Saturday, April 15, 2006

Iran? Rumor Bombs Away!....Cynical Times

"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).

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Dark times, dark times

Man suspected of terrorism after singing along to Clash song. That's the headline I just read thanks to the Sarandipitree blog. The crypto-fascism of Plato's _Republic_ is alive and well--banish the poets! I mean it's true that a couple of them flirted with Trotskyism, but their first drummer is on record as saying he went into rock for a lamborghini.
I hope they also are going to suspect H&M and Urban Outfitters for propagating terrorism, since they carry Clash t-shirts, not to mention cheesy blazers with a Che image emblazored on the back (yes, I know how to spell "emblazoned"). Dark times.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Security? The number one priority?

In the last couple of days, we have learned that George W. Bush authorized the Valerie Plame leak. Scooter Libby has alleged this, and yesterday the White House refused to challenge the allegation. What does this mean? For starters, it means that when a president talks about security, it should give us pause when 13 million of his fellow citizens live below the poverty line. It should give us pause when thousands of poor African-Americans were stranded on the now literal island of poverty in a sea of prosperity, emphasized by the SUV's pouring, then turtling across the bridges in a fullblown upper-middle class exodus from the unnatural disaster catalyzed by "natural forces."

After 9/11 cynical conservative American politicians cried out that the twin towers were a reminder that the number one priority of the president of the United States is the security of the American people. Of course, their Project for a New American Century envisioned a kind of anemic security based on steady military spending and expansion of American corporate interests abroad. Though W. and Co.'s betrayal of the full meaning of security is evidenced by the Katrina disaster, it is even more morally repugnant to see that they are more than willing to flout the protocol of their own (military) national security for partisan political ends, revealing the identity of a CIA agent in order to punish her husband for criticizing the administration's claims about WMD's in Iraq before the war (for critical discussions of this issue [surely to be perceived "liberal" by some readers] see here, here, here, and here; for a conservative take see this and this). Still, there's something strange to this that smells of a more elaborate strategem. Are they really that stupid? Did they really think that it would not come out that they had authorized the leak? They're cynical and hypocritical, but they do what they do well (spin, distract, cover tracks, avoid accountability). In any case, this post is about the hypocrisy of an administration that has built its image around security. Whose security? Whose freedom? And at what cost to whom. These are eternally the questions.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Detournement, Bricolage, poaching, jamming satire--DIY ads

A recent internet phenomenon has been "make your own ads" sponsored by various corporations as ways to make consumers feel like they have some agency in what corporations do. It is also cheaper than hiring those neo-Bernaysians from Leo Burnett to do the job. Hopefully all the people who enjoy giving their shot at making it big in advertising can be salvaged in a transfer of excitement into buying their products. It also is a strategy based on the appropriation of punky DIY traditions, which again give people a feeling of agency even resistance.

A way of jamming these efforts, in the spirit of Adbusters , has been to use their ad opportunities to criticize the company, even larger consumer society, itself. See for example this recent example a friend sent me: click.
If nothing else they are consolation for excluded voices and actual lack of agency in corporate organization of daily life. But who knows, the internet works in mysterious ways. This week I'll post a related article on a video-game technology internet film a kid in the banlieu of Paris made last November to critique the media framing of the riots. Stay tuned.
JH