“Credibile est, quia ineptum est.” --Tertullian
“Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”
Since November of 2008, America’s powerful right wing has been obsessed with the notion that, as President, Barack Obama might be prepared to address the nation’s dire economic state by adopting a socialist agenda, or—what it deemed a greater threat—by adopting as his base the kind of grassroots movement that, circa 1932, compelled the Democratic Party to embrace the New Deal. What it feared was the emergence—the re-emergence—of a true economic populism: a counterpunch to the ideological circus it had been running in Red State America since it became apparent that the Republican Party was going to lose the Presidency in 2008, a blow that, as an assertion of the will of the people, would likely send it reeling, much as such an assertion did in the early 1930s. It feared the possibility of President Obama assuming the mantle of FDR: hiring the jobless, welcoming hatred, instituting—reinstituting—progressive taxation. And it had reason to. After all, Barack Obama Sr. was an avowed Marxian socialist. (Wasn’t he?) And, given that a majority of the American electorate expected of the new president a burst of Rooseveltian brio—one that might actually measure up to the President-elect’s campaign rhetoric—it only stood to reason the end was nigh for an era of government amenable to supply side economics and an unprecedented tax holiday.
To the end of forestalling such an unfortunate turn of events, the right preempted Obama’s first 90 days with a campaign of propaganda and disinformation that continues to this day. With a prodigious sector of the American mass media at its disposal—most notably, the Fox News Channel—it proceeded to drive home to a confused and increasingly impoverished precariat the notion that, not only was Obama the Second Coming of FDR—he of the 100% top marginal tax rate and a very public animus for America’s business class—he was un-American: a foreigner, a Muslim, a community (lisez ’communist’) organizer unfit for national office, much less the presidency. On top of that, more than any of these things, Obama was to be understood as Big Brother in the making: a totalitarian à la Hitler, à la Stalin and Mao (with a little King George, for good measure).
Hence the 2009 and 2010 machinations of one Glenn Beck and the pseudo-revolutionary zeal fledgling Tea Party Movement.
America’s right wing, in its decision to demonize Obama by associating him a militaristic, authoritarian hobgoblin the likes of Hitler seems to have fallen prey to a manner of Freudian projection. It seems to have glimpsed in its present bugbear precisely the scariest attributes of the unmentionables within its base. (You know… that untidy lot of ideological zealots that tends to show up at rallies screeching: “THE TRAITOR IS THE PLAGUE!” and “IF BALLOTS DON’T WORK, BULLETS WILL!”) Truth be told, if Nazism is to find a home here, in the waning days of the American Empire, its figurehead is far more likely to come in the form of an angry, bigoted, down-and-out, unemployed soldier of fortune in Montana than a smiling, polished corporate nebbish. Jaded and well-credentialed, Mr. Obama is neither a Hitler, nor a Stalin, nor a Mao. He isn’t even a Roosevelt, much to the chagrin of the millions that wanted him to be such circa 2009.
By now, the right wing knows this. It has likely known it all along—if not, then certainly since the first quarter of 2009. Without a doubt, to the savvy right-winger, the form Obamacare eventually took—an unwieldy, market-based nightmare rather than a rival to the best single-payer healthcare system in the world, the French—such was surefire indication that Obama was, in reality, Clinton 2.0
Yet it continued well after the 2010 mid-term elections: the right’s complicity in baseless, half-witted claims about Obama’s totalitarian ambitions by the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, in Pam Geller’s insidious allegations as to Obama’s status as a crypto-Islamofascist, in birtherism, in talk of “Second Amendment solutions”, and so on and so forth. I contend there was a reason for this complicity, a reason besides the obvious political advantage of being able to mobilize and control one’s political base by nursing a visceral hatred for the opposition. In Obama, or rather [O′]—the Obama cranked out by hate machines like the Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and the Drudge Report, and by a handful of truculent radio talk show hosts—the right has happened upon a true find, politically speaking… that which, in the hands of the most calculating and least principled of partisan operatives (a Karl Rove, for instance) is philosophical gold. Better than a philandering Clinton—whom, despite the latter’s complicity in its economic agenda, the right impeached—it had a figure Red State America could really hate, a figure about which ideologically purblind voters might believe anything, the Big Lie especially. In [O′], the right had what is, in the truest sense of the word, anathema.
Anathema, I say… So, what is anathema?—and, if there are those for whom [O′] passes for such, what does that say about them (i.e. what does it mean to have an anathema)?
