Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Rise of Pseudo Fascism

Part 1: The Morphing of the Conservative Movement

Part 2: The Architecture of Fascism

Part 3: The Pseudo-Fascist Campaign

Part 4: The Apocalyptic One-Party State

Part 5: Warfare By Other Means

Americans, particularly fundamentalist Christians, have always had a certain predilection for apocalyptic beliefs. How many times, after all, have you heard that the world was coming to an end soon in the years you've been alive? If you're typical, it's been a lot.

A lot of these beliefs have been bubbling to the surface in large numbers in recent years, particularly as we approached the millennium. Remember all the fears about Y2K? Remember all the conspiracy theories by right-wing extremists that President Clinton intended to use the "Y2K meltdown" to install martial law? Remember the "Y2K survival kits" being sold by Patriot movement types, and the stores of generators and large bags of beans, rice and canned goods that turned out not to be needed?

Most of these fears receded to just below the surface after Y2K turned out not to be the apocalypse after all. But then came the advent of the "war on terror" on Sept. 11, 2001.

The scenes that played out on our television screens that day, and in the ensuing weeks, were like something out of an end-of-the-world movie. They were so intense in nature that at times they seemed surreal. It is almost natural, really, that they inspired a fresh wave of apocalypticism.

In truth, the scenes constituted a real psychological trauma for nearly all Americans. Trauma produces real vulnerability, especially to manipulation.

And the conservative movement, reveling in a tidal wave of apocalyptic fears, proved adept at manipulating the public in a way that stoked their fears and made them positively eager to participate in an ultimately totalitarian agenda. Indeed, the exploitation in many ways bears all the earmarks of psychological warfare -- waged, in fact, against the American public.

The renowned psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, in his Superpower Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World, provides an incisive analysis of the state of the post-9/11 American psyche and the Bush administration's unmistakable manipulation of it for their own political purposes:
As a result of 9/11, all Americans shared a particular psychological experience. They became survivors. A survivor is one who has encountered, been exposed to, or witnessed death and has remained alive. The category extends to those who were far removed geographically from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, because of their immersion in death-linked television images and their sense of being part of a painful national ordeal that threatened their country's future as well as their own. How people deal with that death encounter -- the meaning they give it -- has enormous significance for their subsequent actions and for their lives in general.

Lifton identifies certain common themes in the psychology of survivors:

-- Death anxiety, especially pronounced for people who witnessed the attacks or associated deaths personally, and which includes a fear of recurrence:
By and large, the nearer one was to the attack -- whether at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon -- the greater one's death anxiety. The fear level in New York City differed considerably from that in most other parts of the country, as indicated by studies of trauma symptoms there. But elements of death anxiety span the United States, affecting leaders and ordinary people alike, linking the two in what could be called a common pathway of vulnerability. However muted, such anxiety and vulnerability do not disappear.

-- Death guilt, or "survivor guilt" which "has to do with others dying and not oneself."
Death guilt has to do with our sense of responsibility, as cultural animals, to help others stay alive, even when they are strangers. We can speak of an animating form of guilt, as some Vietnam veterans experienced, when self-condemnation is transformed into a sense of responsibility to oppose violence and enhance life. But death guilt can be volatile and destructive when suppressed, and can be transformed instead into impulses toward further violence.

-- Psychic numbing, "the inability, or disinclination, to feel, a freezing of the psyche."
Immediate psychic numbing can later give way to enhanced sensitivity and responsiveness, or it can extend into depression, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior.

The repeatedly televised images of planes crashing into the Twin Towers, powerful as they were, could seem wildly fantastic, almost imaginary "virtual" in their distance from individual death and suffering. Subsequent images did convey pain and loss but the coverage, as intense as it was, proved narrow, providing little in the way of cause or meaning. One could say that Americans were brought into the 9/11 experience in a way that was both vividly actual and unreal. Yet struggles with feeling and not feeling took place nationwide.

