The Manufacture of Consent as Emotional and Cultural Management


The following article came from thoughts after a Teach In in Nottingham on the ideas of Noam Chomsky, about the "Manufacture of Consent". It would not be fair to describe this as a critique of Chomsky, as I have not read his book on that topic, but it might be fair to describe it as a critique of the pop version of Chomsky. Every thinker whose ideas get into wide circulation is doomed to be repackaged, re-presented by others, for example in excerpts that will fit, manageably, into a two hour afternoon discussion....

When I went away from our Saturday afternoon Teach In I thought - weren't we missing a few things there? On reflection it seemed to me that we were listening to Chomsky's theory of the manufacture of consent by the New York Times and CNN. But this is only a part of the process of Manufacturing Consent - focusing on what, in Britain, we call the chattering classes, the people Chomsky describes as the top 20%, the 'relatively well educated' elite. As a description of the manufature of consent through the news media what he says is useful - however consent is also manufactured through films, television and through the advertising industry in a process of emotional management, through fictional narratives and genres.

In Chomsky's view, it seems, what matters is how news information about different topics is ratio-ned out in column inches and ratio-ned in hours/minutes of coverage. What matters too is how the issues are framed and interpreted - and what the media empires deem relevant for discussion. In all of this the agendas of powerful economic interests, the corporate elite who own the arms industries, the oil companies and - surprise, surprise - the news empires too, as well as those who buy their place in government through donations to the electoral campaigns, all these set the ratio-nality of what is read and seen. It is the view of this corporate elite, and their priorities, that get re-presented in the media, as 'truth' for all the rest of us.

However, this presentation of the issues says nothing about the manufacture of consent through framing cultural norms in fiction and film. What about advertising and PR as another dimension in the moulding of motivations and emotional responses? What about Hollywood and Madison Avenue? Are these not a part of the manufacture of consent? In this essay I examine these as other influences which help to create a quiescent society.

Chomsky, in my view, is a professor, saying how the consent of 'intellectuals' is obtained. I dare say he does not have a lot of time to watch movies and it shows in his analysis (if I have a fair understanding of his viewpoint).

The management of emotions in a hierarchical society

My thesis here is that the manufacture of consent is also about emotional management by the media. There is far more to it than the management of ideas and information. The media creates, not just information about news but is a dream factory. In America the media is there to create the American Dream. Consent is created because people are, so to speak, 'asleep' and are dreaming. And as Sigmund Freud remarked, in his book, the Interpretation of Dreams, dreams are mental states where we fulfill our wishes through fantasy.

It is not the place here to develop a complete theory of the emotions. Suffice it to say that feelings and emotions are a part of the response repertoire of the human animal just like every other animal. Hunger and thirst have a motivational role in our behaviour and so too do fear, anger and joy. Fear and anger are part of the flight or flight response patterns while love and joy have positive reinforcing functions for the human organism in its social interactions. In an equalitarian social organisation everyone would recognise the feelings of others as similar, and equally valid to their own. The recognition of own feelings, and those of others, would guide social interaction. However, in inequalitarian social formations, things are more complicated. Emotions must be denied, and invalidated, if the social hierarchy is to be maintained. For example, the expression of anger is not allowed upwards, against 'social superiors', and fear is not a valid excuse for running away on a battlefield. At the same time love and respect is expected of superiors, even though they may be bullies, cheats and ruthlessly exploitiative. This leads, in the words of therapists, to people 'losing touch with their feelings'. It is common, when their boss winds them up, for people to 'bottle up' their feeings and then find fault with someone more vulnerable in the process known as scapegoating. They commonly do not recognise that this is what is happening - on the contrary they really do develop a loathing of scapegoats.

Channelling negative feelings - away from power structures

Emotional management is necessary to any hierarchical society. Typically, negative feelings are channelled downwards - against scapegoats, the socially outcaste and excluded. In times of particularly deep social crisis negative feelings are turned outwards against foreign enemies and other communities. In Orwell's novel, 1984, with his bleak vision of the future, war is a continual fact of life - it serves to channel all discontent against 'the enemy'and smother it internally.

