jimsleeper.com » Two Tales of Bankrupted Business Culture

Two Tales of Bankrupted Business Culture

By Jim Sleeper – October 6, 2010, TPMCafe

If you’re crusading for “public decency” (and, really, I’ve no fear that any TPM reader is wearing that cloak), you’re probably not expecting much help from the New York Times, not even from its brilliant media critic David Carr. But Carr has just uncovered the devastating fiscal and sexual indecency of bottom-liners at “the venerable Tribune Company” (publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Long Island Newsday, and Baltimore Sun).

I commend Carr’s story also to William Bennett, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and preacher-politicians who blame social rot on “liberals” and the 1960s counterculture. Carr shows business interests turning counter-cultures into over-the-counter cultures that are more devastating to public morals than anything Woodstock Nation ever imagined.

Fortunately, even if you’re more titillated than nauseated by this, there’s a bracing new antidote in Chris Lehmann’s just-published Rich People Things, about which more in a minute, because you’ll need it even more than any cloak of virtue you may happen to have lying around.

“At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture,” reads the Times headline – emphasis on “Culture,” although the Tribune empire is bankrupt also as a company. Its bosses aren’t just grown men acting like “14-year-old boys,” as one of Carr’s sources says. They’re an insult to 14-year-old boys, and what really matters here – although Carr stops short of saying so — is the relationship between consumer capitalism and cultural decay.

Years ago, about the raciest thing in the Chicago Tribune was the “Dear Abby” personal-advice column by Ann Landers, whom I once saw exiting the gothic Tribune Tower and gliding into a limousine. What the billionaire Sam Zell and his top dog Randy Michaels have done since then…. Well, settle back with some Alka Seltzer and Carr’s story. As you read, imagine the sickly smiles on the faces of decent, stodgy lifers at the Tribune who tried to keep their jobs by pretending they were having fun.

Carr makes clear that the pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment and general alienation went along with economic harassment and dispossession underway. To which I’d add that it’s not only at the Tribune Company that corporate bosses introduce sexual hi-jinks as a palliatives and metaphors for the corporate screw.

More than a few Tribune workers in Chicago (and at some in other Tribune-newspapers) are church-goers; it’s not unusual to see foreheads marked on Ash Wednesday. But as they’ve been insulted by their bosses in Chicago, they’ve also been betrayed, along shockingly analogous lines, by princes and priests of the Church, to the gloating satisfaction of some Tribune bosses, who, of course, love running such exposes. Now that these bosses are being exposed in the Times – and, I expect, in other Chicago news media — we’ll see if they keep gloating.

But this is about more than corrupt priests and idiot editors. It’s about how the bankruptcy of America’s pathological, multi-problem over-class is devastating and demoralizing American civil society. You needn’t be a church-going secretary or press-room guy at the Tribune to understand what an incitement to vomit and violence American consumerism has become.

You needn’t be a Marxist, either. The proliferation of road rage, lethal store-opening rampages, extreme or “cage” fighting, reality TV and midday “talk” shows where people scream their guts out over other people’s voluntary self-humiliations; all this preceded Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell, and Linda McMahon, and the rest, most of whom are consequences of corporate marketing’s relentless pumping of violence and lewdness into our public bloodstream.

I caught onto this almost two decades ago in the New York Daily News, way back before that paper, too, became a carrier of the degradation. (I got at it also in “Behind the Deluge of Porn, a Conservative Sea Change,” for the quarterly Salmagundi and, more briefly, in the Dallas Morning News – to which serious Christian evangelicals wrote in to agree with me.) But really, people have been flagging this problem ever since the movie “Network” (not “Social Network!”) caught it in 1976.

The only question left is why so much of the disorientation and rage is being pointed at liberals and government – at Obama rather than the Tribune’s Zell and sexual thugs. We get closer to an answer thanks to Chris Lehmann’s new book, Rich People Things.

Lehmann, whom TPM readers will recognize as a veteran contributor to The Baffler, which was on to corporate “liberation” marketing years ago, has also been an editor at Newsday, the Washington Post, and other “venerable” publications which bottom-lining has now made less venerable. He is a sophisticated, compassionate, and scathing survivor of all he surveys in Rich People Things. Follow carefully what he says.

Lehmann studied for years with the late social historian Christopher Lasch, who thanked him in the acknowledgments of his magisterial The True and Only Heaven. Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism was an early-warning signal to the still-clueless paladins of “sophisticated” public discourse at the Times, The New Yorker, and other high-end publications that sound too often as if they existed only to reassure the affluent college graduate who seeks “the most comfortable and least compromising attitude he can assume toward capitalist society without being forced into actual conflict,” as the critic Robert Warshow wrote seventy years ago about the typical reader of… yes, the New Yorker.

Lehmann has scathing, scintillating chapters on the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell; on the Times and on its “chirpy” and delusional columnist David Brooks; on Wired Magazine’s breathless paeans to new media’s broken promises; on reality TV; and on other ventures and adventurers who, often unwittingly, work hard to suppress or deflect their own and their audiences’ understandings of what consumer and casino-finance capitalism are doing to us.

David Carr’s story today is a striking account of that process in action. Chris Lehmann’s Rich People Things explains what’s actually driving it – and what keeps most of us from seeing and acknowledging it.