Classic J. Neil: The Pitchman and the Oracle
Originally published in 1996 on The World According to J. Neil Schulman
Are you a bigot?
It won’t surprise me if you don’t think so. Bigotry, to most people, means intolerance of, or discrimination against, a person on the basis of race, color, creed, ethnic origin, gender, or what used to be called a handicap and now, using a euphemism for a euphemism, we call “challenged.”
The assumption that drives the social disapproval against bigotry is that the object of the bigotry not only has no choice about her or his condition, but that this condition is an ephemera to the person’s true worth. We obviously have no choice about our particular mix of chromosomes, so discrimination against one of us on the basis of race, color, creed, ethnic origin, gender, and physical or mental incapacities seems unfair.
Nowadays it’s not only socially acceptable, but socially encouraged, to be intolerant of people who engage in activities which are generally regarded as anti-social. Right-thinking people, often thinking themselves tolerant, would pour a glass of water on someone’s cigarette if he lit up in a restaurant, and would likely be applauded by other people who think themselves tolerant.
There is equally little tolerance for the man or woman who wears an animal’s fur as a coat but, practically speaking, there seems to be more tolerance for people who wear animal skins tanned into leather. Maybe the reason is that if you splash red paint on some “rich bitch’s” fur coat you might get sued, but if you splash red paint on a biker chick’s leather jacket, you’ll be talking to your lawyer from a hospital burn ward.
But if there is one class of people whom almost everyone seems to agree it’s okay to be nasty to, it’s the person who gets in your face and wants to give you a message. If the message is commercial, it’s coming from some sort of pitchman; if religious, from some sort of evangelist; if political, from some sort of rabble-rouser. What they all have in common is that they have no access to the monied means of communication — getting their words into books or magazines, or their message on TV, or their song on the radio. They can’t do what the big guys do which is bait a trap to get you to come to them — so they do all that’s left to them, which is to knock on doors, make phone calls, hand out leaflets on street corners, or write on bathroom walls.
In religion, do we have more tolerance for old, established religions with magnificent, centuries-old cathedrals and a millennia of pillaged statuary or the Jehovah’s Witness knocking on our doors?
In charity, are we more likely to give to some public-TV station which spends half its budget on fund-raising , or the plain-looking woman blocking your way into Wal-Mart who’s trying to raise money for a battered-woman’s shelter?
Of the three message-pushers, the commercial pitchman is likely the most despised throughout history. The late semanticist, college president, and U.S. senator, S.I. Hayakawa, in the first edition of his book Language in Thought And Action, had a chapter on “The Marginal Businessman.” Hayakawa argued that much of the popular resentment against Jews was directed not at supposed deficiencies in the Jewish religion but on the ways Jews made a living. Since Jewish dietary laws forbid the eating of game, Jews were not hunters; since Jews were often forbidden to own land, they could not be landlords or farmers. Laws commonly forbade Jews from attending universities or practicing professions. So Jews became merchants and money-lenders, rag-pickers and trinket salesmen. Hayakawa documented history showing that every struggling businessman, of any ethnicity, is despised because of his in-your-face sales practices.
Half a century ago, the small businessman was still pictured in newspaper cartoons with a hooked nose. Since that’s no longer acceptable, we are instead given the ethnically sanitized image of the small businessman as Schemer on the PBS children’s show Shining Time Station, or the greasy fast-food inventor Falafel on Hercules and Xena. But the point is the same. Small businessmen are usually shown as despicable.
Who, among car salesmen, are the ones we despise the most? Is it the Mercedes-Benz dealer wearing an Italian tailored suit in a plush showroom or the guy in the loud sports jacket selling used-up wrecks off a recently vacant lot?
Are we more annoyed by chain stores situated in an upscale shopping mall or the mail-order outfits operating out of a warehouse somewhere in North Dakota that fill your mailbox with “junk mail”?
The fact is, we live in a noisy marketplace and we are all suffering from agoraphobia to one extent or another.
Agoraphobia is usually thought of as fear or dislike of open spaces, but historically and etymologically, the agora wasn’t an empty space but a bustling, jostling market with people shouting at you to sample their wares. Agoraphobia has now evolved into the fear and loathing of the unsolicited sales call.
