May 20, 2002
"Duas tantum res anxius optat, panem et circenses."
Dys-to-pi-a n. An imaginary place, as a country, of total misery and wretchedness.
In a recent interview (April 24, 2002) with Gary Kamiya, the Executive Editor of Salon, Gore Vidal comments that geography is no longer taught in US high schools. Vidal goes on, "They asked a cross-section of Americans, they showed them a globe of the world with all the continents and islands and oceans, and asked them to identify the United States. Nothing was labeled. And something like 80 percent couldn't find it. And a great many of them had a sense of humor, they picked Panama, because it's a nice little thing with two big globes, one above it, one below it. "
In an April 30, 2002 New York Times essay by Lawrence M. Krauss, the chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University, in which Krauss debates the perennial confrontation between science and pseudoscience -- "young earth creationism" (aka intelligent design), UFO's abductions (those little aliens..."regularly visiting, abducting and experimenting with our fellow earthlings."), the "health benefits of weak magnetic fields, " etc. -- he remarks, " [A]t least half of Americans polled in a recent survey by the National Science Foundation did not know that the Earth orbits the Sun, and that it takes a year to do so. " Poor ol' Galileo must be muttering from his resting place, "eppur se muove" ("yet it turns").
We all know, or at least somewhat sense, that the Enlightenment Era is coming to an end and that humanity will have to develop a new set of values if we do not want to become one of those 200 species that are disappearing each and every day as their biomass is being ineluctably transferred to our present feeding frenzy. But it'd take a seriously twisted mind to think that the road to extinction passes through a return to the Middle Ages!
Then, Vidal again: "I think that the whole world is going to have to face up to the fact that we are in for a kind of religious fundamentalism, whether it's (radical Islam) in the Middle East or Christian fundamentalism in our hemisphere," and "I suspect we're going to have to face head on that the great disaster that befell the West was monotheism -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam" [the Sky God religions]. In Vidal's opinion, following the theory developed by Giambattista Vico over three centuries ago, we are entering an age of chaos that will turn into theocracy.
Say welcome to the world of Attorney General John Ashcroft.
"The last eight months have showed the world the American character is incredibly strong and confident. Yet, prayer reminds us that a great people must be humble before God, searching for wisdom -- constantly searching for wisdom from the Almighty," said US Supreme Court-selected President George W. Bush the Second a few days ago when the front pages and TV News of the main media began running with the latest breaking story of the day, that possibly the administration had a foreknowledge of the dramatic events that took place on September 11, 2001.
Punditcracy and the elitocracy (they are not the same: the pundits serve the elite) are salivating. The American people want to know, have the right to know. We need full disclosure; a full investigation is de rigueur. "Clearly there is a lot more to be learned before we can come to any final conclusion about all of the facts, but it clearly raises some very important questions that have to be asked and have to be answered," declaimed Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle. "I am gravely concerned."
As MSNBC puts it, "What did President Bush know about hijackings? When did he know it? And, what did he do about it?"
Did He or did He not? That is the question.
Is it really?
Strangely, no one seems to be asking the correct question. Why did the White House disclose that Bush had been briefed in August 2001 that the al Qaeda network might hijack US passenger planes? Disclosure is not the forte of this tight-lipped, fortress-like administration, viz. the refusal to disclose the paper trail of the Energy Task Force Commission headed by "[criticism is] thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war" Vice President Dick Cheney, or the communications between the administration and Enron. They did not have to make this revelation.
And why is it that NBC News came up with the story that "U.S. planned for attack on al-Qaida" (MSNBC, May 16, 2002)? "President Bush was expected to sign detailed plans for a worldwide war against al-Qaida two days before Sept. 11 but did not have the chance before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, U.S. and foreign sources told NBC News."
"The document, a formal National Security Presidential Directive, amounted to a 'game plan to remove al-Qaida from the face of the Earth,' one of the sources told NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski.