The word ‘anathema’ is famously polysemous. On the one hand, an anathema is a person subject to a curse, especially one pronounced by an ecclesiastical authority. (To the Catholic Church, for instance, an anathema, one who is anathema, is a person who has been excommunicated.) Generally speaking, this sense of the word can be taken to mean any hated person or object, or to the state of being such an entity, i.e. being anathema to such and such. In a political context, this sense could be said to denote one, such as Obama—[O′]—who is held in effigy, as it were, by the Church of Rove. On the other hand, the word can be said to refer to a thing consecrated—i.e. set aside or reserved—for the purposes of Providence (the mother of all partisan king-makers). The confusion—if the OED is to be believed—derives from the problematic use of the Greek form of the word in 1 Corinthians 16:22, specifically the formulation “ἀνάθεμα Μαρὰν ἀθα” [anathema maranatha], which, modern philology insists, should be broken up by a period. (Makes sense. The modern readers of Corinthians is none too comfortable either with ambiguity or cursing in proximity to his conception of Jesus!) Thus, serendipity, rather than metaphysical mummery, would seem to be behind the two-faced nature of this word. That said, several hundred years of usage have given us the ‘anathema’ we have today: a signifier with ostensibly opposite meanings, a signified that is at once consecrated and execrated, and the concept of determining the object with the two operations—consecration and execration—in one and the same gesture… a gesture that both psychology and etymology tell us is fundamentally ambiguous.
The long and the short of my point, and the reason I consider Obama [O′] anathema to the right, is this. There is more to the right’s visceral hatred of this president than simple loathing. This ‘more’ isn’t mere racism (Atwater’s “Nigger, nigger, nigger!” in the 21st Century); nor is it an affectation, acting… feigning moral outrage for political purposes. There is in the right’s consistently spiteful attitude toward the President something like interest, like obsession, and even awe. It’s an animus that just won’t quit, a “passionate intensity” that, in fact, smacks of the reaction formation.
To the extent that it hates Obama—Obama [O′]—the right desires. It desires in the mode of a Medea, an Electra, and of Wagner’s Isolde… there’s a love to its hate that it can’t stand and that, to the unbiased observer of partisan politics, is (as it should be) positively sickening. It’s the kind of sentiment that gives you the creeps… yet keeps you watching!
And you are watching!
Despite being a thoroughly discredited and blatantly partisan source of news and information, the Fox News Channel still dominates the alternate universe we understand as broadcast journalism. Accounting for its popularity is rather like accounting for the popularity of the WWE. The vast majority of those who watch pro wrestling know it’s fake. It’s obvious that this activity owes its origins to the world of carnivals and circuses rather than the world of sports. We make fun of those who appear to take it at face value. Yet it is wildly popular. A fair number of those who, at any given time, might be heard scoffing at pro wrestling’s true believers (if such persons actually exist) might also be found buying into the act themselves: watching, cheering, loving, hating… As is the case with the right wing’s fixation with Obama, their paradoxical behavior cries out for analysis. For all the world, they act as though they read something of metaphysical significance into the ridiculous spectacle of outrageously ripped, middle-aged men in cat-suits aping mortal combat. They identify with—or are repulsed by—certain pro wrestlers to such an extent that their guilty, half-ironic pleasure can’t be written off to mere amusement. (And this analogy can be extended to millions more perfectly self-conscious individuals who buy into team sports rivalries: NFL, NBA, MLB, etc.) In a word, they buy into the hate—the love-hate—the wrestlers are selling in their escapades; they buy into it as though that hate were their own.
Of course, there’s a difference between the average WWE fan and, let us say, the John Birch Society heir having, on the one hand, a burning, existential hatred for a given political actor (whether an Obama or an FDR) and, on the other, capital reserves equivalent to the wealth of multiple sovereign nations. Let it be said, the latter’s passion has consequences… especially in the United States post McCutcheon and post Citizens United. To the end of indulging it, said heir can buy out State Houses and Governorships. He can steer media and university curricula. He can buy majorities in Congress. Apparently, he can even buy a SCOTUS Judge (or two). And he may one day buy the Presidency.
