The Information Age? Part two

Why the rapid development of new technology is a good thing, part two.

Continuing from the previous installment, inspired by a conversation at a grocery store checkout and looking at the rise of the Information Age. Here, I return to that conversation, which concerned whether Camila Parker-Bowles was about to become Queen of England, based on a single magazine cover.

First of all, why do the British Royals seems to be such an endless source of fascination for Americans? I mean, we did fight that whole war to get rid of them at one point, right? But thanks to new technology, they suddenly started landing in our backyards again.

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953, was televised in the U.S. — sort of. We didn’t have the capability yet to transmit television signals across the ocean, but they could transmit radio waves, and send images via a primitive sort of fax machine, even called MuFax, that could send a still image by wire in “only” nine minutes.

Apparently, though, probably the moment when the former colonies started to have a thing for the Royals started with the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales on July 1, 1969 — right before the Moon landing — but it was broadcast around the world, quite likely in a convenient test-run of satellite technology twenty days before the Real Big Event.

Twelve years later, Charles would be back in American consciousness when he married Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981.  Their worldwide TV audience comprised 750 million people. And, of course, his bride would capture worldwide attention upon her death on August 31, 1997.

I definitely remember that evening, because my then-boyfriend and I had just come home from a Sunday evening movie date, got to his place and he turned on the TV. There it was — the top story on American network news on every channel.

While the previous weird fascination seemed to be just a fluke of technology making delusions of monarchy appealing to some Americans in a sort of fantasy/soap-opera way, the growth of the Internet also seemed to blur borders, at least in another way.

By this century, the only cultural divides among the English-speaking countries seem to be superficial, like word-choices, culinary decisions, and major brands. And Americans have continued to fawn over Charles and Diana’s kids, and then their grandkids, and his second marriage, and no, I don’t get it.

What I did get, though, when the woman finally turned the magazine to us after asking, “When did Camilla become the queen?” I realized that it was a copy of InTouch, which answered everything.

While it’s an American magazine, it has a particular fascination with the British Royal Family. It also lies its ass off, and their cover accuracy (from the editors and publisher) and content accuracy (from the writers) are both well below 25%. — although I knew that without looking, because the drug store next to my place that’s been a really convenient quick drop-in during the pandemic stocks it by the registers, so I’ve had plenty of time to look at their cover stories and just shake my head.

Then again, I kind of know stuff about British royalty and how it works, outside of this pop culture fascination with them. Why? Because I learned a lot of history in school, as well as on my own, because I’m just curious like that.

Like the British stuff before our revolution that was later important to the Western world. I’ve also paid attention to the stuff behind the tabloid headlines on the Royals, which led to a nice moment, actually, because if this woman had just gone off of the very inaccurate and IRL click-bait headline, she could have walked away thinking that Camilla Parker Bowles was about to become Queen of England.

Fortunately, I knew enough to be able to tell her — and the checker, who seemed to be going along with the headline — that InTouch was incredibly unreliable and, if anything, the cover title was satirical at best, because “Queen Camilla” would never happen.

And that much is definitely true, because part of the deal of allowing Charles to marry Camilla after Diana died was the specific stipulation that she would never become the queen should he ascend to the throne, but rather only gain the title of princess consort, which is a polite royal way of saying “the chick the king is fucking, but his relatives totally disapprove.”

I didn’t explain it in quite those terms. I just said that because of her divorce and the deal Charles made, she could never become queen, and that seemed to settle the issue.

On the way out, it struck me — and this article was born — how is it that modern humans (and it’s not just Americans) can have access to so damn much information and yet seem to know so little about what is really going on?

No, I’m not pushing conspiracy-theory bullshit there. It’s a legitimate question. How is it that so many people do not seem to engage with actual, fact-based information?

Unfortunately, I think a big part of it is that in modern culture (late-stage capitalism largely to blame) too many people have been ingrained with learned helplessness.

“You cannot get ahead, so you never will, so just soldier on and buy our shit! It’s better than trying to learn, because learning is hard, right?”

