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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Great Equalizer (p. 320)

From chapter "Assimilation"

In 1832, proslavery philosopher Thomas Roderick Dew stated that “Jack Cade, the English reformer, wished all mankind to be brought to one common level. We believe slavery, in the United States, has accomplished this, in regard to the whites. . . .” His point was that slavery acted in the American South as a great equalizer among members of the white race: “The menial and low offices all being performed by the blacks, there is at once taken away the greatest cause of distinction and separation of the ranks of society.” So long as racial differences could be emphasized, poor whites would, the hope went, forget that rich whites exploited them as surely as they exploited the blacks, and the poor whites might forget also that title to vast tracts of land by rich whites was based merely on social convention (as all titles to land is ultimately based), and not on any thing else (except force, meaning the full might of the state).

The near ubiquity of this misperception—that of the poor perceiving others of their station in life to be the source of their misery, a misperception that continues unabated to this day—is not the product of mass stupidity on the part of members of those great sectors of the population who fall prey to it, nor is it part of a fiendishly clever plot by the rich to consistently keep the poor at each other’s throats instead of their own (although the inculcation in this direction by those who own and thus control the media is literally mind numbing). It is a manifestation of the selective blindness that besets us all. We have been trained, from early on, to be able to perceive only certain threats, to perceive only certain forms of hatred, contempt, violence, and to perceive only certain sorts of people as even potential perpetrators of horrible crimes. We have been trained to perceive the world and those in it in very specific ways.

The other day I was thinking about pornography again, this time as I walked across a college campus. A woman approached me on the sidewalk. It was a warm day. She pulled off her sweatshirt. She smiled. I smiled back. We passed. End of story. But it caused me to reflect on how I perceived her, and whyI perceived her as I did. Did I flash on a warm conversation concerning the rights of the poor? Did I instead see her remove next her shirt, then bra, then pants, then panties? Did I simply accept the brief moment of recognition for what it was and move on? How I perceived her was intimately and deeply determined by the ways I’ve learned (as a white, American male) to perceive women. That thought led me back to pornography: If something so obviously objectifying as pornography, and something I took into my body so briefly, could influence how I perceived those around me, how much more so are we all influenced—or beyond influenced: formed—by the myriad more subtle and more incessant messages we receive, and images we perceive? How are we affected by the unquestioned assumptions that make our schooling what it is, and that determine for us the words we choose, and that create the stories we take into our bodies via movies, books, newspapers, television. If these stories tell us that one kind of violence is violence, and another kind of violence is not (that it is “kinky,” that it is “business,” that it is “science,” or that it is “defending national interest”), we will come to believe exactly that. Likewise, if these stories tell us that some people are meant to labor, and some others are meant to enjoy the comforts and elegancies that are the fruits of that labor, we may in time come to give our very lives (or dispatch others) to make certain that this seemingly divinely ordained social contract remains in place. It’s no wonder, then, that so often members of those groups that share common interests end up scapegoating each other, instead of looking together at the people and organizations exploiting them both.