The Impossibility of Democracy, Part III: The Religion of Propaganda

"Black History Month, which used to be known as February..."

Sam Francis' witticism has been repeated ad infinitum, by friend and foe alike, usually with little appreciation of the broader implications, which extend far beyond the politics of race.  The politics of race, let us never forget, is merely one comparatively small part of the Revolution against Western civilization and human nature.  Ever since the French Revolution, Jacobin reformers conceived it their duty to redesign the calendar.  If they cannot aways get away with dating the history of the world by their revolution or even eliminate traditional religious holidays, they always succeed in glutting the seasons (and street names) with sacred dates like 14 juillet, Cinco di Mayo, or the Friday or Monday that falls closest to the birthday of some beloved hero or martyr of the Revolution. 

The American calendar is increasingly dominated by these artificial feast days, and the annual rhythm is determined by consumerist seasons known as "summer vacation" and "only 90 more shopping days till Christmas," which nonbelievers celebrate with the same devotional zeal as a Medieval Catholic on a pilgrimage to Rome.  

It is the mark of the ideological state that private life and community traditions must take second place to the public good and the national cults.  Wherever "the public interest" is concerned, no one is to be exempt.  I once caught the end of a WW II propaganda film (I believe it is Gangway for Tomorrow), in which a loafer (played by John Carradine) is arrested and asked by the local magistrate what is he doing to help the war effort.  When Carradine declares that he can do what he likes in a free country, he is reprimanded and sentenced to work in a munitions factory.  In the last scene he is chipping in to help save the world for democracy with all the cheerfulness of a Gorky hero.

Where there are no wars to prevent us from minding our own business, there are always crises, many of them manufactured.  In the 1980's and 90's we had to endure the teenage pregnancy crisis, the hole in the ozone crisis, the AIDS crisis, the drug crisis, and the violence on television crisis.   In the New Millennium, we have survived the White Supremacy crisis, the Global Warming crisis, the School Shootings crisis, the Putin=Stalin crisis, the four year long Donald Trump crisis, the COVID crisis.   But crises, which are often boring and complicated, can be a hard sell.  Crimes and scandals make for more effective distractions from everyday life, especially if they can be dramatized in a show trial.  Since the 1970's, it seems, the only American calendar that counts--the television schedule--has been dominated by trials and hearings that have gradually usurped the functions of both news and entertainment.  

Although I can vaguely remember my Communist piano teacher talking about the McCarthy hearings, my first real experience with show trials came with the Watergate Hearings.  I had grown up in an anti-Nixon household, hearing my father quote what Joe McCarthy had told him about Vice President Nixon: "If that man ever gets to be President, it is time to leave this country!"   I had met Bircher types in college and detested them and their hero Barry Goldwater, but my experience with Leftists had been no more edifying.  I concluded fairly early in life that politics was a dirty game, and that the only politics that would ever matter to me were the affairs of small towns and friends in high places.  I early on formulated one of my basic rules: The initial form was simple:  Don't vote for anyone you don't know personally, and I later refined it to: Don't vote for anyone who, if he gets elected, won't take your call.

With such an attitude to national politics and with twelve hours a day committed to studying Greek and Latin, I naturally did my best to avoid the Watergate Crisis, but even the lack of a television set and a complete indifference to newspapers did not guarantee immunity.  I listened to music on the radio in those days, and the only place for music was the local NPR station, and even if I managed to avoid Mike Waters or Susan Stamberg, I could not avoid the conversations in the library or in the bar.  No matter how much I tried to resist, I ended up knowing as much about Watergate as most of my fellow-citizens, which is to say I knew what the Washington Post wanted me to know but nothing of any substance.   

