By Rodolfo F. Acuña
Recent political events frighten me. Widespread corruption in the system finds almost a majority of Americans unable to distinguish right from wrong. Americans are in denial with no solution in sight. The main problem is their failure to distinguish the truth, i.e. actions of Republican senators during the recent impeachment trial of Donald Trump the most immoral and corrupt president the United States has ever had. Past American presidents had similar character flaws; however, they were not as greedy or blatant in covering up their flaws. By lying and taking advantage of the mediocrity of most Americans, Trump has condoned them to accept the Big Lie.
Most white Americans wallow in mediocrity.Alexis de Tocqueville, in 1835 observed that “On my arrival in the United States I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the subjects, and so little among the heads of the Government.” More contemporary Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise underscoredthe anti-intellectual strain in the U.S. has “transmuted into an arrogant contempt for intellectual authority due to major shifts in education, journalism, and the media and political environments.” Americans have historically romanticized their ante-intellectual misrepresenting it as a virtue. They distort reality portraying Americans as champions of common folk. Populist based their campaigns on being against political and academic elitism. They claimed that educated people “as a status class [was] detached from the concerns of most people, and resented intellectuals who they believed controlled political discourse and controlled higher education.
They have diverted the truth. I recall a conversation I had with an old Jewish activist during Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 and 1956 presidential runs. I was young, enthusiastic and my bubble was burst when the older man told me not to count on winning because, according to him, Americans never voted for candidates smarter than they were. Stevenson spoke the English language well and had progressive ideas. Adlai was not one of them he was a foreign to American values. Ignorance was a virtue that Americans value.
The result is a distortion of the truth; Americans invent their own reality by denying their sins. In the end, Americans lie so much that they cannot distinguish right from wrong or fact from fiction. It reminds me of the 1967 American bedroom farce comedy A Guide for the Married Man is a 1967 where Robert Morse advises his friend Walter Matthau how to cheat and through a series of vignettes tells him the do’s and the don’ts. In one of them the wife catches the husband in bed with another woman. He diverts attention by denying the infidelity. More says always “deny, deny and deny.”
One theory is that détourment is intentional. According to the urban dictionary it was “A term coined by Guy Debord that became an International movement in the 1960s by which the truth is “diverted.” It is an “artistic creation” that incorporates “plagiarism where both the source and the meaning of the original work was subverted to create a new work.” The method was common in “films, art, graphics for their journal and in posters” during the events of the Paris uprising of May ’68. Many Situationist ideas were popularized by the British Punk Rock explosion of the 1970’s. This form of plagiarism is today and accepted part of the American discourse that is portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984. The end result is that there is no truth, there is no right, there is no wrong.
Although I am not religious I am guided by principles such as “I am my brother’s Keeper” and “There for the Grace of God Go I.” This was important for me in making critical choices. In 1960 I decided to remain in teaching and not take a job with an international credit card firm serving Latin America. Over the years I have turned down offers in the states and in Mexico. If I had not been raised with these principles I would have made a lot of money, there would have been no limits, morality would not exist. Growing up I may have had my differences with the Protestants but I respected many of them because they were consistent in their beliefs and had a commitment to some version of the truth. Today morality is what is good for ME. The truth is the lie.
A détournement (French: [detuʁnəmɑ̃]) means “rerouting, hijacking”. It is a technique developed in the 1950s by the Letterist International, and later adopted by the Situationist International (SI), that defined it in the SI’s 1958 inaugural journal as “[t]he integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. The result was there can be no situationist painting or music, only a situationist use of those medias. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.” It turns “expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself. Thus “slogans and logos are used against their advertisers or the political status quo.”
Détournement set up subversive political pranks, a tactic called situationist prank; it was used by punk movement in the late 1970s . It was form of the culture jamming. Cultural jamming was a political changing strategy and today it is used to control popular dissent by changing its direction. Currently, Trump uses it to hijack the truth. Trump’s advisers call his blatant lies “alternative facts” — I call it “organized chaos”. The perpetrator hides reality by building his own truth and forging a new narrative based on his lies. (I doubt whether Trump knows the meaning of the term Détournement although he probably understands that he is hijacking the truth. I am not so sure whether he knows the meaning of plagiarism.)
Examples of the high jacking the truth are abundant: advertising is propaganda and it is replete with examples of Détournement. Today neoliberals are using it as an attempt to privatize the American economy by seizing ownership of public spaces. Schools, public libraries and parks are assets that they believe belong to them. Neoliberals want to kill American public schools, privatize them and run them for profit.
