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Lost in Cipherspace

People of the Lie

by THOMAS H. NAYLOR

We live in the world of make-believe, a world controlled by ciphers such as Wall Street, Corporate America, the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon.  These ciphers enjoy the enthusiastic support of the media, the academy, and the shamans to whom we entrust the care of body, mind, and soul.  They reside in cipherspace, a euphemism for what French writer Albert Camus called the absurd.

In the parlance of communications intelligence, a cipher is a secret message deliberately encoded to mislead unintended recipients.  International intelligence operatives routinely employ ciphers to communicate classified information and secret messages among themselves via telecommunication networks.  So, too, do those engaged in espionage, counterespionage, terrorism, and anti-terrorism.  More recently, ciphers have been used to protect the confidentiality of e-mail messages, electronic funds transfers, credit card transactions, and cell phone conversations.

Ciphers are often used to disguise messages encoded to mislead virtually everyone, whether they be citizens, consumers, stockholders, employees, voters, viewers, readers, Internet junkies, students, patients, or parishioners.  They are a sophisticated form of lying and deceit—one of the most important instruments of mass manipulation and social control in our culture.  A person, such as a political leader, who transmits misleading messages is also a cipher.

I first learned about ciphers from a Czech political science professor, Vladimir Suchan, who had become disillusioned with communist apparatchiks in Prague and Moscow as well as U.S government officials and viewed them all as ciphers.

To some ciphers are world-class bloodsuckers who exploit our vulnerability and our inability to cope with the human condition.  Ciphers tell us what to believe, how to live, how to raise our kids, how to work, how to play, how to make love, and how to die.  From them we also learn what to buy, how much to pay for it, and when to replace it, as well as where we will work, how much we will be paid, and what working conditions will be like.  We call this “freedom.”

Cipher is also a synonym for zero, indicating a value of naught, symbolizing nothingness and a hint of nihilism.  It can refer to a person or a thing of no importance, a nonentity.  Ciphers stand for nothing.  Thus a person, a place, a thing, an idea, or a message may be a cipher.  But in our culture, some of the most important ciphers are politicians, TV advertisers, the Internet, text messages and money.

In cryptology, the technology of secret communication, the original message is called the plaintext and the secret form of the message intended to mislead is the ciphertext or cipher.  The method for changing one into the other is the cryptosystem.  Without knowledge of the cryptosystem it is impossible to convert the ciphertext back to the real message, the plaintext.  Encrypting is the process of converting plaintext into ciphertext.  Decrypting is changing ciphertext back into plaintext.

In the Broadway musical Evita about the life of Eva Peron, the ciphertext was “You were supposed to have been immortal.”  But the plaintext was “in the end, you could not deliver.”

The plaintext for the BRAVO television series “Dirty Housewives” is, “Always look out for number one,” while the not so subtle ciphertext is, “You deserve to have it all.”  The subliminal messages communicated by some television advertisements are so carefully sugarcoated and disguised that the unsuspecting viewer may find it virtually impossible to decrypt their real meaning.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the ciphertext embraced by the New Orleans Levee Board was that the “city that care forgot” was surely invincible.  The plaintext understood by everyone but President George W. Bush was that New Orleans was “a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

Many in need of a quick fix to assuage their feelings of powerlessness and fear of nothingness are drawn to technology.  Technology seduces us into believing we can find security and certainty in an otherwise uncertain, meaningless world.  Nothing better illustrates this phenomenon than President Ronald Reagan’s fantasy of an antimissile shield—still supported by our government and most Americans in spite of its failures.  Who could ever forget the affection with which Ronald Reagan held the Peacekeeper missile?  Isn’t the proposed antimissile defense system just code for the militarization of space?

The ciphertext of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was “hope and change.”  The reality (plaintext) has been “business as usual.”  And as we all know, Obama, the Nobel Peace Laureate, soon morphed into Obama, the champion of drones, Navy Seals, and Army Delta Force death squads.  Not only are we still in Iraq, but the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has actually increased.  Furthermore, we are now engaged in wars in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

The ciphertext “war on terrorism” is, in fact, a euphemism for Islamophobia.  The Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, the proposed Detainee Security Act, and Homeland Security are particularly creative ciphertexts approved by Congress to justify increased government control over the lives of ordinary citizens.  Freedom, democracy, liberty, and American exceptionalism are all clichés used to justify a foreign policy based on full spectrum dominance and imperial overstretch.

The vast majority of the members of Congress are ciphers.  Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul are among the few exceptions to the rule.

At no place are ciphers more widely used than on Wall Street where economists, financial analysts, and corporate CEOs hype the prices of common stocks on CNBC and Fox News and in The Wall Street Journal.

Underlying globalization is a ciphertext called the Theory of Comparative Advantage developed by English economist David Ricardo two hundred years ago:  If every country concentrates on the production of those goods it can make most efficiently and buys from other countries those goods which it cannot manufacture as efficiently, consumers will get more goods at lower cost than if each country tried to be self-sufficient.  But the plaintext is that globalization works best if we are all the same and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Inspired by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman and his disciples who have all sold out to Wall Street, politicians vigorously promote globalization.  The worldwide network of markets, transnational companies, and information technologies has effectively eliminated the need for national political borders.  Political and economic power have been transferred from nation-states to transnational megacompanies accountable only to their shareholders.  Wall Street is in charge.  It is all about unfettered, free-market capitalism—deregulation, privatization, and the emasculation of labor worldwide.  Globalization is the modern equivalent of the Tower of Babel.  A hiccup in China reverberates around the world at the speed of light.  And Wall Street has declared that this is very good.

Yet another important cipher is the Internet.  The plaintext of the Internet is firmly grounded in speed, greed, and instant gratification.  However, some view the Internet as one of the greatest con jobs ever perpetrated on the human race.  They perceive the Internet to be anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-creative and anti-social—capable of destroying community, undermining democracy, creating a spiritual vacuum, inducing emotional instability, and downloading the human mind.

My own view of the Internet is similar to Henry David Thoreau’s view of the magnetic telegraph.  “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas may have nothing important to communicate.  We are eager to tunnel the Atlantic and bring the Old World nearer the New, but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”

High on any list of ciphers is the Roman Catholic Church.  According to New York Times editor, Bill Keller, like the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union, “the Vatican exists first and foremost to preserve its own powers.”  The late anti-communist, Polish Pope John Paul II, “replicated something very like the old Communist Party in his church.”  He “shaped a hierarchy that [was] intolerant of dissent, unaccountable to its members, secretive in the extreme and willfully clueless about how people live.”  And there is every indication that Pope Benedict XVI was cast from the same mold as his rigid predecessor.  In response to criticism of Benedict XVI, the Vatican issued the following press release which gave new meaning to the word arrogance, “The Holy See cannot take lessons or instructions from any other authority on the tone and content of its own statements.”

Before the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, Russian workers cynically used to say, “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”  The counterpart for American Catholics says Bill Keller is, “They pretend to lead, and we pretend to follow.”

Among the high priests of cipherspace not already mentioned are Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, News Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, and Wal-Mart Chairman Robson Walton.

And who are all of these ciphers?  They are the people who psychiatrist M. Scott Peck called People of the Lie in his disturbing book bearing that title.

Thomas H. Naylor is Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of AffluenzaDownsizing the U.S.A., and The Search for Meaning.