Monday, June 04, 2007

The Evasion of Reality in a Post-Modern World

In a powerful address delivered to graduates of the UC-Berkeley Department of Rhetoric and published here, Mark Danner exposes the moral quicksand into which the Bush administration has plunged this nation. We have entered an age of epistemological crisis, in which facts have become malleable, reality has been elided, and the very notion of truth is considered old-fashioned. I am tempted to name this the fulfillment of George Orwell's dystopian prophecy of 1984, except for one crucial difference. Orwell remained wedded to the old model of centralized distribution, in which the message is distributed and maintained through rigid channels of communication. He never envisioned the rise of the new media and of popular culture. In fact, the run-up to the war in Iraq was an example of a new kind of propaganda, made possible by a new psychology which has become the bedrock of a new form of political organization, the media-state. As the spectacular success of the pre-war campaign demonstrates, such propaganda far exceeds in its capacity to deceive that of the classic campaigns of the 20th century. It is now possible using the organs of the media and of popular culture (for a cinematic example of this kind of fusion, watch Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog") to mass market political messages to a national audience in carefully orchestrated fashion, and in so doing, to completely control public opinion. This was how the Bush administration managed to achieve its revolutionary political objectives from the period of September 2001 to September 2005, right up until Hurricane Katrina blew up its fabricated image and restored the possibility of a legitimate opposition party. One need only recall the routine "terror alerts" in 2003-04 to see the effectiveness of this type of propaganda. So in an age of sophistry, truth has become an extremely precious commodity. To speak the truth in an age of deception is a powerful act of justice-making. The lies of official power deserve public scorn. The charlatans who speak them deserve disgrace. We must preserve the truth where we find it, and never cease to promote its cause at every opportunity.

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