For the second straight year, Chrysler won the Super Bowl of advertising with a brilliant two-minute exploitation of economic anxiety and populist sentiment. Following up on 2011's Eminem spot, this year's commercial featured the iconic figure of Clint Eastwood -- the man who puts "rugged" into "rugged individualist" -- talking about how it's "halftime in America," and while "we" may be down, we're not the kind of nation that can be knocked out with one punch, our second half is about to begin, etc etc.
The four-page advertising spread based on the commercial which ran in USA TODAY on Monday morning ends with the tag line: RIGHT NOW, IT'S TIME FOR ALL OF US TO GET BACK TO WORK. The explicit message of these commercials is that, while times have been hard and remain so, our national resilience, ingenuity, and most of all our willingness to work will allow us to overcome our current economic distress, just as it has so many times in the past. (The implicit message is that it's a good thing the Bush and Obama administrations dedicated tens of billions of dollars to bail out the American auto industry instead of allowing the rigors of "market discipline" to destroy Chrysler and GM).
All of this is presented in an evocative swirl of images of mostly working class people in the metaphorical process of picking themselves up by their bootstraps, in a kind of prettified hybrid of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and a Tony Robbins self-improvement seminar.
The ideological function of this kind of thing is complex, but the part of that function I want to focus on here is the extent to which messages of this sort (viewed by 110 million Americans at one time, and many more still after the fact) obscure some basic economic realities. The fact is that "Americans" aren't struggling: in increasing order of intensity, middle class and working class and poor Americans are struggling. Upper class Americans (such as, to pick a random example, law professors,) are doing very well these days, and indeed for really rich people things are absolutely fabulous -- much better than ever, as a matter of fact.
This general cultural situation is reflected particularly well by the current state of the American legal system.The crisis of American legal education and the legal profession is a very asymmetrical phenomenon: for instance, if you're a partner at a fancy law firm, or a dean at one of our better law schools, it's all, at least in pecuniary terms, an almost indescribably wonderful life right now. As for law faculty, we teach less and make more than ever before; we occupy far more opulent buildings than in the past; many of the burdensome administrative duties we had to perform a generation ago have been outsourced to burgeoning staffs of helpful factotums -- in short, things are pretty great overall.
For the American upper class, the economic and social crisis is something we read about in the papers and see on TV. It might as well be happening in Afghanistan. That's why we're going to go into another faculty meeting next week and vote ourselves a few hundred thousand dollars more in institutional goodies. Where's the money coming from to pay for all this stuff? That's not really our department.
If it's halftime in America, then we've built up quite a nice lead, so why would we change the game plan? We're winning, after all.