In the first part, I talked about the false comparison of Orwell to Huxley and how features of the writing made it easy to mistake each author’s purpose and scope. However, there is something else. Neil Postman was not alone in thinking, in 1984, that we dodged a bullet and instead took a pill. I understand the feeling and shared it. It seemed like, as Lord Boyd Orr had said in 1966, “Give the people a choice between freedom and sandwiches, and they’ll take the sandwiches,” but we had already been shot but did not know the blood stain.
We were aware, then, that the public of democratic nations was placidly accepting outrages that would lead to atrocities, but I would propose that it took 2003 and George W. Bush to demonstrate to us how well television and the fragmented Internet have made every year 1984. Indeed, the television, which Postman saw as an abstracted medium that forbade long-form discourse and non-pictorial conceptualizing, would eventually resemble the view screen of 1984 as much as the Soma of Brave New World, especially cable news, where anything not at full volume and alarm was mere caesura for a day of emotional extremes and informational abbreviation. The Memory Hole was far easier to achieve by accident than plan.
I criticized Postman for a misplaced emphasis on the fiction of 1984 whereby he missed the systemic critique of the novel. The novel’s appearance in the midst of a nation enacting a policy called Austerity, where everyone was to “pitch in” to get “England” back on its feet after the war, is conspicuous and screams out for a comparison. Specifically, within the fiction and outside of it, a System of power is above the people, and the people are the enemy of power itself. Big Brother is an image or visage for a system, but the true power is no person or party — just the continuing flow of resources and labor from the people to an indifferent end. This is what is frightening. The group in charge was never fascists or Stalinists or Churchill or anyone else: it was capital.
Austerity today (the “new Austerity” in Europe and deficit mania in the U.S.) is different in cause, but the same in effect. Both ask nations to turn their GDP over to repayment of debt rather than intervention in markets to stimulate employment. The language used in both instances is similar, too: “Get back on our feet” and “recovery.” However, nation states and capital have had quite a bit of time and learned a few lessons.
We can see, in the gap of attitudes and responses of the public, the effect of social and cultural mutation. If we can see a greater or lesser increase in the effects of social control, then we can understand, I believe, just how thoroughgoing Orwell’s book was a description of an ongoing project that has now succeeded.
“Our” responses: Then
Americans saw the problems of the U.K. in 1948/9 as “over there” and peculiar, but fundamentally a matter of our pity and compassion. Today, Americans see Europe as having a “Eurozone mess” and “austerity,” compared to the situation at home, where “we” have “deficits” and “debt” to pay down. In 1948/9 the difference was real, and in 2012 it is simply semantic, but the semantics connote blame. “Eurozone mess” and “sovereign debt crisis” contain, alternately, a parental scold and a technocrat’s dismissal of suffering.
In battlefield Europe, the post-war period was wretched beyond comprehension (see The Bitter Road to Freedom by William Hitchcock for the initial phases of denial, reiteration, and displacement, when nations had to reabsorb populations that had been taken as forced labor). North Americans, spared by their oceans, did not understand or consider post-war “retrenching” and what the governments were doing with their efforts at stimulating growth by paying down debts. The Americans who did understand what was going on were either collecting the debts or Keynesians who did not agree.
1948′s Life Magazine and Pathe newsreels shocked Americans with photographs of starving European orphans. Coincidentally, George Marshall sent his famous “hair on fire” memo. This memo, which launched the “Marshall Plan,” can be read various ways. Most people agree with Gary Wills’s view in Bomb Power that the plan was economic only via political. (He presents the primary documents and argues, from other historians, that Marshall was alarmed by the resurgent Communist Party and its ripe pickings among the depressed population. For an extremely interesting paper on how Eastern Europe was treated very differently by American neo-liberals, see this wonderful link.)
Marshall got the go-ahead because of the muscular anti-communism of his memo, but the plan also had an economic justification, and that was purely the Keynesian refutation of Austerity. It was Marshall versus the Austerity Games (1948 was also a London Olympics). If “Hunger Games” resonates today, it could well be that the atmospherics and politics of the banking crash were present before. The Marshall Plan argued for massive spending for stimulus (prevention/rescue were its terms), and consensus is that it worked. It did not go to the U.K. in any direct manner. (There are complex ways in which the U.K. benefitted, and London as a mercantile center certainly benefitted, but that is part of the problem.)
