obtained their antitrust favor from Nixon” (215) Ultimately, many publishers exhibited a willingness to exchange press freedoms for “corporate favors”. Often such favor included influencing legislation or court rulings that saved these dailies “not from extinction but merely from competition.” (217)

Media outlets further this problem in their treatment of business. Accusing the S.E.C. of becoming a “toothless watchdog unable or unwilling to bark at large corporations”, Bagdikian argues the media exacerbates the problem as it devotes its “space and energies ot the celebration of top corporate executive as heroes or geniuses” feigning ignorance to the critics on the left who pointed to the “sins of corporations.” (103) Recently writing for Rolling Stone, Muckraker Matt Taibbi leveled a similar critique regarding media coverage of the Clintons and their star Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin, “While the American media fell in love with the story line of a pair of baby boomer sixties child, Fleetwood Mac Yuppies nesting in the White House, it also nursed an undisguised crush on Rubin who was hyped as without a doubt the smartest person ever to walk the face of the Earth with Newton, Einstein, Mozart, and Kant running far behind.” (Taibbi, Matt, Rolling Stone, “The Great American Bubble Machine”, June 9-23, 2009)

Still, if sycophantism does not suffice then add ignorance. For example, the 1990s witnessed an explosion of wealth, though it rested on faulty economics few journalists pointed this out, rather they produced stories that “in retrospect seem childlike in their innocence and joy at the “new economy.” (108) The influence of business extends further into the pro-capitalistic tropes of high school economics classes to the presence of business leaders on the board of the nation’s universities, meaning that even in alleged bastions of free thought, corporations maintain a pervasive influence. The fundamental point remains that, through the nation’s media and learning institutions, corporate values or ethos have become lodged into the American psyche.

According to Bagdikian, attempts by journalists to fairly report on business are often met with hyperbolic corporate reactions that demand full repudiation even when stories prove to be factually accurate. The corporate backlash of the 1970s manifested itself in Reagan’s election as outraged corporate leaders built war chests that exceeded all those that came before, throwing their support behind the former actor. Moreover, business attacks on the media exceeded rational bounds, as Bagdikian argues that corporate attacks “attempted to discredit the whole system of American news as subversive to American values and to characterize journalists as a class of careless “economic illiterates” biased against business.” (162) Still, Bagdikian concedes that the former accusation proved justified: “Most reporters are ‘economic illiterates’ in the sense that they lack skills to analyze business records and they seldom have the sophistication to comprehend world economic forces.” (162) Judging from recent economic crisis, this point remains hard to refute. The aforementioned Matt Taibbi concurred. In a 2009 podcast, the Rolling Stone contributing editor admitted that for the first couple months of the housing bubble burst and stock market crash, most reporters were just trying to wrap their heads around it.

Not only does the public’s knowledge of domestic policy suffer, its understanding of foreign affairs and the United States place within them often lacks any real grasp of American actions, the policies themselves, and the effects of these policies on other nations. In the wake of 9/11, Bagdikian traces the numerous examples of media culpability in failing to report the actual ground effects of US foreign policies citing examples from the exploits of the United Fruit Company in Central America, to C.I.A. skullduggery in Guatemala and Chile. Even worse, in revisiting such stories Bagdikian points out that “the Times and other American major news media repeatedly failed to mention that Pinochet had been directed in his crimes by U.S. agents and had been supported by Washington during his long bloody, regime.” (101) Again, Chomsky’s work compliments and often reinforces Bagdikian’s. For example, regarding the Guatemala episode, Chomsky illustrates how the media, in the context of the Cold War, privileged certain political actors suggesting that the coverage given to Eastern European dissidents led to a suspicious silence concerning the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan government.

Five years after Bagdikian’s 1983 work, Herman and Chomsky published the aforementioned Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media -- a book so relevant it was name dropped in Good Will Hunting. If The Media Monopoly (the original work consisted of six chapters) provided a concise opening discussion on problems in the media, Manufacturing Consent organized its ideas into a theory suggesting the media functioned in relation to five filters that determined its content. Many of these filters appear in The New Media Monopoly but not with the same formal theoretical structure: 1) the size and ownership of media outlets 2) Advertising’s influence 3) Sourcing 4) Flak and enforces – outside pressure and lobbyist groups and 5) anti-communism. Of course, the fifth filter could probably today be replaced with anti-terrorism. Manufacturing Consent then applies this filter the several cases in Central American, Indochina, and Eastern Europe.

One area of difference between the two works can be found in Bagdikian’s discussion of The New Yorker’s post 1967 anti-war posture. The Media Monopoly paints The New Yorker’s decision as a brave move of conscience that retained its level of readership but shifted its audience from wealthier older persons to less affluent young adults. For Bagdikian, the New Yorker’s private non-corporate ownership in part shielded the magazine from content change that would have come had a corporate entity been at the helm. When editor William Shawn tells Bagdikian the advertising executives would never interfere in content, Bagdikian concurs: “Were it not for the incontrovertible behavior of The New Yorker during the Vietnam War, it would be difficult not to regard Shawn’s words as the standard mythic rhetoric.” However, by 1967 the U.S. had been in Vietnam for three years, as Manufacturing Consent points out mainstream media failed to mount any criticism of the war until 1968. While The New Yorker may have been ahead of the curve, they failed to eclipse the competition.

The New Yorker example proves useful as another development that may have undermined Chomsky, Herman, and Bagdikian’s argument, market segmentation. As Bagdikian notes, post 1967 The New Yorker's circulation rose but the average age of readers fell from 48 years to 34, meaning more college and high school students had gravitated to the magazine for its anti-war writing. Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003) addressed the issue of segmentation, or the practice of advertising products to specific demographic groupings. While some argue this made life more democratic, Cohen suggests otherwise. What resulted was a new commercial culture that reified – at times exaggerated – social difference in the pursuit of profits, often reincorporating disaffected groups into the commercial marketplace.” (309)

By the 1980s, class segmentation in marketing expanded as advertisers targeted the upper middle class and upper classes as a new market unto themselves. Clearly, Cohen views such developments negatively, arguing that when marketers abandoned the mass, they contributed to individual stratification as well. “Individuals soon learned that their own good fortunes as homeowners, shoppers, and voters depended on identifying with special interest constituencies with clout – for example, localistically minded suburbanites, Yuppies, African Americans, senior citizens or gun owners.” (343) If anything has emerged in terms of the public’s reading and viewing habits, though news sources may have proliferated, the audience segments along the lines Cohen points out. The kind of news people pursue increasingly seems to be the news they want to hear. In this context, Fox News and its liberal counterpart CNBC would seem to be two sides of the same coin.