Now, there’s a good chance that—rather than in Armageddon—plutocracy in the United States may simply eventuate in more of the same… more of what Americans have been brooking for the past 34 years: wide scale poverty, deep-seated and systemic political corruption, a crumbling infrastructure, an increasingly precarious environment… this merely perpetuated for a few decades. There’s a chance the U.S. may simply limp by as is—as it is doing presently—until, one fine day, in the distant future, it occurs to its middle and working classes to disburden themselves of what Marx famously called “chains of illusion”. Economically, technologically, geopolitically, it’s on the wane. Soon enough, its present dominance will be mitigated by the ascent of the BRICs and the EU. And perhaps its decline will not have been the catastrophe that has been supposed. (Perhaps it will have been a good thing.) On the other hand, we must seriously consider the possibility that, resulting from the negative consequences of more of the same, the U.S. may actually become politically unstable, that the systems and the culture that have thus far prevented a fascist or Soviet-style power-grab may break down, leaving a nation with a nuclear arsenal, some 310 million guns, and the most powerful armed forces in the world (by an order of magnitude) virtually up for grabs.
It’s when we give due weight to the possibility of the latter scenario that the present machinations of political extremists in the United States and merchants of hate like Fox cease to simply amuse, that they must give us pause. It’s then that we begin to divine the reason that—notwithstanding substantial First Amendment issues—the FCC instituted the Fairness Doctrine for almost 40 years (1949-1987)… that broadcast media were deemed a public trust and not something that could be opened up to the vagaries of capitalism without considered regulation.
For years, when asked about the objectionable content of his radio and television broadcasts, Rush Limbaugh deflected, insisting that—in spite of the cultural and political implications loading it—his shtick was “just entertainment” and that he was, in the final analysis, “just a harmless fuzzball”. For years, this tactic worked—and made sense. Rush was Rush: a shock jock. Everyone got that. He racked up dittoheads, nettled the opposition, made lots of noise and millions of dollars. It was all good until roughly the turn of the century, when his idea of entertainment morphed into infotainment and the producer of his ill-fated venture into television, Mr. Roger Ailes, got his hands on a cable TV news network. Only, Ailes had more than entertainment on his mind.
By 2009, we got a sense of what can happen when—in the guise of a public trust—a major media outlet succeeds in packaging and distributing agitprop and propaganda as news and information.
True fact: from roughly the 1920s to the present, the public relations industry has been the secret of Corporate America’s success. As a check against unionism and anti-corporate sentiment, it has been uncannily effective. (The reason the past 100 years have seen the United States public for the most part passively accept the abuses of American capitalism is simple: PR works!) Yet, I would suggest that nothing it has achieved so far quite matches what the Fox News Channel has managed to pull off over the past decade. To the extent that, in the United States, all of the major providers of broadcast news and information engage in some measure of conventional PR—deferring to political correctness, supporting the conventional wisdom (which, often enough, is the government line), selecting by virtue of a political calculus what is and what is not given substantial coverage, etc.—Fox has distinguished itself by convincing its viewership to allow itself to be propagandized, to allow itself to be told the Big Lie.
Understand the distinction. Fox isn’t fooling anybody, not even its bread and butter, Red State America. It isn’t trying to. It has taken the art of public relations to the next level. It has achieved a level of rapport with its viewership at which even an Ivy Lee or Eddie Bernays would have to doff his cap, a level that would seem to have freed it from the cardinal burdens of the journalistic profession: veracity, fact-checking, and integrity of argument. For Fox it is able to dispense with pretense. It can simply tell its viewers what to think (which is the general approach of a program like The O’Reilly Factor). Truth be told, Fox’s command of its audience is so complete that it can afford to be flagrant… that it can lie… that, reaching in its rhetoric, it can risk falling into the occasional Orwellian irony (viz. “Fair and Balanced”)… that it can spoon-feed its viewership brazenly concocted BS and expect it to ask for seconds—and, what’s more, act as though it were being told the unvarnished truth.
More than any media outlet or public relations firm operating in the United States, Fox has perfected the art of inculcating what a recent Yale University study¹ has called ideologically motivated reasoning. In the words of the author of this study, the latter is “a form of information processing that promotes individuals’ interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups”. It’s not stupidity. It’s not pseudo-stupidity. I would suggest that it’s not even willed ignorance. The long and the short of ‘ideologically motivated reasoning’ is that—when substituted for critical or scientific thinking—it can lead perfectly normal, well adapted, and even intelligent people² (them especially) to embrace dogma as outré and unsound as that of the Flat Earth Society and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Where Hitler erred in formulating his theory of propaganda was not in the famous heuristic observation, “…in the Big Lie resides a certain force of credibility [ein gewisser Faktor des Geglaubtwerdens]” (i.e. the bigger the lie, the more they believe it). Where Hitler was mistaken was in inferring that the propaganda supporting the Lie had to be dumbed down to be effective, that the only way of consistently moving masses was to bring communications down to the level of those most ill-informed among the general public and hammer home one’s point via repetition. What the both Yale study and the M.O. of the Fox News Channel would seem to tell us is that neither content of PR communications nor the aggregate IQ of one’s target audience are so critical to the success of the propaganda effort as the ability of those providing the message to woo, to foster the process of brand identification in hearts and minds of the faithful.
