The Politics of News Media
from the book
by Norman Solomon, 1994
In 1984 George Orwell wrote about the
conditioned reflex of "stopping short, as though by instinct,
at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power
of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors,
of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical"
to the prevailing ideology, "and of being bored or repelled
by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical
Today's dominant news media are good at
repeatedly covering the same ground, carefully avoiding much exploration
beyond the sanctioned boundaries. A narrow band of terrain is
trod as if it were the universe of ideas. We may get used to equating
what is familiar with what is objective; what is usual with what
is balanced; what is repeatedly asserted with what is true. All
the while, enthroned pundits fill the airwaves with nonstop droning
that offers little diversity. As with broadcasts, so with print:
Newsstands display dozens of papers and magazines, endlessly repetitious
Words, language, dialogue and debate are
potential tools for breaking out of small conceptual cages. But
after the thousands of times that Americans have heard the word
"freedom" in speeches and sound-bites and TV commercials,
for instance, how much meaning can the word hold? In a hollow
din, when the mouthing of words has become a self-referencing
closed loop of verbiage, words commonly precede-and pre-empt-thought.
When words supplant meaning, clichés become its impersonator
and its frequent enemy. In 1984, Orwell explained that "the
special function of certain Newspeak words...was not so much to
express meanings as to destroy them." Repetition of such
words and phrases can be much like water on stone-constant media
drips presenting self-evident truths-courtesy of government officials
and the journalists, commentators, academics and assorted other
experts who seem to have tenure on the networks.
Serving as a centralized nervous system
of the country's body politic, U.S. mass media have paralyzing
effects. The more ubiquitous that media power becomes, the more
anonymous and natural it is likely to seem. Common preconceptions
are mistaken for common sense. Even "controversial"
news stories are respectful of limitations; the standard paradigm
is to bemoan various ills while omitting specifics about causality.
Countless stories describe homelessness
but not the real-estate maneuvers connected to it; daily newspapers
don't print photos of the profiteers next to the pictures of their
victims. Even when journalists focus sharply on the effects of
pollution, the extent of the profitable corporate arrogance involved
rarely gets into the media frame. And discussions of alternatives
stay quite limited: Don't hold your breath for the day when the
op-ed page of the New York Times or Washington Post hosts a vigorous
debate about the merits of cutting the Pentagon budget in half
next year, or putting a legal cap on the profits of corporations
and the assets of millionaires, or holding free elections in each
workplace to select supervisors and CEOs. Many democratic possibilities
are automatically beyond the pale of mass-media discussion.
Fortunately, even the most powerful manipulators
can't be sure of controlling minds. Yet powers-that-be are much
more concerned with actions and utterances than with thoughts
or feelings per se. And expression of stray dissenting opinions
can be tolerated, perhaps even encouraged-letting off steam while
the pressure-cooker remains sealed fairly tight. Successful manipulation
plays the percentages among the populace, and commands majorities.
The process is even more powerful than
the content. Mass media cajole people to keep buying products
as if they could substitute for-or even be-meaning. "There
is, of course, no reason why the new totalitarianisms should resemble
the old," Aldous Huxley foresaw in his postwar introduction
to Brave New World. He added: "A really efficient totalitarian
state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political
bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves
who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.
To make them love it is the task assigned, in present-day totalitarian
states, to ministries of propaganda, newspaper editors and schoolteachers.
But their methods are still crude and
unscientific." That was in 1946 Methods are quite a bit less
More and more, a brazen new world blends
pacification and repression in a warlock's brew stirred with both
carrot and stick. Mass-produced seductions combine with mass-imposed
intimidations. But whatever the mix of caressing or bludgeoning
people into submission any effective system of control must go
a long way toward obscuring key methods of that control. A society's
vaunted "stability" (amid chronic and extreme inequities)
may be an index of just how numbed people have become; in this,
the most scientific of ages, people are beset by social engineering
that has come to seem normal, even natural. This is not a drum-tight
Big Brother society (although U.S. elites have helped to sustain
regimes in quite a few Third World countries as brutal as anything
described in 1984). Some Americans are apt to feel as carefree
as any soma-swallower. Yet others-such as many inner-city residents
overwhelmed by the system-are as desperate as Winston contemplating
the grip of Big Brother.
