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Mark Crispin Miller on conspiracies, media, and mad scientists

Interview by Carrie McLaren | Issue #19

After years of dropping Mark Crispin Miller’s name in Stay Free!, I figured it was time to interview him. Miller is, after all, one of the sharpest thinkers around. His writings on television predicted the cult of irony–or whatever you call it when actual Presidential candidates mock themselves on Saturday Night Live, when sitcoms ridicule sitcoms, and when advertisements attack advertising. More recently, he has authored The Bush Dyslexicon, aided by his humble and ever-devoted assistant (me).

Miller works at New York University in the Department of Media Ecology. Though he bristles at being called an academic, Miller is exactly the sort of person that should be leading classrooms. He’s an excellent speaker, with a genius for taking cultural products–be they Jell-O commercials or George W. Bush press conferences–and teasing out hidden meanings. (He’s also funny, articulate, and knows how to swear.)

I talked to Mark at his home in November, between NPR appearances and babysitting duty. He is currently writing about the Marlboro Man for American Icons, a Yale University Press series that he also happens to be editing. His book Mad Scientists: Paranoid Delusion and the Craft of Propaganda (W. Norton) is due out in 2004.–CM

STAY FREE: Let’s start with a simple one: Why are conspiracy theories so popular?

MCM: People are fascinated by the fundamental evil that seems to explain everything. Lately, this is why we’ve had the anomaly of, say, Rupert Murdoch’s Twentieth Century Fox releasing films that feature media moguls as villains out to rule the world–villains much like Rupert Murdoch. Who’s a bigger conspirator than he is? And yet he’s given us The X-Files. Another example: Time Warner released Oliver Stone’s JFK, that crackpot-classic statement of the case that American history was hijacked by a great cabal of devious manipulators. It just so happens that Stone himself, with Time Warner behind him, was instrumental in suppressing two rival projects on the Kennedy assassination. These are trivial examples of a genuine danger, which is that those most convinced that there is an evil world conspiracy tend to be the most evil world conspirators.

STAY FREE: Because they know what’s inside their own heads?

MCM: Yes and no. The evil that they imagine is inside their heads–but they can’t be said to know it, at least not consciously. What we’re discussing is the tendency to paranoid projection. Out of your own deep hostility you envision a conspiracy so deep and hostile that you’re justified in using any tactics to shatter it.

If you look at those who have propagated the most noxious doctrines of the twentieth century, you will find that they’ve been motivated by the fierce conviction that they have been the targets of a grand conspiracy against them. Hitler believed he was fighting back, righteously, against "the Jewish world conspiracy." [See pp. 30-31] Lenin and Stalin both believed they were fighting back against the capitalist powers–a view that had some basis in reality, of course, but that those Bolsheviks embraced to an insane degree. (In 1941, for example, Stalin actually believed that England posed a greater danger to the Soviet Union than the Nazis did.)

We see the same sort of paranoid projection among many of the leading lights of our Cold War–the first U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, who was in fact clinically insane; the CIA’s James Angleton; Richard Nixon; J. Edgar Hoover; Frank Wisner, who was in charge of the CIA’s propaganda operations worldwide. Forrestal and Wisner both committed suicide because they were convinced the Communists were after them. Now, there was a grain of truth to this since the Soviet Union did exist and it was a hostile power. But it wasn’t on the rise, and it wasn’t trying to take over the world, and it certainly wasn’t trying to destroy James Forrestal personally. We have to understand that there was just as much insanity in our own government as there was with the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.

This paranoid dynamic did not vanish when the Cold War ended. The U.S. is now dominated, once again, by rightists who believe themselves besieged. And the same conviction motivates Osama bin Laden and his followers. They see themselves as the victims of an expansionist Judeo-Christianity.

STAY FREE: Al Qaeda is itself a conspiracy.

MCM: Yes. We have to realize that the wildest notions of a deliberate plot are themselves tinged with the same dangerous energy that drives such plots. What we need today, therefore, is not just more alarmism, but a rational appraisal of the terrorist danger, a clear recognition of our own contribution to that danger, and a realistic examination of the weak spots in our system. Unfortunately, George W. Bush is motivated by an adolescent version of the same fantasy that drives the terrorists. He divides the whole world into Good and Evil, and has no doubt that God is on his side–just like bin Laden. So how can Bush guide the nation through this danger, when he himself sounds dangerous? How can he oversee the necessary national self-examination, when he’s incapable of looking critically within? In this sense the media merely echoes him. Amid all the media’s fulminations against al Qaeda, there has been no sober accounting of how the FBI and CIA screwed up. Those bureaucracies have done a lousy job, but that fact hasn’t been investigated because too many of us are very comfortably locked into this hypnotic narrative of ourselves as the good victims and the enemy as purely evil.

