Readings, Week 1: Introduction

Introduction to Pop

  • Why does the professor want media literacy students to remain “mad as hell”?
  • Describe the character of Howard Beale, in Sidney Lumet’s Network.
  • What is media literacy?
  • What is culture? How is it transmitted?
  • What is pop culture?  How does it serve as “distraction”?
  • What does “bread and circuses” mean?
  • What is the goal of American foreign policy, according to Ramsey Clark, the PNAC and FPI?
  • How is Ramsey Clark’s attitude towards America’s goal qualitatively different?  Does Clark approve of America’s goal? Conversely, does the PNAC support such a goal?
  • How is pop culture the “non-violent” means of achieving this goal?
  • How is North-American a culture of lies?
  • Discuss the idea that the world is a business.

Mad as hell

In this famous excerpt from the multi-Oscar-award-winning 1976 classic film, Network, the character of newsman Howard Beale has a strange vision in the middle of the night. He believes that God is speaking to him. In the vision, God tells Howard Beale that from now on, he must tell the truth on his newscasts. When Beale asks God, “Why me?”, God replies, “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

The mandate for our Pop Culture course is that we remain in a critical mode with regard to the ways in which society uses popular culture to manipulate us and to manufacture consent. Through artists using product placement in videos, we are encouraged to buy running shoes and overpriced swag. Through advertising, we are made to feel inadequate, like we are missing something in our lives if we don’t buy Brand X.

I encourage students to realize that promoting feelings of anxiety and fear are the life blood of the popular media and that remaining in a critical mode is a much better option. I hope that Pop Culture students remain “mad as hell.” If you stay in a frame of mind in which you are angry at the way the media uses consumerist propaganda to manipulate your feelings, at least you might survive the miasma of “keeping up with the Joneses” that has characterized post-modern life in privileged nations.

What is media literacy?

The title of this course is Pop Culture: Politics of Media Literacy. But what is media literacy? Leveranz and Tyner (1993) offer an excellent definition:

“The internationally recognized definition of media literacy, and one used to mandate media literacy in Canada’s public schools, is ‘the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and produce communication in a variety of forms.’ Media literacy extends the traditional notion of literacy to include electronic forms of communication. In fact, media literacy is nothing new. It is the same old literacy with a fancy name. Like print literacy, media literacy is a lifelong process And like print literacy, the fact that people can make sense of words on a page without moving their lips (or watch TV which talking on the phone) doesn’t necessarily mean they are literate. Media education recognizes that raw information is probably worse than useless if people do not have the skills to organize, evaluate, and make it work for them. According to its champions, media education builds the necessary information processing skills to negotiate contemporary society in way that are both personally and socially satisfying (Leveranz and Tyner, 1993).

As media literacy students, our goal is to become literate in the study of media. But in this course, I expect more. When we analyze the politics of media literacy, we operate under the understanding that every kind of information, every form of communication, is political in nature. Indeed, all communicators have an agenda. My agenda, as professor of this general education class, is to enculturate students into a working knowledge of critical theory and critical education as these apply to media literacy. Thus, my communication to you and with you is by no means ‘neutral’ in nature. It is political. As this first module continues, you will appreciate how popular culture itself is political in its fundamental nature.

What is culture? How is it transmitted?

To understand popular culture, it is essential first to understand that it is a subsection or form of culture. But what is culture?

Susan Klopfer offers an excellent definition of “culture.” She writes:

“To understand the basics of communication, we need to recognize that communication or how we share with others our thoughts and feelings, and culture are tightly interwoven. Culture – think of it as how we go about doing things, the rules we follow – is perhaps a less familiar word, but it is a way of life that is formed by and transmitted through communication. Culture can also be defined as the rules for living and functioning in a particular group or society. These rules, of course, vary from one group or society to another and are learned through communication.” (Klopfer, 2013).

Knowing that culture is transmitted or learned through communication, we can proceed to a better understanding of popular culture, or pop culture.

What is pop culture?  

Pop culture, then, is a set of rules transmitted or learned through communication.