1948′s America, therefore, had a reaction of incomprehension and pity and largesse and oblige, but the mechanics of power were split between a dominant party in favor (in the U.S. and U.K.) of a capitalist rictus and a passing and resistant power structure of Keynesian (ameliorative and interventionist) power. The specter of international communism alone allowed the resistant philosophy to step back to the fore with the Marshall Plan.
Austerity’s response: Today?
Do American citizens recognize the term “austerity” has a history or know the heritage of the claim that prosperity comes from paying down debts? Does the claim have a separate cultural history in the U.S., where, as IMF bosses, the power elites have identified with the debt collectors, than Europe? Do American citizens have any way of knowing that the “Eurozone mess” was triggered by the subprime mortgage lending bonanza in the U.S. and a sudden market in trading those mortgage bonds in bundles that were fictionally and deceptively rated as trustworthy? Michael Lewis’s The Big Short documents how the Wall Street traders consistently sneered that “Dusseldorf” was the sucker bet at the table with these bonds. Do they have any ability to realize, if they wish to, the role that failures of debt obligations by Wall Street betting firms destroyed banks, and therefore currency value, across Europe?
The answer is a Mulligan stew of opinions and a desert of information. The Pew Research Center reports on economics tells us that the U.S. public “knows” what it has been told and what it believes, both, despite these being in conflict.
1. People disapprove of slashing government programs (or even “trimming the fat”) to get tax cuts or even low deficits.
2. In April 2012, 74% of voters said the deficit was “very important.” (Which deficit? The budget deficit or the trade deficit? Those of us old enough remember that the fear has switched objects more than once.)
However, when Dick Cheney said “Deficits don’t matter,” polling showed that the public agreed with him and thought the deficit was not an issue (see Carol Doherty, March 2006, “Do Deficits Really Matter Anymore?”)
This is not a riddle, though. According to Media Matters’s “If It’s Sunday, It’s Still Conservative” full report, a master analysis of speakers on panel shows on television tilted overwhelmingly toward the right on all broadcast and cable networks (found at this link). DailyKos readers know that there are plenty of other studies that show that every form of television discussion, regardless of its purpose, carries an over-representation of the voices of coercion and capital. Neil Postman had argued that television was infecting discourse with a headline and catchphrase virus, where facts were in the way of entertainment. 2012 would surely support that, as the public agrees with slogans but is unmoved when they can perceive the facts.
Soma/Big Brother/Television and the missing integer
Postman’s analysis explains the simplification and cognitive dissonance of the uninformed, but not the conservativism of the medium. His analysis can explain why television viewers understand little about government, but not why 63% of Republicans in 2012 believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction but 15% of Democrats did.
There is no ideological purity, either. The coercive and capitalized interests have run the field, but by the methods Postman described explicitly and Orwell implicitly. Omnipresence, repetition, and simplicity are all that are required.
Take the most recent example: “America is a center-right nation” stated with an elected official during an election response interview. The interviewer never asked for verification or questioned the position, and then the statement was repeated several times over the next few days as a talking point. (I emphasize that term because I would like to highlight its age. Remind yourself of its vintage.) The claim has been debunked and accepted.
This is a pattern. Factitiousness is ideal, because the subject is the impossible: an explanation for American mood shifts. Truth is irrelevant before a simple, repeated slogan, catchphrase, or myth. It enters the conversation as something easily remembered and understood, something that ends a mystery. The ideal talking point is a myth because it aids a television/radio/newspaper audience’s and writer’s desire to have a simple explanation for a matter that can only be understood tenuously. (E.g. “The stock market fell because investors took the possibility of a Clinton presidency seriously” — Myron Kandel, 1992.)
We have read 1984 and “Politics and the English Language,” and yet how many people will unthinkingly use the word “unborn?” That word is a lexically nonsensical item from the arsenal of the anti-abortion forces, who are not conservative, but rather best spoken of as coercive (U.S. law is that abortion is freely legal, so these people wish to change from the status quo in a radical manner; that’s not “conservative”). “Climate change” is a partisan euphemism without meaning, and it is reported as a neutral and accurate term.