STAY FREE: There’s so much contradictory information out there. Tommy Thompson was on 60 Minutes the other night saying that we were prepared for biological warfare, that there was nothing to worry about. Yet The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have quoted experts saying the exact opposite. Do you think this kind of confusion contributes to conspiratorial thinking? I see some conspiratorial thinking as a normal function of getting along in the world. When, on September 11th, the plane in Pennsylvania went down, there was lots of speculation that the U.S. military shot it down.

MCM: Which I tend to think is true, by the way. I’ve heard from some folks in the military that that plane was shot down.

STAY FREE: But we have no real way of knowing, no expertise.

MCM: Yes, conspiratorial thinking is a normal response to a world in which information is either missing or untrustworthy. I think that quite a few Americans subscribe to some pretty wild notions of what’s going on. There’s nothing new in this, of course. There’s always been a certain demented plurality that’s bought just about any explanation that comes along. That explains the centuries-old mythology of anti-Semitism. There will always be people who believe that kind of thing. To a certain extent, religion itself makes people susceptible to such theorizing.

STAY FREE: How so?

MCM: Because it tends a propagate that Manichean picture of the universe as split between the good people and "the evil-doers." Christianity has spread this vision–even though it’s considered a heresy to believe that evil is an active force in God’s universe. According to orthodox Christianity, evil is not a positive force but the absence of God.

STAY FREE: A lot of religious people believe what they want to believe, anyway. Christianity is negotiable.

MCM: Absolutely. But when it comes to the paranoid world view, all ethical and moral tenets are negotiable, just as all facts are easily disposable. Here we need to make a distinction. On the one hand, there have been, and there are, conspiracies. Since the Cold War, our government has been addicted to secrecy and dangerously fixated on covert action all around the world. So it would be a mistake to dismiss all conspiracy theory. At the same time, you can’t accept everything–that’s just as naïve and dangerous as dismissing everything.

Vincent Bugliosi, who wrote The Betrayal of America, is finishing up a book on the conspiracy theories of the Kennedy assassination. He has meticulously gone through the case and has decided that the Warren Report is right. Now, Bugliosi is no knee-jerk debunker. He recognizes that a big conspiracy landed George W. Bush in the White House.

STAY FREE: So I take it you don’t buy the conspiracy theories about JFK?

MCM: I think there’s something pathological about the obsession with JFK’s death. Some students of the case have raised legitimate questions, certainly, but people like Stone are really less concerned about the facts than with constructing an idealized myth.

STAY FREE: Critics of the war in Afghanistan have called for more covert action as an alternative to bombing. That’s an unusual thing for the left to be advocating, isn’t it?

MCM: It is. On the one hand, any nation would appear to be within its rights to try to track down and kill these mass murderers. I would personally prefer to see the whole thing done legally, but that may not be realistic. So, if it would work as a covert program without harm to any innocents I wouldn’t be against it. But that presumes a level of right-mindedness and competence that I don’t see in our government right now. I don’t think that we can trust Bush/Cheney to carry out such dirty business. Because they have a paranoid world-view–just like the terrorists–they must abuse their mandate to "do what it takes" to keep us safe. By now they have bombed more innocents than perished in the World Trade Center, and they’re also busily trashing many of our rights.

The "intelligence community" itself, far from being chastened by their failure, has used the great disaster to empower itself. That bureaucracy has asked for still more money, but that request is wholly disingenuous. They didn’t blow it because they didn’t have enough money–they blew it because they’re inept! They coasted along for years in a cozy symbiosis with the Soviet Union. The two superpowers needed one another to justify all this military and intelligence spending, and it made them complacent. Also, they succumbed to the fatal tendency to emphasize technological intelligence while de-emphasizing human intelligence.

STAY FREE: Yeah, the Green Berets sent to Afghanistan are equipped with all sorts of crazy equipment. They each wear gigantic puffy suits with pockets fit to carry a GPS, various hi-tech gizmos, and arms.

MCM: That’s just terrific. Meanwhile, the terrorists used boxcutters!

STAY FREE: Did you see that the U.S. Army has asked Hollywood to come up with possible terrorist scenarios to help prepare the military for attack?

