Thursday, August 18, 2016

Useful Geniuses; or, Resistance Is Futile

To my half-surprise this meme turned out to be authentic.  It's from Huxley's Brave New World Revisited, published in 1958, when his 1931 novel Brave New World had become a classic and a watchword.  (The passage originally began: "Under the relentless thrust of accelerating over-population and over-organization ...", which I think changes its import a bit, and not for the better; and "a new kind of totalitarianism" read "a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism" [italics added].)  It's the kind of supposed prophecy that appeals to a certain set of mind.

Yet despite all this mind-manipulation, Donald Trump is the Republican candidate for President, and Bernie Sanders came very close to beating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Brexit passed in the UK. Most citizens disagree with most of the corporatist agenda in the US. Governments around the world are losing legitimacy, the consent of the governed that makes it possible for them to rule at all. Our would-be rulers are not pleased. The Sheeple aren't as manipulable as they like to think -- or, oddly, as wise truthtellers such as Huxley like to think.

None of this means that I think the People are necessarily wise, or always right.  Trump's success, like the Brexit vote, has various causes, some of which are edifying and others not.  The point is that "the ruling oligarchy" and its technicians are not as omnipotent or competent as they and this meme would have you believe.

I recently read H. Bruce Franklin's M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America (Lawrence Hill, 1992), in which he described how the Nixon administration, hoping to raise domestic support for its war in Vietnam, concocted the fantasy of thousands of American troops being held prisoner by the North Vietnamese.  Enlisting the participation of families of soldiers who were missing in action, Nixon's people were fairly successful in selling the fantasy -- but when they found it an impediment to negotations and ending the war, they were trapped by their own invention.  The families and their supporters, understandably, felt betrayed; unwilling to accept that they'd been sold a bill of goods and used so cynically, they clung to the myth and turned on Nixon.  When even Ronald Reagan, several years later, accepted that there were no American POWs alive in Southeast Asia, they denounced him too.  As Franklin said, the long-term result was the rise of a politically reactionary group of Americans, officially patriotic but bitterly hostile to their government, constructing a paranoid mythology of bold Rambos trying to free large numbers of captive Americans but undermined and stymied by government bureacrats.  M.I.A. was originally published almost a quarter century before Donald Trump declared his candidacy, but his supporters clearly live in the alternate universe built by the Nixon gang.  The "ruling oligarchy" has only very limited control over the tigers it unleashes.

It's a mistake to think that that oligarchy or its technicians really know what they're doing.  Today I was looking at the chapter on political lying in Hannah Arendt's Crises of the Republic.  Writing of the processes that led to a major American war, Arendt refers to
the strange fact that the mistaken decisions and lying statements consistently violated the astoundingly accurate factual reports of the intelligence community ... The crucial point here is not merely that the policy of lying was hardly ever aimed at the enemy ..., but was destined chiefly, if not exclusively, for domestic consumption, for propaganda at home, and especially for the purpose of deceiving Congress [14].
Arendt was writing about the Pentagon Papers, the internal history that revealed how U.S. interference in Vietnam had been "planned" -- though that word is probably far too generous -- but she could just as easily have been describing the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  The same is true of what follows: 
Of even greater interest is that nearly all decisions in this disastrous enterprise were made in full cognizance of the fact that they probably could not be carried out: hence goals had constantly to be shifted.  There are, first, the publicly proclaimed objectives -- "seeing that the people of South Vietnam Vietnam are permitted to determine their future" [in reality, this was the last thing the US was interested in] or "assisting the country to win their contest against the ... Communist conspiracy" ... The same flexibility marks tactical considerations: North Vietnam is being bombed in order to prevent "a collapse of national morale" in the South and, particularly, the breakdown of the Saigon government.  But when the first raids were scheduled to start, the government had broken down, "pandemonium reigned in Saigon," the raids had to be postponed and a new goal found.  Now the objective was to compel "Hanoi to stop the Vietcong and the Pathet Lao," an aim that even the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not hope to attain.  As they said, "it would be idle to conclude that these eforts will have a decisive effect" [15].
And so on.  Those who, like me, are old enough to remember the promulgation of the War on Terror and the invasion of Afghanistan (to say nothing of the First Gulf War, which also fit this pattern), will remember how the goalposts were moved repeatedly for propaganda purposes.  The manipulation of public and Congressional opinion was scattershot: rationales generated almost randomly and thrown at audiences in hopes that one or more would stick.  Far from controlling events or the public, our rulers and their publicists were careening along in panic, and the results were far from what they had hoped.  (Not that either group has ever taken responsibility or accepted accountability for their blunders and crimes, of course.)

The corporate media gladly gave Donald Trump plenty of free publicity by their diligent coverage of his every blurt and mindfart; now that he's the Republican candidate, they're horrified: this is not what they meant at all.  Non-corporate media, not to mention liberal Democrats, are equally fascinated by him, and can't seem to tear their fascinated gaze from the trainwreck his campaign seems to have become.  But Trump and his supporters dismiss and denounce the "lamestream media" as readily as his opponents do.  On Brexit, liberal commentators here and in the UK tended to line up with the Establishment Right; they usually missed the irony.  So did right-wingers, usually contemptuous of the Mob, who suddenly but briefly became populists -- on Brexit, though not on Trump, whom they tried to repudiate.

And yet many people who believe themselves to be smarter than the canaille want more control -- laws (for example) that would require the press, or politicians, to tell the truth, on pain of State punishment. (Who do they think would decide what is true and what is false?) Again I find myself wondering why so many people who suppose themselves to be the sapient elite, mysteriously free from the control of the Bad Guys, sound so weirdly complacent and smug when they inform the rest of us that Resistance Is Futile. Whose side are they are on, really?