Undoubtedly, Manufacturing Consent and The Media Monopoly remain important works, but their arguments seem to deliver diminishing returns. If their analysis of the mainstream print and television media remains accurate, the question becomes how dominant are these mediums in terms of news? In 2007, the Journal of Broadcast and Electric Media published Indiana University Telecommunications Professor Julie F. Fox’s “No Joke: A Comparison of Substance in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Broadcast Network Television Coverage of the 2004 Presidential Election Campaign.” According to Fox, The Daily Show’s coverage proved equally substantial as compared with nightly mainstream news broadcasts. While Bagdikian’s critique of infotainment appears prescient, the fact remains many people do get their news from The Daily Show and countless other outlets residing on the outer reaches of the internet and cable.

To be fair, Bagdikian addresses the internet issue but his analysis seems dated. For example, he applauds the creation of Wikipedia but then notes that companies have started their own “fee based wiki internet sites, which business professionals and corporations can use as a fast moving bulletin board for large corporate conferences and conventions.” (148) Fine, but a more relevant critique might point to the fact that Wikipedia has entire pages that remain contested because corporate and governmental entities continue to alter them in ways favorable to themselves. What about social networks? Facebook and Twitter have proven to be effective in political mobilization -- witness the “success” of political tweeting in Iran.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about The Media Monopoly and Manufacturing Consent is how unsurprising they are. Is anyone surprised when Bagdikian points to corporate consolidation of media? The American public’s been watching that happen throughout the economy for nearly two decades. When Bagdikian notes how most of the nation’s newspapers fall under one of a handful of companies, people today would be more surprised that that many businesses exist. The demise of American newspapers served as one of the central dramas of the past ten years, important enough to occupy centerstage in The Wire’s final season and in even more plebeian sources such as the popular Bill Simmons “BS Report” podcast.

Ultimately, the intervention of telecommunications, the internet, cable and other technological innovations have to some extent rendered aspects of Chomsky, Herman, and Bagdikian irrelevant. Though their arguments remain accurate for aspects of today’s media, the sheer accumulation of options combined with the increasingly stratified effects of segmentation have undermined the centrality of Chomsky et al’s subject. The question now becomes, what does this mean more broadly? More voices does not necessarily mean more accurate coverage, nor does it mean those voices will be heard. However, old media will take years to fully fade away. As Bagdikian points out, “New technology widely adopted by society seldom causes its older competitor to disappear at once.” Hence for decades after the invention of the car, horses were still common. (69) So maybe a couple of stalwarts like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and the much maligned U.S.A. Today will remain dominant to the extent that media monopolies will continue to manufacture consent, but changes are coming.

Ryan Reft

Sunday, May 9, 2010

California Love


Capitalists, Fernand Braudel observes, “behave in various ways.” “Some were calculating, others ready to take risks, some were mean, others prodigal, some had a touch of genius, others were ‘lucky’ at best.” The story of America’s westward expansion includes all of these types of capitalists. If long distance trade, as Braudel contends, was crucial for the development of capitalism, then the construction of America’s continental empire is in large part the story of the development of capitalism in North America. The course of American history as portrayed by University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings in
Dominion from Sea to Sea, however, is not merely about the construction of a continental empire; rather, it seeks to reorient American history from the East to the West.

That was the first paragraph of my world-changing review essay that was aborted abruptly due to existential angst and the fact that some other jerk (Andrew Bacevich) wrote exactly what I intended to write but much more thoughtfully and elegantly than I ever could. It’s a damn shame too, because the book is very engaging and well-written; just look at this gem: “The rhetoric engulfing Manifest Destiny soon became so replete with purple prose and gaseous emission that one imagines a venal politician taking lessons in circumlocution while lubricating his throat as if readying for an opera—the great West, the ‘far West’ (China), the world itself, it seemed, was now an American plaything.” [p. 63]

In any case, here is the link to Bacevich’s somewhat lengthy review of Dominion from Sea to Sea. Although Bacevich does pass up the opportunity to discuss a lot of Cumings’s most interesting observations on California (a lot of which comrade Reft discussed in his last post), his main critique is a sound one. Enjoy:
….within America itself, doubts proliferate about whether California’s vaunted lifestyle is sustainable or even worth sustaining. If that road points to a destination, it’s toward escape into some idyllic “endless summer” where the sun always shines, wireless connectivity never fails and someone else foots the bill. For more than a few contemporary Americans—not only Californians—this describes what they understand by freedom. Yet freedom defined as lifestyle is devoid of moral purpose. It is nihilism with a suntan. And sooner or later the bill collector does come calling.
William Kiwiman Williams

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Noise, from Dos Passos to Bob Pollard

It is often said that the United States is a post-industrial society with an information economy. The American enterprise is now driven by services and the creation of intellectual property, in the form of entertainment, pharmaceuticals, software and other forms of “information.” Most thinkers have linked this shift to two big changes: the widespread introduction of computers, and the connecting of all these computers through modern telecommunications, including advances in phone, cable, and satellite connectivity. Whole disciplines of information science and information theory have emerged since the 1940s to interpret this new infrastructure of communication, and we have grown accustomed to treating all expression, all thought, all interaction as a statistical, quantifiable transmission of information. Anything that gets in the way of that transmission is noise. And in a system that seeks the fastest, most profitable ways to make, move, send, sale, and receive information, noise is a potential threat.

The anthropologist Brian Larkin has written thoughtfully about the aesthetics and political implications of noise in his work on video piracy in Nigeria. The noise generated by endless copying takes on a life of its own. “Cheap tape recorders, old televisions, blurred videos that are the copy of a copy of a copy,” Larkin says. “These are the material distortions endemic to the reproduction of media goods in situations of poverty and illegality...” The distortion is an imprint of the conditions under which such goods are made and distributed, a disordered society. The circulation of pirate goods is also a sort of noise in the total system of communication from the perspective of Western media corporations, who would rather see the leaks that disseminate bootleg distortion around the world plugged up. Bootlegs stand in contrast to the vision of efficient delivery of sound and vision that media companies would desire in a perfect world.

It is little wonder that we tend to think of communication as the sending of a signal from point A to point B. In a society that worships the ideals of the market, we have come to imagine our communication with each other purely as a matter of exchange, not as an encounter or engagement between two or more people – what Heidegger would call “being with.” We are not being with each other when we talk; we are sending things to and from each other.

