Like many people, I am often asked how many children were in my family growing up, and where I was in the mix. When I reply that “I grew up in the middle of five,” I often receive good-natured ribbing about how I must have been—take your pick—the most difficult, confused or impractical of my parents’ children. To which I always reply, “No. Actually, I was most fortunate of the group because my marginally forgotten status allowed me to observe the functioning of our family unit from a place of relative distance and calm, an experience that I like to think has served me quite nicely in life.”
If having more autonomy and reflective space was the best part of being in the middle of the gang, then not having a fixed “tribe within the tribe” was probably the least. To be in the center of a closely packed group was to be neither one of the “big kids” nor one of the “little kids” but rather someone who, in the more mass-production forms of child-rearing prominent in the 1960s, might find himself placed in one camp or the other on parental whim.
Though we don’t like to think of them this way, families are, among many other positive things, also systems of power. And like most systems of power, they rely, as the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg reminds us her marvelous autobiographical novel Lessico Famigliare (Family Sayings), heavily on the deployment of language and recurrent rhetorical patterns, verbal customs that for obvious reasons, overwhelmingly flow downward from the parents to the children.
It was, I think, owing to a desire to palliate the sometime sense of being at the mercy of parental caprice, as well as the need to fit in on a moment’s notice with different familial subcultures and their distinct lexicons, that I early on became highly attuned to the reality and power of verbal codes, a curiosity that I have been fortunate to parlay into a lifelong vocation.
What does it take, as in my case, to enter into a number of other national cultural systems as an adult and gain something closely approximating a native understanding of their internal dynamics?
First of all, it involves a gift for rapid pattern recognition, of sounds, of grammatical structures, and of common lexical and phonetic transformations. But arguably more important in the long run is a capacity to quickly locate and assimilate the historical, ideological, and aesthetic cliches that organize the life of the cultural collective you are seeking to understand; that is, the set of stories that same collective tells itself to make sense of the world.
Once you immerse yourself in this process of story-gathering, another question inevitably arises. Where do these enveloping social narratives come from?
During much of the latter part of the 20th century, the most common answer to this query among academics was that they trickle up from the “spirit of the ordinary people.” In time, however, this explanation—which not coincidentally nicely ratified the notions of participatory democracy being promoted by Western governments in the wake of World War II—lost sway, with students of identity-making returning in more recent years to an answer that had previously been seen as self-evident: mostly from the lettered elites.
It was and is these cultural entrepreneurs—scholars began to once again to admit—who, often backed by very large pecuniary interests, have always had a grossly outsized role in determining what the great mass of a given population comes to see as social “reality.”
Particularly instrumental in helping me see the creation of social “realities” in this way was the work of the cultural theorist Itamar Even-Zohar. The Israeli scholar not only provides us with abundant proof of the outsized role of elites in the making of culture throughout history, but convincingly asserts that, with enough archival digging, it is possible to effectively “map” the trajectory of a given set of social tropes from their invention and promotion by an individual or small group of thinkers, to its effective consecration as an unquestionable social “truth.”
To begin thinking and acting in these terms is, as I have suggested elsewhere, “to embark on a program of observational detoxification.” You begin to let the reports produced in the “prestige” media and much of academia, which you once imbued with considerable credibility, drift by your ears and eyes with little notice, and instead turn your attentions toward finding out all you can about the institutions and other clusters of power that have generated the rhetorical frames and ideological presumptions that effectively govern the parameters of what mainstream journalists and academics are allowed to think and say.
In time, clear patterns emerge, to the point where you can begin to predict the general upshot of the messages that will soon emanate from the mouths of public figure “X” or public figure “Y” in most circumstances. Similarly, if you listen and read closely across supposedly distinct media platforms you can begin to observe clear evidence of messaging replication rooted in the fact that the ostensibly antithetical information outlets depend, in the end, on the same rhetorical frames supplied by the same structures of power.
Doing this type of detective work today is, strangely, easier than at any time in the past.
One reason is the existence of the internet.
Another, arguably more important factor is the increasing brazenness of our sign-making elites; a product, it seems, of their ever-increasing power and, with it, ever more open disdain for the intelligence of the citizenry.
We’ve all seen parents who, when seeking to lead and persuade their children, talk to them in respectful tones, and those who, in contrast, resort quickly to screaming and insults to achieve their controlling ends.
Since its entry into World War I, if not before, the US has had a highly sophisticated domestic propaganda system designed to support its mission as an imperial power and bulwark of the global capitalist system. And for much of that time, those in the media and in academia who were aligned with its aims generally spoke to us like the “calm parent” mentioned above.
In the wake of September 11th, however, things changed. Subtlety was tossed out the window, and we were all forced into the role of the children of those ugly, screaming parents.