The plan dealt with all aspects of a war against al-Qaida, ranging from diplomatic initiatives to military operations in Afghanistan, the sources said on condition of anonymity. "
Anonymous sources, White House revelations, noisy uproar from the blabbering crowd, all in a timely fashion....for stories that are not even particularly newsworthy. On October 29, 2001, in "Osama Bin Laden: Convenient Scapegoat?" we reported on the fact that the Afghan operation had long been in the making and was planned to begin in October of that year. The presumption that the US Administration had had to have some information about the coming attacks, even if not necessarily specific data (how, when, what, where), surfaced almost immediately in the wake of the disastrous events -- the US is not spending tens of billions of dollars or more (the exact amount is classified) on intelligence gathering without....gathering intelligence! -- and has led to countless conspiracy theories.
So, nothing new and nothing that cannot be dealt with in an efficient, emotional and political fashion. Listen to the vice president: "An investigation must not interfere with the ongoing efforts to prevent the next attack, because without a doubt a very real threat of another, perhaps more devastating, attack still exists" (May 16, in New York). Listen to the president: "Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people" (May 17, in Washington). Listen to First Lady Laura Bush: "I think it is very sad that people would play upon the victims' families' emotions, or all Americans' emotions. I know that my husband and all Americans know how he has acted in Afghanistan and in the war with terror" (May 17, in Budapest). And the president again: "Unfortunately, [Washington] is the kind of place where second-guessing has become second nature." Then, Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, went after N.Y. Senator Hillary Clinton, a sure thing to rally the troops. Finally, the ever so affable and paternal vice president, Dick Cheney, appears on the NBC Sunday morning news program, Meet the Press, to oh-so reasonably emphasize the ongoing dangers and de-emphasize the hoopla (May 19). All in all, a pretty well orchestrated affair, wouldn't you say?
In the boonies, the famed American people can disregard the entire hoopla as yet another internal bickering taking place within the rehashed feud of the bicephalous Washington family, the single party of American politics, the Republicrats. And they inherently believe in the compassion and goodness of the president. He could not have known, could not have. And, what the heck, they all lie anyway, don't they?
So, what's going on here?
Have you noticed that other stories are apparently no longer newsworthy? Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's off the front pages, allowing Israel to pursue its urbicidal policies in complete impunity under the radar screen. The coup and counter-coup in Venezuela has long been gone and forgotten. The continuing and ever expanding blunders in Afghanistan (failed operation Anaconda, increased 'collateral damages' -- and where's Osama, by the way?) does not deserve much attention. We still have yet to hear about the connection between the $3 billion Enron-owned gas processing plant in Dabhol, India, and the 'War on Terror' that had been planned and decided long before 9-11. This has consistently not made the news. The California natural gas swindle made it for a day or two before being relegated to the business pages and largely buried. We don't hear much about Colombia these days and the near implosion of Argentina is left unreported. Former President Carter's visit to Cuba was just a blip. Iraq comes and goes. One day it's about the revamped sanctions (how many times have they been tweaked?), the other it'll be how about going and get Saddam and nuke him if needed. Walking away from a signed but not ratified treaty (ICC) is a one-day item at most. Soon, we may hear again about the latest suicide bombing in Israel or India and Pakistan nuclear chess game, and we'll move on to the new story of the day.
But while it's an in-and-out cycle, a series of issues is more often out than in. From Tyco International to Global Crossing, Qwest, Worldcom and myriad other technology and communication firms (we're talking about a $2 trillion amount that has evaporated into thin air), from AOL-Time-Warner (they 'shaved' $54 billion in one big swoop) to the shattering accounting scandal, they're all buried. The ransacking of Social Security is definitely out as well as the blow suffered by pension funds or the States' revenue shortfall leading to increased local taxes and curtailment of services, and the reappearance of a mushrooming national budget deficit. The pauperization of the bottom two quintiles of the American people (that's 40 percent of the population or more than 100 million lives) deserves no more than a paragraph or two on page 18 or whatever of your favorite daily. Obsolete and dilapidated infrastructures (roads, bridges, etc.), soil erosion, deforestation, global warming, ice melting, droughts, and the ever-accelerating environmental despoliation of our habitat make the news here and there, when a report sponsored by a governmental agency or a university -- immediately contradicted by another report doctored by whichever other side of the issue -- before rapidly and quietly accumulating dust on some library shelves and adding a line or two to the résumés of the authors. Some news is not worth repeating, it would appear.