It should be stressed, and I will come back to this, that the process here described is not, mainly, a conscious conspiracy, it is rather a process in which the main "players", are largely unconscious of what they are "acting out". The words "acting out" are very appropriate here as people find their collective purposes and joint orientation through sharing, and identifying with, their communitys' institutions of authority. This common identification and loyalty is embedded and embodied in the awareness of common narratives, in the myths and symbols of those institutions. Hi/story is a collection of stories that are shared. To be a member of a community is to be involved in the history of that community - it is to see yourselves as participating in, and continuing the story of the community. The symbols, the flags, the ceremonies, the oaths of allegiance, are all meant to serve to remind, as well as to reassure people. They tell people that their safety and their security, lies in membership of the group, and that membership of the group provides at least a tiny part, as a bit player or extra, in a familiar story line, the well understood drama of a nation, or of a smaller community.

Symbols, Theatre and Display in the Management of Power

In this respect ruling elites have commonly sought, through theatricality, through pageantry, through embroidered symbols and display, to dazzle like peacocks and overawe their subjects. If the subjects were expected to rally to, and defend, the royal standard, then the royal standard could not be any old piece of rag. Continuing in this tradition the twentieth century, more than any other, gave power elites techologies for emotional management through theatricality, the like of which dwarfed what had come before. Adolf Hitler, a failed artist with a taste for Wagner, who named his military campaigns after Wagners operas, organised his rallies on a huge scale. Just the bringing together, and disciplining of such large numbers, in ordered lines and rows, had a powerful emotional effect. To this was added a luxurious forest of symbols and flags with the logo of the Nazi party, the swastika. The function of the symbol is here to provide an instantly recognisable visual image that expresses a bigger narrative - with which one has an emotional identification and loyalty. Like today's commercial logos, there was a set of emotional associations, ideas and narratives behind the image. These narratives and ideas helped to define the kind of person a 'decent member of the community' is. They defined the ideas that one could believe in, and 'know to be true'. From early on skilled film makers like Leni Reifensthal, lent the skills for their new art of cinematography to help build up the images and pictures for this world view - not just in words, but in pictures of brave young clean cut men, and well behaved girls in white blouses, fresh, sun tanned faces, and pigtails.

In the video of Chomskys ideas that we saw at our Teach In we heard Chomsky say that dictatorships do not operate through the manipulation of the news media as in democracies, rather they operate through fear, they simply tell people what they must do. As these words were being expressed, however, what we saw on the screen was not simple intimidation. There were clips of the huge Nazi rallies, with thousands of banners and flags. This content of the image, did not appear to be picked up on, in Chomsky's message - namely that there is a role for mass theatre in manufacturing consent. Mass theatre helps create the emotional conditions for obedience - out of a sense of belonging to the disciplined crowd, all sharing the emotionally reassuring certainty of a common belief system, as a way 'out of chaos'. (In 1930s Germany, of what an ideal 'fatherland', Heimat, is like).

Missing this point meant we are in danger of also missing the role of theatre, spectacle, fiction and drama in the manufacture of consent today.

It is important in this respect to recognise that Big Lies emerge in periods of social and economic chaos. People are desperate, not only because they find it difficult to make ends meet, but also because they find it difficult to understand what is happening. Behind the symbols are simple explanations. Instead of the complicated explanation of what is wrong there is the simpler message of who is to blame. A target is set up for the frustration and hate - baddies are identified (Jews, communists, Muslims, Greens, Christians, petty bourgeois intellectual pessimists..). And the simple explanations are connected to a simple message of what is to be done - you are to do what you are told in the hierarchy of loyalty and obedience. Of course, if there is a hierarchy, there must be someone at the top - this person is then seen as being unable to do any wrong. He becomes a daddy forthe whole folk, or class, with power to punish as he sees fit. Hence the logic, and psychology, of the personality cult.

