SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Self-Censoring of America

How Sellouts Are Killing Growth

Are you a sellout?

If you came of age during the 1960s, whether or not to sell out was the existential question of your generation. Which to choose? Reckless youthful abandon or corporate “adult” obeisance? Films that dealt with that quandary, from “The Graduate” to Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” launched a million rap sessions, yet Baby Boomers are sure to leave this ethical dilemma unresolved.

My fellow travelers, we of unlucky, witty Generation X, have lived constrained careers with fewer options. Coupled with shrinking financial aid for college, the dismal job market made the choice between Wall Street and the Peace Corps depressingly simple. So we Gen Xers projected the debate onto practitioners of pop culture. Vanilla Ice, Milli Vanilli and The Knack, judged all commerce no art, were shunned. Artists who cashed in could be deemed genuine, but only if they took chances and/or made decisions that were bad for business: The Clash, Elvis Costello, RUN-DMC, Nirvana.

The booms have gotten shorter, the busts longer, the class divide deeper. The long-predicted winner-take-all society has arrived. A higher share of the income generated by each economic sector goes to a select few; others fight over scraps.

The cost of integrity and the payoff for selling out have risen. So fewer Americans are taking chances.

People are holding on to jobs they hate, making it harder for young people to find work. Businesses are hanging tight, picking safe bets (stuff that worked before) and slashing budgets for research and innovation. Banks and other would-be investors are hoarding cash. As a result, fewer entrepreneurs are starting new businesses.

Everyone makes concessions to the marketplace. I pride myself on ideological consistency and calling things as I see them even if offends my fans. But I rarely put vulgar words into my cartoons because newspaper and magazine editors won’t run them. (If I lived in, say, England, I wouldn’t have this problem.)
Charles Schulz was one of the richest men in America, his work licensed on billions of dollars of merchandise, yet comics fans lionize “Peanuts” because the strip itself is edgy and relatively uncompromising—more art than commerce.

“Right now, the pressures of the music industry encourage me to change the walk of my songs,” the Somali-Canadian musician K’naan wrote recently. “My lyrics should change, my label’s executives said; radio programmers avoid subjects too far from fun and self-absorption.”

It’s easy to tell K’naan to keep it real. But it’s not realistic.

Keeping it real doesn’t pay the rent.

Selling out does.

“Good work always finds success,” an old boss assured me. What a lie! The cutout bins of bookstores and CD stores (if you can find one) provide all the proof you need. People buy what advertising and publicists tell them to buy. If a cool author falls in the woods, she might make a sound—but no one will ever find her book at the front of the store, much less getting interviewed by Jon Stewart.

When artists rely on capitalist markets—hopelessly corrupt, governed by gatekeepers who distribute and promote vacuous apolitical pabulum over work that challenges conventional wisdom—the freedom to choose integrity over selling out is a fraud.

“If this was censorship, I thought, it was a new kind—one I had to do to myself,” K’naan continued. “The label wasn’t telling me what to do. No, it was just giving me choices and information about my audience.”

Make a living or starve. Or give up your dreams and silence yourself. Can anyone call that a real choice?

We see the same “choice” in politics. Senator Marco Rubio recently embarrassed himself twice, first by pandering to the idiot base of the Republican Party, then walking back his stance on creationism.

“Whether the Earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries,” he told GQ.

After a month of ridicule, Rubio acknowledged the existence of science: “[The age of the Earth] is at least 4.5 billion years old.”

Rubio explained his reasoning: “I just think in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever it is we believe. And that means teaching them science, but also parents have the right to teach them the theology and to reconcile those two things.”

Science isn’t reconcilable with faith. Rubio knows that. But he also knows what would happen to his presidential aspirations if he admitted the truth.

God is a lie.

If you believe in God, you are stupid.

If you think the earth is 6,000 years old, that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, and/or that climate change isn’t real or caused by people, you are an idiot.

Since many of my readers believe in God, the words above will cost me sales and clients. Optimists might argue that being forthright about my beliefs will attract at least as many new customers. But that’s not the way the world works.

Integrity means doing the right thing even—especially—when it hurts you. But you have to question the philosophical underpinnings—and the future—of a society that requires its leaders and artists to work at Starbucks or to act stupider than they really are in order to get elected or sell records or books or whatever. Taking chances—which includes causing outrage—is how civilization tests new ideas, and how it progresses.