-- Suspiciousness: in which survivors are "alert to issues of authenticity."
All of this is part of a struggle to overcome the counterfeit universe to which survivors were exposed during their death encounter, a universe of moral inversion in which large-scale killing and absurd dying were the norm. They can find it extremely difficult to believe in the efforts of anyone, certainly those of uncomprehending outsiders, to restore a moral universe. In the process, some survivors can become newly aware of ethical distinctions in their lives, but many others experience instead profound suspiciousness toward the outside world and a deep reluctance to engage in cooperative enterprises.

-- Finding "meaning and mission" from the ordeal:
The survivor mission is a form of witness. In what one says and does, one is retelling the story of the death encounter, elaborating a new narrative from it. One can be energized by it in ways that contribute to society. But there can be false witness as well.

Lifton then illustrates this "false witness" with the case of the American soldiers who participated in the 1968 massacre at My Lai, themselves survivors of exceptional violence, who were exhorted the night before the massacre to seek meaning in their comrades' deaths through body counts of "gooks."

Much of the American response to 9/11, Lifton says, has "been a form of false witness":
America has mounted a diffuse, Vietnam-style, worldwide "search and destroy mission" on behalf of the 9/11 dead. Here, too, we join the dance with our al-Qaeda "partner," which brings fierce survivor emotions and considerable false witness of its own.

The survivor's quest for meaning can be illuminating and of considerable human value. But it can also be drawn narrowly, manipulatively, and violently, in connection with retribution and pervasive killing.

Lifton then goes on to examine these traits not only in the context of the public reaction but in that of American leadership, Bush particularly. He limns, quite correctly, the following in Bush:

-- Anxiety and belligerence, noting that "when leaders respond belligerently, they may tap the potential of their people for amorphous rage."

-- A sense of "failed enactment," particularly in the context of Bush's manifest failure to respond to multiple warning signs.

-- Selective numbing and feeling, the epitome of which is Bush's invasion of Iraq, which turned a blind eye to such deadly reverberations of the war as increased terrorist recruitment, new forms of Middle East chaos, and the acceleration of nuclear-weapons programs in nations who might readily conclude that having them would deter a U.S. invasion.

-- Suspiciousness, one of the hallmarks of Bush's foreign policy and especially his dealings with the United Nations.

-- The grandiose mission of "defeating evil itself" through the "war on terror."
With 9/11, everything fell into place for him. He became a confident "wartime president." He and his speechwriters were unfortunately accurate in their initial labeling of his approach to terrorism as a "crusade." That word suggests a Christian holy war (deriving as it does from the Latin crux, or cross), which is the kind of mission the president seems to have imagined himself on. ...

This was by no means the only form of survivor mission possible for an American president or the American people. Combating terrorism has to be part of a survivor response, but the task could have been undertaken with greater restraint in the use of force, and with a focus from the very beginning on international cooperation. The survivor mission embarked on by Bush and his survivors strongly affected the meaning structures of Americans in general. While many have drawn more reflective and nuanced meanings from 9/11, there has been little encouragement from above for any deviance from the narrowly grandiose presidential survivor mission.

... [The occupants of the White House] remain committed to a prior vision of American world dominance, now energized and in their eyes legitimized by their 9/11 survivor mission.

Rather than helping Americans overcome the trauma of 9/11, then, the Bush administration -- by wallowing in the worst attributes of the survivor's syndrome -- has in fact ensured that the nation has not healed, nor even begun to do so. And it is clear that a political agenda has been in play every step of the way:
This administration, at its worst, has wavered between excessive secrecy and sudden, dire warnings of the "inevitability" of terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction on our soil -- warnings that often seem timed to deflect embarrassing criticism about official measures taken to prevent or prepare for terrorism. On other occasions, the administration has spoken in more even tones. But there remains much uncertainty about the connection between what the administration says and what it does about terrorism, and the relationship of these words and actions to the dangers Americans perceive themselves to face.

Americans therefore have been left with a mixture of enthusiasm, confusion, anxiety, and anger in relation to the official survivor mission their government has embraced in their name following upon 9/11.

