Outside the Asylum
About six weeks ago, I wrote an essay called “Cultural Engineering,” in which I laid out the ways in which reactionaries have manipulated American culture since the Powell memo (1972). It was primarily a historical overview. I now want to connect that history to our present. It’s easy to see the blatant abuses that arise from our current, deformed culture: a man is murdered in broad daylight by police officers, who get away with it because their victim was black; an economy founders due to widespread, reckless fraud by the largest banks in the world, as a result of which people lose their jobs, are defrauded out of their homes, and bankers get away with it because they are rich. These abuses are easy to see. But other forms of suffering arising from our culture's deformation are not so visible. I’m interested in making them visible. But if I don’t lay some groundwork, the pain I show you will look trivial, even frivolous, and it won’t remain visible for long.
One way to manipulate a culture is to alter what is and is not considered important. You can do that through politics, media (either fictional or putatively factual), education, or religion. A coordinated media, running under cartel-like economic conditions, is more than capable of succeeding at this kind of manipulation with relative ease.
Under the most Orwellian circumstances, these alterations can be made almost moment to moment, and no one (apparently) will even remember that we were fighting Eastasia fifteen minutes ago. Under more normal circumstances, including the ones we’re living under now, the alterations are made more subtly, and the mechanism by which they are made is both subtle and simple. You simply show important people (leaders in politics, religion, or commerce) brushing aside a certain concern or topic, and make sure all your media talking heads do the same, with a faint air of world-weary superiority and unmoored contempt.
I say “unmoored” because contempt usually is tied to some reason for its existence; the more evidence backing up the low opinion of a person or thing, the stronger the judgement becomes. But if you’re a propagandist, self-justifying contempt is your brass ring. You don’t want to have to rely on facts, or even on stories, to make your targets seem contemptible; what if they have better facts or better stories than you do? You want the contemptible nature of your target indicated by your choice of words, your tone, and your body language. With these you can make anything--or nothing--the basis of your contempt:
Your tools are not facts—which can be disproven—or stories—which can be upstaged or discredited by other stories. Your tools are first, your own visibility, and second, the tendency of Homo sapiens, in this case rather inaptly named, to look to other Homo sapiens to find out what to believe.
I probably shouldn’t disrespect our species on that account. After all, we are a social species, and it is eminently sensible to expect a social species to check with each other to determine what is real, what is significant, what is good and what is bad. There was probably a time when this tendency saved our species from extinction on a regular basis; many heads are, in fact, often better than one. Unfortunately, once outside of primitive circumstances, this advantage becomes a serious vulnerability. Even we populists must have some hesitation about uncritically accepting a view simply because a lot of people hold it. Too often in human history have a large number of human beings believed lies or nonsense. And so, one of our greatest strengths gives us an Achilles’ heel. Our instinct to look to each other for confirmation creates a kind of safety net of chances to correctly assess a threat or an opportunity, making us far stronger together than apart—but it also makes us vulnerable to manipulation.
If you can impress upon any human being that you speak for the majority, your power and authority will immediately increase. This is particularly true of Americans, who have been brought up to believe that majority opinion is what makes a decision right—or, more accurately, what gives you the right to make a decision. If you can convince Americans that you speak for the majority, they will probably cede authority to you, whether they agree with you or not. They have been trained to do so. This is, by the way, what the Democratic obsession with "centrism" trades on:
It’s obviously of the greatest importance, then, for a propagandist to convey the notion that she speaks for the majority. So, how do people know, or think they know, who is in the majority? How do we know what the majority believes?
I'd argue that we get our notions of what the majority believes from media: both legacy broadcast media like the television news, and digital media. Even when we rely on social science to tell us what the majority believes, as we do when we read polls, the reports on what the polls mean come to us through the media. It's a rare person who delves into the data or even looks at how the poll's questions are asked. It's easy to see how legacy broadcast media contributes to the construction of a majority every time its favorite politicians need support for a bad policy--or to prepare people to accept a dubious electoral result.
However, legacy media is far less effective than digital media at constructing plausible majorities. Luckily for the cultural engineers, digital media allows for the creation of innumerable personas, meaning that you could have only two or three actual people on your side, and make it look like you have forty or fifty. It also allows for the invisible manipulation of numbers like the number of subscribers or the number of views or the number of “thumbs up” a particular cultural artifact gets--or the number of votes someone gets in an election.
