Censorship and Propaganda

The NPR style

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Back in the 1980s, we heard a lot about how communist countries had “state-run radio” or some other obvious propaganda device. It conjured up images of banks of censors in basements producing irrationally exuberant radio and TV to manipulate a sleepwalking population.

Now the sleepwalking population is us. Method is often irrelevant; it doesn’t matter whether a large company produces the media, or some dissident hipster alone in a toolshed, or some vast Communist empire of college-trained propagandists. The result is the same.

For example, what does the Communist government preach?

Everything is fine; we have it under control; things are even going great; the bad guys are really bad and will kill your babies; join us and fight them and you will always be accepted.

But really corporate radio is not much different.

Everything is fine; your life will be even better with our product; it’s totally great and will get you laid; there are people who are not fun and they don’t like our product and want to control you; join us in the fight for freedom and buy our product and you will always be accepted.

And hipster radio is even closer to the original.

Everything is fine if you’re one of us; we’re living the good life by not being like the others; while they suffer in boring Catholic jobs and conservative sex lives, we’re rocking hard; the bad guys want to ruin your fun; join us in conforming to non-conformity and you will always be not only accepted, but hipper than others because we accept you.

With that little illusion out of the way, we can take a look at state-run radio in the United States. While our National Public Radio is not fully funded by the state, or directly controlled, it seems to share its personnel exclusively with media and government elites. It handily releases stories that are convenient. And it pumps out propaganda as much as Pravda or East German radio did.

NPR however is subtler. To maintain the illusion of freedom, our propaganda must disguise itself as the alternative to propaganda. This means it must be permissive, but also have a sense of higher moral calling, so you sense that (a) there are no rules but (b) good people behave a certain way and we’ll tell you what it is.

To that end, NPR has developed a distinctive style. If it were music, it would be minor-key. It is a lamentation that wraps itself around “uplifting” ideas that never quite change the mood. It is an affirmation of the crushing power of normalcy while doing its best to notice all the quirky, off-beat, ironic, unique, different and non-conformist details.

In short, it’s a deliberate paradox designed to hide its agenda behind a social statement. Its predominant hook is that its announcers use big(ger) words than average, and speak in hushed tones of awe about weighty topics, and basically act like the kids in the theatre department in high school.

A typical NPR broadcast resembles the ones from the Katrina era:

This block once rang out with the vibrant calls of children at play. A neighborhood for the disadvantaged, Skull Head Point was in the process of pulling itself up by its bootstraps when the storm hit and all but obliterated any hope. Here, neighbors dodged bullets to put together a community eatery and vegetable co-op. Teachers concealed the bodies of the previous night’s shooting so their children could have a few minutes of unabridged delight in a quick pick-up soccer game. Even the local police got in the act, dressing up as Santa and handing out toys made from old warrants. It was a neighborhood of hard times but good spirits, of a dark past but a bright future. And then came the storm.

Now the only basketballs are deflated in ponds of water from which shiny white bones protrude, and the nightly violence is so intense that residents have stopped buying doors because they are simply stolen too fast. Skull Head Point, like so many other aspirations in the twilight of this city, was crushed by the storm that tore down half the neighborhood and flooded the rest. Ida May Barnes, a pancake cook at the bullet-riddled 666 Diner in town that’s the last good employment most residents can get, doesn’t fault President George W. Bush for the storm. “But he sure could get us some new roads, a little faster,” she says with a laugh before she returns to her task of picking up the metatarsals of the dead.

This is intoned in a warm, full voice like 1970s teachers reading from children’s books. Sentences are pronounced with a distinct downward slant, modulating toward a lower key and slower pace as they go on. The timbre of the voice changes too and gets fuller and huskier, as if sadness pervaded it without invitation. Lots of trendy topics are cited to either make you feel like part of the gang, or remind you that you have work to do in order to be as cool as the others.

All of this conceals the fact that the people on this radio station are doing the bidding of their masters, and make ludicrously low salaries, and probably are not qualified for anything outside of this type of “social” job, where a worker is not valued for ability so much as the ability to make other people pay attention to that worker.

The NPR style has infested all forms of mass communication now. It used to be “edgy” and “hip” because it was both bleak and yet trendy and hopeful, so all the dummies in the marketing departments decided to emulate it in the hopes it would sell their products. Legions of blogs and podcasts also imitate it because it is their ideal. Other radio stations took it on to compete.

The result says a lot about the American spirit at this time. We don’t crave red-blooded, clear-sighted and realistic news. We don’t even crave the venal. Instead, we like this mish-mash of the pathetic, lurid and state propaganda, all disguised as an ironic human interest story for intellectuals.