But is the dream of perfect communication – the pure, unimpeded transfer of information from one to another – anything more than an elusive ideal? To better understand what’s at stake culturally in the so-called “information economy,” we need to examine the way theorists have thought of the relationship between epistemology and technology. Students of communication always deal with how people come to know things. Jacques Attali, George Myerson, Paolo Virno and others have argued that particular ideologies about how we learn and speak accompany the emergence of various media; people usually create a new device with a particular notion of ideal communication in mind. How communication is defined can have dramatic consequences for how we live.

We can start from the premise that there is an external world, and that we are born with some means and invent others for processing information about it. The medium, which is in the middle, strives to render its inputs in useful ways, which implies some kind of (greater or lesser) correspondence between what is perceived and the perception. We can change the media in various ways – their nature is as dynamic as the world inside and out. As Torben Sangild has written, "There is a constant discrepancy between the essentially indescribable object and the attempt to verbalize and understand it,” but people have aimed to minimize this gap in most media. “Long before it was given… theoretical expression, noise had always been experienced as destruction, disorder, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages,” according to Attali. The goal has been to produce a recording that captures sound clearly, or a photograph that resembles as much as possible what the human eye perceives in a given time and place.

Perfect accuracy would mean that the picture perceived is identical to the outside world in all relevant details. It is possible to conceive of such a situation, even if its realization would be unlikely or even impossible. Clarity in literature, technology, art, social organization, construction or philosophy extends both productive and destructive possibilities. It would be wrong to fault this yearning for accuracy as a wholesale flaw of modernism, capitalism, science or some other bogeyman. Desire for efficiency can lead to elegance of expression and material abundance. Blinders help people to see and function, while also introducing the danger of missing or dismissing important information.

One version of the search for clarity would ultimately attain perfect communication – signals that are smoothly transmitted, instantly understood, and enacted without flaw. One can draw an analogy from the relationship of the external world, the sensory organs, language and the mind to the operation of a telephone system. Ideally, what exists on one end would appear in the highest resolution on the other, unpolluted. The best computer would find the exact file you want as soon as it comes to mind; this dream stretches back all the way to Vannevar Bush's pre-digital idea of a "memex" tape machine of the 1940s, which followed "associative trails" marked and remembered during one's work in a microfilm library. A command to open would open, and nothing would ever crash, because no confusion could occur within the machine as to what should be done when.

When David Brent, the nightmare boss of BBC’s
The Office, declared that “a company runs on efficiency of communication,” he was not just mouthing a management cliché. This satire of white collar misery neatly summarizes the model of communication toward which technology and modern administration strive. A richer example can be found in a 1996 commercial for Lotus office software. A young boy named Mikey Powers writes a letter to Lotus declaring that “business is boring,” and computers should be used for fun and “surfing.” Suddenly, actor Denis Leary appears in the bedroom and tells Mikey to go to bed. “You can’t handle the fact that big companies are using the web to save a billion dollars and get their products to market faster,” Leary snarled. “All you care about is fooling around on your computer, right? Well, who pays for that fancy computer? Your parents. How do they make money…? Business.” Investment in technology demands that “fooling around” be subordinated to the more legitimate purposes of business. Communication is a means to practical ends in the strictest sense – order, efficacy, productivity, and, as Lotus suggests, ever greater acceleration.

The organizing zeal of capitalism reveals the darker side of the Internet and Adrienne Rich's "dream of a common language." The World Wide Web uses uniform protocols (i.e. rules and procedures) so that a computer can hook up to it and exchange information with any other, from Bangladesh to the US. Computer scientists called this "end to end" programming, because it did not matter what was actually happening on one computer or the other – a card game, a spreadsheet or word processing – the parts in between were simple, effective and similar enough for communication to happen anyway. In other words, TCP/IP can be viewed as a common language or lingua franca, the pragmatist's Esperanto. The brilliant ideas of Tim Berners-Lee and other key programmers have opened up a flexible and expansive medium for the use of many people in the world. Some critics argue, though, that the Internet language eliminates difference and sucks things great and small into one flat, homogeneous medium.

Paul Edwards argues that the metaphor of the human body as an information processing machine – a computer – provided the basis for the new cognitive psychology that developed out of World War II, with clear political implications. The war presented communication as an immensely practical problem, since soldiers often could not hear commands against the din of tanks and bombs. The solution required cutting of many kinds: scientists working for the Department of Defense had to find ways both to reduce noise and to strip language down to its barest, instrumental essentials. The integration of humans into high-tech weapons systems encouraged a view of the human brain as a computer, receiving and acting upon signals according to an internally defined set of procedures. In such a scenario, communication consists of “transmissions through a command chain.” Military researchers inadvertently betrayed many of their underlying assumptions with the name chosen for a new gizmo, the “ear warden,” which ensured that sailors could discern instructions from the surrounding sounds of combat. “Noise caused chaos by breaking the links of the chain of command,” Edwards writes. “Ear Wardens restored order. Anything other than the effective movement of instructions is, like the rattle of a battlefield, useless noise. Effective technology and management would police the boundaries of perception.

This ideology extends far beyond military applications or even the academic psychology that grew out of defense research. The goal of clear transmission of orders toward practical ends pervades the consumer market and the workplace. Our socialization to technology mimics our ideal for machinery. You are at home with the new device when you can pull the cell phone from your pocket, unlock the keypad, open your message box, and bring the phone to your ear through muscle memory, with the minimum attention possible. Thought can then be allocated to other tasks, increasing your general efficiency. It would be frustrating to contact a call center for some corporation and find that the person on the other end does not know which button to push, or the best way to navigate through options on a computer screen to find the solution to your problem. I used to work the phone at a pizza place, and I surely inflicted some angst when I could not figure out how to punch in a special deal on so many wings and so many breadsticks for $5.99. I recall also that I got annoyed when the customer continually changed from one topping to three to two, or wanted blue cheese dressing instead of the originally stated preference for ranch. If only Jimbo Cloninger had planned out his choices in advance and proceeded in an efficient manner.

If demands and commands could be conveyed otherwise, the need for language as we understand it could disappear. What would be needed instead is a code and a system to deliver it, which would report information and convey instructions. George Myerson investigated these dystopian tendencies in his work on Martin Heidegger and Jurgen Habermas. In a sense, he says, both the mobile phone and the computerization of service industries seek to minimize communication. Although it is possible to use the text messaging function of a phone to express a lengthy meditation on a complex subject, the medium does lend itself (both in its function and pricing) to swift, abbreviated bits of information: "Dinner at my house," or "Meet at 7."