And some are: the US Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal has some leg left in the story and has been running for weeks now. Security-related news keeps abounding. Did the vice president not warn the public again that "without a doubt a very real threat of another, perhaps more devastating, attack still exists?" It's a dangerous world out there, full of 'evildoers,' but we have the "strength and the confidence" to overcome all these looming enemies. We are ready but we need to be more ready, and more still. So, the news showers the concerned but thankful readers and viewers with the need for increased defense spending and reminds them over and over that the reductions of their civil liberties is a modest and necessary price to defend their security and their freedom.
Overall, always left off-balance, with a sense of instability and anxiety, people cannot process all the information that comes stumbling on them repetitively and are more than happy to let the 'authorities' deal with the problems.
But there is something more profound going on, something to do with a general dissatisfaction with the status quo, a sort of uneasiness on the part of the population. Remember Abraham Lincoln, "You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." There's been a flurry of ideas and activities disseminated and organized on the Internet for the past decade that are essentially threatening to the elites. There is a larger segment of the population being more informed on the State of the World (disparity in revenues, abject poverty, etc.). Perhaps, more importantly, the worldwide economy is a basket case and the complexity of the many predicaments are such that any rational solutions (they do exist) would inherently be detrimental to the immense privileges of these elites -- or so they are convinced. At a more personal level, a lot of people have been negatively affected by layoffs and all the financial swindles of the expansion-without-end 90s that began to come to roost last year. Lots of people, ever deeper in debt in the pursuit of happiness, have seen their savings dwindle in a calamitous turn of the market when at the very same time the top executives bowed away smelling like a rose with huge financial compensations.
Francis Fukuyama, a grand priest of the elites (RAND Corporation, Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs, George Mason University), author of "The End of History and the Last Man" (Free Press, 1992) is the object of much attention and trepidations in Britain. In the last issue of Spiked, British writer and sociologist Frank Furedi writes that, "[m]uch of the critical reaction to Fukuyama's 'end of history' thesis missed the central point of his argument. Fukuyama did not seek to imply that history had literally ended and that nothing new would ever happen again. Rather, as he explained, he used the term 'history' in the specific Hegelian sense, to mean the 'history of ideology' or the 'history of thought about first principles'.
This version of the end-of-ideology thesis does not exclude change. But it does exclude the further evolution of human consciousness, and the development of a new and superior vision of how society should be run. History has ended in the sense that there appear to be no ideas that can credibly offer to take humanity beyond the status quo."
The status quo is very much what Fukuyama's patrons are all about. Change is welcome, even venerated like some totem or god-like creature, so long as it is quantified (always more of the same output) -- but never qualified -- within a specific social structure with defined rules, order and stability.
Fukuyama exemplifies what author Daniel Quinn denounces in his work. For the rulers "nothing different is possible. Nothing can be beyond civilization. Civilization is a final, unsurpassable invention." Their imagination stifled, their privileges potentially threatened, they circle the wagons, ready to defend their way. "Ours is the RIGHT way for people to live and everyone should live like us." "Civilization must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any circumstance." This is in essence a reactionary discourse and ultimately a self-defeating paradigm that has been going on across the ages. It's nothing more -- or less -- than a deadly power play.
The rulers need the status quo to remain in power. Bring up the walls; unleash the guard dogs; fabricate insecurity and destabilize any dissenting voices or movements; invent and manufacture enemies, especially weak enemies to better crush them; keep people off-balance; create anxiety and the high-priced drugs to dull it; and, above all, blind everybody through carefully-planted stories. Seed deception and drown people's attention under a torrent of information (misinformation?) so that one cannot make sense of the events and is left with nothing but emotional, irrational reactions.
Mind manipulation may not work forever when discontentment grows beyond control, but a disenfranchised, uninformed and poorly educated people that believe the world revolves around them, and call upon the sky gods for comfort and solution when feeling threatened in their daily lives by fabricated dangers and poor economic circumstances, will almost certainly veer further, as witnessed in Europe and all over the world, toward the expected direction: that of reaction.
So, tune in and hang on to the rails, for the sailing toward dystopia is increasingly encountering rough and foul weather!
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* [Author's note added June 3, 2002] I have corrected this quote after making two embarrassing errors. You can find more about this by reading Letters to the Editor as well as A Tiny Typo. (back)
Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.
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