In the United States, centralization of
mass media is so intrinsic and so crucial that it is not- must
not be-discussed in any discerning way via the main media channels
that empty into our lives like so much tap water. How many corporations
are reaping most of the revenue from U.S. newspapers, magazines,
TV, books and movies? In the early 1980s the answer was fifty;
by the early 1990s the number had dropped to twenty. All the pretensions
aside, we will not hear Dan Rather or Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw
elucidate how the corporations that pay their salaries are wielding
power in pursuit of the bottom line, close to home and around
On millions of TV screens at any one moment,
CNN Headline News keeps splattering the country- and the planet-with
its jejune ejaculations. Welcome to the global pillage. The technology
is awesome, and so is its proven capacity to entrance while conflating
actual events with fabricated images, the most pseudo of "realities."
During the Gulf War, the media acclaim was widespread when CNN
aired live video of U.S. cruise missiles reaching Baghdad; yet
what we saw on television was little more than a light show-spectacular
pyrotechnics in the sky while the carnage below got short shrift.
In the closing decade of the 20th century, the media powers have
Meanwhile: Criticism is surrounded and
absorbed, amoeba-like, by the circuitous mainstreams of what we
could call "skipthought"- repeating and recycling endlessly.
Skipthought habitually jumps over ideas and perspectives that
reject the legitimacy of corporate rule. Elsewhere, in places
as far away as East Timor or Turkey or China, rank lies and flagrant
violence may hammer human beings from dawn to dawn, but here and
now in the United States the lies and violence are apt to be combined
with soothing velvet that adorns the dominant scenery. The biggest
hoaxes depend on the biggest illusions. Wholesale, they make the
reigning "freedom" possible.
The USA's major news media pose no threat
to what the late writer Walter Karp called the fact of oligarchy.
In the United States, he pointed out, "the fact of oligarchy
is the most dreaded knowledge of all, and our news keeps that
knowledge from us. By their subjugation of the press, the political
powers in America have conferred on themselves the greatest of
political blessings-Gyges' ring of invisibility. And they have
left the American people more deeply baffled by their own country's
politics than any people on earth. Our public realm lies steeped
in twilight, and we call that twilight news."
Journalists are neither more nor less
courageous than people in other professions; we can hardly expect
corporate-paid reporters and pundits to make careers out of biting
the hands that sign their paychecks. Those who pay the piper,
as the saying goes, call the tune-not every note, but the overarching
score-orchestration that may seem to be nowhere in particular
because it is now almost everywhere, with an insistent drumbeat
that after a while gets confused with the human heart. The political
muzak keeps functioning as white noise, constant and familiar,
with little variation, and loud enough to prevent us from hearing
much of other sounds. To question the divine right of large corporations
to occupy America's political throne is a lack of fealty that
demands exclusion from the roundtables of mega-media discourse,
where political "realities" are framed and re-framed
For people on corporate payrolls, more
than a little parental company discretion is advised. Mainstream
journalists are cases in point: Criticisms of government-and disparagements
of the public sector overall-are far more acceptable than condemnations
of corporate power. Yet the facts are cold and hard. "It
is beyond doubt that the -) large corporation has always governed,
most importantly by deciding whether untold numbers of people
will live or die, will be injured, or will sicken," _ comments
Morton Mintz, who left the Washington Post in 1988 after twenty-nine
years as a reporter there; his attitude was rare in the newsroom.
Media professionals are almost uniformly unwilling to voice anything
that smacks of a systemic critique of the private-industry juggernaut.
One afternoon in late 1990, I appeared
on a radio program with a national reporter for the Los Angeles
Times, Bob Scheer, who'd been working for Southern California's
dominant news outlet since the mid-1970s. On the air he acknowledged
that "largely a lot of what we do is to be a conveyor belt
of news from powerful government officials and so forth, they
basically define what the news is." But Scheer framed his
criticisms of the news industry to exclude the massive corporations
with media companies among their many business holdings. "The
issue is," he said, "is there pressure within any of
these news organizations to gather news in a certain way? I don't
think it comes from what they own."