MCM: Yeah, it sent a chill right through me. If that’s what they’re reduced to doing to protect us from the scourge of terrorism, they’re completely clueless. They might as well be hiring psychics–which, for all we know, they are!

STAY FREE: The Bush administration also asked Al Jazeera, the Arab TV station, to censor its programming.

MCM: Right. And, you know, every oppressive move we make, from trying to muzzle that network to dropping bombs all over Afghanistan, is like a gift to the terrorists. Al Jazeera is the only independent TV network in the Arab world. It has managed to piss off just about every powerful interest in the Middle East, which is a sign of genuine independence. In 1998, the network applied for membership in the Arab Press Union, and the application was rejected because Al Jazeera refused to abide by the stricture that it would do everything it can to champion "Arab brotherhood."

STAY FREE: What do you think our government should have done instead of bombing?

MCM: I rather wish they had responded with a little more imagination. Doing nothing was not an option. But bombing the hell out of Afghanistan was not the only alternative–and it was a very big mistake, however much it may have gratified a lot of anxious TV viewers in this country. By bombing, the U.S. quickly squandered its advantage in the propaganda war. We had attracted quite a lot of sympathy worldwide, but that lessened markedly once we killed Afghan civilians by the hundreds, then the thousands. Americans have tended not to want to know about those foreign victims. But elsewhere in the world, where 9/11 doesn’t resonate as much, the spectacle of all those people killed by us can only build more sympathy for our opponents. That is, the bombing only helps the terrorists in the long run. And so has our government’s decision to define the 9/11 crimes as acts of war. That definition has served only to exalt the perpetrators, who should be treated as mass murderers, not as soldiers.

But the strongest argument against our policy is this–that it is exactly what the terrorists were hoping for. Eager to accelerate the global split between the faithful and the infidels, they wanted to provoke us into a response that might inflame the faithful to take arms against us. I think we can agree that, if they wanted it, we should have done something else.

STAY FREE: You’ve written that, before the Gulf War, Bush the elder’s administration made the Iraqi army sound a lot more threatening than it really was. Bush referred to Iraq’s scanty, dwindling troops as the "elite Republican guard." Do you think that kind of exaggeration could happen with this war?

MCM: No, because the great given in this case is that we are rousing ourselves from our stupor and dealing an almighty and completely righteous blow against those who have hurt us. Now we have to seem invincible, whereas ten years ago, they wanted to make us very scared that those Iraqi troops might beat us. By terrorizing us ahead of time, the Pentagon and White House made our rapid, easy victory seem like a holy miracle.

STAY FREE: Let’s get back to conspiracy theories. Do people ever call you a conspiracy theorist?

MCM: Readers have accused me of paranoia. People who attacked me for The Bush Dyslexicon seized on the fact that my next book is subtitled Paranoid Delusion and the Craft of Propaganda, and they said, "He’s writing about himself!" But I don’t get that kind of thing often because most people see that there’s a lot of propaganda out there. I don’t write as if people are sitting around with sly smiles plotting evil–they’re just doing their jobs.

The word propaganda has an interesting history, you know. It was coined by the Vatican. It comes from propagare, which means grafting a shoot onto a plant to make it grow. It’s an apt derivation, because propaganda only works when there is fertile ground for it. History’s first great propagandist was St. Paul, who saw himself as bringing the word of God to people who needed to hear it. The word wasn’t pejorative until the first World War, when the Allies used it to refer to what the Germans did, while casting their own output as "education," or "information."

There was a promising period after the war when it got out that our government had done a lot of lying. The word propaganda came to connote domestic propaganda, and there were a number of progressive efforts to analyze and debunk it. But with the start of World War II, propaganda analysis disappeared. Since we were fighting Nazi propaganda with our own, it wasn’t fruitful to be criticizing propaganda.

STAY FREE: I read that the word "propaganda" fell out of fashion among academics around that time, so social scientists started referring to their work as "communications." It was no longer politically safe to study how to improve propaganda.

MCM: Experts in propaganda started doing "communications" studies after the war. Since then, "communication" has been the most common euphemism used for "propaganda," as in "political communication." There’s also "psychological warfare" and, of course, "spin."

The Cold War was when "propaganda" became firmly linked to Communism. "Communist propaganda" was like "tax-and-spend Democrats" or "elite Republican guard." The two elements were inseparable. If the Communists said it, it was considered propaganda; and if it was propaganda, there were Communists behind it. Only now that the Cold War is over is it possible to talk about U.S. propaganda without running the risk of people looking at you funny. The word does still tend to be used more readily in reference to liberals or Democrats. The right was always quick to charge Bill Clinton–that leftist!–with doing propaganda. In fact, his right-wing enemies, whose propaganda skills were awesome, would routinely fault him for his "propaganda." You never heard anybody say Ronald Reagan was as a master propagandist, though. He was "the Great Communicator."