It’s as if we have given up on substance and affirmed style itself. In doing so, we have revealed how empty we are. We don’t want solutions to our problems; we want distractions. We don’t want reality; we want to feel like a nation of self-appointed intellectuals, pushing away problems not because we’re in denial but because we are somehow wiser than reality itself.

Economic censorship

This blog post revisits a topic I started writing about long ago in the 1980s. Back then, Al Gore thought the flavor of the week was social conservative on the heels of the Reagan Revolution, and so he pimped out his crazy wife Tipper on a scheme to put obscene content warning stickers on music.

The idea was that these little stickers would warn us that the music we were about to purchase contained excessively sexual, profane, Satanic, violent or drug promoting themes. The illusion was that this would aid parents, who were only too happy to ignore whatever Junior was listening to in his bedroom.

In reality, the result was a whole lot of brouhaha that went nowhere. The right cheered and the left claimed it was the new Hitler. In the meantime, record stores began demanding IDs in advance of purchase, regardless of the visual appearance of the purchaser.

As might be predicted, the ensuing drama lasted for another couple years until everyone forget and ran on to a new trend. Parents went back to griping about what the kids listened to and doing nothing to interrupt it. Kids went back to buying music, letting it program their brains, and then the next craze.

But as they say, watch an experienced gambler. One hand does something that attracts your attention while the other covertly makes the move you should be worrying about. Those who desire to manipulate mass opinion learned a lot from the Parents Music Resource Center debacle (for that’s what it was called).

What they learned is this: if you want to censor something, the dumbest move you can make is to make a law. Don’t bother — instead, gather 500 of your closest friends and start making calls. Call the record labels and the record stores. Threaten lawsuits, threaten boycotts, but even more, find a good taboo.

For example, no one cares these days about sex, drugs and Satan. Permissiveness allows our controllers even greater power. First, it breaks down social standards except those taught in schools as political dogma.

Next, it means everyone is doing something wrong at all times, which provides probable cause, which then gets investigators into the door with a warrant. If you know your target likes drugs, piracy, illegal porn or weapons, it’s easy to get him or her booked into the system and turn them informant.

A good taboo is something that is politically offensive, meaning that it is perceived by many people as threatening their way of life. The biggest ones are Communism, pedophilia and racism. If you accuse any person of these, it’s considered proof that they are Hitler or worse.

After all, we fought wars for universal equality. The Communists were against freedom, hated Coca-Cola and were probably closet racists too. Every one of the pillars of belief upon which we build this great nation is against Communism, pedophilia (think of the children!) and racism.

These lessons came to bear in the next half-decade when political correctness took over. It took over not because the new generation wanted it, but because the Baby Boomers had finally gotten old enough to run departments. The hippie revolution was underway in its second phase, that of adulthood.

It rubbed us the wrong way the same way any stodgy adult “you must do this” proclamation did, but also because these people wanted us to re-live their lives and in doing so, forget our own. What also unnerved us was how effective economic censorship was.

If you wanted something destroyed, accuse it of Communism, pedophilia or racism. Call up the employers of those who supported it; they got fired. Call advertisers; ads went away, and it went bankrupt. Protest in front of stores or list them as racist Communist sympathizers, and they went out of business.

A new tool of great power was in the hands of those who disagreed with ideas. All groups could use it; all you needed were enough cash-spending followers to cause economic damage, and you had virtual control over what could be seen, heard, bought or sold.

The best part was that it was not censorship. Censorship we are told implies a government or some other with singular power preventing freedom of the press or speech. Economic censorship allows you to publish whatever you want, but anyone caught with it loses their job and so no one pays attention to it.

It’s not just America. In any liberal democracy, we don’t need censorship: we simply determine that your ideas should be unpopular, and we spread the word through media, and soon consumer pressure hides the offensive material from sight.

Over the weekend, MSNBC President Phil Griffin said that Buchanan was not allowed on the air indefinitely after the release of his latest book, and has not decided whether to allow the commentator to return.

The book, Suicide of a Superpower, brought to MSNBC calls from several civil rights groups and the Anti-Defamation League to drop Buchanan for its incendiary racial and anti-Semitic remarks, among which are, according to the Times, claims that America is being damaged “ethnically, culturally, morally, politically” by the rise in minority populations and the lament that the “European and Christian core of our country is shrinking.” Griffin described the ideas in the book as not being “really appropriate for national dialogue, much less the dialogue on MSNBC.” – Mediaite

We’ve gone from banning Satanic drug-addicted hyper-sexual heavy metal and obscene hip-hop to chasing down the political enemies of the State, and busting them for offending us by violating the moral norms of our society. How bitter, calcified, antiquated and unstable.

Yet it remains popular because we get our cake and eat it, too. We have free speech, and we also get rid of any ideas that interrupt the constant pursuit of pleasures of the self. This way, we can maintain the pleasant anesthetized feeling that everything is just fine… until the end, of course.

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