COMING IN FROM THE COLD
In a Q & A session in June 2009 at The Commonwealth Club of California Noam Chomsky was asked about the political Right wing in America. He had some very interesting things to say about it, expressing alarm and drawing up some allusions from the past which were provocative to say the least. Though he did not mention Fox News, it is hard not to mention the current problematic of the Right in America without mentioning the news network. (This 'problematic' as I see it shall be elaborated upon, stretching past the normal polemic of Left versus Right, I hope.) It is easy to come up with statements like ‘any casual viewer of Fox News would see the blatant scare mongering and fear tactics that are being espoused by the network’. This is largely true, especially from the perspective of those not on, or who would not consider themselves on, the Right.
In their rhetoric, they paint Obama as a socialist, and his Government as some sort of evil empire impinging on the rights of individual Americans. They are willing to go as far as to say that his government is creating death camps, and that this is the logical result of his plans for healthcare reform. This kind of rhetoric has gradually floated in from the fringe over the past decade, perhaps even longer.
It would be simple to dismiss the obvious lunacy and blatant fallacy of this rhetoric, itself part of a narrative which has gained pace, growing in dimensions matched only by the speed at which it flies away from sensible debate and actual causes and occurrences. One could laugh it off. One could denounce it wholesale.
This is what Noam Chomsky warns against. He says that there is substantive content behind the rhetoric. These people have genuine grievances. The issue then becomes the outlet for these grievances. This outlet takes the form of a narrative, given the appearance of substantive value in itself through the likes of Fox News. One could say that it was brought in from the cold of the fringes by the news network.
The narrative itself consists of an arrangement of certain key concepts, and the limitless blame that can be attributed to other key concepts. One is the inherent blamability of the ‘liberal’, the unAmerican American, the danger within that threatens the ideal and eternal America. Within this narrative, the Right is the keeper of the true America. They are, in this sense, ultra-nationalistic.
Another key concept is that of a foreign enemy. Now, to say that America has no enemies in a post-9/11 age would be a fallacy. But perhaps 9/11, more than the recession, gave credence to the idea of ultimate and definite agency behind any grievance felt (and with definite agency comes definite blame) that lay on the fringe, only to come closer to entering into the public sphere of news networks and political debate. Not simply the event in itself, but its mainstream interpretation, coupled with the trauma experienced by the nation - the nation in terms of its people, and also the nation as a concept - on that day.
In this case, the traumatic event in the story - or life - of this nation has proven itself to be a catalyst for another tangental story to become enlivened and grow to dangerous proportions. The tangent this story takes may veer to a certain degree away from reality, but certainly away from the mainstream ideology pre-9/11.
There was a more moderate view holding sway politically and culturally before it. When the event of 9/11 took place, a kind of polarisation took hold, with a reactive Leftwing and reactive Rightwing narratives, found normally on the fringes of the ideology of the mainstream, being entertained. The Left, however, embodied by the democrats, stuck to a stance of reason and debate.
Trauma, though, is a different beast altogether, and America was becoming more polarised than it had been in a long time. Even Obama, reasoning and calculating as he seems, had to run firstly on the basis that he was black and thus represented the liberal dream of equality and justice personified, and secondly on the basis that he represented a seismic change, that he would bring in a new era, a new dawn of peace and prosperity.
The messianic nature of the narrative was perhaps doomed to fail. More so than that, it itself was a diversion from the harsh reality of a divided America going through economic hardship and forced to reassess itself on many levels. In this way, it was a tangential narrative, just as that of the Right has been since 9/11.
Within the political Leftwing, however, there is a strong tradition of realism, reason and debate, itself perhaps more in line with the modern mentality of the scientific age. This has re-emerged since the exuberance of Obama's election died down. The Right, on the other hand - and perhaps in definite and purposeful contrast with the Left - espouses instead more transcendental ideals, such as the nation, coupled with rhetoric about family values and such, dreams and visions of a purer before-time, or of an origin place, so to speak.
