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The Triumph of Meanness

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As I mentioned in this week's discussion of how mean-spirited political discourse has become, you might want to glance through The Triumph of Meanness: America's War Against Its Better Self  Nicolaus Mills, 1997, Houghton Mifflin ...

As I mentioned, this book is a little dry, but has its moments.  I suppose you could call it social scientific commentary on social conditions in the United States.   Mills discusses what he sees as the sources of social problems, the present state of our specific social problems, and the reason for our societal failure to treat social problems.  Basically Mills says meanness has become our problematic "first response to a series of social problems."   Meanness is a part of our culture; indeed, Mills refers to the United States of the nineties as a culture of meanness.

Mills, an American Studies professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, begins his analysis with local descriptions of unnecessary meanness, such as disallowing the homeless to lie upon benches in subway stops.  Of course he points out that such meanness creates and aggravates social problems.  It doesn't really do much else.  But what he finds worse is the public acceptance of mean measures, our acceptance of "bumproof" benches as the norm.  We see meanness in our hardened attitudes toward the poor.  We see it in the "third worldization" of our society - where only those in the very top socio-economic levels have security.

In the initial chapters, "Mean Times" and "The New Savagery," Mills fiddles with the notion of time periods as essential to the context of meanness - that complex societies vary approximately every three decades on meanness versus generosity, tolerance, and kindness.  He writes specifically of fluctuating (left and right, progressive and conservative) political powers controlling social programs and policies (social security, welfare, immigration, health care and the rest).  But Mills claims that while these are mean times and that every culture fluctuates across time in terms of its meanness, the nineties were particularly mean.

Evidence?  Well, we do live in a time of gated communities to keep out our "socially constructed enemies" and of "unprecedented prison construction. " We live in a time of selfish "need" to own environment-destroying sport utility vehicles.  We live in a time of "superficiality, narcissism, vacuousness, and materialism."  We live in a time of "unreasoning and loud voices, taking the place of reasoned and reasonable discussion aimed at resolving violent, harsh, and pointless disagreement." We live in a time of militia movements taking the forefront of our attention, demanding that we as a society hear their male and white supremacist message and that we respond to their threats.  Yeah, yeah.

Mills admits we've gone through some other mean times in which "cruelty targets the vulnerable" - Indian removal, immigration quotas, anti-Semitism, the red scare, and so on.  But Mills insists that the last decade, for his purposes the nineties, was a uniquely mean time since, for one thing, the new meanness is pervasive and, for another, it "stands the test of public scrutiny."  Meanness is now a "part of our everyday world in ways that we now take for granted."   Mills claims the new style meanness is so deeply embedded in our culture that the "new meanness is style and attitude, meanness without guilt."  In short, ruthlessness is reinforced; current meanness has become institutionalized.

Why should this be?  Mills claims the end of the Cold War deprived us of an external and vaguely-understood enemy.  Corresponding with "sociology-of-the-enemy interpretations," we have turned our hostilities inward and toward the homeless, immigrants, criminals, homosexuals, racial minorities, women.  Well, maybe so.
The he says a second and related force creating this current meanness is the downward mobility of the middle class.  White-collar unemployment now exceeds blue-collar unemployment, and the unemployed white-collar workers (often white men, but more generally Americans expectant of the "American Dream") need a scapegoat.

Yep, this seems so.  The question is, six years after he published this, have we found a a scapegoat in the wild-eyed Islamic fanatics who want to kill us all?  Perhaps.  But perhaps not.

Of course Mills too points out that economic bad times play a huge role in the creation and sustenance of meanness.  He says our corporations now use humiliation as a management tool.  Well, they actually do at times.  Hey, read any of the management books written by the ex-CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, where he discusses laying people off unnecessarily, under-paying them, firing them... as a productivity tool.
The anxiety created such crap of course quickly turns to anger - anger at other economic victims (welfare recipients) and at affirmative action policies (which are blamed for unemployment among white men).   Mills points out that strangely, many folks persist in the belief that our society is basically fair and that those at the bottom deserve to be there.  And Mills says such an attitude allows us to shed any sense of responsibility toward the poor and disadvantaged.  Yep.  I listen to my conservative friends.