I did find Woodward and Bernstein's pretensions to journalism amusing, and when it was revealed that all their investigative journalism really came down to a disgruntled FBI agent who contacted them, I was not at all surprised that the revelation did not tarnish the myth of the heroic investigators.  The "All the President's Men" lie is a small myth dependent upon a far greater myth, one of the founding Great Lies of democracy, that a healthy democracy depends on the freedom of the press, whose powers do not need to be spelled out in law or constitution, since they are engraved by nature on the hearts of men.

Of course there have been decent men and women who found work at newspapers and magazines, but, if there were any truth whatsoever in the myth, why have most journalists who hit the big time been spies for a party or government, blackmailers, scandal-mongers, blackmailers, and liars?  If there were any honor or dignity in journalism, how would people like Piers Morgan have a job?  The honor of the press is on par with the virtue of Hollywood actresses.  Yes, Jane Greer back in the early 195o's refused to sleep with a director, and Frances Dee was a virtuous wife--someone help me out with this, there must be one or two others.   Any lingering doubts I had about the integrity of the American press were dispelled by the coverage of Watergate, which inspired me with sympathy and respect for Richard Nixon.

After Mr. Nixon's resignation, it seemed like years before the next ordeal, but as the low dishonest century sputtered out to its disgraceful end, the spectacles came one after another, with hardly a breathing space in between: Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill Hearings, the Rodney King case, and, of course, the O.J. Simpson trial.  Every Republican appointed to the Supreme was vilified as a Nazi, and Donald Trump narrowly escaped a second impeachment, though what immoral pressures were put on Mitch McConnell to do the right thing, I can only speculate.  

I referred to these spectacles as "show trials," not because they are necessarily engineered by a repressive regime or designed to eliminate political rivals, but because they are used in much the same way that Stalin used the Moscow trials to deflect criticism from the Communist Party's criminal ineptitude and to rally his people around a dramatic episode that could induce a feeling of national solidarity.  The Soviet press, it goes without saying, played a vital role, in whipping up public opinion.  As Robert Conquest observed:

During the whole period of the trial, from the announement on 28 February 19938 that it would take place until the actual executions, the papers had, of course, been full of the demands of workers' meetings that no pity be shown to the "foul band of murderers and spies."  Leaders and articles rubbed it in.

The Western press also did it best to "rub it in."  While some leftist intellectuals and journalists condemned the trials (notably, John Dewey and the Manchester Guardian), the spectrum of liberal opinion ran from the enthusiasm for Stalinist justice, expressed by Walter Duranty of the New York Times, to the restrained skepticism of the New Statesman.  

One did not expect anything better from the Soviet Press, which was entirely under the Party's control.  In fact, Lenin had moved quickly in 1917 to suppress newspapers that were, in order, rightist, liberal, and revisionist-socialist.  Before the revolution, he had promised to divvy up the press organs among the progressive parties according to their electoral strength--something like the system used for the radio and television networks controlled by the Italian government--but once in power, Lenin quickly saw the importance of establishing a press that would, in Ben Bradlee's fine description of American newpapers, "serve the public interest."   How is this different from the Marxist maxim that truth is whatever serves the proletariat? 

We do things differently here.  We do not, for the most part, arrest dissident journalists or close down their papers.  Instead, we allow the press lords to establish multi-media conglomerates and invite them into the governing coalition.  The American press, in giving over their pages and air time to cheap thrillers--what the Italians call gialli--is, for the most part but not entirely, unwittingly serving as the propaganda arm of the regime.   The hysteria response to a crackdown on the social media reveals very nicely the naivete of conservatives and populists who think their liberties are being threatened by the Democratic Party.  There can be no freedom of expression, where there is no freedom of thought, and no freedom of thought, where thought itself has been suppressed by the vast industrial propaganda machine known as public education.  The first step to freedom is to recognize we are not now and have never in my lifetime lived in anything like a democracy or a free republic.  

