"If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits." (Propaganda, 2005 ed., p. 71.)
The news--which is to say, these days, first of all the internet--has been abuzz the last three days over word that the Bush Admin. (Admen--Amen) are "studying" plans for possible "military action" against Iran. Could they really be that rootin'-tootin'-Wild-West-unreflective? With Iraq and the CIA leak bringing the President to his knees in the polls, could they really be serious about another military campaign in the Middle East? My sense is "no." Perhaps I'm giving them too much credit, but look, this an administration that has developed information management to its highest level since the death of Edward Bernays. Karl Rove and co. have used surrogates to launch rumors that captivate/distract large audiences and force opponents to tie up their time refuting or out-maneuvering them (Anne Richards was a lesbian; John Kerry was French and an illegitimately decorated war hero i.e. war coward; Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; Iraq and Al Qaeda had longstanding and close ties; and on and on). They also use rumors as trial balloons to see what the public, opponents, international leaders, and other countries think about certain topics; and to bluff or pressure these political actors. A year or so ago, a similar rumor appeared about possible military strikes against Syria. Keep Americans captivated by possible military threats to the point where the matrix world collapses into the real. It produces fear, confusion, distrust. Just as one begins to doubt the boy who cried wolf, one starts to meet these rumors with total cynicism or steadfast belief. Why not? It's increasingly difficult to know what is actually being considered and what is a tactic of distraction or fear-mongering. These sort of tactics are common in war. But now, after a post-Cold War interlude in which belligerence and peacefulness seemed to enjoy greater clarity, war and peace are ambiguous, often intentionally so. As with the arms race and nuclear fallout drills of the Cold War, now we have preemptive war as part of a perpetual state of anxiety called the War on Terror. Political communication and participatory citizenship (even at the most minimal level of following current events) were already in sad shape before9/11, Iraq and Bush; now there seems to be less and less incentive for already cynical citizens to follow these smoke and mirrors games. This is not a recent problem for democracy. Witness Thucydides' account of Athenian political speech:
"It has come to this, that the best advice when offered in plain terms is as much distrusted as the worst; and not only he who wishes to lead the multitude into the most dangerous courses must deceive them, but he who speaks in the cause of right must make himself believed by lying."
And you thought the Matrix and the X-Files were farfetched: "Believe in the lie." If anything, the contemporary convergence of new technological, economic, and political forces aggravates this ancient problem. We have a panoply of crises before us today in the world. Among them is one of civics in many places. With the vigorous promotion of consumer leisure culture, fragmentation of mass audiences and the proliferation of niche markets, one encounters a crisis of civic attention. However, the problem is not just the lack of a Big Brother-like broadcast that addresses one and all. It is that old institutions of practical veridication are in crisis due to new news market values of tabloidization, pressures of speed (influenced by the internet) and, perhaps most of all, a culture of politics and government that models itself on war propaganda and public relations to eliminate the representation of political conflicts in any deep sense (indeed to produce caricatural spectacles thereof).
Cynical political actors take advantage of this media and cultural climate to heighten the pervasive sense of dubiety, being stratetically ambiguous ("longstanding and continuing ties to terrorist organizations"), equivocating ("Weapons of Mass Destruction have been found! Thousands of pounds of dynamite!"), leaking unverifiable rumors (Syria! Iran!), and, perhaps, lying. But there are people behind this style of communication who are quite confident in their own perception of truth and lie, fact and falsehood. As the prophet said, "The truth is out there." Sometimes one must "believe in the lie." But with all the things we can do when we're not working these days (longer and longer hours, by the way, occasionally on Saturday and Sunday: "I'm going to need you to come in on Saturday, umm kay? Greaaat.") why spend one's leisure time un-spinning and lie-detecting? No wonder people are so cynical about civic life. On the other hand, we see it's broken, just as we hear the warnings about the destruction of the planet through our unsustainable consumer society (those of us who see through the staged confusion in the "debate" about global warming), but we, most of us, go on with business as usual. Cynical times. Cynical times.
(For more on rumors, anti-democratic political communication, and citizenship as the Matrix, see my essay below on The Rumor Bomb).