[Paleopsych] Stay Free: Mark Crispin Miller on conspiracies, media, and mad scientists
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Thu Dec 8 02:20:59 UTC 2005
Mark Crispin Miller on conspiracies, media, and mad scientists
[I had included this at the end of a posting on the theft of the 2004
election. But this is so thought-provoking that I'm sending it out
separately. The author, being a "leftist," of course does not see the
statist propaganda that underlies public education, propaganda that is so
relentless and continuous that it is not even noticed as such.
[Jacques Ellul's _Propaganda: The Forming of Men's Attitudes_ (1962, English
translation, 1965) should be reread, for it argued the necessity that
propaganda be relentless. He was speaking more specifically of the
propaganda for "The American Way." We all know the ironic Depression-era
photograph of men and women in bread lines underneath a huge poster with a
happy couple and a car that read "There is no way like the American Way."
But why beat a drum for what is obviously beneficial (which it wasn't during
the Depression) but which propaganda continued through the Eisenhower years?
And why is there propaganda to "celebrate diversity," whose stated benefits
include only ethic cooking and folk dancers jumping up and down, when people
go to ethnic restaurants on their own initiative without any prompting
Interview by Carrie McLaren | Issue #19
After years of dropping Mark Crispin Miller's name in Stay Free!, I
figured it was time to interview him. Miller is, after all, one of the
sharpest thinkers around. His writings on television predicted the
cult of irony-or whatever you call it when actual Presidential
candidates mock themselves on Saturday Night Live, when sitcoms
ridicule sitcoms, and when advertisements attack advertising. More
recently, he has authored The Bush Dyslexicon, aided by his humble and
ever-devoted assistant (me).
Miller works at New York University in the Department of
Media Ecology. Though he bristles at being called an academic, Miller
is exactly the sort of person that should be leading classrooms. He's
an excellent speaker, with a genius for taking cultural products-be
they Jell-O commercials or George W. Bush press conferences-and
teasing out hidden meanings. (He's also funny, articulate, and knows
how to swear.)
I talked to Mark at his home in November, between NPR appearances and
babysitting duty. He is currently writing about the Marlboro Man for
American Icons, a Yale University Press series that he also happens to
be editing. His book Mad Scientists: Paranoid Delusion and the Craft
of Propaganda (W. Norton) is due out in 2004.-CM
STAY FREE: Let's start with a simple one: Why are conspiracy theories
MCM: People are fascinated by the fundamental evil that seems to
explain everything. Lately, this is why we've had the anomaly of, say,
Rupert Murdoch's Twentieth Century Fox releasing films that feature
media moguls as villains out to rule the world-villains much like
Rupert Murdoch. Who's a bigger conspirator than he is? And yet he's
given us The X-Files. Another example: Time Warner released Oliver
Stone's JFK, that crackpot-classic statement of the case that American
history was hijacked by a great cabal of devious manipulators. It just
so happens that Stone himself, with Time Warner behind him, was
instrumental in suppressing two rival projects on the Kennedy
assassination. These are trivial examples of a genuine danger, which
is that those most convinced that there is an evil world conspiracy
tend to be the most evil world conspirators.
STAY FREE: Because they know what's inside their own heads?
MCM: Yes and no. The evil that they imagine is inside their heads-but
they can't be said to know it, at least not consciously. What we're
discussing is the tendency to paranoid projection. Out of your own
deep hostility you envision a conspiracy so deep and hostile that
you're justified in using any tactics to shatter it.
If you look at those who have propagated the most noxious doctrines of
the twentieth century, you will find that they've been motivated by
the fierce conviction that they have been the targets of a grand
conspiracy against them. Hitler believed he was fighting back,
righteously, against "the Jewish world conspiracy." [See pp. 30-31]
Lenin and Stalin both believed they were fighting back against the
capitalist powers-a view that had some basis in reality, of course,
but that those Bolsheviks embraced to an insane degree. (In 1941, for
example, Stalin actually believed that England posed a greater danger
to the Soviet Union than the Nazis did.)