Myerson uses the example of a Starbucks coffeeshop that allows people to call in their orders. While walking to the shop, a person could use a mobile phone to type in the order (half-caf, skim milk, etc.) using a menu of options, pay with a credit card, and pick up the drink – without actually talking to anyone at all. The servants, both the barista and the computer, would receive instructions and carry them out with nary a hitch. The person who bought the coffee might work in much the same way, in an office, shop floor, or classroom somewhere. “In the mobile [phone] vision,” Myerson observes, “we have millions of goal-seeking atoms, making basic contacts through the network.” Heidegger and Habermas, in contrast, argued that human interaction should be slow, deliberate and carefully considered, with two people sharing information in order to reach a mutual understanding.

So goes the dream of enhanced humanity, flawless telecommunication and maximum efficiency. You can imagine the "Invisible Hand" multitasking and micromanaging, or Thomas Frank's Market God truly coordinating some idea of the greatest good for the greatest number. The possibility remains that a fully accurate means of perception could confront an organization of details so complex and lapidary that a new kind of "noise" would emerge from the arrangement of information, even if each piece were delivered to the mind in identical form. One can imagine a computer screen filled with so many tiled or transparent windows that cacophony results, although the limitations of information processing could possibly be overcome. At present, neither our minds nor our machines can comprehend any way to encompass, interpret and ultimately regulate the vast system of cause and effect in the weather. There are too many undisclosed variables involved, and interactions are too complex and mercurial to be recorded and manipulated. The noise and the margin of error include all those things we cannot perceive, process or anticipate.

Attali argues that dissonance can contribute to more accurate perception or even generate new ways of seeing. “Noise is the source of… mutations in the structuring codes,” he writes. “For despite the death it contains, noise carries order within itself; it carries new information.” From this perspective, noise is true, or another part of the truth to be precise. It comes in from the side-view mirror, usually closer than it appears. “The very absence of meaning in pure noise or in the meaningless repetition of a message, by unchanneling auditory sensations, frees the listener’s imagination.” The malfunction can jolt an individual from the hold of habit and procedure.

Reproduction in general and piracy in particular offer the possibility that production under less regulated conditions will result in novel outcomes: more production, more variations, more noise. The tools available to the ordinary person, in both rich or poor nations, are almost always less advanced than those used by corporations and government. This fact often, but not always, means a competitive disadvantage for the small producer, but in any case the products created by the masses are likely to be different in nature than those produced by large industries. These differences could prove to be irrelevant to people, or they could accumulate and lead to new content, styles and uses.

Fondness for technical shortcomings, limitations and noise has a rich history in twentieth century culture. John Dos Passos swiped clippings from newspapers and magazines to create a sort of background noise in his epic novel, U.S.A., a literary sampling so unexpected that Esquire and other magazines provided instructions to help readers make heads or tails of the passages. In this way, Dos Passos employed consternation as a creative force; and, as Sonic Youth suggested early in their career, perfect clarity is not always a virtue. Confusion, after all, Is Sex (1983). Lev Manovich points to the unexpected shortcomings of digital representation for a more recent example. On its face, digitization seems to conform neatly to the efficient, clarion ideal of communication discussed by Edwards, Myerson and others; computers can convert any words, sounds or images into an exact numerical code, which then can be transmitted and recreated digit by digit, pixel by pixel.

However, these data require a great deal of storage, and scientists have devised ways to compress information by carefully deleting parts of the representation. “While, in theory, computer technology entails the flawless replication of data, its actual use in contemporary society is characterized by loss of data, degradation, and noise,” Manovich says. Despite the hype, analog and digital media both involve distortion. In the Nigerian context, Brian Larkin has described the effects of distortion as an aesthetic of “technological collapse,” pointing to the cases when media do not work well as opposed to when they do. Kim Cascone argues that composers in the late twentieth century have sought to exploit the imperfection of technology as a style in itself. The whirring, buzzing static of media machines that crash has taken center stage for some. “‘Failure' has become a prominent aesthetic… revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and efficient as the humans who build them,” she writes. “New techniques are often discovered by accident or by the failure of an intended technique or experiment."

In much the same spirit, several distinct genres in popular music have either intentionally incorporated noise, or embraced the consequences of lagging technology and low funds as a sign of pride. Punk rock in the 1970s famously sought to rip the fussily pristine music of the mainstream to shreds, stripping rock & roll to its roughest elements. Initially, many thought such a break would liberate and contradict bourgeois ideals of craft and capital investment in culture. “All the other music was like watching color movies,” singer Michael Stipe recalled of first hearing punk, “but this is like watching staticky black-and-white TV. And that made incredible sense to me… Their whole Zeitgeist was that anybody could do it.” Sangild observes, though, that the artists who delved deeper into noise after punk often used the sound to represent “melancholy, pain, fear, death, excess, perversion – in short, what the philosopher Georges Bataille… has called "the heterogeneous." Such a style may implicitly criticize social norms, but one also recognizes these same emotions from Attali’s account of how traditional societies conceived of noise.

Alongside “No Wave,” “noise rock” and other clanging subgenres, the notion of “lo-fi” also took root – independent music created with the cheapest means of home recording, accepting static and emphasizing spontaneity. Such music could present itself as a populist folk form, substantively different because of its freedom from financial and technological barriers to self-representation. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, Guided By Voices recorded about eight hundred short, fragmentary songs, which suggested that the formulas of composition would also break down alongside the quality of sound. On a representative record, twenty-eight tracks add up to forty-one minutes; each would take about a half an hour to record, played into bottom-of-the-line microphones from Radio Shack positioned among beer cans and garbage. The techniques resulted in a deliberately tinny sound, wrapped around surrealistic song “snippets” that recalled transistor radios as much as the cut-up methods of the Oulipo and Burroughs. The sounds also bore the mark of their modest birthplace – a four track tape recorder in the bedroom of a Dayton, Ohio elementary school teacher.

But in music, noise cannot refer only to sonic roughage, like a bludgeoning rhythm or background noise. It also applies to the juxtaposition of dissimilar or unexpected elements one finds in much electronic music, where bits from a variety of sources can be combined into a sound collage – a snatch of classical sitar, a George Clinton bass line, and a programmed beat. Hip-hop emerged alongside the underground market in recordings, and business, government and musicians’ groups viewed the techniques of DJs and samplers who assembled old sounds in new configurations as another form of piracy. Public Enemy dramatized the legal conflict in the 1987 recording, “Caught, Can We Get a Witness,” in which the sampler is busted like a common thief. “Caught, now in court ‘cause I stole a beat,” Chuck D said. “This is a sampling sport, but I’m giving it a new name. What you hear is mine.” D talks of the sound as a “mineral” found in the earth, which, as with John Locke of old, became his own because he transformed it into something new.