In order to accomplish this, they demonized teachers, administrators and their unions as the enemy in order that taxpayer would believe the lie. The strategy was to convince Americans that the private sector can do it cheaper and better. To this end American oligarchs produced a film called Waiting for Superman (2010). Directed by Davis Guggenheim who won an Academy Award for the documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006). The documentary’s premiere kicked off the drive to privatize American public education; on the documentary’s DVD cover sponsors’ claimed it was a “groundbreaking feature film that provides an engaging and inspiring look at public education in the United States.”
Waiting for Superman received glowing reviews and won several film festival awards. The film’s protagonists or good guys were the celebrated guests on dozens of news channels and talk shows. It was praised by President Barrack Obama, Bill Clinton, and a swarm powerful political leaders. The head cheerleaders were billionaires such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and Mike Bloomberg and others. Charter schools were the neoliberals’ new frontier where they could acquire real estate, buildings, paid for by taxpayers.
Waiting for Superman reminds me of the MacDonald Hamburger commercial where María, a young Mexican MacDonald worker receives a letter informing of her acceptance to college. The commercial celebrates the news. It shows the joy of her family and friends. María has realized the American Dream and MacDonald’s made it possible. Attention is diverted from the fact that María has had to work at the Big Mac for exploitative wages, endure assembly line work conditions and suffer sexual harassment and racist remarks. María was admitted to the stairway leading to the middle-class and Big Mac is the hero.
Waiting for Superman is a commercial for American capitalism, and a Horacio Alger story. It has two intertwining narratives. One featuring five kids who have their hearts and minds set on attending charter schools, where they believe they will receive better educations than at their neighborhood schools. Of the five kids, four are students of color from low-income families living in urban neighborhoods and are every bit as adorable as María. Kindergartener, Bianca lives with her mother in Harlem. Francisco, a first-grader, lives with his mother in the Bronx. Fifth-grader Anthony lives with his grandmother in Washington, D.C.; and fifth-grader Daisy and her mother and father in East Los Angeles. The only white student is Emily, an eighth-grader, who lives in Silicon Valley.
Only Emily is from an upper-middle-class, and she is headed for a well-funded high school. Nevertheless, her parents believe she will get a better education at a nearby charter school. All the children and their parents dream of a better life.
The documentary expertly constructs a narrative that builds towards the finale. They feature local public lotteries. The message is that unless the children win the lottery, they will end up as losers. Forgotten is how the charter schools will facilitate the María moment. It is Little Princess’s story of the Shirley Temple movies and the old Bing Crosby song “Pennies from Heaven.”
No doubt Waiting for Superman was masterfully produced. Scott Bowles of USA Today (2010) called it a “masterful picture,” claiming that Guggenheim “mostly steers clear of politics in favor of the children’s stories.” Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey (2010) wrote it was “a withering examination of the country’s public school system” (which it was not). John Anderson (2010) saw it as an “exhilarating, heartbreaking, and righteous” documentary; “an epic assessment of the rise and fall of the U.S. school” system. Writer Thomas Friedman (2010), titled his review “Steal This Movie, Too.” In a María moment, without proof, Friedman said that the film proved the “miserable failures” of the U.S.’s ailing public schools and by inference its teachers.
Charter School advocates launched a “daily onslaught of advertisements, corporate art, and mass-mediated popular culture by subverting public schools.” Détournement altered the truth by diverting the truth and making scapegoats of poorly paid teachers. It appropriated and subverted the reality of the public schools and distorted the meaning of popular symbols by mimicking and in many cases libeling.
Forget About the Alamo!
This type of distortion is not new. Hollywood was the propaganda arm of the war effort during World War II. War movies mobilize audience support by demonizing the enemy. Two films stand out: Gone with the Wind and the numerous editions of the Alamo, distort the truth and diverts attention from the truth that the U.S.A. stole Texas. Mexicans did not invade the Alamo, Texas belonged to Mexico who stole it from the Native Americans. It diverts attention from the atrocities committed by terrorist groups such as the Texas Rangers. Today the Alamo diverts attention from the fact that Mexicans were not illegal rather the so-called defenders of the Alamo are the villains and truth shines a bright light on white nationalists.
Fact check: contrary to the popular myth, Mexicans were not the aggressors at the Alamo. Texas belonged to Mexico. The white Americans inside the Alamo arrived in Texas after 1821 (most after 1832), so it was highly improbable that many if any were born in Texas. Nor was the Alamo a defenseless mission. Like other missions of the times, the Alamo resembled a medieval castle, designed as a bastion of defense against those whom the missionaries considered infidels. Missions were usually built on high ground and their adobe walls were thick.