We see the same sort of paranoid projection among many of the leading
lights of our Cold War-the first U.S. Secretary of Defense, James
Forrestal, who was in fact clinically insane; the CIA's James
Angleton; Richard Nixon; J. Edgar Hoover; Frank Wisner, who was in
charge of the CIA's propaganda operations worldwide. Forrestal and
Wisner both committed suicide because they were convinced the
Communists were after them. Now, there was a grain of truth to this
since the Soviet Union did exist and it was a hostile power. But it
wasn't on the rise, and it wasn't trying to take over the world, and
it certainly wasn't trying to destroy James Forrestal personally. We
have to understand that there was just as much insanity in our own
government as there was with the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.
This paranoid dynamic did not vanish when the Cold War ended. The U.S.
is now dominated, once again, by rightists who believe themselves
besieged. And the same conviction motivates Osama bin Laden and his
followers. They see themselves as the victims of an expansionist
STAY FREE: Al Qaeda is itself a conspiracy.
MCM: Yes. We have to realize that the wildest notions of a deliberate
plot are themselves tinged with the same dangerous energy that drives
such plots. What we need today, therefore, is not just more alarmism,
but a rational appraisal of the terrorist danger, a clear recognition
of our own contribution to that danger, and a realistic examination of
the weak spots in our system. Unfortunately, George W. Bush is
motivated by an adolescent version of the same fantasy that drives the
terrorists. He divides the whole world into Good and Evil, and has no
doubt that God is on his side-just like bin Laden. So how can Bush
guide the nation through this danger, when he himself sounds
dangerous? How can he oversee the necessary national self-examination,
when he's incapable of looking critically within? In this sense the
media merely echoes him. Amid all the media's fulminations against al
Qaeda, there has been no sober accounting of how the FBI and CIA
screwed up. Those bureaucracies have done a lousy job, but that fact
hasn't been investigated because too many of us are very comfortably
locked into this hypnotic narrative of ourselves as the good victims
and the enemy as purely evil.
STAY FREE: There's so much contradictory information out there. Tommy
Thompson was on 60 Minutes the other night saying that we were
prepared for biological warfare, that there was nothing to worry
about. Yet The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have quoted
experts saying the exact opposite. Do you think this kind of confusion
contributes to conspiratorial thinking? I see some conspiratorial
thinking as a normal function of getting along in the world. When, on
September 11th, the plane in Pennsylvania went down, there was lots of
speculation that the U.S. military shot it down.
MCM: Which I tend to think is true, by the way. I've heard from some
folks in the military that that plane was shot down.
STAY FREE: But we have no real way of knowing, no expertise.
MCM: Yes, conspiratorial thinking is a normal response to a world in
which information is either missing or untrustworthy. I think that
quite a few Americans subscribe to some pretty wild notions of what's
going on. There's nothing new in this, of course. There's always been
a certain demented plurality that's bought just about any explanation
that comes along. That explains the centuries-old mythology of
anti-Semitism. There will always be people who believe that kind of
thing. To a certain extent, religion itself makes people susceptible
to such theorizing.
STAY FREE: How so?
MCM: Because it tends a propagate that Manichean picture of
the universe as split between the good people and "the evil-doers."
Christianity has spread this vision-even though it's considered a
heresy to believe that evil is an active force in God's universe.
According to orthodox Christianity, evil is not a positive force but
the absence of God.
STAY FREE: A lot of religious people believe what they want to
believe, anyway. Christianity is negotiable.
MCM: Absolutely. But when it comes to the paranoid world view, all
ethical and moral tenets are negotiable, just as all facts are easily
disposable. Here we need to make a distinction. On the one hand, there
have been, and there are, conspiracies. Since the Cold War, our
government has been addicted to secrecy and dangerously fixated on
covert action all around the world. So it would be a mistake to
dismiss all conspiracy theory. At the same time, you can't accept
everything-that's just as naïve and dangerous as dismissing
Vincent Bugliosi, who wrote The Betrayal of America, is finishing up a
book on the conspiracy theories of the Kennedy assassination. He has
meticulously gone through the case and has decided that the Warren
Report is right. Now, Bugliosi is no knee-jerk debunker. He recognizes
that a big conspiracy landed George W. Bush in the White House.