The faithful, in the case of Fox News, are those whom, elsewhere, I have called ‘habitual Republicans’: those in Red State America who, come what may, vote Republican and take what are called ‘conservative’ positions as much or more out of tradition, brand loyalty, and—importantly—hatred of the opposition than an educated belief in the party platform. (A noteworthy correlate to the habitual Republican is what used to be known as the ‘Kennedy Democrat’, that class of voters that, in the sixties, began voting Democrat as much because of the appeal of the Kennedy brand as belief in boilerplate Democratic politics.) What bears remembering about habitual Republicans is this. On the whole, they don’t themselves buy into—and some don’t even know—the radical course on which the Republican Party is set, and has been for about 30 years now. (If polled about the notions of ‘Starve the Beast’ and ‘Plutonomy’, if asked about the Chicago Boys, Randian Objectivism, or the brand of libertarianism espoused by the Brothers Koch, how many Red State voters might we expect to actually know what we are talking about, let alone agree with the likes of Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, or the John Birch Society? To the latter two, I should think such voters might react much as did the young William F. Buckley.) Much as was the case with the German lower middle class in the first quarter of the 20th Century, what binds the habitual Republican to the party isn’t ideology per se but identification with a clique—and, what’s more, through said clique, a certain representation of the world… a Weltanschauung, for lack of a better word. As down and out Weimar-era Germans loved and hated with the SA and according to the vagaries of Hitler’s disposition, so down and out Red Staters love and hate with Fox and Friends, the Five, and a bevy of attractive Republican gun-molls. As the latter may—and, I suspect, in most cases, do—know what they are hearing is BS and, often enough, reprehensible (of this lot, one can’t really say “non enim sciunt quid faciunt”), as the former did, they tend to disregard the ugliness of sentiments expressed out of admiration for those with the moxie to blurt them out.
You may know very well that what one is hearing is erroneous, nonsensical, and, once in a while, just wrong—but, with a wink and a nod, when offered up by the likes of Greg Gutfield, Eric Bolling, or—one of my personal favorites, the Madame Nhu of the right wing media these days—Michelle Malkin, you accept it… and defend it, when it is trashed in “lamestream media”. What’s more, your defense has merit. In a free society, one of the few in which free speech is written into a founding document, your opinion—whoever you are—is as valid as the opinion of anyone at the Economic Policy Institute or the Brookings Institution. (Not coincidentally, most defenders of Fox that I have encountered, rightly point out this fact.)
On the other hand, this I would assert: why you believe what you believe is more at issue than what you believe. To frame my point, I’d ask the reader to consider the following thought experiment.