In today’s highly charged public arena, even when the Right espouse such values, it is in an extreme, reactive, volatile way, with people like Michelle Bachman gaining momentum in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
The growth of what was once a tangential ideology has come through its acceptance on the part of official and authoritative institutions on the Right, such as the Republican Party and, yes, Fox News. For, even if Fox News is factually and tonally ridiculous to us, it is the most popular news channel in the US and it has been shown to set news agenda for other networks. And it must be said that it has a certain degree of credibility than we, on the Left - or even people looking in from the outside regardless of their political persuasion - would care to admit. It is a credibility gained through tapping into a more general distrust running through society (in the US, Europe, probably in various degrees right through that illusive entity known as ‘The West’) of any kind of official voice or action taken on behalf of the people.
Though they championed George Bush, the alarmist approach they have taken since Obama has been elected shows this. Even in the time of Bush, they were constantly attacking what they saw as an encroaching and morally ambiguous liberalism. Their leaders were to take the people back to a time without such ambiguous authority figures and an imagined perfect moral compass.
This is a fear generally running throughout society. It is then coupled with an extreme distrust of what they term 'big Government'. Is this not an expression of the desire for the individual to be his own keeper, or that the individual is prime mover, not in society, but in spite of it? This is the ideology of our age, across and beyond political persuasion. I shall return to this point later.
To reiterate, any government intervention is viewed as something inherently bad. The extreme version of this idiom belonged on the fringe, but has crept into what could be deemed the centre of the American Right. The names Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and even - though perhaps more as a sign of things to come, a foreboding presence standing at a gateway, a warning behind his beckoning gestures - George W. Bush. Fox News stood in exactly the right position to deliver this message from the fringe to the official and more moderate Right wing in America.
The Left has its fringe also. An interesting thing about the far Right and the far Left is that, at some indiscernible point - perhaps not a point at all - their ideas and concepts begin to merge with each other. Perhaps there is always a slight qualitative difference, or tonal difference to what each side is saying. But it remains a fact that they seem to mingle out there on the edge.
On the Left we get anarchism, avowing the dissolution of the nation state and the self determination of individuals and small groups to cooperate together, and on the Right we get libertarianism, avowing a similar kind of form of self determination and faith in humanity’s ability to organise and form society without Government and centralised Law. There are differences, of course, and the well known saying, ‘the devil is in the detail’, comes to mind. There is also an air of rhetoric surrounding the two seemingly seperate ends of the spectrum which effectively works to demonise the other, espousing fundamental differences, and creating a great fissure or division. Perhaps the development of ideas always needs such opposition. Perhaps not. Out on the fringes, however, we find a kind of absolute enemy or menace, as we shall see.
There is another fundamental similarity between the extremities. Ayn Rand, considered on the Right, espouses an extreme sort of individualism, with individuals making and shaping their own destiny. Government, she holds, always only gets in the way. Ideally, nothing should stand in the way of the creativity of the capitalists and artisans. This is the picture she paints in Atlas Shrugged.
On the Left, there is a similar goal. Marx’s notion of alienation points also to true human nature being alienated through capitalism. He paints a picture of a world without nations, where man is unfettered from the shackles of money and nations, free to pursue his own creativity. An unleashing, then, of man’s true potential.
Though the details are different, both share the same goals. What they both espouse is a sort of unleashing from within - within thought, within Man, within the individual. The result is the collapse of the world as it is - the outside world being obviously unjust.
The collapse of the world is perhaps a collapse into the truth of the inside, of Man’s true potential. Or, it may be that Man is supposed to fall into the world, or his true self is, and bring about some new dawning. There is a problem inherent within this concept, however, a fear one could call it. I shall return to this problem.
In contemporary times, this has taken a new form. Perhaps this can be brought under a broader mythological umbrella that we can call ‘The Conspiracy’. A singular conspiracy, as it is, because, the further out we go, the more we find one manipulator, one cause, one agency, one enemy, which is mostly hidden or secretive; a hidden hand.