In fact, much evidence to the contrary
had long been available. Ben Bagdikian's classic book The Media
Monopoly, first published in 1983 and later updated, provides
a lot of specific examples showing that many news outlets-including
the L.A. Times- skew what they publish and broadcast to serve
the economic interests of owners. (Advertisers also have plenty
of clout.) But to hear Scheer tell it, corporate power presented
no problem: "As a working journalist-and I've been at the
L.A. Times for fifteen years-I never felt any influence.... No
one ever suggested that I go easy on anything that they happen
to own.... I don't know that there's any connection between what
the company owns and the way the news is reported."
The Times Mirror Company, parent corporation
of the Los Angeles Times, is an economic powerhouse. As Bagdikian
mentions in his book, the conglomerate "also owns other newspapers,
cable systems, book publishing houses, agricultural land, urban
real estate, commercial printing plants, and other non-journalistic
operations." But on the radio show, Scheer made a point of
saying: "I don't even know what the parent company owns,
and I've been there fifteen years."
A former editor of the left-wing Ramparts
magazine during the Vietnam War, Bob Scheer went on to become
one of the most independent-minded and enterprising reporters
at the Los Angeles Times. That makes his expressed attitudes all
the more significant-indicating the limits of acceptable analysis
within mega-media journalism.
Let's take Scheer at his word: "I
don't even know what the parent company owns, and I've been there
fifteen years." Such an absence of curiosity is remarkable,
especially for an investigative reporter. But in an odd way it
dovetails neatly with the claim that media ownership doesn't really
affect content. The most basic goal of owners-maximizing profits-usually
eludes scrutiny, even though the pursuit of that goal restricts
journalists every day. The boundaries may be invisible (though,
we have reason to suspect, well understood), and all the more
effective as constraints because they need not be imposed in any
heavy-handed or "unprofessional" manner. In fact, the
internalized constraints, with all their unspoken taboos, have
come to seem integral to professionalism.
Corporate control is not interference
in the newsroom-if you own an institution you aren't interfering
in it, you're running it. Orwell anyone? The conditioned reflex
of "stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold
of any dangerous thought." The doublethink process "has
to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient
precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring
with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt. "
The debilitating obstacles that face journalists-and
the rest of us-are primarily institutional. If we push hard to
challenge the institutions around us, the struggle can change
us for the better in the process. Rather than succumbing to the
media manipulation that continues to foreclose better options,
we can tune up our personal and collective "radar screens"
to track unidentified flying propaganda. Determination to battle
for more autonomy over our own possibilities-as individuals, as
people communicating with each other, and as a society- opens
up new and vital horizons.
In contrast, evading the truth of corporate
power over news media is a disorienting mental traffic pattern
that keeps tromping a path of political confusion. False mappings
of society immobilize us to the great extent that we trust public
mythologies more than firsthand realities. Imagine if Rand McNally
and its competitors issued maps that had little resemblance to
actual streets and highways and terrain. To the extent that we
believed those maps, we'd be unable to go much of anywhere; we
wouldn't be able to plan our journeys, or meet up with other people;
for that matter we wouldn't even really know where we were.
"The news" and punditry provide
orientation- guiding the public's perception and navigation of
the world. At various times, on various subjects, the media compass
needle may actually be pointing south, north, east or west; it's
no accident that conventional accounts of politics are disorienting,
since they take citizens on detours every day-away from clarity
about power: who wields it, how, and why. (Astute investors would
never make the mistake of trying to get their bearings from the
"A" sections of daily newspapers.) As informative compasses,
the mass media indicate much more about how those in power want
us to perceive and navigate the world than about how the world
Popularized renderings of reality, however
phony, supply us with shared illusions, suitable for complying
with authorized itineraries, the requisite trips through never-never
lands of public pretense. Privately, we struggle to make sense
of our experiences; perhaps we can create some personal space
so that our own perceptions and emotions have room to stretch.