This pretense becomes particularly useful when driving certain topics or people out of public consciousness. As a propagandist, you want to encourage people to form a habit of not paying attention to whatever element of the culture you want to discredit or erase. This habit should be enforced, when necessary, by shaming those who bring the topic or cultural element up in conversation, and it is at this point that looking like you speak for the majority becomes so useful. If the targets believe that such punishment is being handed out by the majority, they will usually begin to self-censor. It’s important that it become a habit, because the propagandist not only wants people to censor themselves, but if possible to do so without noticing they’ve done it.
When it works, both the topic and the fact that it is being erased will fade from the mind’s eye. Then it will fade from public awareness. People will not even remember to ask questions about it.
The topic now resides, not in the unconscious, but in the shadowy unattended hinterland of consciousness. Anyone who brings it up will now receive, at best, puzzled looks even from their intimates, who have largely forgotten how to conceptualize a world which includes that topic or cultural element. One or two decades later, even the fact that people once thought differently will be forgotten. It will be as if it was ever so. And so, propaganda reaches its desired destination: the best of all possible worlds.
Oddly, in the United States, one of the objects that thus fades from awareness is American culture itself. Many Americans act like American culture does not exist.* Garrison Keillor, the writer and narrator of the Lake Wobegon stories, once said that he knew Lake Wobegon was made up, but that what many didn’t realize is that Minnesota was made up too. “I invented it; a lot of people invented it; there is no such state, I hate to be the first one to tell you!” he said to general hilarity. But that’s not what I mean when I say Americans act like their culture does not exist. I don’t mean that Americans recognize their culture to be an invention, an imposition of human beliefs and perceptions onto a physical environment (and other human beings). I mean that often Americans regard not only their culture, but any culture, to be a frivolous concern, hardly fit for discussion except by people who haven’t got real work to do.
I believe we come by this nonsense honestly, for what it’s worth; we have long been a culture that values what is concrete and measurable, material and profitable, over intellectual pursuits such as the arts or humanities. Even the social sciences have suffered disrepute as not being as “real” as the measurable, concrete hard sciences. For that matter, even hard science itself gets stood in the corner when it starts talking about quantum physics and other things that are difficult for ordinary folks to count. If it can’t be subjected to cash-register math, it couldn’t be very important. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t recognize this prejudice for the easily quantifiable in English culture as well, leading me to wonder if perhaps the English colonists brought these ideas to the continent along with smallpox.
Seamus Heaney once said English is “an excellent language to sell pigs in,” and he was right. Of course, that tendency need not be given its head. When that impulse is restrained, the English language is capable of creating forms that are beautiful, useful, and intriguing. But here in the United States, I believe propagandists have nurtured a rather brutal pre-existing preference for the concrete and quantifiable into a tendency to discount and trivialize all cultural, and almost all social concerns. There have even been libertarians in this country who have publicly asserted that there is no such thing as society; that all we see is a random assortment of individual actions, with no cultural beliefs and assumptions and, above all, no social infrastructure allocating and maintaining power.
When I chose to become an English PhD, I was asked to justify my choice of career repeatedly, by just about everyone: from a right-wing high school friend to the taxi driver who drove me to my oral exams. The taxi driver even told me that what I should do is try to become a high school principal. (I hadn’t asked his advice.) Scholarship, especially in the humanities, was an unjustifiable process, a frivolous waste of resources designed to provide the lazy and incompetent with an undeserved haven. Had I said I was studying engineering because I wanted to design nuclear weapons for Lockheed Martin, I’m guessing I would not have been subjected to these cross-examinations—or the advice.
I believe, now, that there is a link between the propaganda presently plaguing my society and the prevalent contempt—because that’s what it was—that I encountered when I chose to study the humanities. If you wanted to re-engineer a culture, wouldn’t it be entirely to your benefit if no one thought the culture worthy of attention—or if they could be convinced there was no such thing as culture in the first place? Doesn’t the contempt for social structures and social concerns, for cultural patterns and artifacts, serve the same purpose for the propagandist that a blackout serves for a bank robber? If something is beneath notice, or doesn’t even exist, how are you going to explain that terrible damage is being done to it? How will you articulate the injury that's being done to you?
*This is not an absolute. It's an attitude widespread enough to create a kind of constant background hum, and it is quite distinct from the attitudes of the seventeenth-century Plymouth Plantation colonists, for example, or the eighteenth-century revolutionists, or even some of the people from the early years of the nineteenth century. Many of them thought they were building a new culture, so of course it mattered to them.