Postman wrote at precisely the time and place where we were beginning to feel the pain of capitulation to the talking point. This device – a simple declarative statement that all persons are to say, was a television strategy. In the days of radio, even when the Nazis were exploring radio hypnotism (really), such a concept was not possible. Parties would not obey leadership well enough until the 1980′s GOP, which controlled access to television interviews well. (Recall that the Nazi party preferred a single speaker. The Newt Gingrich whip era was marked by managing interview access and candidate access to election funds, and the RNC controlled the bulk of the funds.)
Neil Postman’s featured example was USA Today: it was sold in newspaper boxes that looked like pedestal television sets, and its format was in color, with breaks in coverage by boxes and sidebars that resembled the commercials and cut-aways. Its articles boasted an obvious thesis and then reiteration without development. He saw this model, whereby all political discourse would be thesis:illustration:diversion:thesis, as corrosive to political thought itself and suitable only to complacence. In a sense, his fears and his readership’s fears were founded on the new political reality. 1984 had been, after all, horrifying, but no one was yet sure how.
The actual 1984
1984 was a year of serious anger for the left in the United States. Ronald Reagan won a second term, despite alienating at least half of the nation. Furthermore, television, far more than newspapers or radio, repeated the political “spin doctor” line that the election had been a historic landslide. The whole of the left and moderate center was told that it neither mattered nor existed.
Like the 1972 Nixon re-election, which could be explained away, the Reagan re-election suggested that American voters were not capable of enlightened self-interest, that they would gladly vote for a catchphrase over sense. Reagan’s executive in the first term had been stocked with people who hated their jobs. His Interior Secretary was the infamous James Watt, who believed that the U.S. government simply shouldn’t have any public lands. His head for the Department of Education sought to eliminate his department. His Department of Energy official believed that there should be no governmental role in promoting an energy policy at all, that laissez-faire in an age of large oil corporations was best. His Labor Secretary was against unions. His Department of Transportation wanted to reorganize transportation so that rails (which were national) fell to disuse and long haul trucking supplied goods from ports, without dreaded union workers. In short, every single component of governmental function and contract with taxes, except the military, had been at least maligned, if not actively fought.
Reagan’s rationale was not convincing, either. David Stockman’s “supply side economics” never achieved (and has not since) academic support, and the population soon saw it as “trickle down.” James Watt argued that the reason for privatizing all federal lands was so that the U.S. would use up all of its energy reserves, as God had granted him a vision of a coming civil war, when the western states had oil and the eastern states did not; it was his mission to divert that into a foreign war, where the United States would go to war with the heathen middle east at Armageddon, and Reagan had introduced us to government by saints and prophecy. That got re-elected?
What’s more, by 1984, and certainly by 1988, the mythic structures were in place in a media narrative that the 1984 Reagan victory was one of the greatest landslides in history and that all of America was with Mr. Reagan. A pre-condition of this narrative was accepting Reagan’s own talking point that Watergate had weakened American “character” and that Jimmy Carter had been “weak.” Once that bit of political campaigning became the Truth, then it was necessary to protect the president. Charles P. Pierce, speaking of Iran-Contra and the utter silence of newspaper as well as television on the subject, wrote
“by 1986 . . . our elite institutions formed an iron circle to keep [Congressional investigations] from happening to Ronald Reagan and his people because the country ‘couldn’t take another failed presidency.’ (As illustrated in On Bended Knee, Mark Hertsgaard’s essential account of the lapdog press under Reagan, even Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham . . . was concerned that the press might go too far.)”
It’s fair to say that Reagan radicalized young liberals in the United States as much as Margaret Thatcher did in the U.K. — not only opposing the interests of the poor, but doing so with contempt and blame. The talk of the “strapping young buck” getting T-bone steaks with Food stamps (Reagan, 1980) not only invoked Klan language, but blamed the poor for poverty and accused all of the poor of moral defect. To the president, students were, as he had already said with protests in California, criminals or Communist dupes, and Reagan’s FBI had been instructed to infiltrate peace groups to find their Soviet backing. (Hadn’t Hoover demonstrated that the FBI would find what it was told to find, even if it wasn’t there?) His attorney general, Ed Meese, went through three different committees with stacked membership to prove that pornography caused rape. Thus, civil libertarians, international relations, and labor – all elements of the progressive/left in the U.S. were not merely opposed, but insulted and demonized during Reagan’s administration. In that respect, George W. Bush proved a worthy successor. Twelve years of the voices of capital and coercion followed 1980, at least.
