In the old days, reasonable, middle-class people heard the stories that tell us who we are by reading the reasonable, well-written giants of the press: the NYT, the WAPO, the New Yorker, the NYRB, etc, and from the major news broadcasters. The really intelligent people, of course, got their news and opinions from the smooth, reassuring voices of NPR. Now, social media are rapidly taking their places. But they are all functioning as gatekeepers to the commonly agreed upon sense of acceptable discourse.
The use of the term “conspiracy theory” is one of the main ways in which they banish any legitimate criticism of those in power to the realm of the truly illegitimate. The intent is insidious, even if often sincere. The only position that reasonable people could hold is the only one that remains, C – the consensual center that ranges between “not as crazy as A” to “not as crazy as B.” When they hear it often enough, people hold to that center so as to reaffirm their sense of American Innocence.
Anyone can be a gatekeeper. All it takes is a public role, some media credibility and a willingness to marginalize an opinion to the left of your own by equating its “unreasonableness” with that of something truly loony to the right of you. Oddly enough, the fact that so many journalists and commentators have taken on this role is, I think, one of the major reasons why so many of us distrust the media. Trump, for his own reasons, is onto something here. Although he never was and never will be an authentic critic of centrist assumptions, he can read his angry white constituents well.
Here, Noam Chomsky discusses what actually makes mainstream media “mainstream.”
There are all sorts of filtering devices to get rid of people who are a pain in the neck and think independently…the educational system is very highly geared to rewarding conformity and obedience…which ends up with people who really honestly (they aren’t lying) internalize the framework of belief and attitudes of the surrounding power system in the society. The elite institutions like, say, Harvard and Princeton and the small upscale colleges, for example, are very much geared to socialization. If you go through a place like Harvard, most of what goes on there is teaching manners; how to behave like a member of the upper classes, how to think the right thoughts, and so on…you learn that there are certain things it’s not proper to say and there are certain thoughts that are not proper to have. That is the socialization role of elite institutions and if you don’t adapt to that, you’re usually out.
When you critique the media and you say, look, here is what Anthony Lewis or somebody else is writing, they get very angry. They say, quite correctly, “nobody ever tells me what to write. I write anything I like. All this business about pressures and constraints is nonsense because I’m never under any pressure.” Which is completely true, but the point is that they wouldn’t be there unless they had already demonstrated that nobody has to tell them what to write because they are going say the right thing…
Centrists and liberals are not the only ones to use the phrase to de-legitimize ideas further out on the spectrum than they are comfortable with. Many progressives, for example, are disappointed with Chomsky himself, both for ridiculing the 9/11 Truth movement as well as for not questioning the “single gunman” narrative of the Kennedy assassination.
Offering FEs is not by any means the same as actually arguing against more progressive opinions than your own. Those who do this depend upon laziness and lack of critical thinking – and I’m not talking about the “under-educated” (who, as I mentioned in Part One, have always been more anti-war than middle-class people) but those who actually consider themselves well-informed by the major gatekeepers.
But when the majority of Americans actually do hold opinions on most issues, domestic and international, that are considerably to the left of both major parties – as has been the case for at least forty years – and when liberal politicians know full well both the weakness of their arguments against real progressives as well as the sources of their financial support – it is tempting to fall back on FE’s.
Certainly, most well-known journalists sincerely believe in the truth and value of the moderate, reasonable center. As Chomsky said, they wouldn’t have risen to their current positions if they didn’t. But with some, I’m just not sure. Something tells me that if Bill O’Reilly were offered enough money from some mythical progressive TV network, he’d suddenly become a raving leftist.
Raving – that’s our working modifier for those outside the pale.
We have to remain aware of the mythic implications here: Apollo is the god of fine arts, beauty, truth and dry, reasonable, cerebral discourse. By contrast, Dionysus, the archetypal “Other,” is ecstatic, raving, physical, wet, irrational, emotional and unreasonable.
Dionysus is the shadow of American innocence. For 400 years, the white American psyche has repressed its Dionysian nature and projected it onto the scapegoated Others of our history. Gatekeepers know this. They know that if they can tar radicals with the Dionysian label, the middle class, terrified of the implications, will follow along.
To deliberately equate, for example, 9-11 skeptics (by calling them “truthers”) or those who question the Warren Report narrative of the Kennedy assassination with outright racists and paranoids who label Barack Obama as a Muslim, Kenya-born, socialist or cruelly claim that survivors of school shootings are “crisis actors” is not simply to delegitimize both; it is to imply that both are equally irrational and (in mythic terms) Dionysian. “We,” by contrast, are safely, acceptably Apollonian. Here’s the logic:
We laugh at the right-wing paranoids.
We repeatedly hear of left-wing criticisms in the same sentences as the paranoids.
We begin to laugh at the left-wing criticisms.
We feel better about ourselves.
BTW, as I write this (late August, 2018), I note that an Infowars host is suggesting that the hurricane bearing down upon Hawaii has been split in two by an energy beam shot from Antarctica, possibly by John Kerry. So what are we expected to think – what do the gatekeepers want us to think – when they mention professional (and extremely well-funded) lunacy like this in the same sentence as parents who point out that 97% of the population of western Europe drinks non-fluoridated water, and perhaps Americans might want to think about the issue?
As the myth of American Innocence continues to lose potency, we will see more and more of these attacks upon actual alternative perspectives.
This is the process of identity-formation in our demythologized world. We know who we are as Americans because we “know” that we are not the Other. I prefer to imagine that in other times and places people knew who they were because they had endured the process of initiation. They had made the difficult, even terrifying transition from innocence to experience. And because of this, they were nobles. This is why the mythology of kingship retains its power, and why modern culture has reduced it to celebrity worship.
The word “noble” comes from the same root as gnosis, or knowledge. A noble is someone who knows who he or she is, not who he or she isn’t, that as the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said, There are no others.