The central argument of Amusing Ourselves [Neil Postman] is simple: there were two landmark dystopian novels written by brilliant British cultural critics – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – and we Americans had mistakenly feared and obsessed over the vision portrayed in the latter book (an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state) rather than the former (a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble).
So what would Neil Postman say about this fellow [note title of this essay, referencing Jeff Bezos’ proclamation on what work should mean to every breathing American], or the many fellows like Bezos who have zero patience for a world without disrupting economies tied to their authoritarian business plan of more billionaires deserving (sic) more power. Disruptive and destructive, and not just economies in the book sense, but structural violence and community disintegration, murdering people with debt, lack of housing, no medical care, suicide, that’s Bezos, et al looking to capitalize on every penny gathered from every nanosecond in our individual human lives.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has seen his company grow into one of the world’s biggest companies.
Back in 1997, Bezos told shareholders that employees at other companies “can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com, you can’t choose two out of three.”
Bezos acknowledges his high standards for employees every year, telling shareholders that “it’s not easy to work here.”
In the 24 years since Amazon was founded, CEO Jeff Bezos has seen his company grow from a modest online bookshop to one of the most valuable companies in the world.
Back in 1997, Bezos was already expecting big things out of his young company. In his annual letter to Amazon shareholders, Bezos described how much effort he expected from his employees.
“When I interview people I tell them, ‘You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three,” Bezos wrote in the 1997 letter.
“Setting the bar high in our approach to hiring has been, and will continue to be, the single most important element of Amazon.com’s success.”
The New York Times reported in 2015 exactly how bruising the work environment at Amazon could be. Employees were reportedly expected to routinely work late, were encouraged to criticize coworkers‘ ideas at meetings, and were often found crying at their desks. Amazon disputed many of the claims in the Times investigation, though the newspaper defended its reporting.
God forbid we call Amazon Boss Bezos a plantation owner of a different mother, for sure. That Americans — living in small and large cities, far and wide — depend on the Amazon way as if Amazon is sutured into all aspects of American culture (sic) and hardwired into every new born’s head. Same day delivery. A shopping cart that would be the envy of any Rothschild or Leona Mindy Roberts Helmsley.
This essay, first, was going to address those other masters of the Universe — Google Guys and Algorithm Titans. I barely criticized a billionaire in a DV article — Household Income, or Higher Planes of Consciousness?*
I criticized Nick Hanauer for his false balance, contrived bifurcation, and his new wind as a billionaire fighting what he calls the educationalism mindset that says that a good, grounded, deep and holistic education might be a thing of kings, whereas Nick says education backing and financing ain’t worth diddly squat in capitalism until more people make more money to buy more things, or just to survive in his nihilistic world.
Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission. I co-founded the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education. I joined Bill Gates, Alice Walton, and Paul Allen in giving more than $1 million each to an effort to pass a ballot measure that established Washington State’s first charter schools. All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools—if we modernized our curricula and our teaching methods, substantially increased school funding, rooted out bad teachers, and opened enough charter schools—American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again. Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored.
— Nick Hanauer
In my email box, Google, of course, I get an unsolicited email from an organization for which I have never associated with or even pursued. It’s the old surveillance state of Google and the internet Stasi, for sure —
Alas, Neil Postman was correct, in so far as what we say and do as writers really does not count — we are only as smart and deep and truthful as our masters will allow:
In my college economics class, we were taught that wages depend on productivity. The more productive or skilled workers are, my professors used to argue, the more they will be worth on the labor market and, therefore, the higher their wages will be. That’s bunk.
Under this logic, the way to cure our economic woes – whether poverty, inequality, underemployment, or unemployment – is through education. By educating our citizens, we increase their human capital, making them more productive and, therefore, increasing their expected income.
It sounds good, right?
This seductive myth – of education as an economic cure-all – is something Civic Action founder Nick Hanauer calls “educationism.” As Nick writes in a recent article for The Atlantic, it’s a myth he used to believe, and it’s a myth many wealthy elites still propagate. It’s what leads philanthropists to donate billions of dollars to public schools and educational institutions.
There’s just one problem: Educationism doesn’t work. If it did, our middle class would be much better off.
In the last 40 years, while the real incomes of most Americans have been stuck, we’ve gotten a lot more educated. Almost everyone has a high school diploma and the share of Americans with a college degree has more than tripled since 1970.”
But all that education hasn’t translated into higher wages. In fact, if our incomes had done what my college profs told me – gone up with productivity – the average family today would be earning $29,000 more a year. An average of $105,000!
Of course, it’s true that getting an education is likely to increase your own income. But that’s not the same as raising incomes throughout the economy. Not when four out of five of the fastest growing jobs pay very low wages – jobs like cashiers and health care assistants. Meanwhile, the pay of most people who do have a college education barely keeps up with inflation.