Out on the fringes, then, there lies a complete agency, a god of sorts, an ultimate cause. But this ultimate cause here is an evil, thwarting human nature, alienating Man from himself, as if Man could not do that all by himself. It is not a god then, but the concept of a demon or devil as this ultimate cause, out there on the fringes.
There is also a promise. It is one of radical change and transformation. But it exists only in connection to this devil. It is the conviction that the only way to overcome this devil - hidden within society but outside the individual, not in systems and structures even, but in the hidden agency assumed to exist behind such things, causing such things - is to overthrow his palaces and citadels. Or, at least, this is the logical conclusion - that of extreme opposition.
It must be said now, however, that this is NOT revolution, not a presupposition to a predetermined action. At least, not out on the fringes. This mythology follows another internal logic, that can perhaps be attributed to the inflated agency, the devil, the hidden hand, the exaggerated Other. Basically it ensures the perpetuation of this world view. It is not revolution in itself. What it is is an alternative to the mainstream. It is a mythology of Good and Evil, with the world becoming an appearance behind which a battle is fought.
In this case appearance means something which is easily manipulated, if not a falsity or a lie. The Evil is hidden, only discerned by those few true believers, while the Good is to come at some future time, yet to be realised in reality. The Good is also already a set of convictions held by the believers, held within the Individual, yet to be realised in the world.
Internally, the logic suggests a kind of balance, with the Good of the Individual in a ceaseless fight with the hidden manipulating Evil behind the appearances of the events of the world. The Good, this light, full and bright, remains radically within, while the evil, a dark and hidden cause, remains radically outside; so far outside, in fact, that it cannot be seen clearly and only discerned indirectly by those with ‘the goodness’ within who can discern such things. An example of this is the illuminati, the secret rulers of the world in many such world views, orchestrating events right back into the depths of history.
The world, as an appearance, becomes a tenuous link between these two things, a facade, yes, and one in which both are situated. The concept of the world is thus both diminished and elevated. Diminished in the sense that it is a ‘mere’ appearance; elevated by the fact that it remains the only link between the two, between Good and Evil.
In fact, the hope of the triumph of the Good - the inside - suggests that the world stands as an entity which can be transformed, and holds within it a possibility of transformation, of its own revolution away from appearance and deception and towards truth and salvation.
If the world is the place of revolution, or of possibility and uncertainty, beyond Good and Evil in the sense that it needs convincing and manipulation to sway one way or the other, then it holds, again, the strange position of being diminished and elevated. It is diminished in its failure to comply to the strictly moral nature of this struggle, and yet it is elevated due to the fact that it remains the only possible place where the Good can triumph and show itself.
But, as a place of mere appearance, the revealing of the truth risks becoming an appearance. That is to say, the external realisation of inner truth risks - maybe more than risks - becoming an appearance. Thus, this hidden fear of the changing world causes a certain type of guarding of the truth, an idealisation of the interior, and a perpetuation of belief in this world view, while itself never being fully realised in the world. Destined, as it is (perhaps accidentally, perhaps not), to inhabit the fringe of political debate and ideology.
With regards to the hidden hand, the ultimate Evil, it remains radically outside and unseen. It also remains beyond the reach of a world of change. The mythology can be summed up quite simply, then, as a goodness and truth residing within, and with it a fear of contamination by the world of change, by the immediate outside even. Coupled with this is the belief in a radical outside Evil, always already hidden, always already a threat to the Good of the inside.
Allusions to Christianity, even to Descartes and the uncertainty of the world, can be drawn here. With regards to Descartes, we can see the primacy of the interior, the individual, through the cogito - I am aware therefore I am - and the skepticism of the outside as a place of appearance, possibly manipulated by a hidden hand, the demiurge as Descartes called it.
The Christian formulation of the relation of interior to exterior is slightly different, and perhaps acts as a good case for comparison. Here the truth of God, though it can be found within, lies outside. We see it is within man that the evil lies, in the form of original sin. He must change his ways in the face of an infinitely just and kind God.
