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.