What the propoganda machines do, then, are to create a spurious sense of emotional reassurance and certainty, by building up in people's minds, a pattern of emotional associations, associated with a political machine and its lies, which is being sold/fed to them by the daddy of the state..

As Adolf Hitler put it so succinctly "What good fortune for those in power that people do not think".

Television, Hollywood and the Myth of America

But it is not only overtly propoganda films, made for dictatorial states, that play an emotional management role. American society more than any other society in the world, has a social psychology structured by television and film. People in the USA spend a huge amount of time absorbing television and films. These television programmes and films are of immense significance in determining how people understand the world, and for the manufacture of consent, also for intellectuals.

Paul Kennedy, in his book, "Preparing for the Twenty First Century" quotes figures in which the average American child has watched five thousand hours of television before entering school and by graduation this total will be nearly twenty thousand hours. "Apart from certain groups (Jews, Asian-Americans), the average American child is said to be picking up the vaue system of a shallow entertainment industry rather than the mental standards, discipline and intellectual curiosity that equip a person to learn" . In this regard Kennedy is also concerned to point out that the average American has an average of three or four years less schooling than the average Japanese or Korean.....(p 307-8).

Kennedy is Professor of History at Yale University. To demonstrate that his views are not merely the ideas of an intellectual snob, we might do well to consider the following. "In 1973 Tannis Williams a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, learned that a town of 2,500 people, which had been unable to receive television, was to be provided with a signal in a year's time. She immediately began to study the town, which she called 'Notel', using standard psychological tests. She also arranged for the same tests to be carried out in two similar towns in the same area, Multitel and Unitel, which had been receiving television for years. Guy Lyon Playfair describes what she found in his book The Evil Eye: The Unnacceptable Face of Television (1990)

One of her findings was completely unexpected: Notel adults were a good deal brighter than those of the other two towns. They were much better at creative problem-solving tests, and those individuals who were unable to solve tasks would try for much longer than Multitel or Unitel people before giving up. As for the children of Notel they came top of the three town league when they were given the Alternative Uses Task, a standard test in which subjects are asked how many things they can do with something, like a sheet of newspaper. This is a more revealing test than it sounds because it points to what psychologists call ideational fluency, or the ability to form ideas or mental images and is a good indicator of overall creativity and the ability to think properly. The Notel youngsters did not come out top on all tests, however. In one they came last - that which tested them for aggression. It soon became clear to Dr Williams that the young and old were making much better use of their brains than their counterparts in the other two towns.

A year after television had arrived things were different. There was a dramatic drop in community participation, with fewer people going to public dances, parties, meetings, concerts, parades and bingo than before they had television in their homes. Moreover when the young people were tested for physical and verbal aggression they now scored above the two control towns. Reading skills had also suffered. particularly among those who found it difficult anyway and Williams suspected that individual personality had been lost and that people had become mentally more passive."

Quoted in Richard Douthwaite "The Growth Illusion" Green Books p168

The influence of the media on mass awareness is therefore much more reaching than in its selectivity, and in its choice of interpretations of news information. It affects the whole social structure in a much more profound way. It actually makes people stupid and breaks down community life.

Understanding the World through Narratives, Stories and Genres

In this respect most people in the USA, and, far too many in the UK, exercise no interpretative framework for understanding the world. They don't understand the world through theories, or through reading essays like this. They 'understand' the world through 'stories'.

Any narrative, in any medium, can have help to form a world view for people. Many similar narratives are described collectively as making up 'a genre' and repeated exposure to genres, over and over again, mould's peoples' implicit views of how the world is, beyond their individual experience.

Put in another way - many people do not see the world through explicit, thought-out ideologies, but through genres. Some even rely on specific scripts, that they have seen acted out, to understand things. (I recently had an e mail exchange with an American soap actress. Her way of getting a grip on what I wrote to her, was to compare what was going on, and the different interpretations that I sent in my e mails, to the scripts of different movies).