What we do need to do is raise incomes for working families and the middle class throughout the economy. That’s how we build an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few. As Nick writes:
“In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.”
— Stephen Paolini, Civic Action, email with an ask for $ support
But then, this essay takes a twist, as they always seem to do when I deploy some ground-truthing. You see, most of us in the USA, the 80 percent of the population — many of which are on the skids, on the near skids, or those of us barely scraping by, and those of us who are unseen but are many short steps away from working for one of those sweatshops like we see with Amazon (there are so many warehouse jobs, forklift gigs, sorting careers) and finding down time in the back seat of our cars) — so-so tire of, really, the prognosticators writing away hard in semi-secure status — even the smartish ones on leftish magazines like The Nation, or digital forums like Truthout or Truthdig or The Intercept.
They have NO idea of what is real in the world, and that rarefied realm of citing this study or making this or that prediction, well, it is bombast at best, propaganda at worst, denuded of humanity in many cases.
Case in point — tens of millions of men and women wandering the land (US), in some warped version of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, really, in a society that eats-sleeps-dreams-believes the crap that Huxley warned of, and that which Neil Postman discussed. Oh the irony, those, that billionaire book salesman, Bezos, dead to the world, dead to us, the 80 percent, living, barely, in the middle of their hellish barbecue.
I was with three fellows — two literally are sleeping in campgrounds, and one fellow living with his parents. A million miles away from what any social worker or Sheryl Sandberg or Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren or any of the scions of Holly-dirt or anyone in the Trump Loony Bin Show, or those clamoring around an Obama or Oprah or Rachel Maddow. It’s a triple sick experience even thinking about how vapid that so-called debate was yesterday with half of the half-wits of the Democratic Party wanting to play president.
So, a life of men truly on the extinction block, in several demographics. These fellows I hired on to help my spouse and I move from a rental to a house we had the temerity to purchase in a Time of Climate Heating, Oceans Rising, Food Wilting, Water Draining, Economies Imploding, Saber Rattling, and ICBM Immolating.
Their lives, broken down, seem to hold the familiar life story of many people I have worked with as a non-traditional social worker for the homeless, the just-out-of-prison returnees, and chronically physically and mentally ill. They work jobs, stacking halibut, packing shrimp, pounding two-by-fours, hauling goods, sorting things, cutting trees, landscaping, roofing. Both of these fellows are 50, living in campgrounds, one with false teeth, the other with nubs and rotting teeth.
Child support for children they have never seen, or can’t see now. Felonies for this or that charge keeping them from even getting to first base on an apartment application. Vagabonds harassed by cops, and living life in a constant move. For my other helper, Brian, he’s a former marine, working as a social services provider, has a wonderful child on the spectrum (autism) and is currently living with aging and sickly parents. All three fit the bill for zero tolerance in this society. Never reflected in the news stories, in the Mass Murdering Media, never on the minds of the One Percent, Point Zero Zero One Percent. I know for a fact, though, that those Little Eichmanns who populate the other 19 percent of the 20 Percenters, well, many of them have one degree of separation when it comes to family members with substance abuse issues, chronic mental or physical illness, depression, suicidal, schizophrenic, and homeless.
You get both barrels of human pain and human survival and some human triumphs when talking with real people, albeit, denigrated folk, disenfranchised humans.
They are really rough around the edges, but these fellows, Tommy and Devon, they are examples of struggle and defeat and some triumph, as Brian and I note and agree. They are so far from any of the discourse going on around the world — the complete irrelevance of all the trolling, all the internet crap, all the stuff that makes for an echo chamber that sucks humanity and human connection from the ether.
You look at Tommy, and you see a man on the skids. Big laughing screwed up face, almost Dickensian, crazy might be one moniker. Hustling and wanting to have people know that there was once a time when he had some normalcy, some sense of being a man in society — not on the skids. Though, Tommy would not see himself on the skids.
Brain injury 23 years ago when a van hit him head on as a pedestrian. And he still works, moves heavy furniture, and hammers roofs.
Devon, a former truck driver, someone who has a few years in the Marines, and as Brian states — people are only awakened to the level of how they have been able to access those tools necessary to be woken up. Yet, Brian states that he’d much rather be in the company of these men than the MSWs and other graduate-level punishers he’s worked with, as I have also worked with, in the non-profit arenas as supposed social services workers.
They probably know nothing about this movement, which could affect Tommy and Devon:
When reporters for the International Amazon Workers Voice interviewed part-time Amazon “associates” (a cheap euphemism for “employees” used to disguise the exploitative relationship between workers and management at the company) in Baltimore to discuss their attitude toward Bezos’ fortune, they were met with a torrent of disgust, calls for sharing the wealth, and social anger.
“Tell Mr. Bezos and the rest of management to come out of their offices and get on the shop floor” said one worker who identified herself as a single mother of two. “At the end of the day, they never feel what we go through in a day for $12 an hour. They get to sit down in their offices and get paid more than we will see in a year,” she said.