But the limits of privatized solutions are severe. Public spheres
determine the very air we breathe and the social environments
of our lives. The standard detours meander through imposing landscapes.
Beyond the outer limits of customary responses, uncharted territory
is "weird"-certainly not familiar from watching TV or
reading daily papers. Following in the usual footsteps seems to
Confusion about politics and power denies
us clues as to where to go from here. Anne Wilson Schaef has identified
pivotal results of such confusion:
" First, it keeps us powerless and
controllable. No one is more controllable than a confused person;
no society is more controllable than a confused society. Politicians
know this better than anyone, and that is why they use innuendos,
veiled references, and out-and-out lies instead of speaking clearly
Second, it keeps us ignorant. Professionals
give their clients confusing information cloaked in intimidating
language that lay-people cannot understand. They preserve their
"one-up" status while preventing us from learning about
our own bodies, our legal rights, and our psychology.
Third, it keeps us from taking responsibility
for our own lives. No one expects confused people to own up to
the things they think, say, or do, or face the truth about who
Fourth, it keeps us busy. When we must
spend all our time and energy trying to figure out what is going
on, we have none left over for reflecting on the system, challenging
it, or exploring alternatives to it.
These have the combined effect of keeping
us stuck within the system. And this, I believe, is the primary
purpose of confusion. A confused person will stay within the system
because the thought of moving out of it is too frightening. It
takes a certain amount of clarity to try new things, walk new
roads, and cross new bridges, ~ and confusion makes clarity and
risk taking impossible."
Mass media encourage us-viewers, listeners,
readers-to suspend disbelief, willingly or otherwise. Stalked
by propaganda wolves in chic clothing, we are the intended sheep.
Conformity is disguised with appearances of diversity-just as
silence about what matters most is in no way inconsistent with
constant verbiage. The great triumphs of propaganda have been
accomplished, not by doing something, but by refraining from doing,
Aldous Huxley observed. "Great is truth, but still greater,
from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.... But
silence is not enough. If persecution, liquidation and the other
symptoms of social friction are to be avoided, the positive sides
of propaganda must be made as effective as the negative. The most
important Manhattan Projects of the future will be vast government-sponsored
enquiries into what the politicians and the participating scientists
will call 'the problem of happiness'-in other words, the problem
of making people love their servitude ~l
Getting people to "love their servitude"
is a tall order, but in America more modest conditioning has proved
sufficient to make quiescence a common way of life. Within a pseudo-security
state, the constant rush to desensitize has become a generic fix.
To lives of quiet desperation, and to an ailing body politic,
mass media are among the key institutions that administer anesthesia
"Public" TV and radio are supposed
to be different-an alternative. Over the years, the "MacNeil/Lehrer
NewsHour," "All Things Considered" and "Morning
Edition" have gained credibility and trust among millions
of college-educated people, an audience heavily concentrated in
professional circles (including many liberals and more than a
few leftists), where restive responses could be especially troublesome
to upper-echelon managers and policy elites.
When push comes to shove, for instance
when the American Flag goes up and the troops go out, the news
operations of PBS and NPR are among the country's most regimented;
during the Gulf War in early 1991, they shamelessly served the
war-makers (a role briefly reprised in summer 1993 when U.S. missiles
struck an Iraqi office complex and a number of nearby civilians
in Baghdad). The manipulation- usually a bit more subtle than
at times of U.S. military attack-is a year-round reality, as the
media watch group FAIR has documented with studies of the guest
lists and sources of "MacNeil/Lehrer" and NPR's daily
news programs. A narrow range-of voices, sound-bites, commentators
and analysis-comes to seem normal, even exemplary. After all,
the news is in-depth, with many sentences in a row; our intelligence
does not seem to be insulted.