STAY FREE: So I take it you don't buy the conspiracy theories about
MCM: I think there's something pathological about the obsession with
JFK's death. Some students of the case have raised legitimate
questions, certainly, but people like Stone are really less concerned
about the facts than with constructing an idealized myth.
STAY FREE: Critics of the war in Afghanistan have called for more
covert action as an alternative to bombing. That's an unusual thing
for the left to be advocating, isn't it?
MCM: It is. On the one hand, any nation would appear to be within its
rights to try to track down and kill these mass murderers. I would
personally prefer to see the whole thing done legally, but that may
not be realistic. So, if it would work as a covert program without
harm to any innocents I wouldn't be against it. But that presumes a
level of right-mindedness and competence that I don't see in our
government right now. I don't think that we can trust Bush/Cheney to
carry out such dirty business. Because they have a paranoid
world-view-just like the terrorists-they must abuse their mandate to
"do what it takes" to keep us safe. By now they have bombed more
innocents than perished in the World Trade Center, and they're also
busily trashing many of our rights.
The "intelligence community" itself, far from being chastened by their
failure, has used the great disaster to empower itself. That
bureaucracy has asked for still more money, but that request is wholly
disingenuous. They didn't blow it because they didn't have enough
money-they blew it because they're inept! They coasted along for years
in a cozy symbiosis with the Soviet Union. The two superpowers needed
one another to justify all this military and intelligence spending,
and it made them complacent. Also, they succumbed to the fatal
tendency to emphasize technological intelligence while de-emphasizing
STAY FREE: Yeah, the Green Berets sent to Afghanistan are equipped
with all sorts of crazy equipment. They each wear gigantic puffy suits
with pockets fit to carry a GPS, various hi-tech gizmos, and arms.
MCM: That's just terrific. Meanwhile, the terrorists used boxcutters!
STAY FREE: Did you see that the U.S. Army has asked Hollywood to come
up with possible terrorist scenarios to help prepare the military for
MCM: Yeah, it sent a chill right through me. If that's what they're
reduced to doing to protect us from the scourge of terrorism, they're
completely clueless. They might as well be hiring psychics-which, for
all we know, they are!
STAY FREE: The Bush administration also asked Al Jazeera, the Arab TV
station, to censor its programming.
MCM: Right. And, you know, every oppressive move we make, from trying
to muzzle that network to dropping bombs all over Afghanistan, is like
a gift to the terrorists. Al Jazeera is the only independent TV
network in the Arab world. It has managed to piss off just about every
powerful interest in the Middle East, which is a sign of genuine
independence. In 1998, the network applied for membership in the Arab
Press Union, and the application was rejected because Al Jazeera
refused to abide by the stricture that it would do everything it can
to champion "Arab brotherhood."
STAY FREE: What do you think our government should have done instead
MCM: I rather wish they had responded with a little more imagination.
Doing nothing was not an option. But bombing the hell out of
Afghanistan was not the only alternative-and it was a very big
mistake, however much it may have gratified a lot of anxious TV
viewers in this country. By bombing, the U.S. quickly squandered its
advantage in the propaganda war. We had attracted quite a lot of
sympathy worldwide, but that lessened markedly once we killed Afghan
civilians by the hundreds, then the thousands. Americans have tended
not to want to know about those foreign victims. But elsewhere in the
world, where 9/11 doesn't resonate as much, the spectacle of all those
people killed by us can only build more sympathy for our opponents.
That is, the bombing only helps the terrorists in the long run. And so
has our government's decision to define the 9/11 crimes as acts of
war. That definition has served only to exalt the perpetrators, who
should be treated as mass murderers, not as soldiers.
But the strongest argument against our policy is this-that it is
exactly what the terrorists were hoping for. Eager to accelerate the
global split between the faithful and the infidels, they wanted to
provoke us into a response that might inflame the faithful to take
arms against us. I think we can agree that, if they wanted it, we
should have done something else.