Bezos’ wealth typifies the way an increasingly small number of multi-billionaire CEOs and finance operatives extract ever more obscene sums from the international workforce. This process of ever-increasing wealth for the few and exploitation for the majority is reaching a political breaking point.
Explaining her work environment during the holidays, the working mother said, “they just had us move 100,000 packages in 5 hours, and at the end we aren’t even paid enough to take care of our kids. I’m a single mother, I don’t receive food stamps. My rent is $850 a month. I have to pay for gas, electricity, bus passes, plus raise two kids.
“If we decided to quit, who would move these packages out of the door?” she said, noting the social power of the workers employed by the company. “We are the ones making you rich.”
Brian and I talk about Amazon, and the nefarious nature of how the guy at the Washington Post attacks the fourth grader Trump and others, while he is part of the Military Industrial Complex. From The Intercept:
Amazon’s extensive relationship with the NSA, FBI, Pentagon and other surveillance agencies in the west is multi-faceted, highly lucrative and rapidly growing. Last March, the Intercept reported on a new app that Amazon developers and British police forces have jointly developed to use on the public in police work, just “the latest example of third parties aiding, automating, and in some cases, replacing, the functions of law enforcement agencies — and raises privacy questions about Amazon’s role as an intermediary.”
Then there’s the patent Amazon obtained last October, as reported by the Intercept, “that would allow its virtual assistant Alexa to decipher a user’s physical characteristics and emotional state based on their voice.” In particular, it would enable anyone using the product to determine a person’s accent and likely place of origin: “The algorithm would also consider a customer’s physical location — based on their IP address, primary shipping address, and browser settings — to help determine their accent.”
All of this is taking place as Amazon vies for, and is the favorite to win, one of the largest Pentagon contracts yet: a $10 billion agreement to provide exclusive cloud services to the world’s largest military. CNN reported just last week that the company is now enmeshed in scandal over that effort, specifically a formal investigation into “whether Amazon improperly hired a former Defense Department worker who was involved with a $10 billion government contract for which the tech company iscompeting.”
Bezos’ relationship with the military and spying agencies of the U.S. Government, and law enforcement agencies around the world, predates his purchase of the Washington Post and has become a central prong of Amazon’s business growth. Back in 2014, Amazon secured a massive contract with the CIA when the spy agency agreed to pay it $600 million for computing cloud software. As the Atlantic noted at the time, Amazon’s software “will begin servicing all 17 agencies that make up the intelligence community.”
Given how vital the military and spy agencies now are to Amazon’s business, it’s unsurprising that the amount Amazon pays to lobbyists to serve its interests in Washington has exploded: quadrupling since 2013 from $3 million to almost $15 million last year, according to Open Secrets.
What would the house-less Tommy and Devon say about this Byzantine world of hyper billions of dollars and hyper trillions of human hours wasted on the things of capitalism, of power and control, consumption?
I know many friends who wonder why we — people like me — still live in the US? Many wonder what it will take young people to stand down the systems of oppression. Some believe the young people have it, as in Greta the Carbon Dioxide Robin Hood, or AOC, the new face (sic) of American politics.
This system we have now is one where a few voices count (get read, heard, published, followed), and the majority of voices are just bursts of yelling in the woods, in campgrounds, in one’s lovely home in the old sedan, in our own bedlam. People travelling from one insane place to another, but in that realm, a sanity sets in for guys like Tommy and Devon. The world is pretty clear-cut, and on many levels, these people have positive outlooks — toothless, no real estate or swelling investment accounts. Just that hard way forward. Cigarettes and bicycling miles a day. Places to shower. Places to get out of the rain without the bulldozers of misanthropy pushing them further and further into ditches or out on the periphery until they stare us all down, face to face, the coming of a New Brave World. Is it the entertaining ourselves to death cycle, or a little bit of the other — big brother, watching our every move, holding every syllable mouthed in a cloud server, every speck of mole cataloged, and every word penned or typed, collected to hold us at bay, hold us as prisoners of our own faulty beliefs?
Needless to say, Charles Dickens grew to hate the system and rail against it in his works. In his seminal novella “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by two portly men raising money for the poor.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the [one of the gentlemen], taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
— Charles Dickens, 1843, A Christmas Carol
Or, updated for 2020, as illustrated by a commentator on an article about Portland, OR, once the Rose City, now The City of Rocks:
To disrupt illegal camp sites set up by homeless in Portland, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is moving boulders onto the roadsides. The project will eventually cost about a million dollars, but ODOT argues this cost is less than the cost of dealing with existing campsites.
Many have pointed out that this policy does nothing to address the underlying problem or help the people in the camp, but only forces them to move somewhere else.
—Scrooge/Marley, Edward Sullivan, Planetizen
A debtor’s prison in London.