Saturday, September 27, 2008

Facts, myths and media

7/7 could have been a turning point in British political history, more important than the abolition of the 10p tax band. It was a chance for the British ruling class to start again.

The Republican regime used 9/11 to push changes in American political life: denature democracy, rig the odds even more heavily in favour of the neo-liberal consensus, strengthen the military/industrial complex and so on. The British ruling class, in the form of the Labour government, tried to hop onto this movement to push similar changes: from various anti-terrorism acts, to new narratives about “extremism”, right down to denouncing striking fire-fighters as “fascists” and “Saddam’s little helpers”.

They failed in one crucial respect: they did not take the people with them. They alienated millions of people from official power structures and sowed seeds that are now being reaped as the current crisis: wipeout in 2010.

The government counted on a passive population readily receiving and absorbing the official line about the war. Labour banked on Blair’s broad (but shallow) authority and charisma, backed by their undefeated media machine, winning people over (as happened in 1999 with the Balkan conflict). They underestimated the number of people who would take an active interest in the War on Terror. Why did 9/11 happen? What is al qaeda, who is Osama Bin Laden and what did they have to do with Iraq?

But if 7/7 was a chance to start again the Labour government (and the ruling class more generally) being graded on building a ruling class movement, would have a comment next to their mark: “must try harder”. In the past few years the population has built up immunity to the word on high.

Even in the most authoritarian societies ruling class power is built on a mixture of force and consent. In a democratic society there is an expectation that ordinary citizens can contribute to the political process. Ruling class movements have to take this fact into account

Ruling class movements have to be built from the ground up. Capitalist ideology has to be shaped around people's everyday experience, often phrased in everyday language, delivered and explained by trusted people and institutions. Ideas and themes generated from below have to be incorporated into consensus (the illusion of meaningful participation often helps draw potential opposition groups into upholding the system).

Of course said themes used won't be be solidarity, internationalism or such like (although Make Poverty History was an attempt to divert latent anti-capitalism into paternalistic concern for the less fortunate, i.e. people not blessed with working neo-liberal regimes). In terms of ideological struggle “On Your Side”, the by-election campaign for Liam Byrne in Birmingham in 2004, was a key moment. Labour has increasingly tried to appeal to all that’s hateful and afraid in the working class, positing the average voter as a little Alf Garnett or Self-Righteous Brother.

Byrne’s campaign was themed around crime and immigration (he was going to be tough on both). But in case you didn’t get the point the leaflets were decked in the St George’s Cross.

This is called Dog Whistle politics, where symbols and code are used to say things to a specific audience without actually saying them out loud. When you stick the St George’s Cross on a leaflet and use the language of “them and us” it is easy to infer who ‘we’ are.

The next question is, if the ruling class message relies on trusted and capable media, what are those media, and how do they work?

Hot and Cold Media

The philosopher Marshall McLuhan is most well known for his aphorisms “the medium is the message” and “we live in a global village”. His analysis of media is often brilliant, certainly materialist and at times neck and neck with the great Marxists who looked at communication and ideology (Gramsci, Lukacs, Benjamin and so on).

One of his key concepts is that of hot and cool media. A hot medium is one that imparts large amounts of information where meaning and form is mostly predetermined. A cool medium is one where the audience participates much more in the creation of meaning.

One interesting example he gave was the medium of dance. The Waltz is a hot medium, where things like movement and etiquette were strictly determined. McLuhan compares this to the Twist, which is mostly improvised.

An interesting diversion: at the time of writing McLuhan compared the popularity of the Twist in America with the Charleston in the USSR. The USSR had been through a tremendous period of industrialisation and modernisation. Conformity and precision were regarded as positive qualities, improvisation and individualism were discouraged. The twist was apparently considered taboo in Soviet Russia.

The significance of hot and cold media is in their general effect on social and individual consciousness. Hot media, loaded with information, over-stimulate the senses. The mind (social or individual) is thrown into imbalance. In order to cope it has to numb itself to the assault until it can recover. There are a number of illustrations that spring to mind, voter apathy, compassion fatigue, insensitivity to violence, channel hopping, internet surfing…

McLuhan develops this idea to the point where he suggests the content of a medium is socially almost irrelevant (the medium is the message).

Here comes the science part… ish

We touched a little on the significance this has for politics (voter apathy etc…). Another great twentieth century writer, Aldous Huxley, actually saw over-stimulation, a flood of information as a source of oppression.

The people who control our information-saturated media are able to do two things. The first is bury bad news, facts, opinions and stories detrimental to the consensus, in a welter of (often trivial) information. Second is use almost pure sensation to create meaning.

This second tactic is the most incredible as it can transform lies into facts and madness into reason in the public mind. To go back to the start, the pro-war government movement was a particularly egregious example.

