Photo By Olenka Kotyk
I just finished reading John Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel. It is the first part of his U.S.A. trilogy and it depicts the unconscious desire to live an integral life despite constant exposure to propaganda.
Nearly every moment of every single hour of my life is spent trying to ignore the distraction of news media and advertisements that subconsciously induce a competition in appearance, net-worth and material goods. If you’ve already read The 42nd Parallel, this has to sound quite familiar.
What strikes me as most remarkable is that Dos Passos saw propaganda’s tendency to halt progression and spark chaos in 1930—nearly 90 years ago. Imagine what he would think about the living breathing entity that news media and advertising has evolved into today!
I work full time and I’m a graduate student. In between there is commuting to and from work, running errands, getting in time at the gym, eating, sleeping—life. All the while, I am being bombarded with propaganda in the form of news media and advertising. It is everywhere and it is OVERWHELMING. On my four-bus-stop-ride commute to work alone, I see, on average, three alcoholic beverage delivery trucks, four adult entertainment club billboards and at least 30 giant billboards for movies, TV shows and morning news programs. There is one five-story high advertisement for a $400 watch that tells you how far you walk, there are more than 15 bench ads for jeans that make your ass look “better,” and every minute, about 25 license plate holders randomly pass by, identifying the best place to spend $50,000 or more on a college education. I’m also given nine choices in real estate agents—in the form of billboards, yard-signs and bench ads. And, I have the option to jump off the bus and shop at four different thrift stores, eat at more than 30 different restaurants, take-in a movie at two different theatres, peruse around any of the five stores that sell only lights and lamps or, be measured for a custom-made pair of pants. There are four gas stations, a post office, a public library, a UPS store, two Subways, three 7-11’s and, of course, the streets are jammed with Fed-Ex trucks, UPS trucks, Amazon delivery trucks, NorthStar moving vans, Coke and Pepsi delivery trucks, ice cream delivery trucks, cars that people borrow and drive for free that have LED display billboards on their roofs—and all the busses.
The busses, depending on the week, tell you where to go on vacation, what app to order food from, what to watch on Netflix, and how to make your lips look more like Kylie Jenner’s. I pass by four different car rental companies, plus all the cars on the road—some of which are for sale by owner and others that play radio advertisements or offensive lyrics loud enough for anyone within a three-block radius to hear. Every car, stationary or moving, is branded with a shiny hood ornament that reminds everyone on the bus just how much the lucky driver spent on his brand-new automobile. Inside the bus, every label on every person’s, every piece of clothing sends a clear message, like: Lakers Love L.A., or Disney Resorts: where dreams come true, or GAP Denim. And, if someone forgot to wear a belt that day, usually a Hanes or a Fruit of the Loom label will become visible, too.
Everything is poignantly placed in front of my face during my 1.2-mile morning commute. Then of course, on my way in the office door, colleagues arrive with their re-usable shopping bags from Whole Foods and Bristol Farms, and women’s bags and brief cases from Coach and Michael Kors and Gucci. And, on a good day in LA, before I duck into the office and pass by the racks of fashion, lifestyle and real estate magazines that line the walls to my desk, I may have the pleasure of seeing an airplane pulling a sign that tells you the best place to buy a new tire. And, on a really good day, there are airplanes that fly just a little higher up and write in the sky to make sure everyone knows about the sale on sunglasses at discountglasses.com – – – TODAY ONLY!
This brings us to ground zero. The Internet. Everything I have just mentioned exists outside of looking at either one of my two iPhones or turning on a computer. I truly believe the internet was intended to be a place of freedom and equality, where information and ideas could be freely exchanged without cause or concern to one’s appearance, race, gender, socioeconomic class or the kind of shoes you can afford. Well good luck—because for that to happen you’d have to survive life in the war-zone. At least that’s how I felt today trying to read a single article on the accidental Hawaiian missile text in TIME online. To get through the article, one must first barrel through five video advertisements and 41 clickable ads for products, celebrity gossip and other publications. I’m not even going to touch on social media in this post, which takes my point—and I hope I’ve made it clear—to an entirely new dimension.
I think Dos Passos intentionally juxtaposed headlines on similar topics in The 42nd Parallel, just as news media does today.
For example, the town of Naples, Florida could be described in magazines and commercials and depicted on TV shows as “heaven on earth.” Then, one day, an unfortunate drive by shooting occurs in a quite water-front community right in the center of town. All of a sudden, everywhere you look and listen is describing Naples, Florida as “hell on earth,” home to murder, drugs and violence. This leaves most of America confused, scared and conflicted. Is Naples great or is Naples horrible? If there are changing truths and multiple truths, then there is no truth at all. And with no truth, progression generally declines and chaos most certainly ensues.
We are caught in a cycle, my friends. And apparently, we’ve been circling around since 1930.