Lifton particularly examines the National Security Strategy -- known unofficially as the "Bush Doctrine" -- announced by the White House in 2002 and finds its essence an apocalyptic vision of world domination:
The Bush administration's projection of American power extends not only over planet Earth, but through the militarization of space, over the heavens as well. Its strategists dream of deciding the outcome of significant world events everywhere. We may call this an empire of fluid world control, and theirs is nothing less than an inclusive claim to the ownership of history. It is a claim never made before because never before has technology permitted the imagining of such an enterprise, however illusory, on the part of a head of state and his inner circle.

... Yet a sense of megalomania and omnipotence, whether in an individual or a superpower, must sooner or later lead not to glory but collapse. The ownership of history is a fantasy in the extreme. Infinite power and control is a temptation that is as self-destructive as it is dazzling ...

Lifton's diagnosis: Bush and the conservative movement have propelled the nation into a potentially disastrous, perhaps even fatal, mindset:
In speaking of superpower syndrome, I mean to suggest a harmful disorder. I use this medical association to convey a psychological and political abnormality. I also wish to empathize a confluence of behavior patters: in any syndrome there is not just a single tendency but a constellation of tendencies. Though each can be identified separately, they are best understood as manifestations an overarching dynamic that controls the behavior of the larger system, in this case the American national entity.

The dynamic takes shape around a bizarre American collective mindset that extends our very real military power into a fantasy of cosmic control, a mindset all too readily tempted by an apocalyptic mission. The symptoms are of a piece, each consistent with the larger syndrome: unilateralism in all-important decisions, including those related to war-making; the use of high technology to secure the ownership of death and of history; a sense of entitlement concerning the right to identify and destroy all those considered to be terrorists or friends of terrorists, while spreading "freedom" and virtues seen as preeminently ours throughout the world; the right to decide who may possess weapons of mass destruction and who may not, and to take military action, using nuclear weapons if necessary, against any nation that has them or is thought to be manufacturing them; and underlying those symptoms, a righteous vision of ridding the world of evil and purifying it spiritually and politically.

As Lifton has observed elsewhere, the ascendant apocalypticism has manifested itself in popular culture as well, most notably in Mel Gibson's controversial film version of The Passion, the defense of which earlier this year was a significant conservative-movement cause.

Lifton observed then that the film celebrates the violence of apocalypticism in a way fully consonant with the mindset promoted by the conservative movement in the wake of 9/11:
It is violence that cannot be transcended by compassion and love. Rather, the camera is enthralled by every detail of cruelty, every vicious blow, every bloody wound. Precisely these brutal images are what the camera loves. The violence itself becomes transcendent, hyper-real. And this display of sadism is in the service of an ideology of purification.

The Passion of the Christ, then, says a good deal more about the violence of the present-day apocalyptic imagination than it does about the experiences of Jesus in the first century. Hence the crude depiction of a sadistic Jewish rabble demanding crucifixion. Within a Christian apocalyptic narrative, Jews tend to be featured either as foils for world redemption who must gather in Israel and convert or be annihilated, or as the evil perpetrators depicted in the film who, in collusion with the devil, reject and kill the true messiah.

The problem of The Passion of the Christ goes far beyond the individual psyche of Mel Gibson, or even questions of biblical interpretation. The crucifixion here becomes a vehicle for a contemporary mentality that is absolute and polarizing in its starkly violent vision of world purification -- a vision that fits well with an apocalyptic, all or nothing "war on terrorism."

The primary vehicle for spreading this apocalyptic version of reality has been the media, which have largely converted (as we saw in Part 4) into propaganda organs for the conservative movement. It's important to understand this mechanism and how it continues to affect the body politic.

Primarily, propaganda succeeds by taking advantage of the public's limited ability to absorb all the details of the often complex problems that confront modern society. As Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aroson explained in Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion:
Given our finite ability to process information, we often adopt the strategies of the peripheral route for simplifying complex problems; we mindlessly accept a conclusion or proposition -- not for any good reason but because it is accompanied by a simplistic persuasive device.