STAY FREE: You've written that, before the Gulf War, Bush the elder's
administration made the Iraqi army sound a lot more threatening than
it really was. Bush referred to Iraq's scanty, dwindling troops as the
"elite Republican guard." Do you think that kind of exaggeration could
happen with this war?
MCM: No, because the great given in this case is that we are rousing
ourselves from our stupor and dealing an almighty and completely
righteous blow against those who have hurt us. Now we have to seem
invincible, whereas ten years ago, they wanted to make us very scared
that those Iraqi troops might beat us. By terrorizing us ahead of
time, the Pentagon and White House made our rapid, easy victory seem
like a holy miracle.
STAY FREE: Let's get back to conspiracy theories. Do people ever call
you a conspiracy theorist?
MCM: Readers have accused me of paranoia. People who attacked me for
The Bush Dyslexicon seized on the fact that my next book is subtitled
Paranoid Delusion and the Craft of Propaganda, and they said, "He's
writing about himself!" But I don't get that kind of thing often
because most people see that there's a lot of propaganda out there. I
don't write as if people are sitting around with sly smiles plotting
evil-they're just doing their jobs.
The word propaganda has an interesting history, you know. It was
coined by the Vatican. It comes from propagare, which means grafting a
shoot onto a plant to make it grow. It's an apt derivation, because
propaganda only works when there is fertile ground for it. History's
first great propagandist was St. Paul, who saw himself as bringing the
word of God to people who needed to hear it. The word wasn't
pejorative until the first World War, when the Allies used it to refer
to what the Germans did, while casting their own output as
"education," or "information."
There was a promising period after the war when it got out that our
government had done a lot of lying. The word propaganda came to
connote domestic propaganda, and there were a number of progressive
efforts to analyze and debunk it. But with the start of World War II,
propaganda analysis disappeared. Since we were fighting Nazi
propaganda with our own, it wasn't fruitful to be criticizing
STAY FREE: I read that the word "propaganda" fell out of fashion among
academics around that time, so social scientists started referring to
their work as "communications." It was no longer politically safe to
study how to improve propaganda.
MCM: Experts in propaganda started doing "communications" studies
after the war. Since then, "communication" has been the most common
euphemism used for "propaganda," as in "political communication."
There's also "psychological warfare" and, of course, "spin."
The Cold War was when "propaganda" became firmly linked to Communism.
"Communist propaganda" was like "tax-and-spend Democrats" or "elite
Republican guard." The two elements were inseparable. If the
Communists said it, it was considered propaganda; and if it was
propaganda, there were Communists behind it. Only now that the Cold
War is over is it possible to talk about U.S. propaganda without
running the risk of people looking at you funny. The word does still
tend to be used more readily in reference to liberals or Democrats.
The right was always quick to charge Bill Clinton-that leftist!-with
doing propaganda. In fact, his right-wing enemies, whose propaganda
skills were awesome, would routinely fault him for his "propaganda."
You never heard anybody say Ronald Reagan was as a master
propagandist, though. He was "the Great Communicator."
STAY FREE: Talk a bit about how conspiracy is used to delegitimize
someone who's doing critical analysis. I've heard you on TV saying, "I
don't mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but . . . " People
even do this in regular conversation. A friend of mine was telling me
about going to Bush's inauguration in D.C. He was stunned that none of
the protests were covered by the media but prefaced his comments by
saying, "I want don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but
[the press completely ignored the protests]." It's almost as if people
feel the need to apologize if they don't follow some party line.
MCM: I wouldn't say that, because there are people who are conspiracy
theorists. And I think the emphasis there should not be on the
conspiracy but on the theory. A theorist is a speculator. It's always
much easier to construct a convincing conspiracy theory if you don't
bother looking at reality. The web is filled with stuff like this. So,
if you want cover yourself, you should say something like: "I don't
subscribe to every crackpot notion that comes along, but in this case
there's something funny going on-and here's the evidence." It really
is a rhetorical necessity. Especially when you're on TV.