1984 was a pivot when the more far sighted saw how the game was going to be played, and Neil Postman was one of them.
In 1984, anyone with a moderate or liberal stance not only felt disheartened, but was being told, daily, that she or he simply did not exist. What was on the air was the first national arrival of Roger Ailes. Ailes would institute the “repeat the talking point in response to any question” philosophy. He would engineer “deception on page one, retraction on B-10” media management strategy. He would work slogans. Old stuff, but he made it a playbook and learned how to feed television.
Ailes would play to the needs of the press. As the press needed a story – one with a beginning, middle, and end that fit in a two to five minute window so as to make room for commercials and tossing to Diane with weather on television or fitting between color graphics for the USA Today – Ailes learned and taught the micro-narrative. Each issue was really very simple, after all, and people needn’t bother with all of those contradictory details that East Coast elites were trying to bore them with.
He taught his clients to reshape reality to television. This made their reality persuasive and repetitive. That made it real. If television, by its nature, reduces reality to a transient image, Ailes taught his clients to reduce issues as diverse as taxation and endangered species to single frames of picture to be picked up by that format.
Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death captures the first sores on the patient. It was hard in 1984 not to see the pock marks and bubos and not think that we had measles or plague. The observations in the book were valid, as political conversation was being dominated by a pictographic medium. He did not foresee the Internet, but the Internet, after the allocation of dot com domains, would grease the skids on existing trends by visualizing the communicative experience and encouraging discussions as long as a screen – with screens going from twenty-four lines up to sixty and then down to eight. (Please, no comments about how your Linux box has a super monitor that’s 25′ tall and more lines than a public toilet in Mexico City; I’m referring to averages.)
Postman was writing from the middle of a river of change. He was right about the change, but he didn’t note the real gravity behind the current: market capitalism and corporate capital accumulation. He never understood what Orwell had.
USA Today and its color blurb was bound to fail to fundamentally change writing. No medium can entirely ape another, after all. What Postman might have noticed, though, was what USA Today itself crowed about upon its appearance: the ability to spin off “local” editions from a central body as if a papier-mache hydra. It was going to achieve highest possible profits with the lowest number of “talent” workers. It was, in short, an announcement of a way to work around writers. Few thought, in 1984, that it would be followed, but this was an opening shot in the war on labor in service of investors.
(Newspapers, television, radio are capable of complexity, but the simple message won because a story without details is a story that no one objects to. Analysis is less profitable than press releases, and someone is always confused. With each media merger in newspapers, there was an intensification of the capitalist’s position (not management, but investor/stock) over the service or production’s. The number of newspaper owners reduced dramatically during the Reagan and Bush Pere years (link has tables but not directly to the point), and bottom line was best served by having one or two name writers (and opinion pieces, because those generate letters and anger) and eliminating the rest. The USA Today model has reliable costs and profits.
On television, twenty-four hour news seemed like a nominal innovation, but it never was. Even in the earliest Ted Turner years, CNN never devoted time to extended analysis, the way its founder had promised. Its opinion shows began as analysis, but we know what happened to “Crossfire” and the rest. The network found itself with repetition. It quickly became a thirty or sixty minute newscast repeated throughout the day and interrupted only by segments and shows. This made it, in effect, no challenge, no difference. Once it was purchased by a corporation with a ‘better idea’ of how to monetize the news, we saw the chyrons, imitations of Fox News programming, and opinion shows galore.
