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It’s time we had a painful talk about the pornographic ‘novel’, “Fifty Shades of Gray,” a best-seller published in 2011/2012.   [Disclaimer: I haven’t read this work nor watched the awful-looking movies.  I am guilty of a cardinal sin of scholarship: writing about something I haven’t read.  I don’t care: I never plan to read this thing.  My point here is not really about bad popular fiction] This uh…romance (?) book is about a shy & awkward virginal nobody who is sent to interview a manipulative billionaire creep.  Unsurprisingly, the manipulative billionaire seduces her with his obscene wealth and power and locks her in a contract where he is allowed to do anything he wants to her. Romance ensues!

It is tempting to look at this moronic plot, shrug, and say “Who likes this stuff?” Yet actually, we should not be surprised that this book was a top-of-the charts best-seller for years–a second look reveals it to be an extremely germane allegory of our actual lives.  America’s fantasies of being enslaved and abused by creepy billionaires are not harmless fantasies: they are the reality of our times!  It is the top item of the news every day.  The extent to which this slimy bondage narrative about billionaires abusing underlings has become the main story of our entire culture should not be overlooked or underestimated.

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The characters in “Fifty Shades of Gray” at least have a safe word.  We do not.  The new oligarchs can do anything they wish and face almost no repercussions (as was illustrated by the lack of accountability for the events which caused the Great Recession…and illustrated again, afterwards, when the people who caused the crisis became much richer).   This is because of a devilish nexus of market consolidation and oligopoly.  Since the super rich now own almost everything (including the media outlets and tech platforms we use to communicate), it also means that we live in a world awash in glowing panegyrics to these monopolists,raiders, and conmen. We also live in a country where both political parties are captured and compromised by monopolistic moneyed interests (all of this is elucidated in this rather superb Atlantic essay about how the political crisis of the 21st century is taking us much further down “the road to serfdom” than we would have imagined).

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Obviously in addressing these problems, I am talking about President Trump, but I don’t think Trump is actually a billionaire.  He lost his inherited fortune in the 80s and has been adding billions and billions of dollars of increasingly shady debt ever since.  However he certainly identifies as a billionaire (snicker) and he serves the crooked schemes of oligarchs…and the even darker schemes of his unknown true creditors. It is these finance, tech, and real-estate tycoons who are the real problem.  Unfortunately it is difficult to even fathom how they are removing real competition from the system or real political power from the hands of voters.  Here is a rather fascinating article about he true darkness of money in politics.

If you followed that link you will see it was mostly about money in conservative political circles, but the Democratic Party has a similar problem.  Every day some new Christian Gray flies out of the sky and offers to tie us up and save us from ourselves.  “Come on, you know you’ll like it” says Bloomberg as he pushes us onto a stained sofa and fumbles for the straps.

In case you are laboring under the ingenuous middle-class fantasy that this applies to all of those slutty self-hating poor people but not to a worthy, hot, hard-working burgher like yourself then wake up! We are all poor compared to people whose net worth is measured in nine and ten and figures.  The prevalence of SLAPP suits, K Street consultants, and secret nondisclosure agreements  with Epsteins,  Weinsteins, and Michael Jacksons reflects a world where the rich are too big to fail and the rest of us are two small to ever succeed.

It all needs to change. Instead of wasting your life in some monopolistic company’s taupe open office while counting other people’s money or building marketing concepts for stuff you can’t afford, you could have your own business.  Instead of health care that can only be obtained through working for a gigantic company, we could have a real safety net.  We need rules and regulations, but not the sort of rules that can only be followed by organizations with giant compliance departments and that only benefit huge corporate cartels.  Barriers to market entry that are too high for anyone who isn’t an international oligarch. Globalism is the story of how vast new international cartels and oligopolies have broken politics and culture in such a way that we can’t even respond (except with essays that nobody reads).

This is unacceptable.  Let us talk about how to rewrite this bad codependant SM tale.

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The French were the original masters of the erotic tale.  From Clovis I until Louis XVI, they wrote an unrivaled “Shades of Gray” style series of bondage novels which started hard and grew even more perverted and extreme as the centuries rolled by.  But the French people got tired of this series and flipped the script and rewrote the whole premise in the boldest way possible.  Perhaps we need to think of doing some radical editing and rewriting before the story of our own lives becomes even more like “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “The Story of O”.