STAY FREE: Maybe it's more of a necessity, too, when you're talking
MCM: I'll tell you something: it's necessary when you're talking about
real conspiracies. You know who benefited big time from the cavalier
dismissal of certain conspiracies? The Nazis. The Nazis were expert at
countering true reports of their atrocities by recalling the
outrageous lies the Allies had told about the Germans back in World
War I. The Allies had spread insane rumors about Germans bayoneting
Belgian babies, and crucifying Canadian soldiers on barn doors, and on
and on. So, when it first got out that the Nazis were carrying out
this horrible scheme, their flacks would roll their eyes and say, "Oh
yeah-just like the atrocity stories we heard in WWI, right?"
STAY FREE: I once attended a lecture on Channel One [an
advertising-funded, in-school "news" program], where a professor
dissected several broadcasts. He talked about how Channel One stories
always emphasize "oneness" and individuality. Collective efforts or
activism is framed in the negative sense, while business and
governmental sources are portrayed positively and authoritatively.
Now, someone listening to this lecture might say, "That just your
reading into it. You sound conspiratorial." So where do you think this
sort of media analysis or literary analysis and conspiracy-mongering
MCM: That's a very good question. For years I've encountered the same
problem as a professor. You've got to make the point that any critical
interpretation has to abide by the rules of evidence-it must be based
on a credible argument. If you think I'm "reading into it," tell me
where my reading's weak. Otherwise, grant that, since the evidence
that I adduce supports my point, I might be onto something. Where it
gets complicated with propaganda is around the question of intention,
because an intention doesn't have to be entirely conscious. The people
who make ads, for example, are imbedded in a larger system; they've
internalized its imperatives. So they may not be conscious
intellectually of certain moves they make. If you said to somebody at
Channel One, "You're hostile to the collective and you insult the
individual," he'd say, reasonably, "What are you talking about? I'm
just doing the news." So you have to explain what ideology is. I'm
acutely sensitive to this whole problem. When I teach advertising, for
example, I proceed by using as many examples as possible, to show that
there is a trend, whatever any individual art director or photographer
might insist about his or her own deliberate aims.
Take liquor advertising, which appeals to the infant within every
alcoholic by associating drink with mother's milk. This is clearly a
deliberate strategy because we see it in ad after ad-some babe holding
a glass of some brew right at nipple level. She's invariably
small-breasted so that the actual mammary does not upstage the
all-important product. If that's an accident, it's a pretty amazing
accident. Now, does this mean that the ad people sit down and study
the pathology of alcoholics, or is it something they've discovered
through trial and error? My point is that it ultimately makes no
difference. We see it over and over-and if I can show you that,
according to experts, visual association speaks to a desire in
alcoholics, a regressive impulse, then you have to admit I have a
point. Of course, there are going to be people who'll accuse you of
"reading into it" no matter what you say because they don't want to
hear the argument. This is where we come up against the fundamental
importance of anti-intellectualism on the right. They hate any kind of
explanation. They feel affronted by the very act of thinking. I ran
into this when I promoted The Bush Dyslexicon on talk shows-which I
could do before 9/11. Bush's partisans would fault me just for
scrutinizing what he'd said.
STAY FREE: I recently read Richard Hofstadter's famous essay about
political paranoia. He argued that conspiracy is not specific to any
culture or country. Would you agree with that, or do you think there
is something about America that makes it particularly hospitable to
MCM: Well, there's a lot of argument about this. There's a whole
school of thought that holds that England's Civil War brought about a
great explosion of paranoid partisanship. Bernard Baylin's book The
Ideological Origins of the American Revolution includes a chapter on
the peculiar paranoid orientation of the American revolutionaries. But
I think paranoia is universal. It's an eternal, regressive impulse,
and it poses a special danger to democracy.
STAY FREE: Why, specifically, is it dangerous to democracy?
MCM: Because democracies have always been undone by paranoia. You
cannot have a functioning democracy where everyone is ruled by mutual
distrust. A democratic polity requires a certain degree of
rationality, a tolerance of others, and a willingness to listen to
opposing views without assuming people are out to kill you. There's a
guy named Eli Sagan who wrote a book on the destructive effect of
paranoia on Athenian democracy. And I think that the American
experiment may also fail; America has always come closest to betraying
its founding principles at moments of widespread xenophobic paranoia.