This God takes the place of the evil demiurge, just as it did in Descartes’ philosophy. Man himself is not wholly evil, however. It is Woman who is responsible for original sin. Man’s desire, then, in this male hierarchical formulation, becomes the problem. Notice how, under this sort of extreme chauvinism emulated by the church even today, Woman becomes nothing more than Man’s desire.
In this formulation, then, Man’s desire becomes the thing to lead him astray. It has only a wicked outlet in Woman - a metaphor for all sorts of vices and indulgences - but the desire remains within. So, it can be said that the world is NOT the battleground for good and evil in Christianity as it is for adherents to The Conspiracy. Rather, Man himself becomes that site.
The interior becomes the place of possible change. It becomes malleable, tainted by original sin. The immediate exterior becomes a place where the objects of desire lie. But the extreme outside, the hidden hand, becomes an infinitely good God. The evil, then, is never exterior, always within. This is the fear of Man himself, unfettered from morality, given only to his impulses and desires, which become wicked and sinful in this formulation.
This is not Man as an individual, but rather Man as a principle. And this is a crucial difference between the two world views. For, in terms of the mythology of The Conspiracy, the principle of the interior is the individual. People are liberated through choice to entertain the notions of The Conspiracy, to notice patterns in the world that allude to an evil demiurge. This is the choice of the individual. But supplementary to this sense of choice is a sense of superiority that comes with being privy to the hidden truth - hidden beneath the appearances of the world - of the interior.
The individual need only thread further down the path of individuality to find this essential truth. And, in doing so, he naturally travels away from the dominant ideologies of society. Notice that there is a notion of someone growing into, of immersing themselves in The Conspiracy, as if it is a natural conclusion, a truth. Thus The Conspiracy lies at the fringes, as the individual awakens further and more radically into his or her own individuality. It is only then that he can change the appearance of the world to replicate his truth.
I spoke earlier of a kind of deadlock that happens at this point. It is the worry that his personal individual truth will cease through its own bringing forth unto the world, characterised here by changeability and even a certain degree of promiscuity on the part of the world itself. But it is a hidden fear, keeping a balance in its un-speak-ability in terms of the inner logic of The Conspiracy.
It is the fear of an end to the individual, to the uniqueness of his or her vision, and the ingenuity by which he or she arrived at it. It is a fear of the world, characterised by a certain collectivity which threatens their radical individuality. Notice that the grand plan of the demiurge - encapsulated by the story of the illuminati, for instance - is to enact some form of radical collectivity, where the individual collapses theoretically as the collective takes hold.
This fear holds The Conspiracy at the fringes usually. However, with the cult of the individual gaining more and more prominence, we can see something else happening in America. We can call 9/11 a kind of open-origin point for the movement, from the fringe to the official, of certain elements of The Conspiracy. It was a crisis for that nation, a trauma whose images would be burned into the minds of the people of that nation. It was an assault on the individuality of that nation, ONE nation under God. It was an assault on its privileged position in the world, on a boundless self-determination. Essentially, it was - whether by accident or design - an assault on the Cult of the Individual itself, in and upon its own citadel. And, while The Conspiracy is a more radicalised version of this ideology, with the attacks came the need to reiterate, reassert, embolden, make conscious, essentially radicalise this ideology at its politically moderate centre. And Fox News is one of the first and best examples of where and how this happened.
A STRANGE MOVEMENT
To understand how it happened, we must take into account Fox’s unique position. It has always been ideological, and has made no bones about it. It will spin things to suit such purposes, sometimes blatantly. It relies on the disillusionment already felt with politics in general to give it a certain degree of credibility, and we can imagine someone watching it saying ‘it could be true’. It is reflexive in the way that it taps into the general mood of the people in this age of the individual, a general disillusionment with collectivity, social movements, and the notion of society itself - at least in its contemporary formulation.