Yet, there are so many people who utilize these rules that popular culture means a different thing to each user. Jennifer Falor writes:

“Popular culture resists the boundaries of definition. It can mean something different to every person. It is mass media, entertainment and diversions. It is heroes, icons,  rituals, psychology and religion. It is a way of life, the voice of a people.” (Falor, 2001)

In our course, we analyze the traditional media that transmit popular culture to people all over the world: movies, television, popular music, art, advertising, news, and so on.

In addition to examining these media, the course acknowledges a critical view of popular culture. We understand that the concerns of popular culture are privileges available to only a select number of people on the planet and that people in many so-called second and third world countries do not have access to the media. There are, for example, about 2.5 billion Internet users worldwide, just over one-third of people on the planet.

As well, the course examines dysfunctional worldviews and attitudes transmitted by mainstream media: consumerism, racism, cultural appropriation, sexism, misogyny, violent masculinity, and militarism.

It is essential in any critical examination of popular culture to understand that popular culture has a political purpose. It always has, certainly ever since the time of the Roman Empire. Quite apart from simply entertaining us, popular culture’s political purpose is to distract the common person to the end that he remains content, without complaints. Revolution–such as that which occurred in Egypt in 2011 and is occurring in many other countries around the world–cannot occur when people are content with their existence, when their bellies are filled and their minds are occupied by popular culture.

Bread and circuses

The Romans were acutely aware of the idea of using popular culture to pacify its citizens. The poet Juvenal used the term “bread and circuses” to refer to Rome’s internal policy of using food and entertainment to ensure tranquility among its citizens. Public fights between professional gladiators and unfortunate slaves, fighting for their freedom, were a common distraction offered for little or no charge to the common man. The term “bread and circuses” has come to represent this kind of intentional policy of mollification through distraction, actively used by successful governments throughout the world for maintaining peace and compliance.

Wiki offers an excellent definition of the term:

“Bread and circuses is a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace, as an offered “palliative.” Juvenal decried it as a simplistic motivation of common people. The phrase also implies the erosion or ignorance of civic duty amongst the concerns of the common man. In modern usage, the phrase is taken to describe a populace that no longer values civic virtues and the public life. To many across the political spectrum, left and right, it connotes a supposed triviality and frivolity that characterized the Roman Republic prior to its decline into the autocratic monarchy characteristic of the later Roman Empire‘s transformation about 44 B.C.” (Wiki, Bread and Circuses).

Ramsey Clark and the PNAC

Controversial lawyer Ramsey Clark says the following:

“Our overriding purpose, from the beginning right through to the present day, has been world domination – that is, to build and maintain the capacity to coerce everybody else on the planet: nonviolently, if possible; and violently, if necessary. But the purpose of our foreign policy of domination is not just to make the rest of the world jump through hoops; the purpose is to facilitate our exploitation of resources. And insofar as any people or states get in the way of our domination, they must be eliminated – or, at the very least, shown the error of their ways.” (Clark, in Jensen, 2001).

Who is Ramsey Clark? On first reading the above sardonic assertion, one might suspect he is a conspiracy theorist, a left wing critic dedicated to paranoid thought concerning government and its goals. However, most students are surprised to learn that Ramsey Clark is the former attorney general of the United States, who served under President Lyndon Johnson. It seems that now, as an older man, he has decided to come clean about the real activities in which he and other members of government engaged, all those years ago. Clark does not, of course, endorse the fact that America’s goal is world domination. He is merely pointing it out in a critical manner, for our education.

The events of the past decade have, for many, provided ample evidence of Clark’s controversial assertion. Still, one need look no further than the website of the Project for the New American Century to find more substantial proof, directly from the mouths of those at the helm during the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. The membership of PNAC is no surprise: Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, Dan Quayle, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, to name a few.