Back in the 1930s, the short-lived Institute for Propaganda Analysis came up with the seminal catalog of these persuasive devices (since superseded by more complex catalogs) that remains a useful guide even today. These propaganda techniques are:

-- Name Calling, or hanging a bad label on ideas or persons.

-- Card Stacking, or the selective use of facts or outright falsehoods.

-- Band Wagon, or claiming that everyone like us thinks this way.

-- Testimonial, or the association of a respected or hated person with an approved or despised idea, respectively.

-- Plain Folks, a technique whereby the idea and its proponents are linked to "people just like you and me."

-- Transfer, or an assertion of a connection between something valued or hated and the idea or commodity being discussed.

-- Glittering Generality, or an association of something with a "virtue word" to gain approval without examining the evidence.

It isn't hard to see each and every one of these techniques being wielded, in some cases overwhelmingly, by the conservative movement in their defense of the Bush "war on terror" and, for that matter, nearly every aspect of their agenda. The very justification for the invasion of Iraq, in fact, is a classic case of "card stacking," while the nation simultaneously has been inundated with glittering generalities about Bush's "strength and resolve," bandwagon clarion calls, assertions of being "just plain folks," and testimonials both in favor of the Bush agenda and attacking that of liberals. Likewise, name-calling and transfers have been rampant in the attacks on liberals, along with plenty of card stacking.

The clearest case of the Bush administration's resort to propaganda techniques was the career of the thankfully short-lived Office of Strategic Information, which was closed down shortly after it became clear it was preparing to disseminate outright disinformation in support of the Iraq invasion.

But the OSI's demise was certainly neither the beginning nor the end of the administration's use of propaganda to obtain public support for its misbegotten invasion. Indeed, as the situation has grown progressively worse in Iraq over the past year, the campaign has intensified, to the extent that it is now clear this is no ordinary disinformation campaign.

It has, in fact, all the earmarks of psychological warfare.

Typically, such operations by the American military and its civilian cohort have been relegated almost strictly to overseas campaigns; most of the techniques were designed for that purpose. But there has always been an element of it aimed at the home front as well.

The development of psychological-warfare techniques by the American military dates back to the 1920s, though they did not become an explicit part of military strategy until after 1945 and the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, in which they played a major role. Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960, describes in detail the often secretive development of these techniques.

Simpson, through a series of FOIA requests, managed to obtain a number of key documents from the military bureaucracies responsible for creating psych ops. One of the more revealing of these documents read:
Psychological warfare employs all moral and physical means, other than orthodox military operations, which tend to:

a. destroy the will and the ability of the enemy to fight

b. deprive him of the support of his allies and neutrals

c. increase in our own troops and allies the will to victory

Psychological warfare employs any weapon to influence the mind of the enemy. The weapons are psychological only in the effect they produce and not because of the nature of the weapons themselves. In this light, overt (white), covert (black), and gray propaganda; subversion; sabotage, special operations; guerrilla warfare; espionage; political, cultural, economic, and racial pressures are all effective weapons. They are effective because they produce dissension, distrust, fear and hopelessness in the minds of the enemy, not because they originate in the psyche of propaganda or psychological warfare agencies.

Simpson goes on to explain that
psychological warfare and psychological operations encompass this range of activities, as specified by the Army and the National Security Council. Several points should be underlined. First, psychological warfare in the U.S. conception has consistently made use of a wide range of violence, including guerrilla warfare, assassination, sabotage, and, more fundamentally, the maintenance of manifestly brutal regimes in client states abroad. Second, it also has involved a variety of propaganda or media work, ranging from overt (white) newscasting to covert (black) propaganda. Third, the targets of U.S. psychological warfare were not only the "enemy," but also the people of the United States and its allies.

