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Absurd—“wildly illogical; nonsensical, preposterous”
—Oxford Desk Dictionary
The individual human mind, with its inherent capacity for critical analysis of received “truths,” remains the final, not yet entirely colonized, frontier. I remain convinced that this capacity, if resistant to the flood of unremitting propaganda, can still find its way to real understanding of perplexing, camouflaged governmental policies and crimes. It is not that the average U.S. citizen is incapable of critical thinking, but that there is little incentive to exercise it. Everywhere she turns, she feels boxed-in, blocked from the free exercise of her principles and values. From the perspective of the authoritarian “managers” of mass society, it is “most efficient” for 300 million people to exhibit merely “one” mind—credulous, tranquilized, acquiescent—shaped by mass media and government “mis-information.” (And it is “most efficient” to monitor the communications, not just of “suspected terrorists,” but of the entire citizenry.) Students suppress their awareness of their teachers’ intermittent ignorance, and learn the “lesson” of accommodation and conformity (test-taking, GPA, degree, “job search,” etc.). Employees learn to suppress their justifiable grievances and perform in the required manner—in order to keep the jobs necessary for their survival.
Such ingrained habits of passive-acceptance are readily transferred to an uncritical, overly receptive attitude toward the intrusive, unremitting flow of “messages” which flood our brains on a daily basis. The result is a dependence upon, or even addiction to, the media– which, by definition, intercepts the raw data of “reality” and then “processes” it into a form more palatable to the docile consumer-citizen. Language itself—at one time used sparingly to share and exchange thoughts–has been degraded into the “art of persuasion” (i.e., marketing and political propaganda). The individual mind, so overwhelmed and flooded with misleading messages, thus abrogates its human obligation of critical thought and skeptical analysis. Just consider a few (obvious) examples:
Up until mid-2002, the American citizenry was not aware of any alleged military “threat” coming from Iraq. But by August, as Cheney gave his brazenly duplicitous VFW speech, a “fall marketing campaign” was underway—as Bush’s chief-of-staff (and p.r. expert) Andrew Card casually admitted. A flood of illogical assertions and conclusions quickly descended upon the hapless American citizens as they glanced at TV news or perused newspapers. Sinister schemes regarding WMDs were suddenly a “grave and gathering danger.” Smoking guns, mushroom clouds, aluminum tubes, shady terrorist networks, uranium yellowcake—ad nauseam.
But shockingly, citizens overwhelmingly failed to exercise their capacity for critical evaluation of the alleged evidence or rationality–failing to ask even the most obvious (and urgent) questions. We can put aside the absurd disproportionality and illogic of the U.S. “War on ‘Terror’–as well as the now-familiar questions regarding the (successful) UN inspections, NIE reports on (lack of) WMDs, etc., etc. Yet any thinking U.S. citizens could still have easily perceived the grotesque illogic, hypocrisy, and fear-mongering of the whole criminal enterprise. For instance: why did the U.S. even bother to pretend, as a signatory of the UN Charter, to seek the required unanimous authorization of the Security Council (Powell’s disgraceful, phony speech)—but then, failing that, launch its invasion of Iraq anyway? Surely, skeptical, concerned Americans would have seen the contradiction—as the camouflage of diplomacy fell away, revealing an aggressive nation bent on war?
And—even if Americans allowed themselves to be duped about alleged Iraqi possession of WMD—how could an (illegal) invasion have been a solution? After all—at the risk of restating the obvious– has does starting a war constitute a prevention of war—the possibility of which otherwise being hypothetical? Even if such WMD had actually existed, a rational person would only conclude that they were for possible “defense” (from Iran and/or Israel); or, as a remote possibility, for a possible attack on such a neighboring country at a future time. Of course, Bush at al. shamelessly used the “Big Lie” technique, insinuating that the “mushroom cloud” could occur in the U.S. itself. Any inquiring sixth-grader might have asked why such a dictator, however supposedly “mad,” would risk to make such an attack—only to incur the reprisal of several thousand nuclear-armed missiles?
Another (obvious?) example: after bin Laden was assassinated, in Pakistan(!), by a SWAT-style police action, one would have expected a chorus of disillusioned, thinking American citizens to demand certain explanations. After all, if such a secret “special operation’ could successfully “take-out” bin Laden, why the full-scale, military invasion of the entire country of Afghanistan in the first place (with its consequent, bloody trail of hundreds of thousands of innocent victims and refugees)? And of course: was the Taliban really any kind of a threat to the security of U.S. citizens back in the “Homeland”?
Or: let’s take the (depressing) example of the U.S. medical industry. Whereas the annual number of “terror-related” deaths of U.S. citizens is indeed minimal, recognized studies indicate that (at least) 225,000-300,000 Americans are killed, each year–because of medical errors, faulty hospital procedures, adverse drug effects. U.S. Health “Care”?: “the third leading cause of death,” according tothe Institute of Medicine, WHO, HealthGrades, Inc., and other sources. And yet, allegedly thoughtful, liberal-minded Americans insist that such “health care” is urgently needed for all citizens—and that those who refuse to buy Obamacare “insurance” should indeed be financially penalized. Even common folk-wisdom—“an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”—has been forgotten as Americans fervently believe that doctors (and their magic, TV-promoted remedies) are essential to maintaining “health” (another common-sense concept which has been obfuscated).
And what about: the relative “affordability” of government programs and initiatives. Citizens on the whole were acquiescent when the U.S could evidently “afford” to spend (up to) three trillion dollars in Iraq—destroying an entire nation, killing hundreds of thousands of its citizens, and sacrificing thousands of U.S. soldiers to death or lifelong disability. Likewise, most citizens grudgingly accepted that the U.S. could “afford” to bail-out the “Too-Big-to-Fail-Banks”—banks which had recklessly and illegally sold worthless securities, forged mortgage and repossession documents, etc. U.S. taxpayers could “afford” to give trillions of dollars to these “needy” cases, either as outright subsidies or as essentially interest-free loans. (Only the most skeptical, inquiring citizens and journalists have doggedly uncovered how much was actually involved.) The thoughtful citizen—evidently an endangered species—might also ask: how did such banks become “too big”? (Mergers, facilitated by the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and the failure of antitrust enforcement—which in turn also drastically reduced competition, limited customer choices, and dramatically raised fees).
According to Immanuel Kant, the liberating, progressive spirit of the 18th century Enlightenment could be summed up in the phrase Sapere aude: Dare—to Know. Today, for those whose “pleasant dreams” are seldom disrupted by disturbing thoughts, one may also offer the timeless caveat of Plato’s Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist, formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).