The problem with Gone with the Wind is that it falsely claims that the Civil War was not really about slavery; it was about the nasty Yankee invading the South. In the process, it whitewashes slavery and demeans Blacks. Both the Alamo Movies and Gone With the Wind high jacked the truth to the point that white Americans believe them and not the history books. They both demonize the victims and justify racism and oppression at the expense of the Truth.
Comics as Bibles.
As a kid, our daily routine began with breakfast and reading the Examiner that had the best comic and sports pages in LA. Like in Superman the heroes were white males and rich. We kept up with Dick Tracy, Superman and Batman and other white characters. They even had porn for white people called Tijuana Bibles. Picture stories are not new. Humans have been painting pictographs for a long time. Cave dwellers painted vivid pictures and few if any surpassed the Maya stories on the pyramid walls and codices. They were carved and written to preserve the truth and destroyed to create lies.
According to Wikipedia, “The history of American comics began in the 19th century in mass print media, in the era of yellow journalism, where newspaper comics served as a boon to a mass readership. In the 20th century, comics became an autonomous art medium and an integral part of American culture.” American comics were published for-profit and to entertain the non-reading. It featured superheroes with Fawcett Comics’ superhero Captain Marvel, DC Comics’ Flash and Green Lantern came out in 1940. Marvel’s Captain America and DC’s Wonder Women superheroes first appeared the following year. According to Wikipedia the period from 1938 through the mid-1940s was the peak of comic book popularity.
(Comics were popular among poor people who were deprived of good educations. I was struck when as a child I visited Mexico and to see almost everyone with a comic book or novels with picture stories)
Chicana/o History: The Invention of Tradition
As with all history, Chicana/o history is largely an invention or someone’s point of view. It interprets memory and what the historian wants others to remember. My favorite historians are British: EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. Both were Communist. For the purpose of this piece, I am concentrating on Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition. In his introductory essay, Hobsbawm defines the invention of tradition as “a set of practices … of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.” As the compilers intended to show: the invented traditions had a purpose. They gave a continuity to the reader of varied accuracy that was formed largely by their stories.
Other historians have tied the invention of tradition to state building. William H. Beezley in Mexican National Identity: Memory, Innuendo, and Popular Culture sees identity as fashioned “in the streets”; however, there are others who say that very few holidays come from the people, tying the process to state-building. The state builds a historical narrative that gives its citizens a sense of unity. Holidays are designed to legitimize the accepted version of history that not does always conform to the Truth. It is a process where the state builds a “national culture.” The state constructs a historical narrative that gives citizens a sense of unity. Holidays are designed to give legitimacy to the accepted version of history that does not always conform to the Truth. It is a process that builds a “national culture.”
October and November are crowded with invented history. During these two months, the state allocates holidays for Columbus Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving. These official narratives become the Truth. Teachers teach students the official stories, and in turn, for four-days the public is grateful for the gift of a holiday. “[T]he king of the holidays” is Thanksgiving. The narrative has been burned into our consciousness to the point that few Americans question the facts because no one wants to lay the proverbial intellectual pedo.
The ritual of sitting down to eat cheap turkey chucked full of hormones has been immortalized by Norman Rockwell. It is a day that we eat cheap turkeys and hams and everyone can pig out. Not much thought is given to the truth of the narrative. Kids just want their four day relief from school, and parents are smug in the belief that the colonist and the Indians lived in peace. The only ones that care about changing the narrative are Native Americans who call it a National Day of Mourning.
Thanksgiving was invented by President Abraham Lincoln in October 1863 during the Civil war when he proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. Thereafter, the myth of the Pilgrims and the Indians was constructed. Thus the legend has become fact. It is difficult to change the narrative because most Americans love their myths, and they love their cheap turkey. They want to believe the lie that makes them feel exceptional. There is little doubt that invented tradition strengthens nationalism. The elites are legitimized by the invented traditions, and in turn, they invent other traditions.
As I have said on other occasions Thanksgiving hides the reality of soup kitchens. The corporate-owned media show charitable groups passing out free traditional Turkey Dinners to the poor when the reality is that many have been deprived of jobs, food stamps, and their children have been robbed of free nutritious lunches. Greater numbers are homeless. Yet the Thanksgiving narrative portrays Americans as a compassionate people – one big happy family who treated the ungrateful Indians fairly. Thanksgiving is the ultimate example of social control and reinforces the invented reality that Americans like the pilgrims were justified in stealing the land and killing the people. Because we don’t question the narrative, we just keep repeating injustices.