Well, life is tough and you should take "personal responsibility" for your own well-being in such an economy.  Damn the others.  It's a Hobbesian world of survival.  Or Darwinian - as in survival of only the fit, and death to the unfit.
Mills explains "corporate Darwinism" as essentially the unnecessary firing of workers without thought to personal or social impact. From a business perspective, it is  "perfectly all right for a thriving company to shed thousands of workers, watch its stock prices shoot up as a consequence, and then reward its CEOs and top executives with stock options that were even more valuable than before."

Mills knows what we all know now.  Companies downsize when they are healthy and when their businesses are profitable. For the workers, this means that they cannot count on being employed over the long haul, no matter how well they have performed their jobs; workers no longer have a social contract with their employer.  They must consider themselves as freelance workers, as self-employed vendors who must sell their skills to a company, on a tenuous, temporary basis. 
Meanness on the part of the employers generates not only "anxiety, homelessness, and poverty, but also backlash meanness on the part of the employees."   That is backlash by American workers, "not against appropriate targets (the downsizers) but, not uncommonly, against foreign labor." The same forces that create a feeling of violated expectations also encourage brutality and exploitation in foreign workplaces, as Mills points out appear in Asia, South America, and other countries where American corporations relocate or outsource.

Mills spend a great deal of time on popular culture, but it's too depressing to summarize that.  Think of the Jerry Springer and WWF shows.

And on the issue of racial conflict Mills goes into some detail on "racial payback," a kind of tit for tat that has "locked us into roles in which racial concession is taken as a sign of weakness. The pay-off, especially in politics, comes from playing hardball, from making sure every racial encounter is treated as a symbolic clash of interests."
Ditto for sexism and immigration issues.  It's a depressing ride through these.  In the capter "Lifeboat Ethics and Immigration Fears" Mills cites Mark Mellman, Democratic pollster saying, "Today the notion is that the pie is shrinking and that each new person who arrives not only takes a piece of the pie but takes it from me."  Yep, now the view is that immigrants are leeches; they take jobs away from us and disproportionately use up our tax money.  Immigrants do, out of desperation, accept employment that more privileged people do not want, at wages that the more privileged would not consider.  "But to assume that all immigrants are illegal aliens and to blame immigrants for draining our tax dollars is not just mean, it is false."  Nevertheless, "we have crossed a threshold on what can be said in public about immigration."  Repeatedly, we are told that our culture should be a one-language culture; and with this argument, we have "turned the English language into a weapon for fighting diversity."  Welcome to Los Angeles, Professor Mills.

Rather than reading Mills on politics and the media, just read October 19, 2003 Opinion and October 19, 2003 Mail of course.

Oh, and if you really want get upset, try these:
Aho, James A. 1990. The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Aho, James A. 1994. This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Berry, Bonnie. 1999. Social Rage: Emotion and Cultural Conflict. New York, NY: Garland.

Bushart, Howard L., John R. Craig, and Myra Barnes. 1998. Soldiers of God: White Supremacists and Their Holy War for America. New York, NY: Kensington Publishing.

Coates, James . 1995. Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the Survivalist Right. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.

Dees, Morris and Stephen Fiffer. 1993. Hate on Trial: The Case Against America's Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi. New York, NY: Villard Books (Random).

Dees, Morris with James Corcoran. 1996. Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Hamm, Mark S. 1994. American Skinheads: The Criminology and Control of Hate Crime. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Hamm, Mark S. 1997. Apocalypse in Oklahoma: Waco and Ruby Ridge Revenged. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.

Moore, Michael. 1996. Downsize This: Random Threats from an Unarmed American. New York, NY: Crown Books.
No.  I'll stop here.  Enough.