The Politics of News Media

from the book

False Hope

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 direction."

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 and confined.

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 crude now.


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 the world.

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 global reach.

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 every day.

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 really is.

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 be safer.

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 and truthfully.

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 they are.

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 without surgery.


"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 and hearts.

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 TV technology.

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 is curried.

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.

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