want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face
-- George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Bob Dylan’s right. The pump don’t work cause the vandals took the handle. That was 40 years ago, but it’s still a contemporary analogy. The “pump” is democracy, the “vandals” are corporations, and “handle,” of course, is the free press.
Robert Kane Pappas, director of Orwell Rolls in His Grave, could have used that metaphor in his documentary, if he wished, but didn’t need to. Instead, by mapping how the mainstream news media distort reality by projecting what’s important to their corporate owners, Pappas reveals that American culture has become a world of Orwellian doublespeak in which Big Brother is the political-corporate elite.
But alas, as these first two paragraphs show, the crisis these United States now face is the latest version of the malevolence that has plagued humankind throughout the ages, but most hideously during the last century. Those opposing it struggle against bureaucracy, centralization, privatization, incorporation, colonialism, consumption, hero worship, stupidity, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, bullying, blind emotion, obscene spectacle, nationalism, ubiquitous vanity, greed, the psychopathy of totalitarianism and the neuroses of slavery, wages paid or not. And finally, they – we -- struggle against our own goddamned hubris.
We’re now under siege by an enemy from within: “patriotic” right-wing Americans, about 99 percent white, who celebrate all of the above. You know them as the folks who exercise their right to consume without giving anything back to the earth because they’re rugged individuals, who experience road rage while driving monster trucks, revere strength and respect aggression, who value security ahead of freedom, cheer on wars as long as they have the advantage, and masturbate to Hip Hop videos once their “loved” ones have gone to bed. They’re NASCAR and football and hockey fans who vote Republican and identify with the manipulation of speed and the necessity of collision as rudiments of their rough and tumble daily lives, while lacking any sense of the “big picture,” opting instead for a literal faith in a Jesus they know nothing about and some dreamy concept of their imminent rapture before the looming apocalypse. These are the ingrates running America against the backdrop of an ever-increasing morbidity rate within the planet’s ecosystem that’s being catalyzed by humankind’s medulla oblongata impulses toward greed, power and gluttony.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot, there’s also the geo-political realities of peak oil brewing beneath the veneer of the corporate sponsored spectacle called “prime time.” There’s a big die-off underway, but it has no entertainment value. It can’t be consumed because it’s consuming us.
The question is: How did America take this insanely selfish hard right turn?
In George Orwell’s time as a writer (1930-50), the global enemy was fascism, particularly Nazism. A world war was waged, and the side that was defending itself won. An aftershock of this war was the emergence of the postmodern military-industrial complex. The premier newsman of the day was Edward R. Murrow.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s 1949 novel, strips naked the duplicity of a meddling, bureaucratized state symbolized by “Big Brother,” which has invented "newspeak," a form of language intended to obscure truth. A year later, in “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell directly links the corruption of language to authoritarianism. Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun. Confucius, when asked what his first official act would be if he were made emperor of China, answered: “Rectify the language.”
Orwell was intellectually and morally offended when confronted with totalitarianism in the form of Stalinist Russia, which he dramatized in his most popular novel among Americans, Animal Farm. But he was also a soldier against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, and was wounded by communists during a power struggle among the antifascist opposition groups. So, yes, his antipathy for communism was personal and well documented. But he had been allied with them in the initial fight against fascism.
According to the New York Times’ original review of Nineteen Eighty-Four, British socialism annoyed Orwell, which the reviewer, not Orwell, described as a “drab gray pall” that had been cast over post-war Britain. It wasn’t the years of bombing, of course, that had caused the malaise, but the political-economic system! The U.K. was rebuilding its war-ravaged cities, and its government took a socialist approach because its shell-shocked, grief-stricken citizenry needed help, and lacked the energy and preternatural desire to be “bastions of freedom,” as they had, as people, given up on colonialism. U.S. cities, however, due to their geographical isolation from the rest of the world (with more tombs and monuments, broken hearts, single women, and men with missing limbs and shattered minds being their only palpable testimony to the war that had just occurred), and allegedly having long rebounded from the Great Depression thanks to the “socialist” policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the refined petroleum-, chemical- and nuclear-based military-industrial machine that emerged during the war effort, were booming. Though some “experts” were predicting a return to the Depression as a perverse peace dividend, and so promoted the need to maintain FDR’s social programs, most saw the way to keep going was to keep growing, which meant producing and consuming ever greater quantities of a limited variety of products derived from limited, non-renewable resources. Consumption became patriotic, as it drove the defense industry during an arms race with the Godless communists.