On the PNAC website, numerous essays and materials presented make it patently clear that Ramsey Clark’s assertion is anything but far-fetched. The PNAC are quite brazen about their conviction that America is morally and ideologically superior to other countries in the world. Thus, they argue, America deserves to be in power internationally, acting as policeman for the conflicts of the world. They also maintain that the world is fortunate that America is around to offer its superior brand of leadership. Thus, contrary to the view of Ramsey Clark, the PNAC believe that America’s goal of world domination is a just goal, and is entirely appropriate.

During the George W. Bush administration, the PNAC was so powerful, it was given large offices in the Pentagon and in the White House itself, called The Office of Special Plans.

It is clear that America has succeeded in constructing its new American century, with English as the predominant new language of business and consumerism as the predominant way of being. When George W. Bush spoke of bringing freedom to Iraq, he was really talking about facilitating the process of making a reluctant country’s natural resources available to the highest bidder.

Usually America does not have to resort to a “violent means,” to use Ramsey Clark’s terminology, to bring ‘freedom’ to rogue countries. War is expensive. Each of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost a minimum of ninety billion dollars per year to maintain. According to Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, the final costs of these wars, after America pays for medical expenses of disabled veterans and other infrastructural costs, will amount to somewhere in the range of three trillion dollars per war.

Although America is in the business of war and its largest companies are defense contractors, the Congress of the United States still would always prefers to colonize the planet and spread its ideology through a “non-violent means.”

Pop culture: the “non-violent” means 

Pop culture is the non-violent means through which America achieves world domination. Most of the time, it works as a tool of conquest because the American dream, shown so often in American pop culture, is so compelling to so many. When people around the world see our television shows and movies, showing Americans in huge over-sized houses and luxurious automobiles, most viewers want to sign on for the ride. Like the Romans’ bread and circuses, the lifestyles of the American rich and famous, with their 25,000 square foot homes and their cottages and summer homes in exotic locations, seem to be the best propaganda that America has found for promoting its beliefs to the world. Who wouldn’t want to live like Jay-Z or Steven Spielberg, asks America?

Clark’s worldview still maintains, however, that when the non-violent means is unsuccessful, America has not hesitated to utilize the violent means, as proven by the recent Afghan and Iraqi wars. An examination of American wars in the twentieth century makes this patently clear. In the 1990s, Mike Wallace (“The Twentieth Century”) maintained that America had sent troops to a Latin American nation (e.g. Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba,  etc) no less than 34 times in the twentieth century (Wallace, 1999).

“…since the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914, the U.S. has intervened in the affairs of other countries in the [Western] hemisphere at least 34 times”  (Wallace, 1999).

When a rogue country doesn’t want to play ball and participate in consumerism, as Ramsey Clark puts it, “they must be eliminated – or, at the very least, shown the error of their ways.”

How is North-American a culture of lies?

When I educate about Canada, it is clear that I am speaking of our culture as a microcosm of American life. Canada imitates America in most aspects of our lifestyles– the foods we eat, the entertainment we see, the products we consume. Our malls are filled with American corporate entities– Walmart, Starbucks, Old Navy, etc. Our stats, in most aspects of Canadian life, are precisely 1/10 of those of America, consistent with the fact that our population is 1/10th that of America. Canada, then, is America Junior, America-lite.

Numerous television programs have showcased the notion that lies are an integral part of our culture. On our resumes, we fake it till we make it. On our Facebook pages, we invent more attractive, richer versions of ourselves, to impress people.

Can we be blamed for making lies an integral part of the American way of life? Not if we examine those who model this deceit to us. Even a cursory examination of the leaders of the United States demonstrate that lying is an essential part of the life of a politician.

At least Eisenhower came forth, in the final hours of his administration, to expose the Military Industrial Complex for what it was: a vast network of corporations, defense contractors, the Military, and Congress, hellbent on its efforts to profit from warfare.

Each and every president in recent history, at least since WW2, has participated in some large, fundamental lie about American foreign policy or internal affairs.