As I have already made clear, interpretation through stories is not new to the age of film and television. Many cultures and communities have their common roots in collections of stories. The Bible, for example, is a collection of stories, that people delve into to look for precedents, and guidelines, for their contemporary actions, orientation and behaviour. To help people understand an idea, you insert it into a narrative. Very few people go to the trouble of reading essays like this to understand the world - an essay is a non narrative way of understanding things.

Common narratives then define the collective identities and responses of whole societies, as well as of their leaders. They structure the 'collective unconscious' of the society and that, in turn, tends to structure how the society will act in world affairs. In the USA the westerns, as well as more contemporary gangster movies, are a collection of narratives, a genre, that have sunk deep into the mental life of America (and the rest of the world too). The Hollywood genres are typically reassuring in their effects. People do not want to go an see things that unsettle them. So the stories, often from history, are written in a way that panders to the emotional needs and inclinations of the audience. The consequence is that they also play an emotional management role. They are 'escapist'.

Cowboy and gangster films, for example, typically give the impression that adult life is a violent saga in which men have to be tough. However, there is usually a reassuring angle and ending - a silver lining to the bleak underlying message. In this violent world there are there are Clint Eastwood, John Wayne or Superman types around to help decent folks. Nowadays these model heroes, for example, your local cop, are quite often cynical on the surface, but if you dig deep enough these pure American types are basically decent too. Even more reassurring, these basically decent types usually defeat the criminal psychopaths, the embodiment of pure evil. (These evil types, who do not shave and wear darker clothing, are, it seems to be found just about everywhere, except small town suburban America, where decent people escape to bring up the kids, their pets and look after wise old Grandpop..).

The manufacture of consent is therefore not only created through how many column inches there are on a topic in the New York Times. It is created by the political leadership casting itself in the mould of goodies - against the baddies 'out there', in the lawless territories beyong the American borders - and creating the confidence that America will win through in the end.

When George Bush talks to the American "folk" of getting bin Laden, "dead or alive" it strikes a cultural chord, and he acts out the role of world sheriff. In this respect there is no reason for us to think of him 'pretending' to be in this role. He is not consciously acting. Nor is he probably being advised to do this by a PR company. He is acting out how he sees an American archetype. As long as he is winning he is understandable and immensely popular. (Just as bin Laden appears to be seeking to act out the David versus Goliath archetype, a romantic Che Guevara or Robin Hood character for frustrated Muslim communities).

So how is this mass psychology to be managed to support a war? Well, it is not too difficult:

"A poll conducted last week in the United States by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press found that 80% of people felt that censorship of the news from Afghanistan was a "good idea".

The unanimously supportive coverage given to the war by all the main news media in the US has also won approval, with 69% saying that the news media "stand up for America", compared with 43% who thought that they did so before the attacks......

"Every country in times of crisis or war can generally rely on a supportive media - as happened in the United Kingdom during the "Gotcha!" phase of the Falklands War - but a growing number of American commentators are expressing disquiet at what they feel is a lack of information which the media may deem in some way harmful or unpatriotic.....

..........Leslie Bennetts, writing in the current edition of Vanity Fair, says that "Americans like a simple storyline that makes it easy to decide who the good guys are and who the bad guys are and the byzantine tangle of international politics, Islamic fundamentalism and American foreign policy is making many citizens unused to grappling with such headache-inducing complexities want to throw up their hands."

Bennetts suggests that "American newspapers and television companies have reduced their foreign coverage by 70 to 80% during the last 15 to 20 years in response to corporate demands for profits."

Consequently, the public is unaware of much of what is happening elsewhere in the world.

(Duncan Campbell "Where no news is good news" The Guardian, December 5th 2001).

Although Chomsky stresses, with reason, the way in which the media interprets and limits what information is presented to people it is therefore equally the case that the media presents its story to a public with genre based world views that manages feelings in a reassuring way.