STAY FREE: Talk a bit about how conspiracy is used to delegitimize someone who’s doing critical analysis. I’ve heard you on TV saying, "I don’t mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but . . . " People even do this in regular conversation. A friend of mine was telling me about going to Bush’s inauguration in D.C. He was stunned that none of the protests were covered by the media but prefaced his comments by saying, "I want don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but [the press completely ignored the protests]." It’s almost as if people feel the need to apologize if they don’t follow some party line.

MCM: I wouldn’t say that, because there are people who are conspiracy theorists. And I think the emphasis there should not be on the conspiracy but on the theory. A theorist is a speculator. It’s always much easier to construct a convincing conspiracy theory if you don’t bother looking at reality. The web is filled with stuff like this. So, if you want cover yourself, you should say something like: "I don’t subscribe to every crackpot notion that comes along, but in this case there’s something funny going on–and here’s the evidence." It really is a rhetorical necessity. Especially when you’re on TV.

STAY FREE: Maybe it’s more of a necessity, too, when you’re talking about propaganda.

MCM: I’ll tell you something: it’s necessary when you’re talking about real conspiracies. You know who benefited big time from the cavalier dismissal of certain conspiracies? The Nazis. The Nazis were expert at countering true reports of their atrocities by recalling the outrageous lies the Allies had told about the Germans back in World War I. The Allies had spread insane rumors about Germans bayoneting Belgian babies, and crucifying Canadian soldiers on barn doors, and on and on. So, when it first got out that the Nazis were carrying out this horrible scheme, their flacks would roll their eyes and say, "Oh yeah–just like the atrocity stories we heard in WWI, right?"

STAY FREE: I once attended a lecture on Channel One [an advertising-funded, in-school "news" program], where a professor dissected several broadcasts. He talked about how Channel One stories always emphasize "oneness" and individuality. Collective efforts or activism is framed in the negative sense, while business and governmental sources are portrayed positively and authoritatively. Now, someone listening to this lecture might say, "That just your reading into it. You sound conspiratorial." So where do you think this sort of media analysis or literary analysis and conspiracy-mongering intersect?

MCM: That’s a very good question. For years I’ve encountered the same problem as a professor. You’ve got to make the point that any critical interpretation has to abide by the rules of evidence–it must be based on a credible argument. If you think I’m "reading into it," tell me where my reading’s weak. Otherwise, grant that, since the evidence that I adduce supports my point, I might be onto something. Where it gets complicated with propaganda is around the question of intention, because an intention doesn’t have to be entirely conscious. The people who make ads, for example, are imbedded in a larger system; they’ve internalized its imperatives. So they may not be conscious intellectually of certain moves they make. If you said to somebody at Channel One, "You’re hostile to the collective and you insult the individual," he’d say, reasonably, "What are you talking about? I’m just doing the news." So you have to explain what ideology is. I’m acutely sensitive to this whole problem. When I teach advertising, for example, I proceed by using as many examples as possible, to show that there is a trend, whatever any individual art director or photographer might insist about his or her own deliberate aims.

Take liquor advertising, which appeals to the infant within every alcoholic by associating drink with mother’s milk. This is clearly a deliberate strategy because we see it in ad after ad–some babe holding a glass of some brew right at nipple level. She’s invariably small-breasted so that the actual mammary does not upstage the all-important product. If that’s an accident, it’s a pretty amazing accident. Now, does this mean that the ad people sit down and study the pathology of alcoholics, or is it something they’ve discovered through trial and error? My point is that it ultimately makes no difference. We see it over and over–and if I can show you that, according to experts, visual association speaks to a desire in alcoholics, a regressive impulse, then you have to admit I have a point. Of course, there are going to be people who’ll accuse you of "reading into it" no matter what you say because they don’t want to hear the argument. This is where we come up against the fundamental importance of anti-intellectualism on the right. They hate any kind of explanation. They feel affronted by the very act of thinking. I ran into this when I promoted The Bush Dyslexicon on talk shows–which I could do before 9/11. Bush’s partisans would fault me just for scrutinizing what he’d said.

STAY FREE: I recently read Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay about political paranoia. He argued that conspiracy is not specific to any culture or country. Would you agree with that, or do you think there is something about America that makes it particularly hospitable to conspiracy theories?