A Lie is a Lie: Why the Truth Matters
What I admire most about the Native Americans is not their great buildings, art and writing systems but their mastery and care of the land. They were among the world’s great botanists. At first glance, many fail to appreciate the challenge of living in the Southwest, Mexico and Central America. American scholars do not appreciate the First Peoples’ contributions and in many instances, try to erase them. It is only recently motivated by the reality of climate change see things in a different light. The land has relatively little water; it is arid, mountainous and given to extremes. For many Europeans it was worthless, s Great American Desert.
Increasingly historians are realizing the genius of the First Peoples. The nomads were not vagrants, they were among the world’s great botanist. They used the abundant variety of flora there and through trial and error learned which were edible and which contained water. Today many of these plants have become health foods. They also mapped the land finding the shortest and best routes.
Communities are under siege and their survival depends on their memories. The word “community” comes from the Latin communitas (communis). It is defined as “a group or network of persons who are connected to each other by social relations that extend beyond immediate genealogical ties, and who mutually define that relationship (subjectively) as important to their social identity and social practice.” It builds upon the truism “We Become What We Think About.”
The communities’ survival depends on their histories and identities, that are being erased by gentrification and dispersal, neoliberalism and privatization. Remembering what happens to empower communities to collectively identify and resolve important problems and issues. It focuses attention on power structures and on processes such as institutionalized racism. Memory allows us to see and distinguish the similarities between the genocide of the Native American, Manifest Destiny, urban renewal, and privatization.
A community allows us to build strategies for analysis, for action and for change. Examining political and economic factors from the concrete base of the community allows for development of more effective strategies for change.
Memory allows us to build strategies for analysis, action and change. Examining political and economic factors from the concrete base of the community and allows for development of more effective strategies for change. Memory is essential for change and the essence of the struggle is to never forget. It is the only effective way to organize against capital that has its own memories and strives for hegemony. For oppressed peoples, cultural memory engenders the spirit of resistance.
When I was a graduate student I was told that for the historian to learn the truth she/he must be a skeptic. History is a search for the truth when I read Henry Steele Commager, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and other prominent American historians I was disappointed, they were not critical of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson or of most former American presidents. I wonder how the future would treat Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and most American Presidents. There are few lessons from these historical biographies because they are built on lies or inventions. In order to learn from them,, we have to be critical without demonizing them.
In many ways Chicana/o and Latino history are inventions beginning with labels such as Hispanic, Latino or whatever is politically convenient. The truth is that there were no Hispanics in the Alamo just as there were few or many Mexicans on the contemporary Central American caravans. Some of us are in solidarity, but as people were not part of caravans. The truth has to be exact and cannot or should not be distorted or diverted. The result of basing conclusions on falsehoods represents a loss of reality and a mystified consciousness that is not based in reality.
Unfortunately, Chicana/o history like the Catholic Church today venerates the past and makes colonial agents such as Fray Junipero Serra saints or heroes. My disillusionment with Church history came after reading the Gnostic Bibles especially the works of Elaine Pagels. She exposed the lies I had learned in theology classes and demonstrated how church traditions were invented by male leaders to eliminate the challenge of women members. Learned the pitfalls of building history on inventions, they are too easily unraveled.
Much of Chicana/o history today is a product of the invention of the sixties and the mystification of reality. Let me make it clear that the sixties were incredibly productive but like all history, it is an onion that must be peeled. Like with colonialism, we must search for the truth –and correct or cut out the rotten parts. Not everything was perfect in the sixties. There was sexism, homophobia, opportunism, and debauchery that remain covered up by diversions and distortions of the truth. Like in life there were people who exploited the times and as with Gnosticism the truth was distorted. It is difficult to build any kind of strategy on lies. For example, the invention of the Chicana/o identity any kind of strategy or unity was necessary but must be tied to reality.
Identity is complex and is at issue. Students in the sixties and seventies accepted the term Chicano but grappled with whether their degrees should read Chicano Studies or Mexican American Studies. There is still ambivalence and name still carries political and personal preferences and baggage. An additional problem arose with what role of student organizations played and the reaction of faculty to student oversight. The failure to establish a common sense has contributed to false conclusions and disorganization.
One fallout is the lack of consensus among those who are supposed to be searching for the truth. It has created divisions. Many base their opinions not on facts but on personal feelings such as embidias, celos, chismes and a lack of skepticism. Over the years I have heard lies about me, my friends and the CSUN department that I teach in that are just not true.
For example, a UCLA librarian started an interview telling me that CSUN CHS only hired their friends. I asked her what proof she had and asked whether she had interviewed members of the hiring committees. She had not but she had repeated the lie up and down the state. I later found out that she was angry because she had not been hired. I have heard similar rumors about others; views expressed in dissertations. Some of the authors live in the Los Angeles area and could have easily verified their hypotheses by visiting me or the twenty-some professors in the department and interviewed them. In the search for the truth before something becomes a fact, it must be vetted if not the dissertation loses validity as do the author and those who supervise the dissertation. In one case, I got a call from a prospective employer. I told the truth and how my evaluation could be corroborated. The scholar learned about my negative evaluation and spread it around that I was chicken shit (again not telling it to me to my face).