For Chuck D, ownership comes from consciously changing a sound by putting it into a new context or distorting it, while others have celebrated unconscious appropriation. By sampling, recontextualizing, and transforming bits of other works, artists stand against the idea of musical culture as a smooth, frictionless market of bought-and-sold sounds, easily measured. No one knows how many “copies” of a given recording exist in one form or another, and an otherwise easily quantified business becomes unmeasurable. Sounds, otherwise for sale on the market, go in unpredictable directions and end up in strange places. Poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s Head Citations, for instance, consists of popular song lyrics that, misheard, morph into bizarre variations. The songs might have come out garbled because of a radio station badly tuned, a scratchy record, or plain bad hearing on the part of the listener, but they all resonate with the broader culture through the creative associations that the mind makes to cope with noise. “This is the dawning of the age of malaria,” Goldsmith begins, going on to note, “We built this city on the wrong damn road,” and “What a man, what a man, when the money comes in.”

There are, then, two types of noise: political and literal. The first directly contravenes the authoritarian model of perfect communication promoted by capitalist technology (interrupting the flow of instructions, appropriating intellectual property from the mainstream market) or proposes an alternative model of expression (talk that does not convey orders). This activity is noise from the perspective of management. It is extra, redundant, unnecessary and sometimes damaging communication – things that do not need to be or should not be said. The second describes the specific qualities of expression through the new devices of cultural reproduction, which fall short of an ideal of crystal-clear representation and sometimes do so creatively.

The post-industrial society must find ways to handle these phenomena, because the tools it uses to control, supervise and manage are often the ones that can be used to express and appropriate. The systems of surveillance and coordination that allowed capitalism to transform itself in the 1970s developed right alongside new practices like sampling, piracy and home recording, which disrupted old patterns of production and ideas about property and creativity. As Gilles Deleuze argued, “The societies of control operate with machines of a third type, computers, whose passive danger is jamming and whose active one is piracy or the introduction of viruses.”

Alex Cummings

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Sunbelt Sprawl: Unpacking the American Sunbelt’s Economic and Ideological Baggage

Diets are never easy. Going from 4000 calories a day to 2000 trips up even the most disciplined of individuals. The same might be said of the consumption of federal expenditures in the American Sunbelt. After having gorged on federal spending in the post war period, the Sunbelt had grown so accustomed to federal aid in the form of defense spending, highway construction and the like. Propping up its developing economies in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the economic downturn in the Reaganite ‘80s came as shock a shock to the Sunbelt’s low tax anti-government ethos.

A 1987 study conducted by the Sunbelt Institute – the “research arm of the Congressional Sunbelt Caucus and corporate and regional advisory groups” – argued that “Frostbelt” cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit received more federal dollars than their warmer Sunbelt counterparts. Dr. Bernard L. Weinstein noted pointedly that an argument could be made that “the Sun Belt is the most distressed economic region of the United States.'' According to Weinstein, during the 1980s Sunbelt states witnessed population declines while their colder counterparts reported small gains. Additionally, over 60% of the 16 states Weinstein categorized as part of the Sunbelt experienced job losses since the decade had begun. Weinstein and the Institute placed the blame squarely on the national government’s back suggesting “that biased and misdirected Federal formula grants” contributed to “a steady flow of Federal procurement dollars to states outside the Sun Belt.'' As the report landed on the desks of national legislators,
the Sunbelt Caucus vowed to make redressing the “imbalance” its “number one priority” Hell hath no fury like a free market anti statist conservative whose been deprived of his or her federal allowance.

The irony of the 1987 report or even the idea that the Sunbelt would require its own caucus and “research arm” seems quaint. During the 1970s, due to two decades of government related expenditures, the peopling of the Sunbelt exploded and though its growth slowed in the 1908s, throughout the 1990s the Sunbelt enjoyed rapid economic growth and population expansion once again, which according to demographic and economic experts were driven “as much by quality of life as easy credit”. Their sprawling wide open cities may have been derided by Eastern establishment types, but cities like Tucson, Phoenix, Jacksonville, Charlotte, Atlanta and their metropolitan suburbs allowed for many Americans residing in the East and Midwest to purchase homes throughout the Sunbelt.

The now infamous housing bubble that exploded in recent years, decimating the American economy, grew in relation to Sunbelt expansion. IndyMac, a California company, serves as perhaps the most notorious example of many. The New York Times reported in 2009 that “States in the South and the West that grew by exceptional leaps and bounds during the real estate boom of just a few years ago are now experiencing sharply slower growth in population..."

Emerging in the ether of post war optimism, the Sunbelt grew in large part due to government largesse ranging from military expenditures to highway construction. Yet, when discussing the Sunbelt today, what exactly are we talking about? The 1987 study entitled “Report on Regional Biases in Federal Funding” counted 16 states but news agencies like the New York Times failed to identify which states were considered Sunbelt worthy. How many people do you think were avid fans of the Sunbelt Institute’s publications? Furthermore, what criteria do historians, journalists, and others use to determine Sunbelt categorization? If Virginia counts as part of the Sunbelt, which the 1987 report suggested it was, how similar is it to Southern California? Even over a decade later, this distinction seemed unclear. The map accompanying the aforementioned 2009 New York Times article entitled “Recession slows population rise across Sun Belt” failed to distinguish this clearly, but the article suggested the region included Arizona, Florida, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, and Texas.

For many historians, these distinctions remain equally problematic. Since the mid 1990s, Sunbelt histories have experienced notable growth. Amy Bridges, Michael Logan, Mike Davis, Lisa McGirr, and M.D. Lassiter among others have all offered contributions. Yet, each offers a geographic vision of the Sunbelt that complicates understandings. Sunbelt histories, even of political leaders and regimes, only recently began to proliferate.

One of the earliest and most significant contributions came from Amy Bridges in her now essential manual of Sunbelt “reform governments” Morning Glories: Municipal Reform in the Southwest (1996). Bridges pushes back against narratives that “reformers” have been portrayed as more egalitarian, honest and meritocratic, eschewing the crude ethnic loyalties and corruption of more established Eastern and Midwestern “machine governments”. However, Bridges argues this characterization masks real problems. First, the alleged reformers established governments that often circumvented minority voters or even directly barred them from casting votes. Moreover, the “good government” that supposedly fueled these growing municipalities simply disguised unfair business practices with rhetoric about private sector efficiency and meritocracy, as most of the “good government” officials engaged in sweetheart deals or uncompetitive bidding practices.

