Palace of Darkness: Brainless Body Meets Brain in a Jar
June 3, 2009 by Paul McKeever
Post Shredded Wheat has an interesting new website to promote a rather uninteresting breakfast. ThePalaceOfLight.com (nickname of the electric-lighted Niagara Falls building in which Shredded Wheat was first produced) is the place to find a humourous five-episode micro-series that features a bumbling conservative Post Shredded Wheat boss by the name of Frank Druffel. Frank likes the fact that Shredded Wheat has not changed since it was introduced in 1892, and he is determined to prevent any changes. As Frank sees it, Shredded Wheat is “perfect”, just the way it is.
Episode one is a scene in which Frank hires Eddie. Eddie lacks any strengths or skills, save one: “getting out of stuff”. For Frank’s purposes, this makes Eddie the ideal choice to head up product development.
In episode two, Frank reveals himself to be the poster boy of the Green (i.e., Völkisch) movement. He calls his staff together and gives them a speech in which he condemns the automobile – which he holds up as a model of constant innovation – as a “menace to society”. Unwittingly rehashing Malthus, Hitler, and Erlich, Frank asserts that:
Our reckless pursuit of progress is absurd. Our economic structure is reliant on one thing: an endless supply of resources. And you combine that with population growth and, well, you’ve just got global foolishness.
In the face of all of this change, Frank is certain that “What you can’t deny is that we are doing something right: nothing”. Hoping that his product development staff will, essentially, stop working, he encourages them to spend their time forming groups and committees, explaining that “It’s togetherness, working as one, merging our collective thoughts that will lead to…underachievement”. We thereby learn that, though Frank is anti-progress, he knows exactly what sort of thinking and activity stifles progress.
In episode three, Eddie is feeling blue because, as head of product development, he has done nothing. Frank consoles Eddie with a mini-speech about the alleged pointlessness of progress, saying that man learned nothing from going to the moon.
In episode four, Frank holds performance reviews of his employees. He praises Rodney as an “inspiration to sustainability”: Rodney has made no innovations to Shredded Wheat in his 55 years of employment with the company, so it’s bonus-time for him, plus a 50 year contract at double his salary.
Next up, June: a liberal young woman armed with demographic information about the typical Shredded Wheat consumer, whom she names “John”. June thinks the company should run commercials to scare people about heart disease, but follow each such commercial with a Shredded Wheat commercial in which an actor, playing a doctor, tells the viewer that Shredded Wheat is good for your heart. Frank calls in Eddie and introduces June as “a go-getter, she’s trouble”. Franks plan: keep June distracted, by a love affair with Eddie, from her plan to grow the company. Frank wants only “sustainability”.
In the concluding episode, June tells Frank that times have changed and that it is time to name the cereal: “Shwweeeaat”. Her female demographic – codenamed Jill – wants to eat Shredded Wheat but wants a little variety to “spice up her life”. June says “the advertising agency has some great ideas”. Frank hits the roof, blaming advertising for peoples’ desire to buy things they cannot afford, to impress others, only to despair that such purchases did not result in the happiness they were trying to buy. Frank explains that, in some countries, affluence is “two cows and a really big wife” whereas in our society, advertising has caused people to make skinniness (“malnourishment”) a goal.
The implicit message of the Palace Of Light micro-series is:
Frank may appear to be a dummy, but he makes more sense than the new-age advertising girl, June. Maybe, your laziness and incompetence, dear consumer, are not so bad after all. Maybe all the harm in the world is done by the innovators. Maybe innovation does not make one happy. Maybe we should all be happy with a ‘sustainable’, unchanging, agrarian life in which there is no car, no space travel, no commercial advertisement, and no business growth. Maybe, just maybe, one can not achieve more happiness than is achieved by merely having two cows and a fat wife. Maybe, just maybe, your life is not pathetic after all. Maybe the only thing you really need is something as wisely unambitious and effortless as yourself: Post Shredded Wheat.