Show trials and crises do not simply happen by accident, nor are the victims and causes chosen at random.  The crises are  manufactured out of prefabricated materials stored in warehouses until they can be used to destroy something fundamental in American or even human life.  Erwin Knoll--a veteran journalist of the honest-to-goodness Old Left--used to say that whenever the media were booming any particular crisis, it was a good indication that they had designs on our liberties, and a cynic might observe that as Presidents Bush and Clinton dragged us inexorably into the Balkan War, the press cartel succeeded, first in making sure there is no honest criticism of U.S. foreign policy, and second, in concocting a series of celebrity incidents that degrade the moral conscience of the citizens.   Who can care about Hilary Clinton's lies or Hunter Biden's crooked deals, when they have Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein to cluck over?

There are hardworking men and women here and there on the right and the left  in the press, and a few of them even have the wit to know what they are doing.  One or two can even write a coherent sentence in their native language, but a woman place-kicker in the NFL does not change the fact that it is a game for rough and violent males.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

14 Responses

  1. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    Excellent article and treatment for ideological sickness. “The Irony of Democracy” was the title of one of the textbooks for the required political science class I had at my early adult daycare center. Its thesis was that it’s ironic that the elites care about the trappings democracy and the hoi polloi don’t.

  2. Avatar Mark Atkins says:

    Dr Fleming, on a related note, is progressivism, liberalism, secularism, Enlightenment philosophy or whatever it is that you call the enemy a religion? What makes a thing a religion?

  3. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I’ll answer, first, by asking you to say what religion is, that is, list two or three essential attributes.

  4. Avatar Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Are you asking Mr. Atkins to answer his own question? Would he ask what makes a thing a religion if he could list two or three essential attributes of religion? Am I missing something?

  5. Avatar Mark Atkins says:

    Mr Van Sant, am I walking into a trap!

    Dr Fleming, I am no scholar or theologian but I will try. I have two ideas of religion in my head. One is that it pertains to our relationship with supernatural beings. The other is that it pertains to matters of faith. That which we believe to be true and which animates us, but cannot prove to be true.

  6. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    There is some truth, by which I mean reality, in both your ideas, but is either or are both together definitive? For example, I may believe in ghosts or elves or vampires, but that does not mean I have a religion based on them. Indeed, it is more likely that my religion will be opposed to them. It is also true that faith plays a part in many religions but also in most of life. People believe. that the sun will. come up tomorrow at a certain time, but they’d have a hard time explaining why or how they can believe that. They believe America is a constitutional republic, that Joe Biden either did or did not win the election, and that America’s Got Talent. If it were not for misplaced trust in self-evident “truths” the world would be a rather better place than it is.

    We can get at this business from two directions. The first is, we can observe religions we know something about and compare and contrast them with practices we should not ordinarily refer to as religious. That would be the anthropological method. Or we could start with the word itself, which means some kind of binding relation.

    Our anthropological method, if it was applied to Christianity, Judaism, and the religions of the Greeks and Germanic peoples, would tell us that Faith is not always important. Greeks, Romand, and Jews cared less about what you believed or felt than how you behaved in certain contexts. Not to attend a major public festival was a problem, and, for Jews, eating the wrong food or even the right food at the wrong time or the wrong context was an offense against religion. Cicero says when two Roman augurs were going through ritual divination they could scarcely keep from smiling at the absurdity, but they were not being irreligious.

    Well, then, what do these and other religions have in common? Rituals, formal prayers to be recited, sacrifices. Religion is performance art and not the content of what we believe. The word itself would lead us to the same conclusion, that religion consists of those duties we have to perform, to ascertain the will of divine beings and to remain in their good graces. A religion will also, secondarily, have formulaic ancestors to such questions as “Why is this night special?” “Why was I born?” and “To which god should I pray to be healed of my sickness?”

    So, too, the Revolutionary Faith has ritual gestures and formulas of belief, answers to questions, and truths they hold to be self-evident.

  7. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Mr. Atkins,
    It may be a trap but I will be trapped too because I think it was a good effort. I might add to your observation that it is also a human act that binds us or pledges one to the divine. I admire your honest courage in throwing it out there because it is a vast and also simple subject.