MCM: Well, there’s a lot of argument about this. There’s a whole school of thought that holds that England’s Civil War brought about a great explosion of paranoid partisanship. Bernard Baylin’s book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution includes a chapter on the peculiar paranoid orientation of the American revolutionaries. But I think paranoia is universal. It’s an eternal, regressive impulse, and it poses a special danger to democracy.

STAY FREE: Why, specifically, is it dangerous to democracy?

MCM: Because democracies have always been undone by paranoia. You cannot have a functioning democracy where everyone is ruled by mutual distrust. A democratic polity requires a certain degree of rationality, a tolerance of others, and a willingness to listen to opposing views without assuming people are out to kill you. There’s a guy named Eli Sagan who wrote a book on the destructive effect of paranoia on Athenian democracy. And I think that the American experiment may also fail; America has always come closest to betraying its founding principles at moments of widespread xenophobic paranoia. In wartime, people want to sink to their knees and feel protected. They give up thinking for themselves–an impulse fatal to democracy but quite appropriate for fascism and Stalinism.

The question now is whether paranoia can remain confined to that thirty-or-so percent of the electorate who are permanently crazy. That’s what Nixon himself said, by the way–that "one third of the American electorate is nuts." About a third of the German people voted for the Nazis. I think there’s something to that. It’s sort of a magic number.

STAY FREE: Come to think of it, public opinion polls repeatedly show that 70% of the public are skeptical of advertising claims. I guess that means about 30% believe anything.

MCM: Wow. I wonder if that lack of skepticism toward advertising correlates in any way with this collective paranoia. That would be interesting to know.

STAY FREE: Well, during the Gulf War, a market research firm conducted a study that found that the more hawkish people were, the more likely they were to be rampant consumers. Warmongers, in other words, consumed more than peaceniks. Why do you think these two reactions might be correlated?

MCM: One could argue that this mild, collective paranoia often finds expression in promiscuous consumption. Eli Sagan talks about the "paranoidia of greed" as well as the "paranoidia of domination." Both arise out of suspicion of the enemy. You either try to take over all his territory forcibly, or you try to buy everything up and wall yourself within the fortress of your property.

STAY FREE: Those two reactions also practically dominate American culture. When people from other countries think of America, they think of us being materialistic and violent. We buy stuff and kill people. Do you think there’s any positive form of paranoia? Any advantage to it?

MCM: No, I don’t, because paranoids have a fatal tendency to look for the enemy in the wrong place. James Angleton of the CIA was so very destructive because he was paranoid. I mean, he should have been in a hospital–and I’m not being facetious. Just like James Forrestal, our first defense secretary. These people were unable to protect themselves, much less serve their country. I think paranoia is only useful if you’re in combat and need to be constantly ready to kill. Whether it’s left-wing or right-wing paranoia, the drive is ultimately suicidal.

STAY FREE: Our government is weak compared to the corporations that run our country. What role do you see for corporations in the anti-terrorist effort?

MCM: Well, corporations do largely run the country, and yet we can’t trust them with our security. The private sector wants to cut costs, so you don’t trust them with your life. Our welfare is not uppermost in their minds; our money is. So what role can the corporations play?

STAY FREE: They can make the puffy suits!

MCM: The puffy suits and whatever else the Pentagon claims to need. Those players have a vested interest in eternal war.

STAY FREE: Did you read that article about Wal-Mart? After September 11, sales shot up for televisions, guns, and canned goods.

MCM: Paranoia can be very good for business.

STAY FREE: Have you ever watched one of those television news shows that interpret current events in terms of Christian eschatology? They analyze everyday events as signs of the Second Coming.

MCM: No. I bet they’re really excited now, though. I wonder what our president thinks of that big Happy Ending, since he’s a born-again. You know, Reagan thought it was the end times.

STAY FREE: But those are minority beliefs, even among born-again Christians.

MCM: It depends on what you mean by "minority." Why are books by Tim LaHayes selling millions? He’s a far-right fundamentalist, co-author of a series of novels all about the end times–the Rapture and so on. And Pat Robertson’s best-seller, the New World Order, sounds the same apocalyptic note.

STAY FREE: He’s crazy. He can’t really believe all that stuff.