It is also bankrolled by business interests, and promotes them with only a veil of misdirection. It is preaching to the converted, you could say, and feels no need in using anything other than mild deception in hiding this. But it does have a certain internal logic of its own, so that the individual does not come into conflict with the broader business interests. It comes under the broad heading of the ideology of American Capitalism.
Besides championing the individual, vilifying a distorted sense of a collective society, painting government as a force only to curtail the desire of the individual, it also holds within it an ideology of the wholly natural forces of equilibrium. Thus, markets and world ecology will ‘work themselves out’. This benefits business in the sense that a lack of regulation only can. It plays right into their hands. And, in a kind of strange loop of internal logic, Fox News remains internally consistent. Indeed, it is this consistency that is most cause for alarm.
The polarising nature of the debate surrounding 9/11 was a tipping point of sorts. It represented a catalyst for the forceful assertion of ideology - that of the individual. And it was at the fringes where this forceful assertion always crystallises most. The individual becomes a radical agent, fighting against the relentless evil of the demiurge. The demiurge remains hidden, and takes many shapes, from Bin Laden to Liberals in general. For these people, society is breaking down because it must, because they need to lift the veil and show the world the true way of being. People with genuine grievances, whether they be economic hardship or otherwise, find it easy to identify with such rhetoric. And the rhetoric, more and more, follows its own internal logic loops, sounding more like the fringe by the day.
Noam Chomsky, in his talk, tentatively compares this situation to Nazi Germany, where people under huge stress economically, mourning Germany’s defeat on many battlefields (not simply physical ones) allowed and voted for the Nazis. They were not stupid. They were desperate. In the face of unprecedented events they clung onto an internal logic that demanded a huge blood sacrifice. An enemy, a demiurge.
This is what can happen when the fringe is invited in from the cold. Momentum can be gained behind such irrational - yet internally logical, so long as there’s a demiurge - views. I say ‘invited’, because Hitler was indeed welcomed by a certain group of German elites - the industrialists.
This is also happening with Fox News. The fringe is now sanctioned by officialdom. The Tea Party is now a major political movement in America. Big business is welcoming this development, as their needs are also being met through this embracing of the fringe. Unlike Marxism or socialism, this is a revolution of capitalism itself. It is more of the same, but radically so. It is the unleashing of the desire principle. It is what attracted Heidegger to Nazism, to its will to power and unleashing of such desires in the hope of ultimately realising a perfect way for us all to be in the world. It is the overcoming of Marx’s conception of the alienated Man through a mad embrace with wild desire. Desire itself.
But there is no exterior goal for this desire, as it goes back to wanting more of the same, like an alcoholic, or worse. The object is more of the same. It is akin to addiction. It is fevered, and it will continue to create these logic-loops until ... well, who knows what. But the mixing in of a demiurge, in various guises, does not bode well. For, in order to realise the dream of the fringe, someone must pay. The fevered nightmares of the shrouded enemy must be appeased. Unless, of course, the fringe returns to the fringe, and resumes the deadlock of the fear of losing its own purity.
But the ideology has caught the popular imagination, through Fox News and certain political factions, and, it must be said, through genuine feelings of disillusionment and breakdown of any viable ideological framework in society past that of the individual. Though circumstances were different, Hitler had his own demiurge - liberals, Marxists, homosexuals, and, most tragically, the Jews - and he followed through on his promise.
His was a promise made by virtue of bringing the fringe into the mainstream, or bringing The Conspiracy into the mainstream. He upset its own balance, and began to realise his “truth” in the world. Horror and genocide followed - unspeakable acts. Hitler would bring all of Germany down with him, in a self destruction personified by his own suicide. Perhaps this is the fate of any such unleashing - the destruction of the imagined demiurge, and with it the destruction of the individual, that which was right and true in the first place (going by the internal logic of such things), as if there was some sort of mutual dependence between the two. And all that is left is the world - Berlin in cinders, blown to pieces, with armies approaching from all directions.
As history has thought us, this is all very very dangerous. Though nothing is a foregone conclusion, I watch America with baited breath.