The Soviet Union was the needed external enemy of the capitalist west, so federal budgets remained on a wartime footing and strategies for dismantling the New Deal began among the nation’s hawks behind closed doors. To them, the New Deal was socialism, of course, and social-ism was one step away from communism. They worshipped individual-ism, and found the concept of social Darwinism to be self-evident. Privatization, predation, colonialism and empire, thus, were natural, universal urges of all men and shouldn’t be tampered with, despite all the evidence to the contrary among our closest allies. Again, America’s detachment from the rest of the world was the source of its increasingly pathological desire for the “good life.”
Though the Times’ 1949 review is favorable, it’s too quick to point out socialism as the primary source of Orwell’s frustration with the British political-economic system—a constitutional monarchy bolstered by socialized industry. Simply put, the American review emphasized that part of the novel which the reviewer perceived as bolstering the cause of capitalism against the godless commies, in other words, confirmed “his” worldview, rather than looking at it as the way such a system works regardless of the ism it claims to be adhering to.
Newspeak, modeled on the rising jargon of the U.K.’s bureaucratic establishment, intended to make sure “there will be no tools for thinking outside the concepts provided by the state,” which is controlled by a single party whose membership comprises a small minority of the population. The party’s leadership, of course, is the only “free” segment of society. The masses are slaves of conformity, producing and consuming with no concept of what they’re really doing. The “proles,” as Orwell calls them, are led into materialistic wantonness for Big Brother’s benefit. The party leadership, of course, lead “chaste” lives enforced by the “Anti-Sex League.” “Thought Police” monitor the most intimate details of party members’ lives using high tech surveillance. What was private is now public. They are free of secrets, existing in non-celebrity fish bowls.
By focusing on a minor figure within the ruling party, a man whose job it is to expunge historical facts from the record that subvert the politically expedient “truth” of the moment, Orwell brilliantly constructs the legalese and methods of what the party has deemed “thought crimes,” its devious political-economy and celebration of the Hobbesian worldview of nature being a state of eternal warfare, where life is short, brutish and simple (if you’re weak). The ruling party’s number one purpose, therefore, is to crush any meaningful or true concept of individual identity. By doing so, disorder ends and everything runs efficiently -- a well-oiled machine. Say what you will, but your favorite show is always there for you when you need it, just like Mussolini made the trains run on time.
Indeed, power and the desire for order and efficiency lead to the usurpation of humankind’s higher ideals. Absolutely. And which is the most “powerful” nation in the world with the most puffed-up, unrealistic vision of itself and its role in the universe? Simply put, which nation’s citizens are fondest of chanting “We’re number one!” and “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!?”
Hint: It’s not Canada.
When Dylan wrote the lyrics to Subterranean Homesick Blues between 1963 and 1965, most Americans, himself and his fans particularly, had been deeply affected by global events since 1962.
First was the threat of nuclear annihilation that had been brought home by the Cuban missile crisis, which was nearing its third anniversary. Next was the looming second anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Third was the murder of civil rights activists and church bombings in the South, especially Mississippi and Alabama, which had put the nation on edge. Fourth was America’s growing entanglement in the Vietnam War, thanks to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution concocted by the Johnson administration and authorized by Congress over the previous summer. Fifth was a sea change in American popular culture. Gone were the days of Fabian, Pat Boone and Frankie Avalon. Elvis was starting to make B-movies for the colonel. Rock’n’Roll was becoming more a British art form than American -- with one major exception -- as America’s stature and popularity suffered around the world. Fear ruled the day, and one had to be a sworn anti-communist to get anywhere in politics, business or the arts. Those people who were sensitive to the above issues and celebrated the fact the world was entering an era of great upheaval, unlike most Americans who just wanted all the crap to stop, were subjected to blacklisting and worse. The military-industrial complex was having its way with the federal budget, treating Congress like a cheap date, and quickly incorporating itself as a political-economic necessity for the nation’s survival. America’s top journalist was Walter Cronkite, who was branded “the most trusted man in America.” And what was good for General Motors was good for all of us.