MCM: No, he’s crazy and therefore he can believe that stuff. His nurse told him years ago that he was showing symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

STAY FREE: I recently read a chapter from Empire of Conspiracy–an intelligent book about conspiracy theories. But it struck me that the author considered Vance Packard, who wrote Hidden Persuaders, a conspiracy theorist. Packard’s book was straightforward journalism. He interviewed advertising psychologists and simply reported their claims. There was very little that was speculative about it.

MCM: The author should have written about Subliminal Seduction and the other books by Wilson Brian Key.

STAY FREE: Exactly! That nonsense about subliminal advertising was a perfect example of paranoid conspiracy. Yet he picked on Vance Packard, who conducted his research as any good journalist would.

MCM: Again, we must distinguish between idle, lunatic conspiracy theorizing, and well-informed historical discussion. There have been quite a few conspiracies in U.S. history–and if you don’t know that, you’re either ignorant or in denial. Since 1947, for example, we have conspiratorially fomented counter-revolutions and repression the world over. That’s not conspiracy theory. That’s fact–which is precisely why it meets the charge of speculation. How better to discredit someone than to say she’s chasing phantoms–or that she has an axe to grind? When James Loewen’s book Lies Across America was reviewed in The New York Times, for example, the reviewer said it revealed an ideological bias because it mentions the bombing of civilians in Vietnam. Loewen wrote back a killer letter to the editor pointing out that he had learned about those bombings from The New York Times. Simply mentioning such inconvenient facts is to be dismissed as a wild-eyed leftist.

When someone tells me I’m conspiracy-mongering I usually reply, "It isn’t a conspiracy, it’s just business as usual."

STAY FREE: That’s like what Noam Chomsky says about his work: "This is not conspiracy theory, it is institutional analysis." Institutions do what is necessary to assure the survival of the institution. It’s built into the process.

MCM: That’s true. There’s a problem with Chomsky’s position, though–and I say this with all due respect because I really love Chomsky. When talking about U.S. press coverage, Chomsky will say that reporters have internalized the bias of the system. He says this, but the claim is belied by the moralistic tone of Chomsky’s critique–he charges journalists with telling "lies" and lying "knowingly." There is an important contradiction here. Either journalists believe they’re reporting truthfully, which is what Chomsky suggests when he talks about internalizing institutional bias. Or they’re lying–and that, I think, is what Chomsky actually believes because his prose is most energetic when he’s calling people liars.

One of the purposes of my next book, Mad Scientists, will be to suggest that all the best-known and most edifying works on propaganda are slightly flawed by their assumption that the propagandist is a wholly rational, detached, and calculating player. Most critics–not just Chomsky, but Jacques Ellul and Hannah Arendt, among others–tend to project their own rationality onto the propagandist. But you can’t study the Nazis or the Bolsheviks or the Republicans without noticing the crucial strain of mad sincerity that runs throughout their work, even at its most cynical.

STAY FREE: You have written that even worse than the possibility that a conspiracy exists may be the possibility that no conspiracy is needed. What do you mean by that?

MCM: The fantasy of one big, bad cabal out there is terrifying but also comforting. Not only does it help make sense of a bewildering reality, but it also suggests a fairly neat solution. If we could just find all the members of the network and kill them, everything will be okay. It’s more frightening to me that there are no knowing authors. No one is at the top handling the controls. Rather, the system is on auto-pilot, with cadres just going about their business, vaguely assuming that they’re doing good and telling truths–when in fact they are carrying out what could objectively be considered evil. What do you do, then? Who is there to kill? How do you expose the perpetrators? Whom do you bring before the bar of justice–and who believes in "justice"?

And yet I do think that a lot of participants in this enterprise know they’re doing wrong. One reason people who work for the tobacco companies make so much money, for example, is to still the voice of conscience, make them feel like they’re doing something valuable. But the voice is very deeply buried.

Ultimately, though, it is the machine itself that’s in command, acting through those workers. They let themselves become the media’s own media–the instruments whereby the system does its thing. I finally learned this when I studied the Gulf War, or rather, the TV spectacle that we all watched in early 1991. There was a moment on the war’s first night when Ron Dellums was just about to speak against the war. He was on the Capitol steps, ready to be interviewed on ABC–and then he disappeared. They cut to something else. I was certain that someone, somewhere, had ordered them to pull the plug because the congressman was threatening to spoil the party. But it wasn’t that at all. We looked into it and found the guy who’d made that decision, which was a split-second thing based on the gut instinct that Dellums’ comments would make bad TV. So that was that–a quick, unconscious act of censorship, effected not by any big conspiracy but by one eager employee. No doubt many of his colleagues would have done the same. And that, I think, is scarier than any interference from on high.