In wartime, people want to sink to their knees and feel protected.
They give up thinking for themselves-an impulse fatal to democracy but
quite appropriate for fascism and Stalinism.
The question now is whether paranoia can remain confined to that
thirty-or-so percent of the electorate who are permanently crazy.
That's what Nixon himself said, by the way-that "one third of the
American electorate is nuts." About a third of the German people voted
for the Nazis. I think there's something to that. It's sort of a magic
STAY FREE: Come to think of it, public opinion polls repeatedly show
that 70% of the public are skeptical of advertising claims. I guess
that means about 30% believe anything.
MCM: Wow. I wonder if that lack of skepticism toward advertising
correlates in any way with this collective paranoia. That would be
interesting to know.
STAY FREE: Well, during the Gulf War, a market research firm conducted
a study that found that the more hawkish people were, the more likely
they were to be rampant consumers. Warmongers, in other words,
consumed more than peaceniks. Why do you think these two reactions
might be correlated?
MCM: One could argue that this mild, collective paranoia often finds
expression in promiscuous consumption. Eli Sagan talks about the
"paranoidia of greed" as well as the "paranoidia of domination." Both
arise out of suspicion of the enemy. You either try to take over all
his territory forcibly, or you try to buy everything up and wall
yourself within the fortress of your property.
STAY FREE: Those two reactions also practically dominate American
culture. When people from other countries think of America, they think
of us being materialistic and violent. We buy stuff and kill people.
Do you think there's any positive form of paranoia? Any advantage to
MCM: No, I don't, because paranoids have a fatal tendency to look for
the enemy in the wrong place. James Angleton of the CIA was so very
destructive because he was paranoid. I mean, he should have been in a
hospital-and I'm not being facetious. Just like James Forrestal, our
first defense secretary. These people were unable to protect
themselves, much less serve their country. I think paranoia is only
useful if you're in combat and need to be constantly ready to kill.
Whether it's left-wing or right-wing paranoia, the drive is ultimately
STAY FREE: Our government is weak compared to the corporations that
run our country. What role do you see for corporations in the
MCM: Well, corporations do largely run the country, and yet we can't
trust them with our security. The private sector wants to cut costs,
so you don't trust them with your life. Our welfare is not uppermost
in their minds; our money is. So what role can the corporations play?
STAY FREE: They can make the puffy suits!
MCM: The puffy suits and whatever else the Pentagon claims to need.
Those players have a vested interest in eternal war.
STAY FREE: Did you read that article about Wal-Mart? After September
11, sales shot up for televisions, guns, and canned goods.
MCM: Paranoia can be very good for business.
STAY FREE: Have you ever watched one of those television news shows
that interpret current events in terms of Christian eschatology? They
analyze everyday events as signs of the Second Coming.
MCM: No. I bet they're really excited now, though. I wonder what our
president thinks of that big Happy Ending, since he's a born-again.
You know, Reagan thought it was the end times.
STAY FREE: But those are minority beliefs, even among born-again
MCM: It depends on what you mean by "minority." Why are
books by Tim LaHayes selling millions? He's a far-right
fundamentalist, co-author of a series of novels all about the end
times-the Rapture and so on. And Pat Robertson's best-seller, the New
World Order, sounds the same apocalyptic note.
STAY FREE: He's crazy. He can't really believe all that stuff.
MCM: No, he's crazy and therefore he can believe that stuff. His nurse
told him years ago that he was showing symptoms of paranoid
STAY FREE: I recently read a chapter from Empire of Conspiracy-an
intelligent book about conspiracy theories. But it struck me that the
author considered Vance Packard, who wrote Hidden Persuaders, a
conspiracy theorist. Packard's book was straightforward journalism. He
interviewed advertising psychologists and simply reported their
claims. There was very little that was speculative about it.
MCM: The author should have written about Subliminal Seduction and the
other books by Wilson Brian Key.
STAY FREE: Exactly! That nonsense about subliminal advertising was a
perfect example of paranoid conspiracy. Yet he picked on Vance
Packard, who conducted his research as any good journalist would.