What most people don’t seem to realize is that this fear and loathing serves the interests of those who want to control all means of mass communication. The old method of censorship used by ruling classes was to try to keep you from getting your message out by using violence against you if you said or wrote something that wasn’t approved. Since human ingenuity seems boundless, the messages got out anyway — and usually were even made sexier by being forbidden.
The ruling classes have learned their lesson from history. They don’t bother trying to suppress discontented messengers anymore. They just buy up all the means of slick communication — movie studios, TV networks, recording companies — and manufacture the messages they want you to hear. They don’t have to censor the opposition — they simply drown it out in a sea of glossy, sexy, manipulative entertainment products. And if everyone hates the pitchman, it’s because we are surrounded by them all day long.
The pitchman is on TV and radio — even on so-called “public” TV — hawking his wares. If we pay extra for commercial-free channels, she’s telling us about the next week of movies we can’t miss. He’s selling us oranges, bananas, and peanuts when our car stops at a light in Los Angeles, or trying to clean our windshield with a greasy rag if the stoplight is in lower Manhattan. He’s selling us the Los Angeles Times before the movie previews start in a Southland movie theater. He’s asking us for a handout when we get out of our car, and waiting to ask us for a donation before we enter the mall shop. She’s leaving messages on our phone answering machines. There’s no avenue of communication they won’t use.
Even the Internet.
The Internet is the most efficient means of distributing information the human race has ever invented. I describe it to people who don’t understand computers as the world’s greatest library with the world’s best card catalog. But information is precisely what those in power most wish to control. You can’t package lies to everyone consistently if there remains a single open channel for getting the truth out to lots of people fast.
A few conglomerates today own the TV and radio stations, cable networks, movie studios and movie theaters, recording companies and music stores, movie rental stores, newspapers and magazines, book publishers, telephone companies, cable companies. Now they’re moving into the Internet with World Wide Web sites.
In each of these media that these major corporations control, they can sit back and wait for you to come to them to receive their pitches. You want entertainment. They control entertainment. They don’t have to get in your face to pitch to you because they control the movies, TV shows, and music you want and will willingly approach them, listening to their sales pitches along the way.
And it’s the outsider — the real social critic, the radical, the small enterpriser, the religious dissenter — who has to get in your face and shout to get your attention away from the officially sanctioned sources of information. Let’s call the information monopolists the “Oracles.”
Here’s where I come into the story, personally.
I’m a writer. I’ve been a writer for a quarter century now. I’ve written novels, screenplays, poems, articles, short stories, essays, and speeches. I’ve won awards, had my picture in the newspaper, plugged my books on TV, had a script I’ve written produced for network TV.
I’m also in the publishing business. I can’t think of a job in the publishing business I haven’t had hands-on experience doing. I’ve read manuscripts for literary agencies and publishers, done rewriting, line-editing, and copy-editing, supervised cover jacket artwork and book design, picked out binding materials, proofread at all stages, called distributors to get orders and both shipped books out and received them back. I’ve managed to get a small press book into chain bookstores and gotten stiffed when a distributor went bankrupt, owing me for 400 hardcover books they’d already been paid for by the chain to which they’d sold it. I’ve picked up pallets of books at the printer in Vermont and driven them cross country, then loaded them into a storage locker in Los Angeles.
The essence of writing and publishing is the creation and distribution of information — which puts me in direct competition with the information Oracles. On those occasions when I have written something that didn’t offend the Oracles too badly, they’ve bought my work and disseminated it. But any time I want to get down and dirty and offer a viewpoint that doesn’t fit their vision, I’m on my own, and good luck to me trying to get your attention with the racket you’re already getting from the Oracles.
I ran into this problem when I tried to send an email letter to a few hundred people on the Internet, telling them about my world wide website which is offering downloads of books which the Oracles have decided not to publish. I chose to mail to a list of people who had openly published their names and email addresses on a website opposing Internet censorship. I sent each one a single message telling them how the book industry nowadays is channeled through one guy in New York who buys for the biggest bookstore chain — and no major publisher will publish a book of any consequence without checking with him first to see what his order might be. I suggested that when one guy sitting in an office can control what books a quarter billion people got a chance to buy, we might as well call it censorship.
And I ran headlong into the prejudice against the pitchman.