Dylan, like Jack Kerouac a decade before, was rebelling against the closing of the American road; and, like Thoreau ten decades before that, he was raging against the loss of the commons. Dylan was, like America itself, at a transitional moment, on the cusp of either being shackled and caged by the political-economic culture, or escaping from it. The bridge back was gone. New bridges needed building, and a powerful counterculture was born.
In the program of his 1964 Halloween Concert, Dylan had written a message, “Advice for Geraldine on her Miscellaneous Birthday,” which open with these caustic commandments and critical response: “stay in line. stay in step. People are afraid of someone who is not in step with them. it makes them look foolish t' themselves for being in step. it might even cross their minds that they themselves are in the wrong step.”
Indeed, the times were changing, but few realized just how much, or understood what the changes really were.
The 1970s saw Watergate, the fall of Saigon, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, oil embargoes, deep recession and the huge growth of cable television and the large corporations that profited from it. There was also disco. The decade pretty much sucked.
Suffering from a nationwide malaise, the discontented proles elected Ronald Reagan president, and a new day dawned in America. Especially for the military-industrial complex, which began transforming itself into a postmodern military-petroleum complex, cheered on by a news media that it began buying up in huge chunks.
Most were proud to be an American, where at least they “knew” they were “free.” One of the most popular bumper stickers of the decade was, ironically, “I owe, I owe, So off to work I go.” Good Americans were not allowed to view themselves as wage slaves, being imbued with Anglo-Puritan values no matter their race, ethnicity or gender. America was allegedly a classless society because anyone could rise to the top and acquire privileges. The separation between rich and poor began expanding, and the corporate media succeeded in getting the masses to not only go along, but cheer the advancements of the upper class. Everyone dreamed of living a lifestyle of the rich and famous, where they would be on TV everyday.
Somewhere along the line, these poor, uneducated fools -- most of us suckers (we’re born again every minute) -- got totally ripped off.
IN HIS GRAVE
Today, a full two decades beyond Orwell’s prophesied year, 1984, we have a war on two abstract nouns -- terrorism and evil. We have a corporate government thhat was able to write and pass a law (the PATRIOT Act), several hundred pages long, allegedly in a matter of days, that the “legislators” never read. It essentially weakened the rights of human beings and increased government power, which is essentially privatized. No child is being left behind and Bill O’Reilly is the nation’s top TV news personality, running a “no spin zone” for cognitively dissonant Neanderthals.
In Orwell Rolls in His Grave, Pappas has provocative answers to questions most people will never hear directed to the corporate news media: Are Americans pathologically detached from reality thanks to corporate manipulation and censorship of news? Isn’t it ironic that in an era when there are more news sources than ever before, regular folks are less and even misinformed because the “news” is owned and operated by fewer and fewer corporate persons with ever more convergent viewpoints?
“We falsely think of our country as a democracy when it has evolved into a mediacracy --where a media that is supposed to check political abuse is part of the political abuse,” says Danny Schecter, an author and filmmaker whose latest project is Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception: How the Media Failed to Cover the War on Iraq, one of the documentary’s many talking heads.
Another, Mark Crispin Miller, a media professor at New York University, describes how the corporate media now vie with the government for control over our lives: “They are not a healthy counterweight to government. Goebbels said that what you want in a media system -- he meant the Nazi media system -- is to present the ostensible diversity that conceals an actual uniformity.”
This practice results in a revolving door between private profiteering and “public service” among the political-economic elite, which is simply accepted as a fact of life among most of the exploited majority, who are dreaming that some day they or their descendants will join the privileged class.
