[Paleopsych] Stay Free: Mark Crispin Miller on conspiracies, media, and mad scientists

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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 | [8]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
    so popular?

    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
    human intelligence.

    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
    of bombing?

    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
    about propaganda.

    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
    conspiracy theories?

    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
    anti-terrorist effort?

    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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