In relation, Michael Logan’s Fighting Sprawl and City Hall: Resistance to Urban Growth in the Southwest (1995) confines itself to the Sunbelt cities of Tucson, Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Focusing on their growth from the 1930s to the 1970s, Logan reevaluates the traditional argument that Sunbelt cities expanded by consensus in this period as suburban annexation and urban development policies enjoyed the broad support of local residents. Instead, as Logan argues, in each city early protests mounted against development over various concerns from the expansion of city services, higher taxes, loss of cultural/personal lifestyle, government tyranny and damage to nature/environment, these eruptions altered plans and final outcomes. Unsurprisingly, Mexican and Mexican American communities found themselves and their neighborhoods marginalized in both cities, but Albuquerque’s developed a broader social and political presence earlier than counterparts in Tucson.

Logan and Bridges provide historians with invaluable insights regarding Sunbelt America in the first half of the century. One of their strongest observations regard the pro-development/pro-business municipal governments of the Sunbelt. The free market neo liberalism that arose by the mid-1970s found a home in many Sunbelt regions perhaps enhanced by the Sunbelt’s history of pro development ethos. Thus, newer works have explored developments from the 1960 through the 1990s, as the region emerged as an incubator for the ideas and rhetoric of the Reagan Revolution. Also, each illustrates how pro-growth language of development masked racial/class biases, a rhetoric that the New Right built upon promoting a race neutral language that was anything but neutral. Ultimately, both works also reveal the foundations of “the new American right” into which historians M.D. Lassiter and Lisa McGirr intervene.

McGirr’s Suburban Warriors focuses on Orange County, California, its formation and the subsequent grassroots social movement that helped lay the foundation for the free market mania of the New Right in the 1980s and 1990s. For McGirr, grassroots conservatism emerged before the urban violence of the 1960s developing” its ideological roots in a more thoroughgoing, anti-egalitarian, conservative world view.” (McGirr, 12) Orange County’s “conservative regional elite, its mode of development, and the kind of migrants who made their home there” proved the key factors that facilitated the rise of the new right in the centuries final decades. (29) Ironically, despite its opposition to federal intervention, government welfare and taxes, much of the West, especially Orange County benefitted from federal expenditures. Post war expansion of the nation’s defense industry resulted in demographic and infrastructure shifts that privileged Sunbelt regions over Eastern and Midwestern states, observes McGirr, “Nowhere in the nation was the federal government more directly responsible for economic growth than in the building of the West.” (37-8)

The expansion of the West meant not only the settlement of new ethnic and racial populations, but a search for community. Unfortunately the built environment failed to encourage traditional forms of civic membership, as result, the burgeoning New Right attempted to find “alternative forms of community … in the politics and social interaction proffered by local businessmen, right wing ideologues and conservative church leaders.” (39) As result of this paucity of public space, schools became a site of political organizing and conflict. Orange County parents feared the creeping spread of liberalism into their children’s schools thus, fueling grassroots mobilization.(74)

Early on a strain of anti-communism helped unify the movement as much of Orange County’s economy rested on military spending. Many residents claimed membership in what McGirr refers to as a “the nation’s technical elite, and their occupations directly linked them to the military industrial complex of the Cold War.”[4] (85) Again, this only reinforced free market principles, individualism, and private property. Of course, religion also operated to create community in O.C. Eventually, the evangelical movement overwhelmed the ties of anti-communism, bringing a unique mix of traditionalism -based on a suburban social normative - and modernity – as represented by the county’s white collar workers. As McGirr points out, Orange County conservatives wanted a return to normative traditions, “but also called for a new one based on a highly modern technocratic defense of ethos, as assertion of an invigoration of the nuclear family unit as the locus of moral authority.” (95) Though the region’s history of fundamentalism dates back to the turn of the century, not until the 1970s did political leaders and others recognize the power of such organizations. Many of these “religious conservatives were successful middle class men and women. They balanced their own modern existences with traditionalism, as skilled members of the technical and bureaucratic vanguard they “reveled in the world of consumer culture” emphasizing a laissez faire capitalism laden with a staunch moralism. (261)

Inevitably, Orange County residents found themselves at odds with Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s. To these homeowners, Martin Luther King represented little more than a troublesome rabble-rouser who wanted to interfere with the property rights they so deeply valued. Ronald Reagan recognized this tension, using the open housing movement and California’s Rumsford Act, as straw men for Orange County fears, suggesting they conferred upon ‘one segment of our population a right at the expense of the basic rights of our citizens.” Limited property rights and the possible introduction of racial diversity into white suburban enclaves threatened many Orange County residents.

Politically, the first notable national politician to court OC voters and their ethos, was Barry Goldwater who decried the collapse of morality and the spread of communism. As previously mentioned, within California, Reagan harnessed this ethos successfully, but not until Richard Nixon organized his 1968 “silent majority” campaign did a presidential candidate fully exploit this ideology. McGirr, like M.D. Lassiter after her, suggests that Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 elections courted “middle America” as represented by Orange County residents. In this way, McGirr questions the traditional narrative known as the “southern strategy”, suggesting the suburban Sunbelt that grew out of Orange County, which served as the driving force behind the New Right. Notably, Lassiter focuses more on the Sunbelt “outer South” (North Caroline, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia) rather then California’s most famous county. However, despite geographic differences, each point out that metropolitan white collar residents drove these political changes.

By the 1980s, though it remained tied to defense expenditures, Orange County’s economic development encountered resistance. Greater racial and ethnic diversity emerged as Suburban Warriors points out that after the mid-1970s, the county’s diversity grew such that between 1970 and 1980, its minority population increased by 20%, a trend that since has continued upward. In relation, Mike Davis’s City of Quartz suggests this increased diversity helped fuel the “slow growth” movement, that superficially argued for stricter land use policies to protect the environment. Davis argues “slow growth” advocates marshaled the language of environmentalism to prevent the construction of apartments and other forms of development they believed might harm property values. Often, “slow growth” politics have served as a method of social exclusion, masking racial and class biases with environmental rhetoric.