Once more, media ownership shrank in the Clinton years, and the result was, again, the very same simplification of the labor side of the industry. Even as story after story appeared on radio and in print about media consolidation, media consolidated anyway. Jobs, then papers, disappeared. Behind the desk at television, the same was happening. Why have multiple correspondents, when opinion shows allow a politician to serve his or her needs and work for cheap? Why have dozens of reporters, when an attractive desk anchor can read information derived from wire services? Salaries for these “hosts” went up while off-camera reporters disappeared, and the hosts were treated as special people. David Gregory at NBC may be the most notoriously self-involved of the group, but he is not alone. (After the New York Times revealed that NBC had hired “retired” generals as experts who were part of a Pentagon information control program, Brian Williams took ten days to respond to the piece, and, when he did so, on April 30, 2008 (quoted in Glen Greenwald’s column), it was with emphasis on how his detractors did not know staff rank generals the way he did, and that these were honest men, and his personal friends. That these were legal violations and that he inserted his own privilege above the public’s and identified himself with a particular class of “insider” was as notable as his contempt for the journalists who were calling on him to stop using paid informants from the administration.)
A prima donna is paradoxically easier for a corporate structure and the real Big Brother to handle than a host of reporters. The fewer “talent” and “labor” personalities, the less likelihood there is of organization or dissent, and, with sufficient pay, a host can identify with the corporation’s interests. Contemporary centerpiece anchors are ideologically more akin to actresses and actors than reporters. Asking them why their report used blind sources is no better than asking a stunt man why the hero drives a Mercedes. Asking Brian Williams why his show continues to call upon a general from a Pentagon propaganda campaign is like asking the actress why the director shot the scene with a hand held camera.
1984 breaks out of the brush: 2003
By 2003, the current had eroded the landscape of information in the U.S. The respite and false dawn of “citizen journalism” by the Internet had and remained difficult to assess. Even when there were palpable results, they were imperceptible to those outside of the immediate area (one reason we love our Internet meeting places).
In 2003, George W. Bush prepared to invade Iraq. We had Big Brother at this point, as we had only one point of Truth. It is fashionable and accurate to point at the mendacity and corruption of Judith Miller and Robert Apple at New York Times, both of whom appeared on the front page and above the fold, one newspaper should never have carried the sole responsibility for a nation of two hundred and ninety million people. Nor should two reporters’ failures have been sufficient to mask such obviously false pretenses for war. Twenty years earlier, it would have been inconceivable that New York Times would have been the only arbiter of objective reality. As we will recall, it is when one media service, no matter what it is, becomes the only place where something gets to be true that it gets co-opted. That is how Eric Blair’s BBC could be Big Brother, and it is how it was easy to control New York Times and four networks with generals who are Real Characters and Men of Integrity.
At one point (September 12, 2002), George W. Bush gave the Iraqi government forty-eight hours to prove that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the nation. This is an elementary fallacy. No one may prove a negative, and no one can prove that a nothing exists. However, there was no dissent inside the U.S. information analysis circles, and certainly none on television. This alone proves that there are no analysts on television. The Congressional Research Service saw the problem plainly enough, and yet members of Congress acted ignorant of the posture the U.S. had taken, and certainly spoke that way.
The day that best showed how gargantuan the power of capitalized media’s interest in the placation of the populace and iteration of corporate growth (ostensibly by grand new markets in democratic Iraq) was arrived on February 15th, 2003. That was a day when the full strength of Internet citizen journalism and activism met television. It is when Big Brother opened the memory hole.
On the day past Valentine’s Day, 2003, there were world-wide protests against going to war in Iraq. Almost every large city in the U.S. had significant protests. In New York City, five hundred thousand people marched against invasion. While Cheney, and sometimes Bush, would speak of Iraq as somehow linked to the attacks on New York, New Yorkers wanted none of it, and we made that clear. London and Berlin saw even more massive protests.
I ask you. . . any of you. . . to look through the archives of coverage for the 16th. Coverage of the protests revealed that television and newspaper reporting was serving some interest other than the public’s right to know.
The New York Times had a brief story by Brian McFadden emphasizing that the crowd did not have a permit and was just there. Network news said a “large group” marched, and the size of domestic crowds was not given. A person not inside a large city at the time of a protest would have gotten the story that “some people marched, but that’s all.” Even people in the outer boroughs of New York would have gotten the impression that, “Some law breaking leftists assembled.”