Well, wrong. But this is the message that has kept people disengaged from curiosity and education. Consumer culture, particularly in the west, is focused on one thing: Selling you artificial substitutes for happiness.

If they let you learn and get smart, then you’ll learn to not buy into their bullshit, so they start to try to get you when you’re young. McDonald’s Happy Meals, anyone?

Modern capitalism has really adopted an old idea that has been attributed to several sources, but which really has none. St. Ignatius Loyola never said anything like, “Give me the child until seven and I will give you the adult” (original version, substitute “boy” and “man” for the subjects in the sentence.) Not was it said by Aristotle.

But… it somehow crawled into the Zeitgeist, especially in marketing, and voila… your kids became targets. How do you think that companies like McDonald’s and Disney became so damn huge in the first place? Each of them had you as kids, probably your parents as kids, they’ve got your kids, and they’re going to get your grandkids.

And how do these companies do their thing? Oh, they will never, ever tell you, “Not happy? Maybe you should learn a new skill!” Instead, they’ll hide the question, make the problem seem like it’s your fault, and then sell you the solution.

“Feel like a loser today? Pick yourself up with Pakolyze candy!” (Hidden message: Because you’re a stupid, useless loser without us.)

This is literally the basis of every single ad that is trying to sell you shit you don’t need, including those fact-free magazines in grocery store check-outs, but also including most of what you read on the internet.

The only way to unlearn learned helplessness is to ignore the (corporate) voices that tell you, “Nah, I can’t,” and instead focus on your inner voice, which tells you, “Oh, fuck yeah, I can, and I am going to!.”

And you will. Just become your own gatekeeper and filter info — after you find the least biased sources, which an internet search actually will give you.

Then stop obsessing on the Royals because, after all, while Queen Liz Jr. is hella cool, we did kick her ancestor out a couple hundred years ago via violent revolution.

So… honor, but don’t obsess. Hey, Elizabeth II is my 36th cousin (and I think also 35th and 37th — no, really), but… no American needs to waste that much head canon on any of the Royals, okay?

Unfortunately, we moved from The Information Age into The Post-Information Age, or maybe even the Dis-Information Age at least five years ago. We’re only just making an attempt at crawling out of it now, but please stand by.

After all, if an otherwise apparently intelligent, affluent, and educated woman in a very liberal suburb in a very liberal county in a very Blue state can almost, for a moment, think that Camilla Parker Bowles is about to become the Queen of England and that Elizabeth II can do nothing to stop it all because of a trash tabloid magazine cover, then there is definitely some breakdown in keeping the people informed.

Which leads to the either/or salvation or danger of the Internet as it is now, because, in essence, it empowers anyone on it to be their own media platform.

Think about it. If you’re reading these words, then you probably have a device that is capable of allowing you to become any or all of the following kinds of creators: film or TV producer and distributor/broadcaster; radio producer and/or broadcaster; magazine or newspaper writer and/or publisher; artist with gallery and shop, or museum curator with likewise; designer with online store; adult entertainer with your own private studio, theatre, and fanbase; and I’ve probably missed quite a few.

The point is that the technology that capitalism has given us, ironically, will also be the tool we can use to destroy the monolithic entities that have come to dominate market share of everything. The trick is that we have to be willing to let go of the stories and franchises we’ve been sold, trust our friends and acquaintances, and then trust the acquaintances of acquaintances, and so on, to create our market.

That and… tax the fuck out of the super-rich, just like Republican Eisenhower did, and look how well off the Middle-Class was at the time. Hell, his policies created the Middle-Class in the U.S.

Combine that with progressive policies to give everyone access to education, health care, affordable housing, equal treatment under the law, and equal representation at the ballot box, and we could create America’s Middle-Class 2.0.

That is the real way to Make America Great Again.

Image source, Old computer that used punchcards, found in the London Science Museum, (CC) BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“War is not healthy for children and other living things.” Except…

This is another one of my older posts that keeps getting new traffic over and over,  nd I don’t know why. I thought I’d give it another boost for new readers to discover.