In one of this outstanding film’s truly funny moments, liberal culture critic Michael Moore is delivering an impassioned speech to an unseen, but sympathetic audience. Waving his arms in the air, his face flush with frustration as he imagines what people 100 years hence will think of us while studying the records we’ve left behind, shouts: “The top 1 percent that controls the top 90 percent of the wealth have two major political parties doing their bidding for them, and the other 99 percent have NO political party representing them and NO representation in Congress and yet that 99 percent ran around saying, `we’re free, we’re free, we live in a democracy.’ Ooh, we’re gonna look like assholes.”
According to Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity, and author of The Buying of the President 2004: Who’s Really Bankrolling Bush and his Democratic Challengers -- and What They Expect in Return: “People sense, I think, that the financial elites and the political elites have become one in the same and that the people themselves have no voice in Washington, or in their state capitols, that they are somehow being left behind -- The gate keepers of the truth are not the reporters, they are the owners and the lackey editors who work for the owners and they’ll decide what flies and what works and what pays the freight in terms of advertising and the numbers.”
“To remove controversy from story selection,” says Robert McChesney, “there becomes a tremendous reliance on official sources. It means those people in power, political power or business power are the sort of assignment editors. What they want to talk about becomes news. If they agree they don’t want to debate something -- like the CIA -- it’s virtually impossible to introduce it as a story. The media companies are extremely successful because they actually control the means by which the public can learn about debates. Exxon would love to own the media, or Philip Morris, so any debate over cigarettes has to go through them.”
Of course, corporate lackeys inside government -- like FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican and son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, and another Republican FCC commissioner, Kathleen Abernathy, whose Congressional testimony footage Pappas uses brilliantly -- are ensuring such corporations as General Electric, which owns NBC, and media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, not only have the right to invest in mass media, but also to expand their ownership and control over public communication without any oversight.
Powell, a clueless beneficiary of nepotism, patronage and phony political affirmative action, tells a committee on Capitol Hill that he has “no idea who is celebrating our decision [regarding the further deregulation of media concentration rules].”
Abernathy was even more insane or disingenuous, whichever you prefer: “What you have to balance is the first amendment rights of the licensees [media corporations] against the rights of the public to have diversity, localism and competition.”
Of course, the feelings of corporations as living, breathing legal persons, must be considered. Balancing the “right” of the rich to make an obscene profit from others with the poor’s right to survive according to their own means is only humane, right?
At the FCC’s public announcement of further media deregulation last June, Pappas captures what is perhaps Orwell’s most poignant moment, Democratic commissioner Michael Copps’ dissenting opinion:
“Today the FCC empowers America’s media elite with unacceptable levels of influence over the ideas and information upon which our society and democracy depend.... I see centralization [on further media concentration], not localism. I see uniformity, not diversity. I see monopoly and oligopoly, not competition.”
During an interview, Pappas said he was drawn to Orwell for two basic reasons: the first being the way the latest news story, both in 1984 and the present situation, flushes the item preceding it down a memory hole; and the second, of course, being the abuse of language.
By using officially sanctioned “experts” and hiring the most marketable “moderator,” corporations are controlling our nation’s public discussion, according to Pappas. Corporations are playing smoke and mirrors with their imagined target audiences, focusing their attention briefly on one product and then another, then more snippets of infotainment until the targeted audience is totally mesmerized and self-deluded. Despite their technical ability to do so brilliantly, corporate journalists (i.e. wage slaves) never connect any dots, as to do so would prove their insanity and unmarketability as “conspiracy theorists.”
Pappas monitored corporate journalism, analyzing it closely over an extended period of time while researching the film, and became increasingly alarmed by the current shape and course of America’s ever-changing democracy.
“Watching the news over the last several years more carefully, I realized that complicated stories or concepts are boiled down to short `tag lines’ so the public's understanding of it is diminished. This euphemistic use of language turns everything into either a two-word marketing phrase, something is named the opposite of what it means. By lying first, or misnaming something first, you can define how people think about it, and quite strikingly?