It is a commercial exceptionally well-suited to society today. To a society comprised largely of people educated to believe that the world is too complex and chaotic to understand, Frank essentially says to the consumer: “nobody else understands reality either, so you do not have to feel bad about your ignorance”. To consumers who have tried in vain to achieve happiness buy borrowing money to buy objects that they think will earn them the respect of others, we can easily infer from Frank’s message that the consumer should not feel bad about thinking so little, or about being so stupid because: “Rational efforts to pursue happiness through the creation of new values are doomed to failure, such that the pursued values are actually disvalues, and such that rationality is actually a vice”. In other words: “Wise are the brain dead, so feel good about your wisdom, dear consumer”. The Palace Of Light story is a well-structured “there there” and hug for a society almost completely lacking in competence and self-esteem; for a society that, as a result, has embraced the anti-reality, anti-reason, pro-altruism, pro-collectivism movements of the day (most notably at present, environmentalism).
However, those committed to reality, reason, self, and individualism should be cautious in their evaluation Frank. There is a half-truth to Frank’s message about innovation: sometimes, it results in nothing of value. Innovation is not per se (i.e., intrinsically) good. Immanuel Kant was an innovator, for example, though his philosophical rebellion against man’s ability to know the nature of reality and against rational egoism laid the groundwork for murderous governments in the industrialized European and Asian countries of the world in the 20th century.
Frank and June – presumably intended to be the protagonist and antagonist, respectively, in the Palace of Light micro-series – in reality present the viewer with the false dichotomy presented to us in society today. Frank’s flaw is his moral intrinsicism. As author/philosopher Ayn Rand explained it, moral intrinsicism holds that:
…good is inherent in certain things or actions as such, regardless of their context and consequences, regardless of any benefit or injury they may cause to the actors and subjects involved. It is a theory that divorces the concept of “good” from beneficiaries, and the concept of “value” from valuer and purpose—claiming that the good is good in, by, and of itself. (from Ayn Rand’s essay “What is Capitalism?”, which appears at Chapter 1 of her book Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal).
Frank cares not whether a person lives 100 miles from the nearest hospital, or whether he lives next door to one: in either case, the car – which could get him to the hospital in time to save his life – is a “menace to society”. In determining whether something is a value, he refuses to ask “Of value to whom, and for what purpose?”. A car is simply evil, no matter who you are, no matter what your needs, values, or goals may be. To Frank, evil is a metaphysical quality, like hardness, colour, or sweetness. He disregards the customer’s needs/wants, and asserts that Shredded Wheat just is a value, to everyone, period…presumably, even to a person with gluten intolerance.
June’s flaw is her moral subjectivism. Rand explained that:
The subjectivist theory holds that the good bears no relation to the facts of reality, that it is a product of a man’s consciousness, created by his feelings, desires, “intuitions,” or whims, and that it is merely an “arbitrary postulate” or an “emotional commitment.”
June sees no reason to care about what product she is selling at all, which is why she is so excited about changing the name of the product from something descriptive (“shredded wheat”) to something non-descriptive: “Shwweeeaat”. Shwweeeaat might be a shoe, rat poison, or a rocket to the moon: it does not matter to her because she believes the value of something is entirely determined by whim, independent of the facts of reality.
The Frank/June dichotomy – the intrinsicism/subjectivism dichotomy – is false because both Frank and June determine values in a way that disregards any relation between the facts of reality and the mind of the valuer. Rand’s Objectivist theory of value holds that:
…the good is neither an attribute of “things in themselves” nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value. (Rational, in this context, means: derived from the facts of reality and validated by a process of reason.) The objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in relation to man — and that it must be discovered, not invented, by man. Fundamental to an objective theory of values is the question: Of value to whom and for what? An objective theory does not permit context-dropping or “concept-stealing”; it does not permit the separation of “value” from “purpose,” of the good from beneficiaries, and of man’s actions from reason.
By the Objectivist theory of value, Frank is right to condemn June’s attempt to disregard reality; to present the consumer with a misleading product name, a phony doctor, and a phony fear. By the same theory, June is right to propose that the mind of the consumer ought not to be disregarded when communicating to the public why the product might be a value to them. That is why there seems to be a grain of truth or wisdom to what each of them say. Yet Frank and June are both wrong in the same way: both sever reality from mind in process of value-determination. Their ultimate product is: Shredded Ethics.
Let us hope that Post adds some episodes to its Palace of Light series; episodes that will justify the name of the series. Perhaps both Frank and June could find themselves out of a job, replaced with a guy who does not separate the wheat from the chaff; an innovator whose most important innovation is to help his staff, and the consumer, understand that the value is in the two together: whole wheat. John Malt, anybody?