It is a world in which fact and fiction are difficult to distinguish. Researchers of the media have noted the phenomena that, in their "para-social relationships" with TV stars, people can lose touch with the distinction between fiction and reality. ".....the distinction between soap characters and real-life celebrities may be considerably blurred....Indeed there are numerous reports of soap characters being treated by the general public as though 'in character'. For example, when a character experiences misfortune in a story line, television companies are often besieged with flowers and letters from viewers. It is reported that during the first five years of his appearance in the popular series Marcus Welby M.D., actor Robert Young received over a quarter of a million letters from viewers, asking for medical advice." ( David Giles "Illusions of Immortality. A Psychology of Fame and Celebrity" MacMillan Press, 2000. p.64).

This being the case, it seems obvious to surmise that many people are going to be incredibly susceptible to created story lines and narratives deliberately constructed to bamboozle them to believe comforting lies.

Special effects - the new technologies of fiction

At the time the Teach In was happening in Nottingham the news was focused on the bin Laden video tape. Information that became available, in the debate about this tape, made me aware, that there is a whole new dimension to the 'manufacture of consent'. As we know, there is now a discussion (in the British and Arab media, if not in the USA) about whether it is an elaborate fake, that has been partly cooked up with electronic wizardry, whether it was set up as a sting by the CIA, or whether it genuinely shows bin Laden and his followers - euphoric at the idea that Allah is right behind the carnage that they have planned and executed.

For the purposes of this article I am less concerned as to what has actually happened in this particular video, as by the new possibilities for manipulating people's perceptions of the reality, that have been revealed by the case. The implications, it seems to me, are that it in the future it will be even more difficult to tell fact from fantasy in the public realm. This is especially so, when we think about the significance of reports, that Hollywood script writers have been offering to help sell the "right message" about the 'war on terrorism'. It appears to be technically possible for anyone that has the resources to frame their enemies, to be able to get their enemies to "act" in the movie that incriminates them, with other people writing the script, and moving their mouths. New technologies of image and sound manipulation by computers are likely to give the powers-that-be an even greater repertoire for distorting mass perceptions of reality to serve their interests. According to an article in the Guardian:

Sean Broughton, director of the London-based production company Smoke and Mirrors and one of Britain's leading experts on visual effects, said it would be relatively easy for a skilled professional to fake a video of Bin Laden.

The first step would be to transfer images shot on videotape on to film tape. Distortion or "noise" and graininess would be removed. A "morphing package" would then be used to manipulate the image on a computer screen.

Using such a package it is possible to alter the subject's mouth and expressions to fit in with whatever soundtrack is desired. The final step is to put the "noise" and graininess back on and transfer the doctored images on to videotape.

In a recent advert that Smoke and Mirrors made for a US insurance company, the technique was used to place Bill Clinton's head on an actor's body for comic effect.

Mr Broughton said that while it would be relatively easy to fake a Bin Laden video, to fool the top experts was much more difficult. "There are perhaps 20 people in America who would be good enough to fool everybody. To find someone that good and make sure they kept quiet would probably be pretty difficult."

Bob Crabtree, editor of the magazine Computer Video, said it was impossible to judge whether the video was a fake without more details of its source. "The US seems simply to have asked the world to trust them that it is genuine."

Modern communications technology have therefore reached a sort of limit. The communications empires, owned by the same magnates who also own and control the arms industries, now have the capabilities to broadcast bed time fictions, scripted in Hollywood, to reassure people about what is going on in the world - and to frame their enemies visually, apparently out of 'their own' mouths, with incriminating scripts, written by a script writer. I do not know the truth of the bin Laden tape. That is just the point. In the future media presentations of facts may be 'special effects'.