Simpson explains that nearly all of the knowledge underlying the development of psych-ops techniques is derived from communications studies, in particular the work of the pioneering communications theorists Harold Lasswell and Walter Lippmann. This fact in itself gives us a hint about the elitist underpinnings of the techniques:
Lippmann and Lasswell articulated a very narrow vision that substituted, for communication as such, one manifestation of communication that is particularly pronounced in hierarchical industrial states. Put most bluntly, they contended that communication's essence was its utility as an instrument for imposing one's will on others, and preferably on masses of others. This instrumentalist conception of communication was consistent with their experience of war and with emerging mass communication technologies of the day, which in turn reflected and to an extent embodied the existing social order.

This view of communication as domination has in fact become a central component of communications theory in American academia, and has become woven into the very fabric of modern consumer society. As Simpson explains [p. 20]:
The mainstream paradigm of communication studies in the United States -- its techniques, body of knowledge, institutional structure, and so on -- evolved symbiotically with modern consumer society generally, and particularly with media industries and those segments of the economy most dependent on mass markets. Communication research in America has historically proved itself by going beyond simply observing media behavior to finding ways to grease the skids for absorption and suppression of rival visions of communication and social order.

Clearly, social communication necessarily involves a balancing of conflicting forces. A "community", after all, cannot exist without some form of social order; or, put another way, order defines the possible means of sharing burdens. Lasswell and Lippmann, however, advocated not just order in an abstract sense, but rather a particular social order in the United States and the world in which forceful elites necessarily ruled in the interests of their vision of the greater good. U.S.-style consumer democracy was simply a relatively benign system for engineering mass consent for the elites' authority; it could be dispensed with then ordinary people reached the "wrong" conclusions. Lasswell writes that the spread of literacy

did not release the masses from ignorance and superstition but altered the nature of both and compelled the development of a whole new technique of control, largely through propaganda ... [A propagandist's] regard for men rests on no democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judge of their own interests. The modern propagandist, like the modern psychologist, recognizes that men are often poor judges of their own interests ... [Those with power must cultivate] senstiveness to those concentrations of motive which are implicit and available for rapid mobilization when the appropriate symbol is offered ... [The propagandist is] no phrasemonger but a promoter of overt acts.

This elitist view of the role of communication as a means to control and dominate the masses was at the core of the development of psychological warfare techniques by the American military. For the most part, this was couched in terminology that directed the efforts towards nations with whom we were at war or involved in conflicts.

But at other times, it was clear that the American public was viewed as a potential target as well. This was made manifest by the willingness of psych-ops researchers to use Americans as guinea pigs in their experiments. The classic case of this was an early-1950s project by University of Washington sociologists called Project Revere, which Simpson describes in detail:
Briefly, Project Revere scientists dropped millions of leaflets containing civil defense propaganda or commercial advertising from U.S. Air Force planes over selected cities and towns in Washington state, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Alabama. They then surveyed the target population to create a relatively detailed record of the diffusion of the sample message among residents.

One of the architects of this study was a sociologist named Melvin Defleur, who eventually became one of the leading figures in communications studies and theory, and whose theories on news diffusion are taught in today's journalism and comm-school courses.

Much of the work of these academics in both the fields of communication and psychological warfare is relatively benign and has practical applications. However, it also has terrific potential for abuse, particularly in the hands of a Stalinist movement intent on the use of propaganda techniques as a means for acquiring power -- the situation which America now confronts in the form of the conservative movement.

The war in Iraq and the means of influence used to justify it provide the most stark example of this. As the retired military-intelligence analyst Sam Gardiner recently explained in Salon, the main subject of psychological warfare surrounding the invasion of Iraq was in fact the American public:
The Army Field Manual describes information operations as the use of strategies such as information denial, deception and psychological warfare to influence decision making. The notion is as old as war itself. With information operations, one seeks to gain and maintain information superiority -- control information and you control the battlefield. And in the information age, it has become even more imperative to influence adversaries.

But with the Iraq war, information operations have gone seriously off track, moving beyond influencing adversaries on the battlefield to influencing the decision making of friendly nations and, even more important, American public opinion. In information denial, one attempts to deceive one's adversary. Since the declared end of combat operations, the Bush administration has orchestrated a number of deceptions about Iraq. But who is its adversary?