Bogus alternatives of the NPR/PBS variety
are part of a mass media bandwagon pulling news consumers along
on a short conceptual leash. The absence of critical imagination
has been normalized. Big-name journalists, affecting sharp-eyed
realism and attention to realpolitik, preen their credentials
of discernment and independence. In news media, as in politics,
only your essential passivity is sought. (All that advertisers
and "underwriters" want are your purchases; all that
politicians want are your votes.) It's called programming.
The puffed-up men and occasional women
on network political shows are there to convey normalcy, providing
the erudite ambience of in-control continuity from those who know
best. They are On The Case. Anointed, seemingly confident, practiced
and glib, functioning as if professional choruses in some upside
down Greek play. They serve as inverted Cassandras: The real tragedy
is that they are so widely believed.
Political battles are largely struggles
over perception; how we see the world has everything to do with
how we will live in dominant assumptions- like familiar gases-are
seldom noted, but they keep entering bloodstreams, flooding brains
Mainstream media are busily focusing views
away from possibilities that could undermine management. The mold
of prevailing thought is not to be broken: "Real" politics
is presented as the art of the possible, not a battleground for
human imperatives. And, the bottom line ultimately being the bottom
line, the system's loyalty is always to itself, never to any individual.
So, at the top of government, Bill Clinton the man may outlive
his usefulness, as Bush and Carter and Nixon did before him. The
president is a CEO of sorts, and those who have made the "hiring"
possible are certain to want acceptable returns on their investments.
Of course big business is always looking
for new products to put on the market, and major presidential
contenders are no exception. A quarter-century ago, when The Selling
of the President, 1968 came out, the book's cover featured a photo
of Nixon on a cigarette pack-and the imagery caused an uproar;
now we take it for granted that candidates will be sold like automobiles
or deodorant. But the creation of politician-products runs parallel
with broader inventions: a power elite that can heavily edit the
past and distort the present also reserves the right to concoct
scenarios for the future.
Television lights up homes everywhere
with its narcotic glow; stupefication par excellence, now enhanced
with numerous cable channels and, we are told, the advent of interactive
The pretense is that You Are There, or
you have choices; the reality, much more likely, is that you aren't
anywhere, and/you can choose from the choices that have already
been made for you. The delusion of "choice" from an
array of televised (and corporately backed) programs is parallel
to the delusion of choice from an array of pre-screened (and corporately
backed) presidential candidates.
What shines through the screens makes
a show of any and all matters, from the situation comedy to the
latest war. Yet there is much self-congratulation and hype about
how TV has brought war into our living rooms-a claim so ludicrous
that one might think it's sometimes necessary to dig shrapnel
out of the sofa after watching the news on television, as Mark
Crispin Miller has commented: "What do we see when we sit
at home and watch a war? Do we experience an actual event? In
fact, that 'experience' is fundamentally absurd. Most obviously,
there is the incongruity of scale, the radical disjunction of
locations. While a war is among the biggest things that can ever
happen to a nation or people, devastating families, blasting away
the roofs and walls, we see it compressed and miniaturized on
a sturdy little piece of furniture, which stands and shines at
the very center of our household. And TV contains warfare in subtler
ways. While it may confront us with the facts of death, bereavement,
mutilation, it immediately cancels out the memory of that suffering,
replacing its own pictures of despair with a commercial, upbeat
and inexhaustibly bright."
In effect, "The TV newsman comforts
us as John Wayne comforted our grandparents, by seeming to have
the whole affair in hand.... Since no one seems to live on television,
no one seems to die there. And the medium's temporal facility
deprives all terminal moments of their weight."
Being numb to untoward events is in sync
with being passive. For mass media, this is a perfect fit. Television,
a powerful number, asks that we do nothing-"don't touch that
dial"-except go out and buy things. Everything is well-produced,
including I the latest war; especially one made in the USA.
