'We Negotiate with Terrorists Now': Social Media and Ideology

After a social media fast, I made a tentative return to Facebook.

I returned mostly aware of what I would find. A complete archival record of every child of every Facebook friend. Images of food my digital confreres had just consumed or shortly would consume or perhaps simply hoped to, someday, consume. Occasional cries of existential despair frequently masked by a passive aggressive simpers but sometimes unleashed in emotive boomlets.

In a supreme act of repression, I had forgotten the political postings. And, most recently, they have been taking this form: "Wow, so we negotiate with terrorists now. Sad."

Of course, these right-wing posters are referring to the recent exchange of five prisoners held at Guantanamo for an American soldier held by the Taliban. By the time you read this, talking points will have moved on to Bowe Bergdahl being a deserter or something else.

My Facebook "friends" have missed out on more than half a century of history. The United States has, in fact, negotiated with terrorists, collaborated with them in the overthrow of democratically elected governments, run guns to them in elaborate secret schemes best represented in the CIA-sponsorship of the Mujahidin in Afghanistan and the Iran-Contra affair that ended with nothing more than a temporary dip in Ronald Reagan's popularity ratings and the issuing of rather pointless indictments soon met with a flurry of pardons from George Bush I when he took office in 1989.

So yes, we do negotiate and get in bed with and do all sorts of nasty, unspeakable things with terrorists now. We have been doing this since the emergence of the national security state in the aftermath of World War II. Our imperial intentions and interests will likely make this a continuing element of foreign policy, so either give up on your notions of "American exceptionalism" or accept it. I suggest the former.

However, obtuse Facebook postings reflect something more complex than a profound ignorance, and lack of interest, in the realities of American history. They represent ideology in its purest form and ideology given even more taunt muscles by the intensive narcissism of social media.

I do not mean ideology in the way that the term, unfortunately, circulates in general usage. That is, ideology understood as one set of political beliefs as opposed to another ("I'm a liberal" or "I'm a conservative" or "I'm a pot-smoker who mostly likes to surf but also think Ron Paul is awesome. No, I don't actually know much about his positions").

Instead, I mean ideology in the Marxist sense; a set of blinders that prevent us from seeing into the deeper realities, the economic realities, of society. Fascinations with celebrity gossip represent an extrusion of ideology that accomplishes this. So does Fox News. So also do the social media wars of partisanship.

Fredric Jameson once said that conspiracy theory offers "cognitive mapping for poor people." He was partially right. Mostly what one finds on Facebook are impoverished geographies of the mind, efforts to make sense of the chaos by naming and casting out a demon, anger and angst unleashed upon the world for reasons not even clear to the one who allows these monsters to walk among us.

Most impressively, such effusions allow for an ideological echo chamber to develop that reveals the ways narcissism and commodity culture work together. Theodor Adorno recognized long ago that mass culture represents the narcissistic personality taken to the cultural level. What would he have thought of a world wired for narcissism, for turning one's own opinions into a commodity?

Thus, one person posts about Benghazi, or how they should be able to take their assault weapons to a Sonic or Chili's, or how Obama negotiates with terrorists. In response, someone mainlining MSNBC replies with various arguments that range from the rational ("maybe my safety in shitty chain restaurants is more important than your right to carry around phallic symbols able to create a high body count") to more mystical evocations of Obama as a kind of messianic figure whose failings are actually his efforts to clean up the mess made by the GOP.

What's ignored in these social media exchanges is more than that they settle nothing. They successfully hide the often-complex realities of social class in a country where economic inequality has continued to grow exponentially since the 1980s. You know the dreary statistics. You also know that every exercise in partisanship offers a chance for these liberal and conservative dance partners to ignore how the ballroom no longer belongs to them, has been bought and sold and franchised by an immensely wealthy elite.

I am currently teaching a graduate seminar that touched briefly on the problematic and contentious relationship of Malcolm X to socialism. One of my very bright students raised the question of whether the "bourgeoisie" can be said to exist anymore. He was making the point that the income gap in the United States is so wide that perhaps there is now just a vast working class with no middle class existing in a meaningful way.

I do, however, think that the bourgeosie lives on. And here is a bitter pill that left-leaning suburbanites will need to choke down.

What's left of today's middle class, itself (my student is right) becoming more proletarianized all the time, contains more than a few self-satisfied liberals. Relative wealth has granted them educational opportunities and sophistication that allows them a wider view of the world than their Facebook opponents. They don't buy into Fox-News-inspired conspiracy theories because they are simply less frightened of the world than those hanging on to their petit bourgeois status by their fingernails. Their kids have escaped the public school system into mostly lily-white private or magnet schools that offer a boutique education. Their jobs involve feasting "like vampires" (to quote Marx) on digital data of various kinds in a postindustrial economy in which the millions beneath them toil in fast food restaurants, call centers, retail hells, cubicles and contract work.

Social media dream images flit in front of us like a nickelodeon. Our escape from the Real allows us to ignore the widening gaps in a society where even those who congratulate themselves on their rationality will eventually watch helplessly as things fall apart. We all know this. And yet, our eyes move restlessly over the digital carnage like an insatiate lover.