It is often in my thoughts that, in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world (but particularly in the so-called “First World” nations), the Internet is taken for granted.
My sister, a primary school teacher, was explaining to me tonight that most of her students have computers with Internet connections in their rooms at home. “We spend a lot of time going over the dangers of online predators, and how to navigate safely around dubious sites,” she remarked. “You know, most of their parents have no idea how easy it is for the kids to access pornography or to be preyed upon online.”
Then I think of Myanmar, where the régime in power—in addition to committing other horrendous atrocities—has recently flipped the switch on the Internet (and telephony in general, as it happens). I doubt the citizens of Myanmar took a blasé attitude toward the Web even before such an action. To much of the West and its sphere, the Internet is hardly more than an interesting plaything, another superfluous luxury.
Which is to say that, if you’re reading this, you’re probably part of a minority in the sense that you are utilizing the Internet for more than passive entertainment purposes. It is no accident that this is the case. Many of us remember the heyday of the BBS, and I remember when the first graphical online services were made available to the public.
They were centered, mostly, on shopping. And weather reports, maybe.
People’s Geography has, in her press picks, a remarkable piece by Greg Fulton from Information Clearing House called “War as Freedom, and Fraud as Fact: The media anesthetizes our minds.” Fulton discusses Orwell’s Politics and the English Language and 1984. Exaggeration is always part of satire—while Orwell’s scenarios seem extreme, it is readily apparent that his fears were justified and not solely applicable to Stalin’s CCCP. Fulton discusses the origin and evolution of a number of catchphrases which pervade in the news reporting of our own day, demonstrating how terms that seem harmless enough to the casual observer actually convey hidden premises and meanings. Here are a couple:
This all-purpose epithet of opprobrium is designed to conflate Israel with World Jewry, thereby implying that to attack one means to attack the other. In truth, the term is meaningless, as I wrote in an earlier essay: “Strictly speaking, ‘semitic’ is a linguistic term denoting a family of Afro-Asiatic languages, of which we have today Arabic, Hebrew, Maltese, and the South Arabic languages of northern Ethiopia. Ancient semitic languages included Akkadian, Canaanite, Amorite, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Punic, Aramaic, as well as ancient Hebrew and Syriac.”
The unique association of Jews with Semites serves to reinforce the cult of Jewish victimhood and shut down condemnation of Israel.
This expression dates to the Reagan era and is a euphemism for “Christian.” Because religion has both positive and negative connotations and is often an instrument of repression, radical Christians cannot openly advocate their religion against the secular law or other religions. Also, the U.S. officially has no religion, and the separation of church and state is integral to U.S. democracy.
But “faith” affords the illusion of inclusiveness and absolute virtue. Even science has a faith component, albeit a rational one. Thus, expressions like “faith-based schools,” and “faith-based entertainment” covertly and innocuously serve the agenda of anti-democratic Christian religious exclusivity.
This term no longer has any objective meaning. It no longer refers to people or groups who use violence to bring about political change. It now is used to label any person, group or government that opposes U.S. and Israeli conduct in the Middle East. The idea that “terrorists” could be resistance fighters or people trying to defend themselves is not admitted. Because one cannot defend a terrorist, the term precludes rational debate. Therefore, the word is invariably preceded by “Muslim,” Islamic” or “Arab” to ensure that the orthodox, Zionist connotation comes across.
Moreover, this term has given rise to the nonsensical epithet “Islamofascism,” based on the fatuous assertion that Arab regimes are akin to Nazi Germany. From here, the term “war on terrorism” is repeatedly invoked to justify repression and mass murder against Isramerica’s enemies.
Taking an historical perspective, it seems to me that this kind of pettifoggery (thanks, PG—sweet goodness, I love that word!) is not as well understood as a malady specific to the present as it is a function of the organization and distribution of information from a centralized source, which has been the modus operandi for time out of mind—in the context of Western civilization, for instance, one can trace this machinery at least as far back as the Roman Empire.
But let’s begin with the printing press, for instance: here you have a capital-intensive piece of equipment that required wealth to own and operate. So, even in the 16th Century, there was the architecture of a centralized, high cost source of information which was produced in one place and disseminated outwards from there in an omnidirectional fashion.