Ignor-ance and pre-judice in the manufacture of consent

This will make it more difficult to filter information, and to interpret it. Of course, everyone must choose how much they try to understand and act in the wider world. None of us are able to devote all our time to trying to understand how things are in the world beyond our day to day life, beyond the places and the people we know. The harder we have to work, the more time we have to spend in the struggle to make ends meet, and bring up a family, the less time there is to devote to understanding situations that we may not feel much power over anyway. That being so, so much the more inclined we are likely to be, when we return home exhausted from work, to occupy ourselves with apparently mindless entertainment - which is perncious precisel in the way it gives us easy and reassuring messages about ourselves and our culture in their story lines, and which manages our feelings by suggesting to us who to dislike for all of our problems (the baddies).

To a degree this also applies to many highly educated people - many will be highly stressed and pre-occupied by the struggle to survive in their work. To find the energy to switch over to studying other matters is difficult. If they are already stressed, they may be even less inclined to study situations, that are also likely to be complicated and distressing. The media makes it easy for them - it obliges by helping them ignore such matters. It keeps them willingly ignor-ant - or, worse, it helps them in their pre-judgements of situations, in the creating of a pre-judices.

However, this then leave millions of people bewildered when vast world events occur, for which they have no frame of reference - events in which others clearly act out of loathing and hatred for the country and community that these people belong to......Perish the thought, it seems incomprehensible - but others seem to think that they are the baddies! As an American child that I saw interviewed on CNN said, "Why do people hate Americans? It doesn't add up". The media rushes to reassure and put them back to sleep.

A comparison of individual insanities with collective ones

What we are talking about here are collective psychological mechanisms which, if we were describing an individual, would be recognised as mental ill health - because they lead people further and further away from contact with the complexities of painful realities.

There are, in fact, different types of individual insanity. It is helpful to understand the features of these insanities to contrast them with the collective type.

By far the most common kind of insanity, numerically, is that of disempowered people who are severely isolated. They have typically been driven, by the evolving circumstances of their lives, and the choices that they made in those difficult circumstances, out of an active, meaningful and productive relationship with a community. They live in a fantasy world because, in their isolation, they are not embedded in relationships where they can reality check, in joint activities and living arrangements. What happens in these circumstances is that these people's thoughts take the form of the day dreams to fill their empty lives - lives devoid of love, friendship and positive activity. Their thoughts are driven by paranoid fear of what might happen, but also by wishful thinking. Their thoughts are typically driven by the past experience of betrayal and abuse and they therefore distrust, they are driven by disappointment - so they do not hope, they are driven by the fear of further humiliation. In their inactivity and isolation they live in a constant day dream. These day dreams often have an emotionally compensatory character - for example the idea that one day this severely isolated and powerless person will be discovered to be a fantastically important individual, whose suffering has a magical purpose and meaning for the world.

Meglomanias - insanity arising when power is unchecked

But isolation and powerlessness is not the only way to lose touch with the wider reality. Madness is also something that can afflict very powerful people. In the case of meglomaniac insanity a very powerful person loses contact with reality because their power is so great that no one dare challenge them with the truth. (This is the narrative of "the Emperor's New Clothes"). Typically this person surrounds themselves with sycophants and 'yes' people who tell them only what they want to hear. And meanwhile they prevent everyone else getting to know anything at all that could be used against them in criticism. This they do, by making no distinction between what is in their own personal interest, and what is in the broader collective and community interest.

News reports yesterday said, "President Bush invoked executive privilege for the first time Thursday to keep Congress from seeing documents of prosecutor 's decision-making [regarding] the Clinton-era fund-raising probe." Bush said, "Congressional access to these documents would be contrary to the national interest." Translated: "Congressional access to these documents would be contrary to my interest."

................The question must be asked: what is Bush trying to hide?

Could it be that if Congress uncovers foreign influence within the Clinton administration, it would it also uncover foreign influence within the Bush administration? The Boston Herald recently reported that billion-dollar arms and oil deals with the Saudi monarchy "have served or currently serve at the highest levels of U.S. government."

The Herald goes on to say, "Nowhere is the revolving U.S.-Saudi money wheel more evident than within President Bush's own coterie of foreign policy advisers, starting with the president's father, George H.W. Bush."