The Axis of Evil was generated out of thin air, along with weapons of mass destruction and the connection between Iraq and al qaeda. Lies, guesses, half-truths and suspicions were worked up into facts, magnified and repeated endlessly. ‘We’ were 45 minutes from destruction. By ‘we’ it was meant British bases in Cyprus (no one asks why there are British military bases in Cyprus), and by destruction it was meant possibly, if Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and if the delivery system could carry them that far and that accurately.

Another short diversion: the social implications of sensationalism are clear. Each new dose of sensationalism, added to cut through the numbing mix, leaves a longer and deeper hangover. Porn becomes ever more graphic, horror ever more gory, comedy becomes an imperial adventure into the realm of taboo.

There are those who know how to use the media…

One of them is Karl Rove. He is supposedly “Bush’s Brain”, certainly the mastermind behind his career and the current Republican domination.

John McCain has revived him in a rather soviet-like way. McCain was firstly cut out of power rather brutally by the Bush election machine in 1999-2000. Now that George Bush is a deadly liability and the Republicans tainted by his years of misrule McCain had no choice but to… bring Rove back.

He first made his mark in direct mail appeals (cool medium). He would apply a deep interest in voting groups and sub-groups to hone his message precisely to their prejudices and fears. Telephone campaigns (also cool) were variation on this. According to legend, at the climax of one election campaign in Texas he had his staff phone people to earnestly tell them the Democratic candidate was a closet lesbian.

It doesn’t matter whether lesbians run the Democratic Party or not. Most people cold-called to be told this ‘fact’ would laugh or hang up. The calls were targeted, narrowcast to people likely to believe such a statement and find it significant. The suggestion has been made, but it’s up to them what they find significant.

Remember, Republican activists have a bee in their bonnet about the “liberal media”. There is no such thing of course, but that’s not the point. 80s and 90s saw the rise of media that bypassed the supposed liberal stranglehold, talk-radio and the internet. Conservative activists and advocates developed media where they could specifically control the message. The success of these new media had an immediate effect on the old, supposedly liberal media outlets (see the Bush 'election' in 2000 or the build up to the Iraq war).

Well, what’s the old skuldugger up to today? Evil genius though he may be, he’s not above playing on the name of Barack Hussein Obama. Go out and look for Americans, before long you will find some who honestly believe Barack Obama is a Muslim and that that’s a baaaad thing.

A quick dip into the news finds this:

DVDs of an anti-Muslim documentary film are being distributed to 28 million voters in swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Colorado and Wisconsin…

The 2005 film, called Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West, warns that Islamic jihadists aim to take over the US government and destroy our way of life and urges voters to consider which candidate will best protect the nation. Among other subtleties, the film attempts to equate Islam with Nazism, juxtaposing scenes of children being encouraged to become suicide bombers with shots of Nazi rallies…
The film's production and promotional campaign were bankrolled by the Clarion Fund, an obscure non-profit that has not filed the required IRS form that would allow the public to see who its officers and major funders are. The group was founded, however, by Raphael Shore, an Israeli-Canadian citizen and supporter of John McCain. Shore's website, Radical Islam, featured an editorial endorsing McCain for president. That's a big no-no: 501c3s aren't legally allowed to endorse candidates.


Jewish voters in swing states have also been the targets of push polling from Republican-affiliated marketing outfits. Joelna Marcus of Key West, Florida received a telemarketing call asking if she is Jewish. After replying "yes", she was asked whether she was religious. Then the push poller then asked her if her opinion of Barack Obama would change if she knew that Obama had given lots and lots of money to the PLO. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Debbie Minden received a call asking whether her support for Obama would be swayed if she knew "his church was anti-Israel" or that Hamas endorsed him and that its leaders had met with him. The caller also asked if she would change her mind if she learned he was Muslim.

The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn also received a call in Michigan and took notes of the smears: According to the caller, some of Obama's best friends in Chicago were "pro-Palestinian leaders"; Jimmy Carter's anti-Israel national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski is an Obama foreign policy adviser; Obama sat on a board which funded a "pro-Palestinian charity"; Obama said that if elected he would call for a summit of Muslim nations and exclude Israel.

Minden reported that her call came from a firm called Research Strategies, which is none other than Wilson Research Strategies, whose founder is Chris Wilson. Wilson is a top Republican consultant and friend of, you guessed it, Karl Rove. Cohn said his call came from a company called Central Marketing, which has done push polls on behalf of the campaigns of Republicans John Thune and Michael Bloomberg.

The nice touch here is Rove (let alone McCain) is never directly involved. Nonetheless are “obvious Republican scare-tactic[s], right out of the Rovian playbook”. They are examples of cold media being used. How is the Republican campaign dealing with hot media? An example:

So I was abed this morning listening to NPR and on comes Mara Liasson with a report about the women's vote. Typical silly evenhandedness, and then she plays a snippet from a McCain-Palin radio commercial that sums up the whole problem, really.

The commercial is about the "sexist" attacks on Palin. The script is read of course in a woman's voice, and she conveys just the right tone of anger and contempt for the sneering hypocritical liberal elite misogynists. They tried A, and B, and C, the woman says. And then, when that didn't work, "they called her a liar." She brands this "despicable."