Part of the search for the truth is using primary, credible sources and determining what is true. Your word is your bond. Gimmicks such as détournement, alternative facts and the intentional high jacking of the truth distort reality so badly that lying is the norm. This has led to disunity and in many cases a further blaming the victim. It confuses identity and delays a solution. One such case is the current controversy that blames students and diverts attention from Chicana/o studies.
The issue revolves around the efforts of some students to change the name of Mecha (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanas/Chicanos de Aztlan), the Chicana/o student organizations on many college campuses. The proposed name change affects alumni, community, students and everyone involved in the fifty-year history of Chicana/o studies. Many Chicana/o activists accuse Mechistas of trying to rewrite the past fifty-year history of the Chicana/o movement and distort history. Those defending the proposed name change claim it is progressive and would expand the constituency of the student organization whose membership had declined in recent years. The broadening of the name of the organization would attract new members. Those attacking the name changers charge a name change is reactionary and those championing the change of conspiring to destroy Chicana/o Studies. Instead of a reasoned discussion both sides are captives of their own truths or myths. Neither has bothered to peel the onion and search for reality.
There is no doubt that change has to come about; however, is it solved by a name change? National Hispanic organizations have attempted this tactic without looking for the truth. The same can be said about the decline in the presence of Chicana/o organizations on campus. Finding the truth has become personal rather than collective.
We must ask: What is the purpose of Mecha? My hypothesis is that you cannot blame 18-21-year-olds, who have a tough time staying in school for today’s mess. Have professors failed to mentor them? Deeper than that we have to rethink the catechism approach to history in general. There are no saints and we must expose the diversions. Gender inequality, homophobia, and racism all existed in the sixties and still exist. Finding historical truth is not an epiphany.
During the sixties many students and community activists participated in study groups whee the onion was peeled and the imperfections and distortions were rooted out. Today more than ever history is being high jacked for profit. In the case of Mecha at CSUN, I have spoken to many faculty and alumni in an effort to refresh my own historical memory. I believe that Mecha was subverted when a faculty member clashed with the organization’s leadership and tried to destroy it by starting RZA, a Chicano fraternity on campus that allowed Chicano Greek clubs to gain legitimacy within the Chicana/o student community. The same faculty member made deals with the Dean in an effort to become the permanent chair of the department. To add historical perspective there has been a decline in the historical memory of the history memory or interest in the faculty mentorship of students.
In order to learn the truth, we must learn, analyze and dissect history beginning with the Doctrine of Discovery through the myths of the American Dream and Horatio Alger. The myth that Spain and Europe brought culture and progress to the Indigenous People. Before we can organize we must correct the distortion in the layers of the Onion. Nothing can be resolved by escaping to Disneyland or by believing in María moments. Superman will not save us.
I watched a mystery movie last week called Knives Out (2019). It follows a family gathering where the family patriarch’s death is investigated by a master detective. The film explores the family members’ interactions, quickly focusing on their relationship with the family maid Marta, who is from an immigrant family. Everyone loves Marta but no one knows her nationality. The plot thickens when the patriarch dies and deprives his sycophant and greedy family of their inheritance leaving everything to Marta who naively believes that everyone loves her when they are actually trying to frame her for the patriarch’s murder so that they can get their hands on the inheritance.
The truth is uttered by the master detective when he contradicts Marta’s assessment that these are nice people. He bellows out, “No they are not nice people.” The truth is often hard to take and it hurts. Nevertheless, the María illusions imprison her and the lies and myths imprison us. Life after Trump will be difficult because he did not invent the illusions and myths in American history. Americans have never liked immigrants, the USA is not a democracy and Americans are not nice people. Capitalism kills the truth and prolongs the solution.
A final note:
The essay has explored ways that the truth is distorted. It is possible because of self-interest and wanting to believe something that possibly benefits us. There are personal benefits that the lie might befit us. Jealousy and not wanting to accept that maybe were are no qualified. For example, I have a doctorate but that does not qualify me as a medical doctor. I follow simple rules, for example, reduced everything to its common denominator. Opposites cannot be true. One has to be negated. The study of Latin helps you learn a process. The conjugation of verbs and the declension of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, or articles changes to indicate number, grammatical case, or gender. These are all exercises in deduction. Unfortunately we do not follow these rules in life. The problem today is that we don’t want the truth but what is convenient for ME.