When Orange County leaders pushed for increased regulation regarding land use, McGirr underscores the irony of such positions, “Seeking to preserve their ‘utopias’. . . many homeowners, in an assertion of their own affluence and in protest against the urbanization of suburbia, came ‘to embrace a structural reform implying massive regulation of one of the most sacred marketplaces (land development).’ They did so in the unconvincing language of the ‘people’ against the heartless corporations.”(269) For McGirr, the importance of the Orange County ethos lay in its influence on other communities across the South and West including “Cobb County, Georgia; Scottsdale and the suburbs North of Phoenix, Arizona, in Maricopa County; Forth Worth, Texas and the suburbs Northeast Dallas …. to name just a few.” (271)

If Suburban Warriors focused on the beliefs of Orange County, California, M.D. Lassiter’s The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South addresses similar developments but instead focuses on metropolitan areas in the outer south (North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia) and their struggles with desegregation, revealing not only the emerging Sunbelt ideology but also the class divisions that separated many whites. Like Thomas Kruse’s White Flight and the Making of Modern Conservatism, Lassiter locates class based differences among whites that affected their physical and political realities. For Lassiter, the race neutral language of the Sunbelt South served to displace the overtly racist rhetoric employed in what he refers to as the Black Belt. Additionally, Lassiter argues his attention to economic stratification differentiates The Silent Majority from its peers, “the overreliance on race reductionist narratives to explain complex political transformations – such as the rise of the “Right” and “white backlash” and the “Southern Strategy” and the “Republican South” – downplays the centrality of class ideology in the outlook of suburban voters and ignores the consistent class divisions among white southerners evident throughout the civil rights era.”[9] (4)

Like, McGirr, Lassiter complicates arguments privileging the “Southern Strategy”, arguing that this narrative oversimplifies and incorrectly explains the rise of the New Right. Thus, Lassiter’s Silent Majority refuses to accept the idea of “southern exceptionalism” which has caused historians to miss “the broader story of grassroots mobilization of the Silent Majority that reframed racial discourse and subsumed regional differences beneath a national politics of middle class entitlement.” (6) To this end, Lassiter credits McGirr’s work for expanding “the grassroots narrative, from the Goldwater troops in the 1960s, to the tax revolts of the 1970s, to the evangelical mobilization of the 1980s and 1990s.” (7)

Still, for Lassiter, most New Right histories fail to account for the “vast majority of suburban homeowners” who expressed neither an intense activism or a virulent conservatism but did represent their dissent through three fundamental identities: as taxpayers, as homeowners, and/or as the parent of a school aged child (or children). The Silent Majority explores desegregation efforts in metropolitan Atlanta and Charlotte (but also discusses to lesser extents Richmond, VA, Memphis, Tennessee, and Mobile, Alabama) dismantling the myth that business elites led recalcitrant Southerners from their ethos of white supremacy to one of meritocracy, “The primary demographic forces behind postwar political realignment in the New South became the sprawling middle class suburbs and the expanding black electorate, not the defiant Dixiecrats and the defeated massive resisters.” (41)

Instead, like McGirr, Lassiter uncovers the actions of an urban/suburban middle class that hoped to reshape southern metropolitan regions. As Lassiter notes, this middle class of “ordinary suburban parents exercised the responsibilities of citizenship, standing up for the rule of law and the democratic ideals of public education.” In contrast, business organizations remained conspicuously silent, as “the leaders of the white southern opposition to massive resistance became the middle class citizens, especially the female reformers” of various civic organizations. (41) Ultimately, these efforts built upon a national discourse of racial moderation, which advocated a gradual integration (though the degree depended on specific localities) that cast massive resisters and civil rights reformers as equally extreme which “emerged as a popular viewpoint in the rest of the nation before it became the dominant ideology in the metropolitan South.” (99)

The discourse of racial moderation viewed integration as required by law, but not necessarily morally correct; in this way it failed to address the underlying tensions that created segregation. Again, like Kruse’s White Flight, which focuses on the divisions between white homeowners undergoing housing and school desegregation, Lassiter observes that Atlanta’s moniker as the “city too busy to hate” really was and is a misnomer. Instead, desegregation efforts “which permitted individual exception to the dual school system represented a metropolitan blueprint” that accommodated class prejudice and the privileges of white collar communities in the “metropolitan South” (104) Unfortunately, Atlanta’s attempts at integration left their metropolitan public system more segregated than even severe northern examples like Newark or Detroit. By 1973, officials agreed to a system of one way busing in which select black students traveled to predominantly white institutions but not the reverse.

The acquiescence of the local black leadership to this policy resulted in what Lassiter refers to as the Atlanta Compromise, an agreement that over the past three decades explains the “extreme spatial fragmentation that dominated the metropolitan landscape, the permanent hyper-segregation of poor black families in the urban ghetto and the collapse of the middle class consensus for quality public education in the central city.”[16] (109) Additionally, both Kruse and Lassiter note that the continued migration of white collar whites to outlying Atlanta suburbs furthered this development as they often brought with them the burgeoning free market ethos of homeownership, which stressed individualism, meritocracy, and consumerism.
Lassiter’s second central example, Charlotte, provides a more promising story of integration, though one that reveals the falsity of linear narratives. In the Charlotte example, the impetus for desegregation rested on the dogged efforts of one District Judge, James B. McMillan whose ruling in the Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education case set off a five year battle over busing that resulted in a successful integration policy that Charlotte then sold to the nation.

However, while even the opposition to busing refrained from racial language or overt bigotry, it also never confronted the deeper issues more centrally. Moreover, as Lassiter writes, the Charlotte and Atlanta examples reveal a policy that empowered white collar families to construct a color blind discourse that defended “the class privileges and consumer rights of the middle class suburbs.” (122) However, unlike more troubled metropolitan regions in America, a combination of legal and spatial factors required Charlotte to face both racial segregation and class discrimination resulting in an integrated public system for over twenty years.
Court proceedings revealed that Charlotte’s historical narrative, much like that of Atlanta’s color blind business oriented city, failed to live up to the legend. The de jure/de facto distinction was proven to be false as city reports clearly illustrated various methods of segregation through zoning, infrastructure placement, and other less obvious but equally discriminating practices. (134) Yet, Judge McMillian’s decision, after enduring the opposition of the grassroots Concerned Parents Association who harnessed the race neutral language of middle class respectability to oppose busing plans, helped to ensure Charlotte’s policy addressed both class and racial issues by requiring both white and black students to schools to travel to schools in affluent and working class neighborhoods. However, though Charlotte succeeded in integrating schools throughout the 1970s, the failure to plan future development accordingly such as mixed use areas, mixed income and affordable housing contributed to a resegegration of the school district by race and class.