Okay. I spent yesterday afternoon fretting that Obama's message was too muddled, not pointed enough. Almost everyone I know thinks this. Maybe we're right. Or maybe we're just compulsive fretters, because that's what liberals tend to be based on experience.

So maybe the Obama team is flailing. But now I hear this ad and I think, how do you fight an opponent that not only lies, but then tells lies about the lies?

Palin is a liar. Of this there's no question. She supported the bridge to nowhere. She asked for earmarks as governor – and not just one or two, but $453 million worth. She still goes around the country saying the exact opposite of both of these things.

Having already created a new audience through naturally cool, narrowcast media, the Republicans are better placed to fight for control of the hot, broadcast media.

The line about ‘sexist’ attacks on Sarah Palin is to create a foolproof defence for a weak candidate. If it’s sexist to attack your opponent for lying then its sexist to attack your opponent for anything. The idea hangs on the well-developed meme of the hypocritical liberal elitist. If you subscribe to that meme in any way the case is all but won. The hypocritical liberal elitist is put on the backfoot, they have to defend themselves when they should be attacking their opponent.

Hot media are pumped full of sensational (mis)information, in the style of cold media, in the knowledge there is an audience segment that will pick up and absorb the misinformation: dog whistle politics. It doesn’t matter if said information is eventually proved wrong or misleading, as it will quickly swamped.

In this case a temporary advantage has been won for the Republicans. However, the advantage has been won thanks to years of preparation. The audience was created by Rovian strategy, by a movement from the ground up.

Closer to home

I think we’re still a long way from the lunatic culture wars of America. We’re going through a similar warping process, one that, I believe, is starting to be applied consciously.

An example to begin with: in the 2005 general election campaign, seemly out of nowhere, the Labour party campaign in Bethnal Green and Bow put out stories of how Oona King was subject to anti-Semitic abuse. Two particular incidents were mentioned. One where a group of Bengali lads insulted her as a “Jewish bitch”, another where unknown youths egged a World War Two veterans event. There was a general insinuation put round that “Respect supporters” were encouraging local Muslims not to vote for her because she had Jewish ancestry.

Not once did the campaign say that Respect had been doing such things, or that Respect had an anti-Semitic programme or membership. Despite the dubious nature of the accusations (someone directly involved in or touched by the campaign could know or prove them to be wrong or right), they were carefully placed to cause damage. They tried to establish guilt by association and, even if they failed, they would put the Respect campaign on the back foot, deflecting attention from King’s record as a New Labour stooge (the other tactic was to remind everyone she was only one of two black, female MPs in London: so much for the system).

Labour’s dirty tricks failed. They were unleashed too late. The Respect campaign had too much momentum; too many people were doing too good a job overturning the King’s majority.

The Bethnal Green and Bow Labour Party picked on the theme of anti-Semitism developed by a small group of ex-leftists based in the media and academia as part of a programme for entering the right via the War on Terror. The anti-war movement of course supports justice for the Palestinian people. With the same kind of logic (put your opponent on the back foot, deflect from the flaws in your argument) the ex-leftists insinuated consistently this solidarity was anti-Semitic.

They developed and magnified their arguments through the conventional and electronic press, in particular through the web log and discussion forum. These are cooling media, with a veneer of popular participation (the final say always goes to the proprietor). To a greater or lesser extent the readership is drawn into the idea they are contributing to meaning, in this case the shape of the news agenda (comment is free, have your say, Speak you’RE Brane).

The vox pop and poll have been parts of the news media for a long time. As media divide and combine the idea of audience participation has blossomed. Each newspaper now has its own blog with comment section. Newsreaders now ask for your comment via email. On TV you can vote for just about anything (except of course a change in government policy). If you’re bored with TV go to Youtube and you can make your own films.

The content, however, near universally poor: often bigoted and illiterate. The significance of audience participation is now when right-wing newspapers churn over legends about hated minorities (such as the Swan Bake legend) online Alf Garnetts’ can vent together, adding to the meaning of the story.

This process is almost certainly being cultivated for political ends. When the government pushes out islamophobic propaganda it is increasingly taken up and developed from below. Pro-war racists may have seen the anti-war demonstrations, the mass meetings, the stalls, they may have felt the general anti-war consensus pointed against them and concluded they were alone. Now they can go to BBC online, listen to LBC or pick up a London Lite and feel validated and confident.


The ruling class has always used its dominance to control information, manipulate consciousness, divide and rule, hegemony. They don’t get everything their own way, however. Personal experience often contradicts official theory and can potentially generalised into counter hegemony. Ruling class ideology has to be shaped to fit ordinary experience and expressed by trusted people.

The Labour Party, the mainstream media and parliamentary democracy took great hits from the anti-war movement. They still haven’t recovered. The ruling class will have to find alternative means, alternative media to secure its hegemony.