As Gardiner explains, the use of psych ops has not been relegated strictly to the military. The Bush White House has also engaged in these tactics:
... The White House is also using psychological warfare -- conveying selected information to organizations and individuals to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately behavior -- to spread its version of the war. And the administration's message is obviously central to the process. From the very beginning, that message, delivered both directly and subtly, has been constant and consistent: Iraq = terrorists = 9/11.

The president tells us that we are fighting terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to fight them here in the United States. But I know of no one with a respectable knowledge of the events in Iraq who shares that view. My contacts in the intelligence community say the opposite -- that U.S. policies in fact are creating more terrorism.

Nonetheless, the American public is largely oblivious to this fact, instead seeing Bush's "strong and resolute" actions as making headway against terrorism. As Gardiner explains, the "repetition of the terrorist argument is utterly consistent with the theory that one can develop collective memory in a population through repetition." This hardly the only time this technique has been used by the conservative movement, either; how many times have we heard talking points reiterated ad nauseam by conservatives (from "It's not the sex, it's the lies" to "Al Gore invented the Internet" to "Kerry is a flip-flopper") until they eventually become accepted as truth?

Gardiner, in an earlier study [PDF file], provides even more detail about the mendacity underlying these manipulations of the American public:
The concepts of warfare got all mixed up in this war. ... [W]hat has happened is that information warfare, strategic influence, strategic psychological operations pushed their way into the important process of informing the peoples of our two democracies. The United States and the UK got too good at the concepts they had been developing for future warfare.

... From my research, the most profound thread is that WMD was only a very small part of the strategic influence, information operations and marketing campaign conducted on both sides of the Atlantic. ... My research suggests there were over 50 stories manufactured or at least engineered that distorted the picture of Gulf II for the American and British people.

It would be one thing if all this manipulation were actually for the benefit of the American public. But it has occurred in fact solely for the benefit of the conservative movement and its agenda -- an agenda that, at its core, is profoundly anti-democratic.

The danger of placing the capacity for employing these techniques in the hands of a movement whose entire raison d'etre is the acquisition of power through any means could not be more apparent. After all, we've seen it happen before, with disastrous -- even apocalyptic -- results.

The communication-as-domination model, you see, was developed by Lasswell and Lippmann in the 1920s and was promptly adopted by none other than Germany's Nazi propagandists, as Christoper Simpson explained:
Lasswell and Lippmann favored relatively tolerant, pluralistic societies in which elite rule protected democracies from their own weaknesses -- a modern form of noblesse oblige, so to speak. But the potential applications of the communication-as-domination zeitgeist extended far beyond the purposes they they would have personally approved. Nazi intellectuals believed to be instrumental in many aspects of communications studies throughout the 1930s, both as innovators of successful techniques and as spurs to communication studies outside of Germany intended to counteract the Nazi party's apparent success with propaganda.

Indeed, the most famous advocate of the use of these techniques in the 1930s was none other than Josef Goebbels, the Nazis' propaganda chief. Another advocate of the Lippmann approach was Otto Ohlendorf, who ran a Nazi office on polling techniques and communications before becoming one of the top commandants of the SS and a genocidal war criminal.

Today's conservative-movement propagandists operate somewhat differently, of course. Instead of manipulating a vulnerable public, traumatized by war and economic depression, by scapegoating Jews and proffering an apocalyptic vision of world domination as a response to the threat to the purity of the Aryan race, today's pseudo-fascists instead scapegoat liberals, and manipulate a traumatized post-9/11 populace through an apocalyptic vision of world domination excused by the supposed threat to American freedom.

It is, like all of pseudo-fascism, structurally similar to the real thing, but different in content and substance in certain key ways. In this way, it appears less menacing.

The danger, however, lies in the way those differences are gradually being eroded.

Next: Breaking Down the Barriers

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