“It’s so ubiquitous -- the mass news media, and the mass media in general -- that the public consciousness really is affected. It influences the way people look at things; it’s incredible how confused they are. The general public only hears around the edges of stories. They have the collective ability to remember what happened six months ago, but the ability to make any kind of connections seems to be diminished.
“When watching TV news, you notice there are polls for everything. We hear about these things called focus groups. The way they sell us anything…which car we’re going to buy, what cereal we eat -- the same exact techniques are used for politics, and for grouping the population very specifically, like you’re trying to sell them something. You massage it with the right words and focus-group those words. You can see how dangerous that is when it’s purposely used to manipulate a population.”
In Orwell, Pappas shows how he came to this conclusion, interviewing industry insiders and scholars, and interspersing their running commentary with documentary footage focusing on the complicity of the corporate media with a government that’s doing their bidding.
“People don’t understand how overwhelmingly important that point is,” he said.
In the film, Pappas shows a cross-ownership chart of media, and how five or six corporations own literally everything. The mass media is an oligopoly and its strongest players are trying to monopolize the market, which it already is in far too many cities and towns across America.
Media corporations feel that the public airwaves are up for sale, just like everything else.
When are we, the flesh and blood human beings of America and the world, going to say enough is enough?
Gimme Back My Handle
We need to revolutionize the boot stamping corporate news media before anything else can be accomplished. After all, the role of the news media is to educate people so they can behave as responsible citizens in a functioning democracy.
Just ask Rep. Bernie Sanders, Independent-Vermont and author of Outsider in the House, who ominously tells the camera that we “have reached the stage in American politics where the issue is not a debate over ideas. The issue is whether ideas at all matter.”
In most corporate newsrooms, those who think ideas are important are an increasingly marginalized minority. They are being driven out of their jobs by their corporate employers’ pursuit of ever-higher profit margins.
A personal anecdote: I used to be a reporter/columnist for a small town, corporate-owned newspaper. I was very outspoken and my skeptical eye toward those in power infected some of my co-workers. For a short while, we did a good job covering issues like racism, nepotism and other forms of public corruption. Circulation began rising, but alas, the business community rebelled. Increased circulation means nothing if your pool of targeted advertisers won’t do business with you. So, being a corporation, and bound by law to turn a profit for shareholders, the newspaper must change its editorial content to please the chamber of commerce. Employees who want to investigate injustice are told to shut up or go away. Some choice. Unfortunately, there are hundreds if not thousands of unpaid journalists out here who are just like me.
As I noted earlier, the tradition that Orwell Rolls in His Grave adheres to is one that rebels against the elimination of other possibilities and better alternatives, that rages against the mechanical privatization and development of the earth, which is commonly owned by all of its inhabitants -- from the tiniest microbe to Gaia herself.
The counterculture that was launched by the Beats and the events of the 1960s is due for resurrection. We’ve spent our three days in Hell staring down the Beast, and have survived to bear witness to it.
Our season is arriving.
Author’s note: I owe special thanks to Donna Litowitz of Florida for sending me this film and a half dozen others in the mail, at no expense to me, so I could review them. This is the first installment. To purchase your own copy, click here or go to www.buzzflash.com).
Chuck Richardson is a freelance writer whose work is archived at www.bastardpolitics.com. His first book, Memos from Apartment 5, is now available in most online bookstores. © 2004 Copyright Chuck Richardson.
Vetted: Lockport Journal & Buffalo News Doing PR Work for FMC Corp, August 17, 2004 --Dissident Voice, Santa Rosa, CA.; August 18-Sept. 1, The Beast, Buffalo, NY.
Will It Be R/evolution or Civil War?, May 31, 2004--Graphic Truth, Nevada.
You Are What You Enable: A Review of "The Corporation", July 27, 2004 -- Dissident Voice; August 18-Sept. 1, The Beast.
Fahrenheit-911: An Authoritarian View of American Fascism, June 29, 2004 -- Dissident Voice.
Public rally, private property--and buy something on your way out!, March 25, 2003 --Buffalo Report.
Looking for a death bed conversion, August 17, 2004 -- Dissident Voice.
Other Articles by Chuck Richardson
for a Death Bed Conversion