The title of this article comes from an incredibly iconic poster that was created during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Specifically, it was created by printmaker Lorriane Schneider in 1967, and was inspired by her concern that her oldest son would be drafted and die in a war that many Americans considered unnecessary.

However, the Vietnam War is a strange exception and beginning point for a tidal change in American wars. Post-Vietnam, the only benefits wars seem to have given us are more efficient (although not cheaper) ways to kill people, and that sucks. (Incidentally, the Korean War is technically not a war. It also technically never ended.)

But… as weird as it may sound, a lot of the major wars prior to Vietnam actually gave American society weird and unexpected benefits. Yeah, all of that death and killing and violence were terrible, but like dandelions breaking through urban sidewalks to bloom and thrive, sometimes, good stuff does come in the aftermath of nasty wars. Here are five examples.

The American Revolution, 1775-1783

The Benefit: The First Amendment (and the rest of the Constitution)

By the beginning of the 18th century, Europe was having big problems because Monarchs and the Church were all tied up together, the state dictated religion, and so on. It came to an extreme with Britain’s Act of Settlement in 1714, which barred any Catholic from ever taking the throne. The end result of this was that the next in line turned out to be the future George I, son of Sophia. Sophia, however, was an Elector of Hanover or, in other words, German. Queen Victoria was a direct descendant of George I, and spoke both English and German. In fact her husband, Prince Albert, was German.

But the net result of all the tsuris over the whole Catholic vs. Protestant thing in Europe, on top of suppression of the press by governments, led to the Founders making sure to enshrine freedom of speech and the wall between church and state in the very first Amendment to the Constitution, before anything else. To be fair, though, England did start to push for freedom of the press and an end to censorship in the 17th century, so that’s probably where the Founders got that idea. But the British monarch was (and still is) the head of the Church of England, so the score is one up, one down.

The War of 1812, 1812-1815

The Benefit: Permanent allegiance between the U.S. and Britain

This was basically the sequel to the American Revolution, and came about because of continued tensions between the two nations. Britain had a habit of capturing American sailors and forcing them into military duty against the French, for example, via what were vernacularly called “press gangs.” They also supported Native Americans in their war against the fairly new country that had been created by invading their land. So again, one up, one down. And the second one, which is the down vote to America, is rather ironic, considering that the Brits were basically now helping out the people whose land had been stolen by… the first English settlers to get there.

And, honestly, if we’re really keeping score, the U.S. has two extra dings against it in this one: We started it by declaring war — even if there were legitimate provocations from Britain — and then we invaded Canada.

But then a funny thing happened. The U.S. won the war. By all rights it shouldn’t have. It was a new country. It really didn’t have the military to do it. It was going up against the dominant world power of the time, and one that would soon become an empire to boot.

The war technically ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, but there was still the Battle of New Orleans to come after that, and it happened because news of the end of the war hadn’t gotten there yet. In that one, the U.S. kicked Britain’s ass so hard that they then basically said, “Remember all the concessions we made in that treaty? Yeah, not. LOL.”

In a lot of ways, the war was really a draw, but it did get the British to remove any military presence from the parts of North America that were not Canada, and opened the door to American expansionism across the continent. It also helped to establish the boundary between the U.S. and Canada, which is to this day the world’s longest undefended border. Finally, it cemented the relationship of the U.S. and Britain as allies and BFFs, which definitely came in handy in the 20th century during a couple of little European dust-ups that I’ll be getting to shortly.

The American Civil War, 1861-1865

The Benefit: Mass-manufactured bar soap

Now in comparison to the first two, this one may seem trivial and silly, but it actually does have ramifications that go far beyond the original product itself. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of bar soap now or go for the liquid kind (my preference), because both were really born out of the same need and process.

Once upon a time, soap-making was one of the many onerous tasks that the women of the house were expected to do, along with cleaning, cooking, sewing, canning, laundry, ironing, taking care of the menfolk (husbands and sons, or fathers and brothers), and generally being the literal embodiment of the term “drudge.” But soap-making was so arduous a task in terms of difficulty and general nastiness that it was something generally done only once or twice a year, basically making enough to last six or twelve months.