Not that they let you say whatever you want at Starbucks.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. The author of “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” he is working on a new book about the war in Afghanistan to be released in Fall 2013 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL

12 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Self-Censoring of America

  1. Glad to see a strident stance on religion. It is the scourge of mankind. The belief in things for which there is no evidence is irrational and leads to war and other harmful things.

  2. Sorry Ted, I thought this column was a tad incoherent. In the beginning you start by saying something about band that made money without selling out. Then you contradict this line of logic saying that you have to sell out, this, just telling us that selling out like Vanilla Ice gets you nothing. Shoulda thought this article through a bit more.

  3. Andy,

    What Ted is saying is pretty straightforward. It’s the spiral of diminished expectations. Each iteration is a little crappier than the one before it, and that is a fundamental aspect of laissez-faire capitalism.

    The effect of this has been masked by innovation and belt-tightening, but we’re coming to the point where the population of unemployed people is going to become an unavoidable problem. Only 47% of working age Americans are working. That other 53% might be living at home with mom and dad, or be supported by a spouse, sibling, or friend, but it’s still millions of people who are not earning money, and they are going to get old one day.

  4. Care to back up your figures, Alex? A 53% unemployment rate is over double what anyone with any credibility has put the unemployment rate so far.

  5. I’m glad it’s not illegal to say fuck, because then you could get arrested for saying, Fuck the government.

  6. mmmm…. integrity. The standards which I hold you to Ted are perhaps unfairly high. Yet here you have surpassed them. Excellent piece. Kudos.

    I’ll try to spend a little more on the yearly Christmas bonus I give you for pleasantly surprising me so, but I am currently stretched a little thin bailing out yet another starving artist who hasn’t been able to keep her lights on let alone pay the rent from her own income for the last two months. *SIGH* caring is so expensive these days…

  7. “People buy what advertising and publicists tell them to buy.”
    And that’s why we get Kanye West and Alicia Keys.
    Lousy.

  8. It would be nice if Alex provided a link, but Whimsical asks an irrelevant question. If 53% of working age people are working, that does NOT mean that 47% are unemployed. Back before more than a minuscule percentage of women worked, only about 50% of working age people ever worked.

    To be technically unemployed over a given time period, one must have, during the entire time period, actively applied to places that are actively seeking job applicants, and one must not have been offered even one minute of paying employment. This technical measure is consistent, but sometimes gives figures for unemployment that are too low, and sometimes gives figures that are too high.

    Another thing to look at is the total number working divided by the total working age population, which is what Alex was talking about. It’s another way of trying to understand how many are really out of work, by looking at the graph of the level and dividing the current percentage of the total working age population employed by the maximum percentage ever employed.

    No single number tells us everything. In ‘normal’ times, the technical unemployment rate is a good measure of ‘real’ unemployment, other times (like these) it isn’t, and other measures are needed.

  9. Here’s a link (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employment-to-population_ratio)
    Check the section “Employment-to-population ratio in the world”

    And here (http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS12300000)

    My point was that the number of people who are not working is enormous. Historically, there have always (outside of wartime) been a significant percentage of people who COULD work but who chose NOT to: for instance, a stay-at-home mother, a student or a trust-fund baby who lives off unearned wealth. But the number of people who could be working who are not is increasing. I find it very hard to accept that the increase is due to positive results: stay-at-home mothers might be increasing, assuming that go-to-work fathers are able to earn enough to support the family on one paycheck; students could be increasing, but how many of them are borrowing to cover college costs, thus, simply delaying a devastating day of reckoning; trust-fund babies could be staying away from the work pool as well, but are the rich really increasing at such a furious rate?

  10. Alex-

    Thanks for the link. I don’t believe that that is a real measure of those people who would like to be working but can’t, which is my personal definition of unemployment; however. I think the number that fits my definition of the word is closer to around what the unoffical statistic of unemployment is (I forget the u #) around 20% though I would add maybe 5% more. And before any of the idiots come in, OF COURSE that’s TOO DAMN HIGH. But that’s what happens when you allow sociopaths to win elections, esepcially in years that give them the power to gerrymander their districts.

    The left has this attitude that once they get what they want, they’ll help politicans win elections. But the reality is, they’re going to have to help politicans win elections to have the slightest chance at getting what they want.

    And that’s a large part of the reason the number of people who arent working is going up. So, you’re quite right -its not for a positive reason. But its not for the reasons you expect, either.