Last night we watched the new television show, House of Lies, starring, and it struck me that both the story line and its method of transmission (cable TV) are the perfect reflections of contemporary America. Eight years ago, Barack Obama delivered a thrilling speech at the Democratic convention. He began by referencing the Declaration of Independence, his own history as the child of a biracial couple, and the American dream. He then said this:
“Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there is the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and yes we've got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. “
In my memory, he introduced the concept of “two Americas” and to a standing ovation, dismissed that concept. Eight years later, there are still two Americas- of course in reality, there are many Americas, just as there are many Americans- but the trope of duality is so basic for human belief, that it is almost impossible to ignore it.
“Good and evil,” “black and white,” “rich and poor,” “old and young,” : universally, our creation myths, our religious texts (which many feel are basically creation myths), our folksongs, our poetry, our family stories, our legends, our tales of national origin, our sports and recreational heroes, our politicians, and yes, our advertisements frequently, in fact, almost exclusively, use the concept of duality to lay out basic beliefs. “Us against them,” good triumphing over evil,’ and more banally, “x” brand of detergent, car, phone, or computer operating system (“Mac Vs. PC”) against the other-” are so basic to our nature and our nurture that anyone, for instance, say Barack Obama or, who dare to buck duality are denounced and dismissed.
House of Lies features an America that while corrupt in many ways, nonetheless portrays both the genuine goals and a few stereotypes of “blue America.” Its protagonist is a wealthy, educated, successful black man whose young son is “free” to explore gender identity by wearing a kilt and trying out for the part of the female lead in the (private) school play. Cheadle ‘s character (at least so far) is not confined by his blackness- in the world of advertising consultants, it’s a level playing field, not only for men but for women, as epitomized by his ex-wife, an equally wealthy white woman (who apparently has a drug and alcohol problem which may have ended their marriage but hasn’t done any damage to her professional life.) His father who lives with he and his son, is a retired psychologist (there’s a world of opportunity for comment here but the salient fact is that his father was a successful black man).
Barack Obama was right, many in the Blue states do worship an awesome God- 83% of all Americans claim to belong to a religious denomination, no matter what state they live in. At least half the gay people I know live in Red states- and most of them are not in the closet, although even in the Blue states, it is sometimes safer to keep a curtain drawn over your private life, if not an outright door except to trusted friends.
Both Red staters and Blue staters these days distrust, if not outright hate government, a belief fanned by both parties and the press to the point where Congress is now hamstrung by its own dichotomies to the point of doing nothing.
In addition to the protagonists in House of Lies, the first episode featured the heroes of the Red staters- businessmen, so called “job creators,” in this case, the new Snidely Whiplashes of our time, mortgage lenders.
In a perfect morality play with a twist; (Spoiler alert, don’t read on if you plan to watch this) Cheadle’s firm first shows its clients the ugly truth; a woman living in a cardboard box on the sidewalk because she’s lost her home, a series of white and black ordinary Americans making obscene gestures to the bankers (no Hispanics- remember it’s the duality) who knowingly defrauded them and the CEO as the fat, white, dishonest, ugly guy he is. Then through the magic of advertising, (and just like the consultants who are helping Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, et al. ) they remake the CEO into a good guy, featured on the cover of TIME as the savior for offering interest free loans to the displaced homeowners so they can get back on their feet.
Along with pretty images, they display dazzling calculations of just how few homeowners will be able to qualify ending with the fact that the company will only spend the same amount on loans that Cheadle’s competitor will charge for an ad campaign.
Along with content, House of Lies is based on a delivery system which also underscores the two Americas- but it’s not red and blue, it’s rich and sliding into the poor category middle class. In this America, wealthy people have cable television with its thousands of channels – middle class people have the basic package but no Showtime-and poor people have network TV (and cell phones).
Almost no one in America except the homeless lacks access to television- we have replaced opportunity with entertainment. This is not only true in the US- I have been in parts of Central America and China where people live in tin roofed houses or wooden shacks and yet the glow of the television is always present. It is tempting to wonder if we could increase voter turnout if we only turned off the electricity for one week-(of course then the voting machines wouldn’t work either now that Diebold has successfully lobbied for the much more expensive touch screens even in the poorest voting districts. )
Finally, the title itself, sadly, reflects our contemporary situation. We are living in a House of Lies- where both the red and blue politicians tell us what we want to hear and then blithely ignore us once they are in office. As much as I want to believe Barack Obama- especially the brilliant young man who captured my heart in August of 2004, so many of his actions have belied his words; the bank bailout with no punishment for the guilty, the thousands of dollars left in the hands of contractors in Iraq, and last month, the signing of the “Defense Authorization Act” which means any American can be held without trial if accused of terrorism.
As a lifelong voter, I will trudge dutifully to the voting site this November, but I would so like to believe we could reform this house of lies.