We can rewrite this tale with thoughtful political reform and  redistribution (we use to call such thing taxes and expect everyone to pay their fair share so we could have a society and make real scientific discoveries).  Billionaires need to sign up for this and agree to just being extremely wealthy instead of needing to have ALL the wealth. Otherwise someday they will find not President Trump or Bloomberg, but President Robespierre.  They should think that the forces we are now unleashing could result in billionaires getting screwed too. Not the Christian Gray way.  The French 1789 way.

 

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Back during the sixties, a pair of psychologists (Seligman and Maier) at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a sadistic animal study in order to learn more about depression. And they did find out a great deal about depression…and about learning, conditioning, the nature of will, and many other important things. Their experiments were troubling on all sorts of levels. Yet even though thinking about this is painful, we need to do so, because what they learned by torturing dogs into near-catatonic apathy applies very directly to us as well.

OK, here is the basis of the experiment: groups of dogs were placed in restraint harnesses with access to a lever which they could activate with their paws. Group 1 dogs were put in the harness and then nothing happened and they were released…they were the control group I suppose. Group 2 dogs were put in the restraints and given a painful electric shock—which they could stop by pushing the lever. Group 3 dogs were put in restraints and shocked seemingly at random. Group 3 dogs were helpless to escape their predicament: the lever did nothing.

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After sufficient conditioning (I imagine an agent of Hydra saying that phrase in a faux German accent), the dogs were removed from the harnesses and put in a box apparatus with an electric floor. The floor would start shocking the dogs, but they could escape by leaping over a low threshold or finding a hidden panel or what-have-you. Innocent Group 1 dogs were appalled at human perfidy, but quickly found a way out of the electrified box apparatus! Group 2 dogs knew they could change their fate and they too quickly found a way to escape the painful box. They bounded around until they got out. Group 3 dogs, however, had been taught that their actions were meaningless and so their response was heartbreakingly sad: they just lay down on the dreadful electrified floor to take their shocks and whine in misery.

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The researchers discovered that the group 3 dogs were fundamentally broken. They could not be threatened or cajoled to jump over the barrier. Only by literally moving the dog’s limbs in the correct motions and holding the creature upright could the animals be taught to escape the electrified floor (it should be obvious that these dogs were thoroughly conditioned till they were effectively destroyed, and, of course the animals used in this study—and its subsequent iterations—were destroyed after being so relentlessly abused). These studies worked the same way on other animals and in other iterations which you can look up on your own if you so like.

So what did we learn from all this? People (or other similar organisms) who have been subject to abuse and neglect have been taught not to seek a way out of their predicament—even when the way is so obvious as to be self-evident. Frustratingly it seems like those infuriating optimists who are always going around saying “you make your own luck” and “always look on the bright side” and suchlike twaddle are right…sort of. A person’s way of explaining the world to himself matters greatly in how he then tries to deal with that world. What truly matters seems to be perceived control over the situation—or perceived lack of control. Neurophysiologists even discovered the biological circuitry of learned helplessness—mood and learning affect each other in discernible chemical patterns in the brain. The wrong feedback loop can lead to crippling anxiety-related emotional disorders—as seen in the group 3 dogs (interestingly, physical exercise can help break this feedback loop, so if you end up in prison camp, or being tortured by the Viet Cong, or trapped in a hall of evil mirrors, you had better quickly start getting fit!).

 

Plus, if you get buff enough, you could just physically bust free

Plus, if you get buff enough, you could just physically bust free

Of course a philosopher would correctly point out that none of the dogs in any of the three groups ever truly had any control—it was always an illusion fostered by godlike experimenters. In our world of powerful machines, giant corporations, ineluctable plate tectonics, false democracy, and billions upon billions of hungry greedy antagonistic humans, control is likewise an illusion, but a very important one! Maybe I should not even have included this paragraph, so that we can all can pretend we have some modicum of agency in the actual world.

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Speaking of the true nature of the world, the real lesson of the dog study is short and hard. Life is a series of shocking boxes box and we need to keep bounding around banging on the walls all the time to get anywhere. Maybe the way forward is there and maybe not, but you had better believe with all your heart that it is…and that your actions have meaning. Otherwise you might as well just lie down on the floor and die.

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