How is it exactly, then, that radio was so different? And television? In all cases, the production of information—for that is what it is in this sense, a product—requires huge sums of capital, such that it invariably is associated with centers of wealth and power. To underestimate the anti-democratic, inegalitarian effects of such an association, is, in my view, quite inexcusably naïve.
This is why the Internet is such an exciting medium, and why it most certainly should not be taken for granted. Through the Internet, the decentralization of information is made possible and flourishes. For the first time in human history, it is feasible for people the globe over to share and discuss ideas in just the same way we imagine it happening in the Academy of classical Athens.
It is now technically possible to build awareness from the ground up. This is, one could say, the sociological equivalent of the development of the nervous system in biological evolution. It is no small matter, however one conceptualizes it.
Of course, in the comfortably numb world of the industrial superpowers, considerations of lifestyle get in the way for most. On the go! Got to grab dinner! Flip on the news! My show comes on at 4 o’clock! Time for soccer practice! You get the picture.
Affluence fosters apathy. There is a world at stake. The least any of us can do is communicate.
Do you know who invented the electric light bulb?
Did you know it wasn’t Thomas Edison?
It was an Englishman named Sir Joseph Swan (1828-1914), a physicist who received a British patent for a working lamp and publicly demonstrated it several months before Edison’s bulb first glowed.
Edison had been working with copies of Swan’s patent to make them more efficient, but Swan had already achieved this in some of his early prototypes and had begun installing lamps in private homes by 1881. If, like me, you never had an inkling that the light bulb was as thoroughly British an export as the Beatles, you’ve one man to thank—Edward Bernays.
Bernays, widely considered the father of modern public relations, was the Viennese-born nephew of Sigmund Freud. He opened for business in New York City in 1919, and became widely known—and lauded—for his innovative use of aspects of his famous uncle’s theories of the subconscious to manipulate mass opinion through the media. It was Bernays, more than any other individual, who defined the playing field and rules of propaganda in mass media culture. The book Propaganda (1928) is a straightforward instruction manual for selling everything from deodorant to political candidates, and goes so far as to elucidate the necessity of such manipulation in a democratic society:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society . . .
. . .In theory, every citizen may vote for whom he pleases . . .invisible government, in the shape of rudimentary political parties, arose almost overnight. Ever since then we have agreed, for the sake of simplicity and practicality, that party machines should narrow down the field of choice . . .
. . .In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything.
So, then, according to the sensible and kindly-hearted Mr. Bernays—whom, Noam Chomsky has pointed out, was considered a perfectly fine Rooseveltian liberal—it would have been too demoralizing and confusing for Americans to have had to consider that the light bulb was not an American invention. Thomas Edison, as it so happened, agreed. A beautiful partnership was born. Later, Bernays was to express “shock” that his writings on the manipulation and distortion of information were found to be cornerstones of the library of Dr. Josef Goebbels.
We can point to any number of Bernays’ specific shenanigans—his diplomatically disastrous campaign with the United Fruit Company, or his show-biz drive to turn smoking into a feminist issue—and recognize the marks of both genius and sociopathy. Some of the techniques he pioneered, such as the multi-advertisement tie-in and bringing celebrities in to promote products, have clearly persisted into the present.
But the most significant aspect of Bernays’ work and legacy is his given raison d’être, this rancid idea that propagandizing a population into submission is somehow necessary to the fundamental order of society. It is all very well to say that propaganda is an “important element of a democratic society,” but let’s not attempt to claim that it is necessary to democracy. It is only necessary to the subjugation of democracy to the interests of the wealthy and powerful, but not to a “smoothly functioning” society as a sine qua non, which is Bernays’ express sentiment. In the United States of America, and elsewhere as well, propaganda is the tool of a smoothly functioning plutarchist aristocracy.
Quite naïve are they who still would cling to the belief that centralized mass media outlets are not as much tools of oppression and coercion as of information; and it is upon this belief that any remiss insistence that the ballot box is adequate as the true venue of democracy must be predicated.