The slaughter of approximately 200,000
Iraqis in a six-week period drew on the accumulated capital of
America's numbing, as crucial to the Gulf War's success as the
monetary resources of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait's
rich families. Day after day, with talking heads galore and not
a talking heart to be found on the networks, the anchors filled
the media frames with their euphemistic jargon about "air
strikes," "collateral damage" and "pounding
enemy targets." Draining life from discussions of life-and-death
subjects, what those who dominated the airwaves and print media
kept conveying with their flat tones was that the wholesale destruction
of human life could be discussed with pride; the effect was to
fog up the horrors that the war entailed at every moment. Correspondents
mouthed the language of the military, with human realities rarely
even mentioned. Air Force officers, shown in pool video interviews,
described the bombing runs in computer terms. "I just see
blips on the screen," said one. And we saw the war's human
devastation reported as blips on our TV screens.
Television powerfully normalizes duplicity;
winks and nods become unnecessary. Advertising can have tremendous
impact on people even if they "understand" cerebrally
that the ads are untruthful and manipulative; the same goes for
news reporting. Cognitive skepticism is a flimsy barrier when
hard-driving media falsehoods constantly batter against it.
Anne Wilson Schaef describes television
as one of the habitual commodities that "make us numb to
our own reality-to seeing what we see and knowing what we know."
But behind the madness of TV is an exceedingly lucrative method.
Informing, entertaining and selling become interchangeable. Replete
with technical virtuosity, ads on television have become "art
forms"; small wonder that Star Wars movie-maker Lucas Films
got into producing TV commercials in a big way. Sales pitches
should be entertaining, and entertainment should be pitching for
consumption. And when people are reticent to share unscreened
aspects of who they are and how they feel, life is stunting itself-imitating
the constraints of the tube, absorbing television's complementary
messages that keep hectoring for supine quietude among the population.
The anesthetic effect renders us comfortably
numb yet uncomfortably on edge, swaddled in media insulation.
The passivity of the TV experience is good training for watching
history go by. History-even when it's in the process of occurring-comes
across as some kind of gaseous time in a shattered bottle. A long
dead letter. Here in the USA, the announced "end of history"
is more akin to the end of open feeling and the substitution of
the facade for the authentic in public matters. Immersed in such
a synthetic meta-world, "history" can only be disconnected
from the moment-eviscerated, both privatized and falsified, part
mystery and part dusty facts, like a phone book filled with information
and drained of truth.
For several decades we've been undergoing
the refinement of multimedia inculcation-evermore overbearing
and veiled-like pollution that becomes less obvious the more it
is added to what is already widespread. Yet many of the purveyed
hypocrisies are hardly subtle.
Orwell wrote in 1984 about a process that
"in short, means protective stupidity." The approach
involves "holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind
simultaneously, and accepting both of them." Today, for politicians
and their aides, Orwellian maneuvers become second nature: "To
tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget
any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes
necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long
as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and
all the while to take account of the reality which one denies-all
this is indispensably necessary."
Basic hypocrisy is apt to seem obscure
when grim ironies go unremarked and glaring contradictions are
not illuminated by mass media. Big-budget PR operations function
with the assumption that people can't think of everything; their
thoughts have to be guided in certain directions and away from
others. "We know that crimes against humanity have occurred,
and we know when and where they occurred," U.S. Secretary
of State Lawrence Eagleburger declared in a December 1992 speech.
"We know, moreover, which forces committed those crimes and
under whose command they operated. And we know, finally, who the
political leaders are to whom these military commanders were-and
still are-responsible. "
The brazenness of doublethink is enough
to take your breath away; in fact, it takes away many people's
breath, quite literally. The secretary of state was speaking about
political leaders and military commanders of Serbia. But it was,
as well, a perfect description of Eagleburger and those he had
worked closely with during the Gulf War a couple of years earlier.
That Eagleburger was in a Republican administration is beside
the point; if doublethink is anything, it is bipartisan. As he
campaigned for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, Bill
Clinton repeatedly spoke of the necessity that the United States
"be leading the Desert Storms in the 21st century."
Five months into his presidency, Clinton ordered a missile attack
on Iraq and then backed it up with rhetoric from the same lexicon
used by President Bush.