Try and think of Fox News Nation as a corps, a standing army. As an army, it is as motivated as it is well trained. So motivated and so well trained is the average Fox News viewer in his role—that of misbeliever—that not even empirically verifiable facts and scientific evidence are sufficient to dissuade him from toeing the company line, from believing only in that which he is supposed to believe. In the final analysis, he believes what he believes, not because it’s absurd (a religious truth), and not because fact has come to determine a given belief base (one he may very well insist is his own); he believes what he believes because, in doing so—in so believing (often enough, masochistically)—he is participating in something greater than himself, greater than the sum total of his experience, something that transcends mere circumstance. In his case (and his case is not unique; it has precedent in history), that something is the corps, the purpose of which happensto be a perpetual state of war. War? What war? War on what? He won’t say… or doesn’t know. He knows it is perhaps the case that he’s not supposed to do either, know or say. So, he assumes it’s foreigners, or non-Christians, or ghetto-dwellers (users of public assistance), or that residuum of Maoist or Trotskyist communism that he may say—and be convinced—is preparing to come out of the woodwork in Washington (any day now). On the other hand, the state of war in which he participates may pertain to a combination of any or all of these noteworthy anathemata—or none of them. His may turn out to be a war on an idea. On this, he is willing to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. (He has no problem operating on a need-to-know basis.) Yet, here is his dilemma. His entire theory—that according to which he lives his life—is predicated on the notion that he is free, a sovereign individual. To him (and, without quite being able to say it, he knows this) freedom is more than a virtue word. It is certainly more than the virtue word that has been bandied about in the Middle East by Western policymakers since 2003. The fact that he has been led into a war, a war he doesn’t understand—the sides and objectives of which are subject to change—together with the state of being subsumed, i.e. being merely part of a whole (the corps), these two circumstances rankle his keen sense of self, of being an individual. Though he both wants to and does believe in what he is being told by his superiors (he wants to and does believe in a world governed by natural law), he can’t get by the fact that, as a part and not a whole, he’s got no say in the rationale for his belief. He can’t say why it is he believes—and, as he can’t say it, he cannot determine it. He would rebel and leave the corps for this reason (notwithstanding the fact that he is haunted by the threat: “Either you’re us or you are with the liberals!”), but for his sense that, in losing the corps—and, with it, that something greater than himself—he would be worse off, even further removed from the desired state of self-sovereignty. For (and here’s the kicker), in his desperation to own his thoughts—and, through the latter, his actions in the context of the war—he finds himself clinging all the more tightly to his situation, i.e. to the state of being subsumed. (Of course, hatred of the enemy, the liberal, has also got a lot to do with it.) He’s like the boxer who can’t punch his way out of the proverbial paper bag; the more he tries to think his way out, the more anxiety and his present sense of belonging keep him in. So, he stays in. What’s more, he gets comfortable. He begins to forget his theory (the notion that he is a free actor, an individual). Then, one fine day, it hits him. He has a personal 9-11; his twin towers come down like a ton of bricks. He finds out the war he has been fighting is a farce, a pretext for putting troops to work in the business of plunder. Everything in which he was supposed to believe—and did—turns out to have been wrong. It was wrong all along; he was wrong all along. Or was he? For his misgivings about following (more or less) blindly—believing what he was supposed to believe—had been well founded. He realizes now these misgivings represented his cognitive dissonance at misbelieving for so long: knowing the orders he was being fed were not valid yet disavowing this fact. He’s convinced that he had wanted to leave the Nation all along but was retained by the latter under duress, a charge that raises eyebrows. After all, it’s not like he’s living in a totalitarian state; he’s an American—and, what’s more, a libertarian.
At his trial (he finds himself before the Hague, sadly, under circumstances according to which he is not going be liberated), when asked for a plea, he offers the pregnant denial:
“I was tricked. Though I realized the order to be invalid, I wasn’t at liberty to disregard it.”
Naturally, he is questioned about such a statement…
“You weren’t at liberty to disregard the order?”
“I was a soldier. I was given an order and orders are orders.”
“Yet you claim to have been tricked.”
“I was tricked. In the Nation, the order is the trick.”
Looks like he is in hot water, doesn’t it? Doubtless, his prosecutor thinks he’s being coy or facetious. He’s a candidate for a hefty sentence. But his understanding of his situation is spot on.
The orders he gets from ‘the Nation’ aren’t explicit. They aren’t something he is expected to do (or else). The latter is the case for a formal army but not the body of which he is a part. In his army—that corps of loyal viewers—he is free to do as he pleases… in fact he is obliged to do so. (Like the rest of his comrades, he embraces the deeper sense of the well-known motto/imperative “Live Free or Die!”) Yet, in this obligation lies the trick he is talking about. Obliged to do as he pleases, what pleases him has already been established for him. It is the hidden nomos to which he was married when he was married to the corps… that which had enslaved him—as it were, to a life of not so negative “freedom”—even before he started assuming supposed beliefs. Baptizing you a “free” man, the corps enslaves you to your pleasure (your will), which pleasure it happens to own!
Now, that’s a heady mode of production! It beats actual slavery hands down! The trouble is, when such a system happens to break down or become corrupted, the problem of accountability for negative consequences raises its ugly head—even more so than it did in the Nuremberg Tribunals. Who is accountable when things go wrong, when the merchandizing of hate—not to mention the soldier’s natural addiction to hate—causes actions that go beyond the pale?
More than a ‘questionable’ question, the latter is, regrettably, a rhetorical one. It is one that, I should hope, vexes all participants in the ideological circus that has been travelling Red State America for the past five years.
2: Consider the nut country politics of either Ivy League bright boy Ted Cruz or the illustrious Peter Thiel!
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