For those who took part, the consequences were different. The A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition received full investigation, infiltration, and prosecution for its organizing. (They were linked to the KGB, I heard . . . while I was in the crowd at the march.) Thus, the punitive element of power showed up, and elderly were trampled by horses. I was an eye witness to horses trampling peaceful protesters. That story, due to law suits against the police, would appear in the New York papers. (It is hardly worth noting the coverage of Glenn Beck’s “rally” in 2011, which drew 2,000 – 10,000 people after weeks of promotion, was vast, despite its ideological content being incoherent.)
What happened in 2003 was not a series of mistakes. No matter how frequently reporters say that the lead-up to the Iraq war was an aberration, it keeps happening, and along the same lines. After that “mistake,” all of the major television news services employed “military experts” that were supplied by the Pentagon as part of an information control program, which constituted overt propaganda against the U.S. population. The W. Bush administration sent out press releases that imitated, with actors and actresses, news “packages,” and television stations ran them as if they were wire service reports. The same administration had scrubbed information from the CDC’s website, had suppressed NASA global warming information, and had placed false reporters in press conferences (the “Jeff Gannon” episode was not isolated, we must recall; it was most comically salacious). “Transit packet” data became a necessity (war powers, you see (see James Riesen’s State of War), and so warrantless wiretapping went on, and then it expanded and expanded. FBI, three years later, would ask Sprint alone for the GPS location of customers nine million times. From the shooting of unarmed terrorists to the use of drones to the killing of U.S. citizens, today’s press, across the lines (with some small-readership exceptions like us), avoids any question that might be unpleasant and any answer that might be complex or ambiguous.
No, the lack of questions before Iraq was not a “mistake,” except in the past tense, the way all mistakes on television are — an hour filling self-analysis opinion show.
1984 is the story of a dissenter. It is the story of a person who keeps on looking and being baited down his journey. He finds himself eventually tortured to the point of a breakdown. Two plus two equals whatever the state wants it to equal, after all. By 2003, we had television reporters laughing that “Barney and Friends” was being used as psychological torture, and people who were “the worst of the worst” were finding themselves in “black site” prisons where they were in cramped, dark boxes with stinging insects on them (see Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side). By 2010, we would have Bradley Manning arrested but not found guilty of anything – charged with a crime that is questionable in and of itself – being kept awake, exposed to psycho-sexual humiliation, and, of course, in isolation as a matter of course.
What did the reformed, contrite television media say about that? What have they said about torture itself? “Some people say it’s bad,” they report, and yet “enhanced interrogation” is now in their style sheet. Like “center right country,” it has left the political agent’s desk at MiniTru and gone into regular parlance. Like “unborn,” it has become a common term. Who did the television networks ask when assessing the damage of the leaked material? The same men who had been the experts in Iraq and on the payroll of the information campaign. How did they assess whether “lives would be lost?” They asked the people who had said that lives would be lost. Repetition of the simple story.
Meanwhile, nations and nationals ask about personalities and the warring armies. They want to know who is up and down in the polls, whether this or that law will move forward. While those things are important, the message of 1984 was that the real power was the flow of power and capital.
The story of the debt goes on. Each nation must pay banks to have growth, because the banks are the center of all things. This is the simple story, the central story, the lie. So long as Greeks do without, Spanish suffer, Irish are unemployed, and all pay the banks to make them ‘healthy,’ then all shall be well, and the common man will benefit when those same banks feel like doing what the government could do without them: lend to business. This capital is not money; it is power. It is the ability to control the labor and life of the people, who must be kept at bay.
The difference between 1948 and 2012 is that there are no Keynesians around with power to point out the obvious: 2+2 = 4. The three sided conversation of 1948 had Marxists, Keynesians, and Capitalists. Today’s conversation has one voice repeating itself, like a boot stamping on a human face forever. We may feel that capital serves people, and people do not serve capitalists, may feel that we might sacrifice for common defense, but not the lies of common debt; no more is there a place for such a voice.
Nevertheless, we can rejoice, as I understand that the chocolate ration will be increasing from four grams to two grams soon, and I am told that gasoline prices have gone up from $3.84 a gallon to $3.35 a gallon and will unseat the chancellor.