Mass media, predisposed to impute the
noblest of motives to presidents when the U.S. military swings
into lethal action, puffed up Clinton after he gave the order
to launch two-dozen missiles that hit an Iraqi intelligence building
and residential homes in Baghdad. Time Magazine dubbed Clinton's
televised announcement from the Oval Office "one of his finest
moments; he struck the right tone, reasoned but forceful."
The next day, the New York Times reported, "a near-defiant
sense of pride was tangible at the White House." The Times
went on: "While it was clearly not a motivation for the strike,
the likelihood that Mr. Clinton's standing in public-opinion polls
would rise, as support for most presidents has after military
actions, appeared to have contributed to the buoyant mood."
To the standard buzzwords and catch-phrases
of American newspeak, television reports add a narcissistic patina,
a translucent glaze over "reality," repeating particular
words and carefully selected visuals with logarithmic intensity.
The repetition is key. Exceptional articles and broadcasts do
run counter to the norm once in a while, but the essence of propaganda
is repetition-the daily dollops of news and views dominating the
nation, steering most people away from unapproved avenues of thinking.
The "skipthought" process is so widespread that it melts
into the air, everywhere and unremarkable, like an odor so constant
that it seems to have no smell.
Impressions of politicians, seen through
media lenses, often amount to not much more than assessments of
production values. It's largely on that basis that some people
"like" Clinton despite his betrayal of many principles
important to them. Media appearances are inevitably deceiving;
they invite us to react with a passive sense of aesthetics. From
corporate boardrooms to Capitol Hill cloakrooms, from the Executive
Mansion to the Pentagon, our torpor is much sought after, and
appreciated. More than our favor, it is our prior restraint that
Huge fortunes keep being made on the prudent
bet that we will remain anesthetized. The more that human imagination
can be curtailed, the more it can be profitably sublimated and
channeled. There is no devious master plot-only the steady workings
of a system masterfully encouraging acceptance, while transforming
concepts of what has to be and what cannot be.
Preoccupied with revved-up mass media
offerings, we're on treadmills of variegated conformity. Only
authentic imagination can lead us elsewhere. But it is not imagination
to picture ourselves as characters in a popular TV adventure show,
or to identify with one side in a "debate" on the "MacNeil/Lehrer
NewsHour," or to prefer one of the budget versions in a House-Senate
conference committee; when we select from the options already
handed down from on high, we can only imagine what has already
been imagined for us. When thought processes are corralled by
received notions of realism, then possibilities for independent
actions are fenced off.
In contrast, as cultural critic Joyce
Nelson says, imagination "is a truly revolutionary force,
allowing us to conceive of alternatives. It is 'radical' in the
deepest sense of that word: transforming things at their root,
opening up new possibilities, challenging and suspending (for
the moment, or longer) the status quo." What we are able
to think prefigures what we might be able to do.
"Political thought, no less than
any other kind, takes place in imagination," Rose Goldsen
wrote. "In imagination we move around the social system so
that we can peer at social reality first from this vantage point,
then from that one, each time taking our bearings from the different
slant.... Social meanings emerge as we imagine the situation as
it could otherwise have been (or be). The otherwise...can exist
only in imagination."
Today, looking out at the USA's gritty
and perfumed landscape, we may feel that we're growing old in
a bleak civilization, an era mundane and terrible. The fact that
wonderful people are capable of magnificent creations makes our
socialized dead-ends all the more difficult to bear, and all the
more urgent to confront.
Precious threads of human continuity and
vibrant culture persist. But in contrast to George Orwell's nightmare,
there is no need for complete uniformity here; domination will
suffice, as social machinery mass-produces and homogenizes human
awareness to an immense and accelerating degree. The ability to
numb and delude is the ability to control. And the propaganda
of anesthesia seems to be nearly everywhere; the hollowing out
of words is an enterprise parallel with the hollowing out of lives.
A haze surrounds us; mass-media fog banks
sweep in front of vision, clouding imagination, allowing only
glimpses of better possibilities. Under conditions of low visibility,
the present moves like the horizon along a centrist road: attentive
to the synthetic mist, and missing the outlines of humanity unseen.