Because my message was “unsolicited” and “commercial,” I got back dozens of email replies accusing me of mailing “spam” — which is a term of art on the Internet for sending out multiple messages to unrelated public news groups or private email accounts. Most “spammers” use the Internet to pitch scams, phone sex, and CD-ROM’s offering dirty pictures. They’ll send messages to unrelated news groups, hundreds at a time. They’ll send from anonymous email accounts so Internet service providers can’t cut them off. They’ll buy lists of email addresses drawn from people who have posted messages in public news groups.
I didn’t do any of that. I mailed to a list of people who had freely self-published their email addresses in support of a cause — and I was sending them a message on a related cause. I sent them one message — and I told them that I wasn’t going to send them any more.
They didn’t believe me. It appears this was what every “spammer” said as part of the pitch. I was cursed out, insulted, threatened with legal action, and sent a huge message designed to cripple my email for about an hour. Even the most mannered and eloquent of those people who had received my email were offended by its being an unsolicited invasion of their privacy, and they acted with the zeal of white blood cells attacking a foreign DNA strand attempting to fend off my unwanted intrusion. They were guardians of the public good, defending their polity.
In other words, they were people after my own heart.
Just a few years ago, the Internet was the preserve of a few academics and government employees, free from any commercial enterprises — and those people want it kept that way. They probably feel about me how Pocahontas’s dad, Chief Powhatan, felt when he saw the Susan Constant sailing into harbor filled with English boat-people.
But the objection to “spam” on the Internet is, at its essence, the same prejudice that ruling classes throughout history have used to maintain their power. If they can get the people to despise the pitchman, the evangelist, and the rabble-rouser, they can continue to enjoy a monopoly of their subjects’ attention spans so that our money and energy will be spent how they want it spent.
The World Wide Web is, largely, a level playing field, where the small enterpriser, the evangelist, and the rabble-rouser can enjoy messaging opportunities equal to that of the corporate Oracles. It is, perhaps, the first time in history that communication has been so free and democratic.
But the Oracles still can command attention on the World Wide Web using vast gobs of money, using Internet directories such as Infoseek and Yahoo! to display advertising banners. “Directory” is the correct name for these services — for they direct millions of people to a few select websites every day — and the Oracles maintain their grip on your attention thereby.
The small fry like me — with an alternative website — is, like the door-to-door salesman, the telephone pitchman, and the panhandler — forced into the undignified and despised job of attempting to grab your attention by any means left to us that does not require thousands or millions of dollars in advertising. And I tried sending out email about my website to some people I thought would be interested because I can’t afford to sit back and let people find me the way the Oracles can.
I will not soon try that again because the Oracles have conditioned their subjects to reject the pitchman, the evangelist, and the rabble-rouser, and I don’t appreciate getting insulted, threatened, and outright damaged by the guardians of public morals.
Which, it would appear, leaves the Oracles with their monopoly on mass communication intact and unthreatened.
Ladies and Gentlemen: the people who eat caviar have a good reason to make you hate spam. Spam threatens their monopoly on communications. If you buy from the lady who’s selling cheap oranges on the street, what do you need the overpriced produce in the high-rent supermarket for? If I can use a $12.95 a month email account to send a message to thousands of potential customers, how can they make you buy their overpriced junk with million-dollar Superbowl commercials?
It’s only by fostering your hatred of the pitchman who’s in your face with an alternative product that the Oracles can maintain their lock on your pocketbook, your vote … and your soul.
If you despise spam — the pitchman, the evangelist, the rabble-rouser — you are allowing the people who are already rich and powerful to make sure that they brook no competition from new ideas and alternative enterprises.
If a pitchman, evangelist, or rabble-rouser has to shout for your attention, it’s a clear signal to you that what they have to say is not something the Oracles want you to hear.
If the Oracles wanted you to hear it, they wouldn’t have to get in your face. They own the media. They don’t have to shout. They already have you where they want you and they don’t want to lose you.
At some point, people who are seriously concerned about freedom of speech are just going to have to figure out whether they’re willing to put up with the inconvenience of having some nasty, ugly, cheap low-life’s like me get in your face on occasion in order to preserve your freedom of choice.
Getting in your face to tell you this is, admittedly, a nasty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Otherwise, the Oracles will own us forever and a day.
My comic thriller Lady Magdalene’s — a movie I wrote, produced, directed, and acted in it — is now available for sale or rental on Amazon.com Video On Demand. If you like the way I think, I think you’ll like this movie. Check it out!