Bias in favor of the orthodox is frequently mistaken for ‘objectivity’. Departures from this ideological orthodoxy are themselves dismissed as ideological. – Michael Parenti
There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos – Jim Hightower
In January 2013, Chuck Todd, chief White House correspondent for NBC, addressed a conference of professional vote-counters, sales reps for voting machine companies and several state officials. Todd ridiculed critics of electronic election machines, saying that they must be paranoid to think that anyone would deliberately alter election results. Earlier that week he had tweeted: “The voting machine conspiracies belong in the same category as the Trump birther garbage.” It was a time of innocence, you might say, long before 2018, when almost all the corporate media, including Todd himself, would regularly accuse Trumpus of colluding with “the Russians” to “hack” election machines in 2016.
That year, readers of daily newspapers saw several “Doonesbury” comic strips in which a consultant named Austin who works for “MyFacts” furnishes spurious “facts” on demand. In this panel he makes fun of right-wing conspiracies.
A later panel attacked “conspirators” on the left:
Austin: This is MyFacts, Austin speaking.
Caller: My phone is tapped. So I can’t tell you my name. But I’m looking for fresh evidence that 9/11 was a government conspiracy.
Austin: I’m sorry sir, but I’m showing our truther line has been discontinued. Can I interest you in another elaborate hoax?
Caller: Who paid you off? It was Cheney, wasn’t it? Just nod.
Austin: How about Bin Laden. We carry irrefutable proof he’s still alive.
Doonesbury excels in making fun of “everybody”, especially the most earnest among us. In 2009 one of his panels featured his liberal talk-show host Mark Slackmeyer interviewing a college professor:
Professor: It’s quite remarkable, Mark…Americans believe in many things that can’t be verified. For instance, almost half of us believe in ghosts and 40% in alien abductions. And that availability to alternative reality is reflected in conspiracy theory. From truthism, which holds that Bush was behind 9/11, to Birthism. And, of course, we still have many legacy fringe groups like JFK grassy knollers, the staged moon landingists, etc.
Slackmeyer: Professor, is there any counter to these powerful theorists?
Professor: Not really, Mark. Only the reasonists.
Professor: They believe in an evidence-based world, something called rationalism. But it’s a tiny group, not so influential.
We’ll encounter the term “fringe group” often in this essay.
What’s going on here? By including very widely held left-wing political opinions in the same category as these right-wing ideas, Doonesbury was subtly instructing readers that they all were conspiracy theories. He was doing exactly the same thing (granted, with more humor) from a liberal perspective that Todd was doing as a corporate spokesperson disguised as a TV “commentator.”
This is the narrative of false equivalency, which instructs Americans that any notions outside mainstream interpretations of reality – no matter how popular – are equally worthless. Here’s the logic:
We define A as silly.
Silly is unacceptable.
We associate B with A.
Therefore, B is silly and unacceptable.
This kind of FE (I’ll be using the abbreviation) is one kind of marginalization tactic often told by those privileged people who were, as the saying goes, “born on third base, and think they had hit a triple.”
FEs tell us more about the subject (who is making the FE) than about the object (whom they are making it about) – and about his unquestioning readers. FEs reinforce our sense of identity. We know who we are because are not like one crazy extreme, and not like the other either. We can laugh at both of them.
When FEs are told honestly and innocently (as opposed to, say, by a CNN News hack), they often imply a certain cognitive dissonance:
A – Trumpus is bad.
B – We progressives dislike Trumpus.
C – Therefore, we are good, and we feel good about ourselves.
D – John McCain was a warmonger who voted with Trumpus 83% of the time.
E – McCain and Trumpus disliked each other.
F – Since Trumpus is bad, McCain was good.
G –To convince ourselves of F, we must ignore D, through cognitive dissonance.
H – Since McCain was good, he was like us, and we feel better.
This is one way in which we perpetuate the myth of American Innocence.
There are countless websites and books devoted to narratives that marginalize those who question the dominant paradigms of the culture. They typically do this by offering lists of “loony”, “fringe” theories from the perspective of the “rational center.” In almost every case, such gatekeepers lump all the questioners together. Then with patronizing, pseudo-psychology, they explore the unconscious motivations of “conspiracy theorists”, be they fascists or anarchists, Christians or Pagans, oligarchs or street people. And these gatekeepers like each other.
For example, Radical Middle – The Politics We need Now, by Mark Satin, was praised by a former adviser to Ronald Reagan. It received another blurb from Ted Halstead, himself the author of The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics, who called it “an antidote to the Al Frankens and Ann Coulters who dominate contemporary political discourse.” Do you see the FE? That discourse stretched between a racist hatemonger and a future U.S. Senator.
Such styles are well within one of two very old American traditions of gatekeeping, the purpose of which is to shore up the cracks in the myth of American innocence. One is to lie outright about American history. Here’s the logic:
A is a story that makes us feel good about ourselves.
There is no other story, no B.
Since A is the only story, we are justified in feeling good about ourselves.
Noam Chomsky, however, writes:
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.
Some writers have called that spectrum of acceptable opinion and discourse the “Overton window”. The gatekeepers of culture – traditionally, the priesthood – regularly determine just how wide it will be, and how far outside it other opinions are allowed to flourish. These days, it’s clear that the Overton Window is moving subtly but constantly to the right.
In America, however, which has always lacked an official church, it begins in academia, where all prospective gatekeepers receive their training. The process of initiation into higher education (and the careers it opens one to) nearly guarantees that those admitted within the pale are already thinking within very narrow boundaries. This is clearly true for journalists. Chomsky has called this “a system of imposed ignorance” in which the most highly educated people are the most highly indoctrinated:
A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehension – it becomes unconscious and reflexive – that you just don’t think certain things…that are threatening to power interests.
Over the years, polls clearly indicate the results: the higher one’s education, the more one is likely to unquestioningly support America’s wars – and the reverse is also true. Despite the public stereotypes of rebellious students during the Viet Nam years, resistance to the draft varied inversely with income and educational levels. The poorer and less educated you were, the more likely you were to resist.
The other tradition is to ridicule any political positions further out on the spectrum (left or right) often enough so as to deprive them of legitimacy and, by contrast, manufacture the legitimacy of the “center.” Here’s the logic:
A is too far out in one direction. It may be admirable, but it’s unrealistic or impractical.
B is too far in the other direction – even if it is mendacious and hateful.
C lies in between them.
A and B should negotiate until they compromise at C.
Therefore, C is legitimate, practical, realistic, moral and workable.
This, most politically savvy people tell us, is how things get accomplished in the real world. Especially since the upheavals of the 1960s, countless books and news aggregators have extolled the innate wisdom of the great democratic middle and the need for idealists to find common ground with their adversaries. It’s often very good advice.
But I’m not talking about people who see some good in each side of a debate, who play by the same rules and have comparable, idealistic visions of the common good. I’m talking about those spokespersons for that same corporate-consumerist, business-as-usual, consensual reality of American empire that the 1960s called into question. I’m talking about people whose jobs depend on their knowing very well that allowing actual alternative thinking (socialist; anarchist; anti-imperialist; environmentalist; anti-consumerist; anti-policing; advocates for racial, healthcare, prison, gender, immigration reform and drug justice, etc.) into the public discourse and airwaves would threaten both that consensus and their own jobs.
I’m talking about people who want us to forget about radical change because – they tell us – some of its adherents and some of their proposals are as laughably, preposterously unacceptable as are those on the other extreme.
Read Part Two here.