MCM: Again, we must distinguish between idle, lunatic conspiracy
theorizing, and well-informed historical discussion. There have been
quite a few conspiracies in U.S. history-and if you don't know that,
you're either ignorant or in denial. Since 1947, for example, we have
conspiratorially fomented counter-revolutions and repression the world
over. That's not conspiracy theory. That's fact-which is precisely why
it meets the charge of speculation. How better to discredit someone
than to say she's chasing phantoms-or that she has an axe to grind?
When James Loewen's book Lies Across America was reviewed in The New
York Times, for example, the reviewer said it revealed an ideological
bias because it mentions the bombing of civilians in Vietnam. Loewen
wrote back a killer letter to the editor pointing out that he had
learned about those bombings from The New York Times. Simply
mentioning such inconvenient facts is to be dismissed as a wild-eyed
When someone tells me I'm conspiracy-mongering I usually reply, "It
isn't a conspiracy, it's just business as usual."
STAY FREE: That's like what Noam Chomsky says about his work: "This is
not conspiracy theory, it is institutional analysis." Institutions do
what is necessary to assure the survival of the institution. It's
built into the process.
MCM: That's true. There's a problem with Chomsky's position,
though-and I say this with all due respect because I really love
Chomsky. When talking about U.S. press coverage, Chomsky will say that
reporters have internalized the bias of the system. He says this, but
the claim is belied by the moralistic tone of Chomsky's critique-he
charges journalists with telling "lies" and lying "knowingly." There
is an important contradiction here. Either journalists believe they're
reporting truthfully, which is what Chomsky suggests when he talks
about internalizing institutional bias. Or they're lying-and that, I
think, is what Chomsky actually believes because his prose is most
energetic when he's calling people liars.
One of the purposes of my next book, Mad Scientists, will be to
suggest that all the best-known and most edifying works on propaganda
are slightly flawed by their assumption that the propagandist is a
wholly rational, detached, and calculating player. Most critics-not
just Chomsky, but Jacques Ellul and Hannah Arendt, among others-tend
to project their own rationality onto the propagandist. But you can't
study the Nazis or the Bolsheviks or the Republicans without noticing
the crucial strain of mad sincerity that runs throughout their work,
even at its most cynical.
STAY FREE: You have written that even worse than the
possibility that a conspiracy exists may be the possibility that no
conspiracy is needed. What do you mean by that?
MCM: The fantasy of one big, bad cabal out there is terrifying but
also comforting. Not only does it help make sense of a bewildering
reality, but it also suggests a fairly neat solution. If we could just
find all the members of the network and kill them, everything will be
okay. It's more frightening to me that there are no knowing authors.
No one is at the top handling the controls. Rather, the system is on
auto-pilot, with cadres just going about their business, vaguely
assuming that they're doing good and telling truths-when in fact they
are carrying out what could objectively be considered evil. What do
you do, then? Who is there to kill? How do you expose the
perpetrators? Whom do you bring before the bar of justice-and who
believes in "justice"?
And yet I do think that a lot of participants in this enterprise know
they're doing wrong. One reason people who work for the tobacco
companies make so much money, for example, is to still the voice of
conscience, make them feel like they're doing something valuable. But
the voice is very deeply buried.
Ultimately, though, it is the machine itself that's in command, acting
through those workers. They let themselves become the media's own
media-the instruments whereby the system does its thing. I finally
learned this when I studied the Gulf War, or rather, the TV spectacle
that we all watched in early 1991. There was a moment on the war's
first night when Ron Dellums was just about to speak against the war.
He was on the Capitol steps, ready to be interviewed on ABC-and then
he disappeared. They cut to something else. I was certain that
someone, somewhere, had ordered them to pull the plug because the
congressman was threatening to spoil the party. But it wasn't that at
all. We looked into it and found the guy who'd made that decision,
which was a split-second thing based on the gut instinct that Dellums'
comments would make bad TV. So that was that-a quick, unconscious act
of censorship, effected not by any big conspiracy but by one eager
employee. No doubt many of his colleagues would have done the same.
And that, I think, is scarier than any interference from on high.
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