  8. Avatar Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Do do I understand correctly that truth, not even belief, is an essential element of religion? One only needs to go through the prescribed motions? If so, anything we do as a matter of habit or routine is religious practice. We cannot live without religion because otherwise we would need to improvise every time we wanted to do something. But of course doing something in a different way each time would also be religious practice. That simplifies things.

  9. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    “doing something in a different way each time would also be religious practice.” It would be an exceptional kind of religion, not attested so far as I know in the historical or anthropological record, but it is theoretically possible on condition that it was established as a law by superior/divine authority.

    I’m not trying to be at all original here, and I well understand that people use the word “religion” as a substitute for Faith or Sect or any number of related concepts. The anthropologists of religion, for a change, usually get it right and are fairly precise in applying “religion” neither to any recognition of the supernatural nor to belief. The Jews were a religious people, though Tacitus gives the Roman view that they are merely superstitious. Why? Because, he says, they worship a book written long ago and do not take the trouble to ascertain the will of the gods.

    The Athenians, who prosecuted Socrates for his impiety, were not really concerned with what Socrates believed but whether or not he taught young men to despise the religion of the Athenians. There is a curious Greek expression, νομἰζειν θεοὐς, which should mean something like “believe the gods” but in fact refers to conformity with religious practices, more like worship than believe in.

    For Christians, their religion is complex,, consisting, as it does in, 1) a credal belief that God is the maker of heaven and earth, that his son is also God, who came to earth in human form, and in his death and resurrection man is given hope of salvation, but also a strict moral code, enunciated in the Sermon on the Mount and by the writers of the Epistles, and 3) certain required practices, some of which derive from the Scriptures, the consumption of bread and wine in which we become one with Christ and with our fellow-believers, and others that were developed over time, such as singing hymns, reading Scriptures in assembly, revering saints and martyrs, etc. So long as Christians do their part in number three, and are at least successful in their feigning number two, only fanatics and kooks would pester them about number One.

  10. Avatar Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Human authority can create any religion desired. The only requirement is to get others to follow it. I think most practiced religions were created by human, not divine, authority. Going to read more Oakeshott who has some definite ideas about philosophy and, probably, religion.

  11. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Human authority, yes, but mere power no. One human individual or a small group can only manage to create a cult, such as the Unification Church. Religions are more a collective enterprise, springing from everyday life, and spanning generations. So-called higher religions, among which I would include the religions of the Hindus, Greeks, and Romans, include a systematic presentation of belief.

    There is a problem with the term “religion,” namely that in saying “the Christian religion,” we are putting it on par with every other religion. It is almost as foolish and dangerous as to speak about “the three great monotheisms.”

  12. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    Though I hardly consider myself to have even a good layman’s understanding of this, it appears as though in the various forms of gnosticism and other heretical things, you can behave just about any way you want, as long as you believe the right things. In the revolutionary cults, the systems of relegation change every week to accommodate the failures of a belief system structured around escaping the normal patterns of cause and effect, unless I am missing an important consideration.

  13. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    You are generally correct, though there have been people described as Gnostics who were strict in observance of their own morality, but too many held to a dual standard: They were dedicated to an ideal toward which they were working, but until they achieved perfection they were absolved from the moral law, if only because of their spiritual ambition. And this is exactly the position of the Revolutionaries who, when they are caught violating their own silly premises about being nice to everyone, inevitably declare: “That’s not who I really am. I’m a nice person!”, meaning that they are on the right side of history and therefore all their little weaknesses can be overlooked. Ask Alec Baldwin.

  14. Avatar Mark Atkins says:

    ‘So, too, the Revolutionary Faith has ritual gestures and formulas of belief, answers to questions, and truths they hold to be self-evident.’

    Dr Fleming, I appreciated all of your and the other readers’ thoughts above.