And so, it is modelled to us, on a daily basis, that lying is okay.  That the powerful and famous people lie and get away with it, simply crushing those who question their lies, and in the end, are rewarded for their deceit. The list of important institutions and people who, in the last fifty years, were caught in huge lies is a seemingly endless list:

  • The Warren Commission (which included future President Gerald Ford) concluded thatPresident John F. Kennedy was killed by a lone gunmanLee Harvey Oswald.  The president, they said, was shot by a single bullet, at long distance, from behind. Remarkably, the magic bullet exited the president’s head at an acute angle, and then shot Governor Connally in the shoulder. Abraham Zapruder‘s home movie (the Zapruder film) of the event has been analyzed by numerous ballistics experts. Many agree that Kennedy (as evidenced by his head rocking forward and then seconds later, violently backward) was shot both from behind and then, at closer range, from in front.  Why would the Warren Commission so adamantly disagree?
  • On a side note, thinking he was on his death bed, CIA agent E. Howard Hunt (who shared an office with Oswald in New Orleans and who was photographed with him) confessed that he (with help from Oswald and others) killed Kennedy– he claimed that the next president, Lyndon Johnson, ordered the assassination. The confession may or may not be true.
  • In 1964, a false flag incident known as the Gulf of Tonkin was responsible for America’s entry into the Vietnam War, authorized by Lyndon Johnson. Over 150,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam.
  • Richard Nixon, in a very public TV speech, announced “I am not a crook.” In fact, he was a crook: he sent burglars to the Democratic Headquarters to steal files that would have implicated him in receipt of illegal campaign funds. The Watergate scandal was the cause of his impeachment.  He was pardoned by the next president, Gerald Ford.

The Watergate Office Building, Washington, DC (photo by Reeves Medaglia-Miller)

  • Ronald Reagan, in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease, confessed to orchestrating the money laundering scheme known as the Iran-Contra affair, a scheme designed to fund an illegal war against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas – he was briefly indicted, but was pardoned by the next president, George H.W. Bush. (Johnston, 1990) [The Iran Contra event] “…was a covert action that was taken at my behest,” said the President. (New York Times, 1990)
  • In the late 1980s, public enemy #1 Osama Bin Laden worked for the C.I.A., training Afghani mujahideen at Afghanistan’s Khost Tunnel Complex, a base that was built byBin Laden‘s engineering firm for a cost of about $3 billion. The purpose? To act as an underground army to fight the Soviet Union and end Soviet domination of the area. This insurgency was very effective (see Charlie Wilson’s War). The mujahideen went on to become what is now known as Al Qaeda. After 911, America was told none of the above facts in the free press, and acted as if Bin Laden was a longterm terrorist who always had harbored malice against the U.S.A. (Freedland, 2007)
  • In 1986, bin Laden “…helped build the Khost tunnel complex, which the CIA was funding as a major arms storage depot, training facility, and medical center for the Mujaheddin, deep under the mountains close to the Pakistan border. For the first time in Khost, he set up his own training camp for Arab Afghans, who now increasingly saw this lanky, wealthy and charismatic Saudi as their leader.” (Rashid, 2001)
  • It is clear now that bin Laden’s state-of-the-art training, with close assistance from the C.I.A., of the rebel mujahideen led directly to the power and ubiquity of the group now known as al-Qaeda.
  • At the climax of the 1990-1991 Gulf WarGeorge H.W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney were responsible for ordering the shoveling of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens (who happened to be fleeing along with the retreating Iraq army), who had been carpet-bombed, into mass graves on Iraq’s Highway of Death, just hours before the press arrived. Army spokespeople announced that those who were bombed were members of a cowardly Iraqi army in retreat. Would this matter? Should a retreating army that is attacking no one be bombed at all? ”I flew from my home in Paris to Riyadh when the ground war began and arrived at the “mile of death” very early in the morning on the day the war stopped. Few other journalists were there when I arrived at this incredible scene, with carnage that was strewn all over. On this mile stretch were cars and trucks with wheels still turning and radios still playing. Bodies were scattered along the road. Many have asked how many people died during the war with Iraq, and the question has never been well answered. That first morning, I saw and photographed a U.S. military “graves detail” burying many bodies in large graves. I don’t recall seeing many television images of these human consequences. Nor do I remember many photographs of these casualties being published.” (Turnley, 2002)
  • The vice-president and then president‘s son, Neil Bush, was responsible for the disappearance of close to a billion dollars in the collapse of Silverado during the 1980s Savings and Loan scandal — his extrication from the scandal was facilitated by his father.
  • Bill Clinton had extramarital sex in the White House’s Oval office with one and as many as four different women. He repeatedly denied the allegations. He was impeached for obstruction of justice, but was later acquitted by the Senate.
  • Richard Cheney manufactured intelligence to connect Iraq and Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda and Bin Laden when he knew that there was no such connection. Cheney and Bush declared war on Iraq even after UN inspector Hans Blix insisted that there were no longer any WMDs. (Mazzetti & Shane, 2008)  ”The 170-page report accuses Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top officials of repeatedly overstating the Iraqi threat in the emotional aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Its findings were endorsed by all eight committee Democrats and two Republicans, Senators Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. In a statement accompanying the report, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said: ‘The president and his advisers undertook a relentless public campaign in the aftermath of the attacks to use the war against Al Qaeda as a justification for overthrowing Saddam Hussein’.” (Mazzetti & Shane, 2008)
  • Donald Rumsfeld, until he was confronted at a Congressional hearing with 1980s footage of him shaking hands with Saddam, insisted that he had never met the man.  The handshake solidified America’s sale of arms to Iraq. The joke now goes, “we suspected that Iraq still had WMDs, because we still have the receipts.”