In 1999, District Judge Robert Potter (a Reagan appointee and former participant in the CRA, the group opposing busing in the 1970s, who failed to recuse himself despite the conflict of interest) in which the Judge revisited the Swann v. Mecklenburg case, invalidating the formula the Charlotte school district invoked in order to integrate the metropolitan’ areas schools. Judge Potter argued that “race based lotteries, preferences, set asides, or other means that deny students an equal footing based on race” were no longer valid since the “dual system” had been eliminated. Later District rulings watered down Potter’s invalidation but Charlotte’s means for maintaining integrated schools remains in danger. Additionally, recent episodes have revealed the complexity of class as some middle class Blacks have openly protested busing for their children. As one resident explained, “If I wanted my children to attend school with kids from the projects, I’d have moved next to one.” (218)

Nationally, Richard Nixon reached out to the very metropolitan white collar voters who made up Charlotte’s CRA or Atlanta’s HOPE. Nixon’s solution to desegregation mirrored that of Sunbelt residents, that being rhetorical support for integration but a refusal to accept the methods required to end segregation. Nixon reassured white middle class voters that although wrongs had been committed in the past, the solutions “need not dwell on the burdens” of history. However, Nixon’s approach hoped to obscure divisions between working and middle class white voters. Nixon defined his “Middle America” in the language of “suburban identity politics” which privileged “consumer status, taxpayer rights, and meritocractic individualism”(198).

Like McGirr’s Orange County evangelicals, their Sunbelt South counterparts wanted reassurance in their way of life along with guarantees that it could and would continue. In both, The Silent Majority and Suburban Warriors, school desegregation and schools themselves served as sites of political conflict which sparked grass roots conservative movements like the Concerned Parents Association which opposed two busing schemes in Charlotte. Nixon reassured these votes, as Lassiter notes, with a “color blind populism” that featured hard working taxpayers, whom Nixon lionized as “Forgotten Americans”. In this way, Nixon evaded “forceful government action to address residential segregation in the suburbs and combat racial inequality in the cities, a political message that resonated for white middle class voters in the metropolitan South and throughout the Nation." (237)

Ultimately, the Southern electorate of the 1970s remained divided into three parts, each with “strong correlations to class and status and residential geography.” The first and most significant for Lassiter’s argument were the upper and middle class Republican voters of the South’s cities and suburbs. Wallace’s angry working class white rural southerners made up a second group with the largely Democratic African American population making up the third. Nixon’s greatest support came from upper and middle class white Republican voters. Wallace’s supporters viewed Nixon warily while Blacks, for the most part, dismissed Nixon altogether. "By expressing solidarity with the grassroots antibusing movement and purging policy makers who favored full compliance with the law," Lassiter writes, "Richard Nixon committed the executive branch to a two tiered approach of protecting the affluent white suburbs, with its policies and inflaming working class resentment with its rhetoric.“ (274)

Nixon and others have since discovered the difficulty of patching together a coalition that consists of rural whites, the working class, and “affluent suburban professionals.” This has made the Sunbelt South anything but stable politically, meaning neither party controls the region electorally or, as Lassiter suggests, “The Republican decision to forfeit the substantial black vote, combined with the rapid expansion of the Latino population and the swing fuction performed at different times by suburban moderates and working class populists, effectively guarantees that the GOP cannot reproduce a Solid South on a permanent grassroots basis.” (321)
By the late 1970s, Southern schools reported much higher levels of integration than their northern peers. However, in the Charlotte example, uncontrolled development and residential expansion reshaped the metropolitan areas as a “hypersegregated ghetto marked by a high concentration of poor minority students along with multiplying exurban subdivisions home to predominantly white and overwhelmingly middle class families.” (219)


At the turn of the twenty-first century, American demographers noted that the shift to the Sunbelt had increased rather than declined. The Economist reflected on the 2000 Census figures, commenting “America's population is still shifting away from the industrial north towards the Sunbelt states of the South and west: or, to look at it as Republicans like to, from unpleasantly liberal cities to nicer gun-toting-and-commodities-exploiting conservative parts.” University of Michigan demographer William Frey expanded on the British magazine’s conclusions noting that “a "new Sunbelt" has emerged, one that relies on the opportunities of high technology to lure young professionals inward from the east and west coasts. Over the past decade, states like Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia have weaned themselves off mining and textiles and on to computers.” For Mr. Frey, Texas represented the fusion of old and new Sunbelts as the state welcomed younger tech workers and “thousands of immigrants coming north from Latin America.” The question this all raises regards the uniqueness of the Sunbelt formation. How different were pro-development free market discourses in the Sunbelt from those in older Midwestern and Eastern regions of the nation? When the Economist suggests a “new” Sunbelt has arisen based on tech jobs and a youngish population, how is that different from the technocratic migrants that populated Orange County following WWII? By privileging private sector tech jobs over the military and defense industries of earlier periods that created the Sunbelt as a unique entity, are such news magazines reinforcing the very free market rhetoric that has made the region so distinct?

Academics prove no less susceptible to such tropes. Noted urbanist Richard Florida argues that these new “creative classes” drive growth: "[the economy] no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism," which are found in cities.” (Economist, “Somewhere to Live”, March 31, 2010)
Even issues of regionalism within the Sunbelt emerge to disrupt the idea of a unified culture. For example, how truly similar are California, the Southwest, and the South? If Lassiter considers the outer South the epitome of Sunbelt values, how do we account for McGirr’s Orange County conservatives, Bridges Southwest reform governments, or Logan’s exercised Arizonian and New Mexican suburbanites? Unsurprisingly, a recent Economist article divided the Sunbelt into sections. "For most of the post-war period the South has been catching up with the rest of the country," the magazine stated. "Land there is cheaper and land-use regulation more permissive, making it a magnet for families seeking a house with a yard, even if it means long commutes from sprawling suburbs. In the sand states--Florida, Arizona, Nevada and California--these trends went into overdrive in the years leading up to the crisis.” (Economist, “Somewhere to Live”, March 31, 2010) How similar are these “sand states”? Demographically, socially, and economically large variations exist between each.

Perhaps the fundamental differences in the Sunbelt construct can be identified more generally. For much of the mid to late nineteenth century, the West and South functioned as developing regions in the world economy. The influx of indentured workers and larger labor flows differed from traditional Eastern and Midwestern cities that exhibited higher rates of European immigration rather than the Mexican or Asian variant so common to the Western and Southwestern Sunbelt. By the twentieth century, these same regions lacked the social, political, and economic developments of older American states. The political structures Bridges uncovers appear remarkably similar to the exclusionary practices of older Eastern metropolises, even if those in the Southwest wrapped their exclusion in meritocratic rhetoric. Fundamentally, the Sunbelt’s minority populations lived under a system of racial hierarchy and coercion that failed to encourage the growth of robust public sector. Or, as Alex Cummings has noted, "The lack of an established political culture -- unions, political machines -- may be the most salient difference between New York and Massachusetts on one hand and North Carolina and Utah on the other. In the absence of political constraint, we saw unbridled self interest run amok." Chances are the answer is more complicated than this, but the professor may be on to something.

Ryan Reft