George Orwell’s novel 1984 is viewed as a prescient masterpiece regarding the repressive brutality of totalitarian regimes such as North Korea and the former Soviet Union. Critics are less eager to apply some of its societal observations and sub-themes to happenings in the parts of the world we consider free, particularly our own. Take information. The novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, has a quite ordinary job accessing and modifying newspaper articles to rejigger economic statistics here or remove an out-of-favor political figure from a group photo there. The deprecated versions of yesterday’s news go into a “memory hole” and vanish, perhaps for good, but perhaps only until some official’s reputation is rehabilitated or some bit of data needs to be set back the way it was. The purpose of the changes were to prevent any embarrassment to the all powerful Party, which could not be seen to have projected an industrial production figure that was not achieved, or to have elevated a man who turned out to be a traitor. We don’t see ourselves as being subject to any such methods, after all we are not dupes, and our media are not liars.
How we see ourselves is one thing, but propaganda has been around for a long time and none of us are strangers to it. There must be cuneiform tablets dating to the dawn of civilization extolling the virtues of the Sumerian King and accusing his neighboring rival of whatever was seen as too horrible to contemplate. In the 21st century, however it has become extraordinarily scientific, and we have been conditioned to overlook it by the media outlets we trust. We have no office like the one Nazi Josef Goebbels occupied, where a single man decides what lies the people must be told and what truths must be withheld. Instead we have an army of spin doctors, followers of Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, who settled in New York and invented modern public relations as a means to corral what he viewed as humanity’s dangerous herd instinct. Together with Walter Lippmann, a giant of American journalism, they concluded that elites should lead the masses, whose desires should be ignored (or better yet, shaped) by their social, intellectual and economic betters.
The postmodern intellectual descendants of these men decide what you’re going to see and read in the following way: they get a group of ordinary Americans in a room and they show them some video or have them read some text. The individuals in the room are asked their opinions on the person or event they’ve learned about. Those individuals are also recorded on video as they see or read the item. Their breathing, heart rate, pupil dilation, body language and even galvanic skin response are measured. The name for this is a focus group. If the item elicits the response the spinmeisters want, it will be pumped out to the public’s flatscreens and iPhones. If it doesn’t pass muster, it will be re-edited, or discarded entirely.
What’s too fresh for a focus group goes through a vetting process by editors and producers with decades in the business. They are experienced hands, many with previous tenures (or at least close associations) with the CIA. They’re members of the Council on Foreign Relations and they’ve been to Bilderberg meetings. If it doesn’t fit the dominant media narrative, it won’t get on the air or into print. The term for their gatekeeper function is “responsible journalism.” On anything that truly matters, your right to know is trumped by their prerogative to conceal. When leaders meet, unless they hold a joint press conference you get a few generalities about what they discussed. Count yourself lucky, in many other countries you just get a photo of the two smiling at each other from armchairs.
When an outlet engages in “irresponsible journalism” the result is a takedown of one form or another. For instance, Egan Jones, a financial rating agency had the temerity to downgrade the U.S. ahead of the pack of other rating agencies. Twice. Now the Securities and Exchange Commission is prosecuting them for (ahem) falsifying their regulatory application. But wait, you ask, what about supermarket tabloids like The National Enquirer? While it’s no secret that Generoso Pope founded it, his tenure at the CIA has received much less press. Yes, this country’s major distraction from important matters (and long-term nemesis of the Kennedy family) was run by a spook for decades. CNN’s Anderson Cooper? Summer internships at Langley and a strange post-graduation decision to go off on his own and video rebels in Burma. I could go on and on.
For the past decade, the key thing the media has been peddling is fear. Following the September 11 attacks, it took very little for the media to assure us that failure to surrender each and every one of our freedoms to what is now the military-industrial-surveillance-and-control complex would result in bearded, ululating terrorists using box cutters to cube our children. In the decade that followed, the financial industry got into the fear act, at one point even telling a Congressperson reluctant to vote for the TARP bailout that if it failed to pass there would be martial law.
Because of our fear we now walk through naked body scanners at the airport and submit to invasive pat downs to get into everything from theme parks to sporting events. TSA agents are beginning to control even highways and buses. A building five times the size of the U.S. Capitol is being built in the Utah desert so the NSA can sift every electronic communication in the world. Meanwhile, the controlled press papers over very real economic dangers emanating from Europe and the far East. Elites are making money in both places, and decoupling from either would cost them even though it could save us.
In Orwell’s 1984 one passage lays out Winston Smith’s belief that it could take a thousand years for the repressive regime to crumble. It strains credulity to believe that any regime could last so long. But if we let the enemies of freedom already within our own gates consolidate their position, the Hell on Earth we will let ourselves in for could easily outlast us.