The report further states, "At the same time that the elder Bush counsels his son on the ongoing war on terrorism, the former president remains a senior adviser to the Washington, D.C.-based Carlyle Group. That influential investment bank has deep connections to the Saudi royal family as well as financial interests in U.S. defense firms hired by the kingdom to equip and train the Saudi army."

This more-than-casual connection between Bush and the Saudi monarchy is causing U.S. policy makers to turn a blind eye to things that would otherwise "cause our blood to boil," because no one wants to "stop the gravy train." (Remember that the vast majority of the September 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.)

People mentioned in the Herald report as participating in ongoing covert, international influence peddling include "former U.S. officials, former presidents, aides to the current president .people who are the pillars of American society and officialdom."

That Bush is hiding much seems obvious. What exactly is he hiding? Maybe we do not want to know - and it looks like we never will......(Web article by Chuck Baldwin).

Of course, there are people out there who are prepared to challenge this. Were there not a war on there are a lot of people that would have a lot to complain about - the spectacular fraud at Enron, for example, a company which George Bush has been deeply involved with. Rivalries, with people defending themselves close to the heart of the power structure, represents a threat of all to political machines. There can be bust ups in the power structure itself - when the people who set the agenda fall out among themselves - however war has always been a way to enforce a unity in this kind of situation - where there would otherwise be dissension.

Euphoria - Gung ho into disaster

A war, with small losses and big victories to report, managed carefully by the media, helps to create a "feel good" or, more accurately a "feel strong" factor. It creates a kind of euphoria. Once again there are parallels that can be drawn between this collective situation, and individual mental health crises. There are ocasions where a person loses touch with reality, not out of pessimism, but because they begin to think that they can get away with anything. They lose any sense of limit and boundraries. They come to feel that they can do anything that they like. When he was in Paris, after the fall of France, Adolf Hitler did a little victory dance, hopping in his boots, for sheer joy in front of the Eiffel Tower. But that euphoric mood can create miscalculations - in Hitler's case, the invasion of Russia.

Without any perception of countervailing power, unchallenged leaders and their crony networks become euphoric. They make more and more audacious decisions until, eventually, they overreach themselves, in a sort of collective mania....

Last Friday the celebrated American pundit Charles Krauthammer wrote an article entitled Victory changes everything...? It contained the following paragraph: "The elementary truth that seems to elude the experts again and again - Gulf war, Afghan war, next war - is that power is its own reward. Victory changes everything, psychology above all. The psychology in the region is now one of fear and deep respect for American power. Now is the time to use it to deter, defeat or destroy the other regimes in the area that are host to radical Islamic terrorism.".....

......It was part of a diptych of linked stories and, of the two, it was in a way the more moderate. Krauthammer was, surprisingly, not in favour of an immediate all-guns-blazing assault on Iraq. Instead he favoured sorting out Sudan, Syria, Libya and Yemen ... "and then on to Iraq". But alongside his column was one by a Post regular, Richard Cohen, who was in favour of toppling Saddam Hussein at once.

This is a reasonable microcosm of the average Washington debate these days. Do we take out Saddam this week or next? Do we attack one country or five? Shall we wipe out everyone who disagrees with us, or just most of them? It goes on round liberal dinner tables as well as on the op-ed pages. There has not been such a popular war since the swells danced jigs through London clubland in August 1914. Since September 11, hardly any harm has befallen Americans even in the battle zone. More journalists have been killed than GIs. We can't stop here! The fun's hardly started yet! A Newsweek poll even has 56% in favour of sending "large numbers of US ground troops" to Iraq.....(Matthew Engel, Iraqmania, The Guardian December 5th 2001).

Throughout history rulers have sent off their troops absolutely confident they could not lose - because they had never lost before, and they are surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear. Such people are defended by propoganda machines who spin fantasy after fantasy to keep ordinary people bamboozled.


