When the Berlin Wall fell and the hopes of the world began to rise, I wondered how societies which had been under the absolute power of authoritarian rule might now reshape themselves.
In the East, the horizens of people's vision was brutally restricted through rigid ideology and abject fear; they functioned like blinders on a horse channeling people's energies into socially desirable activities. What mechanisms of control would fill the vacuum left by the dissipation of institutionalized fear? They would be social mechanisms of control imported from the West, but what exactly they would be?
Indeed, here in the free world, how are contentious human impulses channeled into an effective social order? By what slender marionette strings are we tied together into functioning societies? Are we free to act as we choose, or are we like the prisoner so long in jail he ceases to notice the bars which hold him?
We live in a market democracy in which the art of persuasion has become the most powerful of tools. To capture our attention and to proscribe the parameters of awareness, is to harness behavior. Our heads are turned, our gaze is directed.
Lulled and dulled, child and man, we are led into temptation. We are tempted by the gambling industry to trade in our precious and unique realities for the fantasy of a big win in the lottery or at the blackjack table; we adorn ourselves in styles that plead to us from the covers of fashion magazines, or we purchase our picture of the perfect personal appearance in the salon of our choice. We shop compulsively for the ultimate acquisition, are lured by sexually seductive images, and dissipate our intimacy in the fantasies of pornography; even beauty becomes just another commodity for sale at every discount drugstore; just another drug, legal and encouraged.
We are all constantly inundated by messages. We are accosted every time we turn on the radio, visit the ballpark, pick up a magazine, open the mail, answer the telephone, read the text on a t-shirt, or glance at the side of a bus. Even if we don't buy the advertised cigarettes we are penetrated by the values of the laughing couple on the billboard. Constantly immersed as we are, how can we know that any of our choices are our own?
And if all these paid messages were not enough to distract us, editorial content encourages us to practice idolatry as if this were a polytheistic culture. We worship these media-created stars, whether they be from Hollywood or from the blur of tomorrow's headlines; they form for us a mythological pantheon, a deity for every emotion.
We are vulnerable to these pervasive temptations because it is in our nature to crave a sense of identity. We struggle to define who we are in so many curious ways: through the money in our checking accounts, the brand of cigarette we smoke, or through a fierce loyalty to our home region's sports franchises.
The political campaigns of our future leaders are now in the hands of advertising executives and media analysts; a judge is sold in the same manner as the marketing of a bottle of gin. And once elected, leaders then sell their crudest policies by making simple-minded nationalistic appeals, engaging in partisan sloganeering, by focusing our scattered attention on disinformation or on our common objects of fear and hatred. The images in this essay are artifacts in the archeology of these public distortions.
We are fortunate to be living in a time and place in which most of us don't have to break literal chains in order to be free. We simply have to open our eyes, be fully aware in our surroundings, and, like a woodsman in a wild forest, walk stealthily through the modern environment, awake to it's dangers and alive in the wonder of its complexity.
Listen, you who are deaf;
You blind ones, look up and see!
-Isiah ch 42 V.18