To make soap involved combining rendered fat and lye. (Remember Fight Club?) The fat came easy, since people at the time slaughtered their own animals for food, so they just ripped it off of the cow or pig or whatever meat they’d eaten. The lye came from leeching water through ashes from a fire made from hardwood, believe it or not, and since wood was pretty much all they had to make fires for cooking, ashes were abundant. Yes, I know, it’s really counter-intuitive that something so caustic could be made that way, but there you go. The secret is in the potassium content of the wood. Fun fact: the terms hard- and softwood have nothing to do with the actual wood itself, but rather with how the trees reproduce. (And I’ll let your brain make the joke so I don’t have to.)

So soap was a household necessity, but difficult to make. Now, while William Procter and James Gamble started to manufacture soap in 1838, it was still a luxury product at the time. It wasn’t until a lot of men went to war in 1861 that women had to run homesteads and farms on top of all of their other duties, and so suddenly manufactured soap started to come into demand. Especially helpful was Procter and Gamble providing soap to the Union Army, so that soldiers got used to it and wanted it once they came home.

Obviously, easier access to soap helped with hygiene but, more importantly, the industry advertised like hell, and from about the 1850s onward, selling soap was big business. There’s a reason that we call certain TV shows “soap operas,” after all, and that’s because those were the companies that sponsored the shows.

World War I, 1914-1918 (U.S. involvement, 1917-1918)

The Benefit: Woman’s suffrage and the right to vote

It’s probably common knowledge — or maybe not — that two big things that happened because of World War I were an abundance of prosthetic limbs and advances in reconstructive and plastic surgery. However, neither of these were really invented because of this conflict, which “only” led to improved surgical techniques or better replacement limbs.

The real advance is sort of an echo of the rise of soap via the Civil War, in the sense that the former conflict freed women from one nasty restriction: Having no say in government. And, as usually happens when the boys march off to do something stupid, the women have to take up the reins at home, and sometimes this gets noticed. It certainly did in the case of WW I, and suffragettes wisely exploited the connection between women and the homefront war effort. Less than two years after the conflict officially ended, women were given the right to vote on August 26, 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Hey! Only 144 years too late. Woohoo!

World War II, 1939-1945 (U.S. involvement, 1941-1945)

The Benefit: The rise of the American middle class

As World War II was starting to move to an end, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 was passed into law. It was designed to assist returning service members via things like creating the VA hospital system, providing subsidized mortgages, assisting with educational expenses, and providing unemployment. It was also a direct reaction to the less-than-fantastic reception returning veterans of World War I had received.

In fact, one of FDR’s goals in creating what is commonly known as the G.I. Bill was to expand the middle class, and it succeeded. Suddenly, home ownership was within reach of people who hadn’t been able to obtain it before and, as a result, new housing construction exploded and, with it, the emergence of suburbs all across the country. With education, these veterans found better jobs and higher incomes, and that money went right back into the economy to buy things like cars, TVs, and all the other accoutrements of suburban living. They also started having children — it’s not called the Baby Boom for nothing — and those children benefited with higher education themselves. The rates of people getting at least a Bachelor’s Degree began a steady climb in the 1960s, right when this generation was starting to graduate high school. At the same time, the percentage of people who hadn’t even graduated from high school plunged.

The top marginal tax rates of all time in the U.S. happened in 1944 and 1945, when they were at 94%. They remained high — at least 91% — throughout the 1950s. Oddly, despite the top rate in the 1940s being higher, the median and average top tax rates in the 1950s were higher — about 86% for both in the 40s and 91% for both in the 50s. The economy was booming, and in addition to paying for the war, those taxes provided a lot of things for U.S. Citizens.

Even as his own party wanted to dismantle a lot of FDR’s New Deal policies, President Eisenhower forged ahead with what he called “Modern Republicanism.” He signed legislation and started programs that did things like provide government assistance to people who were unemployed, whether simply for lack of work or due to age or illness. Other programs raised the minimum wage, increased the scope of Social Security, and founded the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In a lot of ways, it was like the G.I. Bill had been extended to everyone.

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