The list of high crimes and big lies goes on and on… and on. From politicians to investment bankers. From Goldman Sachs to Bernie Madoff. We see vast arrays of evidence that lies are not only normalized in our society, but also, they have become an accepted means of getting ahead and making extraordinary amounts of money.

Meanwhile, Neocons rail at the Obama government for bailing out the failed Wall Street bankers and bankrupting America, even when economist Joe Stiglitz reminds us that Bush’s two wars cost America three trillion a piece. During the Bush administration, nearly eight trillion dollars was spent, most of which remains unaccounted for. During Clinton’s administration, nearly four trillion went missing. The mortgage debacle in America–during which giants like Fannie May and Freddie Mac were blamed for issuing mortgages to Americans who were clearly ineligible–consumed a paltry two trillion.

Where did all the money go?

  • Want to find out? CLICK HERE: $$$$$$$$

Thus, it’s official. In no uncertain terms, we live in a culture of lies.

Definitions: Network, Howard Bealepopular cultureculture, mass media, hero, icon, ritual, psychology, religion, movie, television, popular music, art, advertising, news, internet, mainstream media, consumerism, racism, cultural appropriation, sexism, misogyny, violent masculinity, militarism, Roman Empiredistraction, revolution, Egyptian revolution, Juvenalbread and circuses, Ramsey Clark, conspiracy theory, paranoia, Project for the New American Century, Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, Lewis Libby, Dan Quayle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, George W. BushJoseph Stiglitzthree trillion dollar war, Office of Special Plans, defense contractorJay-Z, Steven Spielberg, military history of the United States, Mike Wallace, Military Industrial ComplexWarren CommissionGerald FordPresident John F. Kennedylone gunmanLee Harvey Oswaldmagic bulletGovernor ConnallyAbraham ZapruderZapruder filmE. Howard Huntfalse flagGulf of TonkinRichard NixonWatergate scandalRonald Reagan, Iran-Contra affair, SandinistasGeorge H.W. BushOsama Bin LadenmujahideenKhostCharlie Wilson’s WarAl Qaeda911Gulf WarDick CheneyHighway of DeathNeil BushSavings and LoanBill ClintonSaddam HusseinChuck HagelJohn D. Rockefeller IVWMDsGoldman SachsBernie Madoff



PowerPoint: US Presidents, 1953-Present

PowerPoint: The Project for the New American Century

Appendix: American Wars after World War II (see Military history of the U.S.):