As horrible as it was, the propagandists’ lack of subtlety afforded those of us who were able to keep our minds in the face of this informational brutality with an extraordinary opportunity to increase our understanding of the nexus between state-corporate Big Power and Big Media.
During the first decade of the century, for example, the Neocons basically dared us to draw maps of the interlocking directorships through which they had effectively gained control of the US foreign policy establishment and its accompanying media apparatus. And they gave the careful observer more than enough material for the publication of several handbooks on how not to get duped again by their fear-driven, “problem-reaction-solution” approach to fomenting mass political mobilization and abrupt, top-down cultural change.
So blatant and unsubtle were the methods of bamboozlement used, and so horrible was the bloodletting and cultural destruction they made possible at home and abroad, that I, and I suspect many others were quite sure that we would never let a similar propaganda entrapment happen to us again.
And then came that fateful day in March 2020 when, using all the same informational terror techniques, with even less subtlety than before if that is possible, the state and its attendant media apparatus did it to us again. And a majority of the country, it seems, responded not like self-possessed adults capable of learning from past mistakes, but rather frightened and long-abused children. Maybe the screaming campaign after September 11th had affected the inner psyches of our fellow countrymen more profoundly than many of us were prepared to believe.
The Treason of the Experts
While the propaganda blitz after September 11th was impressive in its force and scope, those directing it were from a small fairly readily identifiable cadre of intellectual agitators, housed in well-known think-tanks, in transparently ideological publications and in key, captured nodes of the corporate media. True, there was also a degree of spontaneous support for the aggressive American response to the attacks in a few other sectors of America’s college-educated cohort. But in general, the “expert” class, by which I mean those in the liberal professions possessing post-graduate degrees, were generally cautious when not outright hostile to the Bush administration’s wars of choice. And in this sense, they remained true to the function they had assumed as a group in the wake of the protests against the Vietnam War.
But this time around, these privileged people, whose educational background putatively provided them with greater critical thinking skills than most, and hence an enhanced ability to see through the barrage of propaganda, fell immediately and massively into line.
Indeed, not only did we see them overwhelmingly accept the government’s repressive, unproven and often patently unscientific measures to contain the Covid virus, but watched many of them emerge online and in other public forums as semi-official enforcers of repressive Government policies and Big Pharma marketing pitches.
We watched as they mocked and ignored world-class doctors and scientists, and for that matter, anyone else who expressed ideas that were at variance with official government policies. They told us, ridiculously, that science was not a continuous process of trial and error, but a fixed canon of immutable laws, while promoting, on that same absurd basis, the establishment and enforcement of medical apartheid within families and communities.
We saw how, in the name of keeping their children safe from a virus that could do them virtually no harm, they greatly impeded their long-term social, physical and intellectual development through useless mask-wearing, social distancing and screen-based learning.
And in the name of protecting the elderly, they promulgated medically useless rules that forced many older people to suffer and die alone, deprived of the comfort of their loved ones.
And they topped all this off by rabidly backing the idea that every citizen of the Republic, including those same functionally immune children, be injected—under the patently illegal and immoral threat of losing their job and their fundamental rights to bodily autonomy and freedom of movement—with an experimental drug that was known to be incapable of doing the first thing a vaccine should be able to do: stop the transmission of the supposedly ultra-mortal virus.
But perhaps most frightening and striking of all was, and still is, the way so many of these people, who by dint of their educational backgrounds should have found it more easy than most to go to the primary sources of scientific information on the virus and the measures taken to lessen its impact, chose in large numbers—with doctors being very prominent among them—to instead “educate” themselves on these important matters with curt summaries derived from the mainstream press, social media or Pharma-captured agencies like the CDC and the FDA. This, paradoxically, while millions of intrepid and less credentialed people with a greater desire to know the truth, often became quite knowledgeable about the actual state of ‘the science.”
This devastating case of class abdication—which essentially turned the old adage about “To whom much is given, much is expected” on its head—is a central focus of this book.
Viewed more broadly, this is one man’s chronicle, at times indignant and at others reflective, of an extraordinary moment in the history of the world, a moment of crisis whose eventual resolution will have far-reaching consequences for our children and their children.
Will we renew our trust in the dignity, moral autonomy, and inherent miraculousness of each individual human being? Or will we, in our absentminded drift away from the only true sources of life and spiritual renewal—things like love, friendship, wonder and beauty—resign ourselves to the idea of living a new version of medieval serfdom, wherein our bodies and our minds are seen as, and used by, our self-appointed masters as a renewable resource for the execution of their megalomaniacal dreams?
This is the choice before us. I know which reality I prefer. What about you?
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