The results, over and again, are absolutely disasters for these ordinary people - until, finally, the chickens come home to roost. Eventually more and more people get wise to what is happening. But, before they can act, those who dare to speak out are subjected to ferocious repression:

Hans Magnus Enzenberger, in his essay on Treason, in his book, Raids and Reconstructions, quotes the Sultan of Delhi, Mohammed Tughlak: "Today there are far more unruly people than there used to be. I punish them as soon as I have the slightest suspicion of their rebellious or traitorous intention, and the slightest act of disobedience I punish by death. I will continue to do this until the people start to behave decently and give up rebellion and disobedience...I punish the people because all of a sudden they became my enemies and opponents."

In America at the moment the military tribunals, secret courts that can try foreign nationals deemed to be implicated in the war on terror, and execute them, without any of the normal legal safeguards, look as if they might be starting that process.

In conclusion - the struggle to stay sane

This is a situation in which, it has to be said, it is difficult for opponents of the process to keep their sanity. Emotions drive, and structure, thought processes. When a particular emotion is in control of the intellect, it is very difficult to get a balanced interpretation, one that remains open minded about other possibilities. For example, frustrated by the wickedness of one's enemies, the possibilities that some events and actions have 'innocent causes', may not given proper weight. The temptation is great to assume, and present the actions of others, as always arising from calculated malevolent, or from their corrupt motives. But critics of power structures can over interpret, they can makes mistakes, and these mistakes can be used to discredit them. Indeed, the 'odder' people's thinking is, because it deviates from the cultural norm, the more they are rejected as mentally unstable, and the more likely they are to be invalidated - by acquiring a psychiatric label.

Fear is another emotion which can severely distort the attempt to remain objective and open minded. Paranoia is a mental state, driven by fear, of heightened sensitivity to potential dangers. In order not to take chances in this high fear state the most frightening interpretations are taken, not just as possibles, but as probables, or as realities - and from the hip actions are taken on the most frighening assumptions. The paranoid person does not first try to find out if the glint in the sunlight is that of the sun reflected on a gun surface, or of something else, before they act - they are already into their second machine gun burst. In order to make sense of things paranoics, like everyone else, look for patterns in things. What can then happen is that they hoover up great collections of facts, apparent connections between people and events, noticeable inconsistencies in the official reports, and so on. They notice what no one else has noticed and then make out their case about the malevolence of the powers that be.

However, there is a tendency to "over interpret", to find "significance" where there actually is none. For example I have now read two paranoid artices on the web which call attention to the significance, in one case to the number 11, in the other case, to the number 13. In the mass of details, of any extremely complicated and wide reaching event, it would be very surprising if you could not find a number - that you could then rediscover, over and over again. (There are 110 stories in the towers, a multiple of 11; there were 11 days of mourning declared, the WTC attack occurred on Sept 11th etc. etc. ). Once you start looking out, for any number you will probably start noticing it all over the place. That says something about how human perception works more than anything about "external reality".

A further observation is that this "magic number noticing" sometimes gives the reassuring idea that the 'number noticer' is a part of a great mysterious process, a cosmic drama on earth, a piece of occult theatre, whose greater meaning will one day be revealed, together, naturally, with their very special place in this bigger scheme. Of course, all that is really happening is that they are fantasing a personally important role to play in this cosmic drama of the "soon to be revealed" meanings. Its a reassuring idea when one is confronting very powerful institutions that a cosmic drama is going on behind it all - as one can fantasise that magical, unseen, powers will come to one's aid. But that is a train of thought that can take you into madness....

That, more generally, is one of the problems in the paranoid perspective and a problem in lot of the detail in the conspiracy theories. There are indeed some peculiar connections and coincidences out there - some of which ought to be investigated - however there are often other ways of explaining these apparent connections which are "innocent". The problem is that, by not being more careful when drawing attention to these kind of connections, conspiracy theorists end up discrediting themselves and all their other "leads".

While the world goes crazy, it's a struggle to try to retain our own mental health.

Brian Davey

December 2001



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