Widening the Shot—Seeing Behind the Scenes

If you have ever been to a Democratic Party rally (I have been to several), then this is typically what you will see. Party members obtain tickets and are vetted at the entrance. The vetters confiscate any signs supporters might bring. Ushers hand out pre-approved signs and direct attendees to where they need them to stand. If attendees are non-white or wear a hijab or are festooned in rainbow gear or have pink or blue hair, then they will likely be moved up front and often up on stage to stand behind and to the sides of the candidate with their pre-approved sign. To fill up the space event planners strategically arrange potted trees and various structures and maybe bus in a high school marching band—preferably from a black-majority school named after a progressive leader—and lots of American flags (or one great big one).

A Biden campaign rally in 2020

The media, which I don’t have to tell readers are in the tank for the Party, position their camera to get shots that make the crowd look large. But every once in a while, some video gets out that reveals bits of the propagandistic contrivances. Or someone like me, who isn’t going to lie for the sake of my loyal Democrat friends, tells you about the experience.

I’m not writing this only because of my loathing of the corporatist, globalist, war mongering Democratic Party. To be sure, as if this weren’t already clear, that loathing is fierce. The Party is the public face of the managed decline of the American republic. And I’m a patriotic dude. What’s not to loathe? I am also writing this because, as a sociologist, and a massive fan of the brilliant theorist Erving Goffman, there is a sociological lesson to be had in how to seek out and honestly see the back regions of performances. Goffman called this “impression management.” Moreover, since my sociology is tied to political action, creating mutual knowledge helps raise consciousness about the deceptions of the corporate state. The emperor truly has no clothes—and I am that boy who can’t civilly inattend.

There are exceptions. Sanders drew large crowds. Obama’s crowds were even larger. Both Sanders and Obama, more authentically with the former than with the latter, used populist-nationalist rhetoric during their respective campaigns. Sanders has since betrayed his rhetoric. Obama never believed his. Closely aligned with the national security state and a probably CIA operative (as was his mother and other family members), Obama was a Manchurian candidate—only the enemy that pulled his strings was not a foreign power but the globalist elite. (See Jeremy Kuzmarov’s excellent Monthly Review article “A Company Family: The untold history of Obama and the CIA.” Kuzmarov is managing editor of Covert Action.) And not every Biden rally is

But their crowds were never routinely or spontaneously as big and enthusiastic as the crowds the authentically populist candidate Donald Trump drew—and he was (allegedly) the losing man! Trump would invite the cameras to scan the room to show the enormity and enthusiasm of his crowds. It makes you wonder how Trump lost against a candidate who hid in his basement because his handlers knew that he couldn’t draw crowds (and were unsure of whether he could actually get through a campaign speech). It certainly makes me wonder. (We saw the same thing with the recent Arizona gubernatorial contest between Kare Lake and Katie Hobbes.)

An average crowd at a Trump campaign rally

Trump draws tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people on January 6, 2021

It’s rigged, folks. The corporate state runs the mass media apparatus and you see what they want you to see if your eyes stay trained on the screen. They engineer the polls to manipulate public perception. They work language in a way that manufactures a false understanding of reality. But not if you go around the filter and develop the critical tools to decode the propaganda. It is possible to see what’s happening. It’s only hidden in plain sight.

Increasingly, you don’t have to work that hard. The filter is falling from the lens, as Harvard’s Louis Menand laments in the pages of the New Yorker in his essay “When American Lost Faith in the News.” The headline carries the teaser: “Half a century ago, most of the public said they trusted the news media. Today, most say they don’t. What happened to the power of the press?”

“Trump waged war on the press, and he won, or nearly won,” Menand writes. “He persuaded millions of Americans not to believe anything they saw or heard in the non-Trumpified media, including, ultimately, the results of the 2020 Presidential election.” It’s not “Trumpified media.” But if what he says is true, this is arguably the Orange Man’s greatest accomplishment.

However, the emergence of the Internet and the ability of the public to get around the corporate media filter prepared the crisis of delegitimization of mass media. It’s not just the populist right that’s shaking the foundations of the mind control system. It’s the populist left, as well. Conservatives and liberals are coming together to mount a challenge to the progressive establishment. And much of it is organized.

This is not to say that there are no good points in this essay. But I can say this without taking Menand’s essay apart: the establishment media has had it too good for too long. The oligopoly established control not only over television and print media, but publishing broadly, control that extended even over the culture industry. And it’s still a powerful force, especially among progressive types who believe anything the media tells them as long as it comes at them wrapped in their worldview—which is generally all the time. Recall how the most well-educated swallowed all the corporate state lines cast into their pond: Russia-gate, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ukraine situation. But half or more of the population has been able over the last several years to access alternative media that exposes not only the lies of the legacy media, but reveals the reality that legacy media has been lying to them all these years. And with the social media no longer able to effectively impose the woke progressive agenda on the public, the thing is coming apart. Not soon enough to save a lot of people. But better late than never.

When there were only a handful of private (corporate) and public (state-run) television and radio channels, the corporate state media could in the past run programming that opposed to the opinions the corporate state wished to socialize confederates who would do enough to give the appearance that matters had been discussed and thus satisfy a substantial proportion of audiences, who would then do the popular work of socializing the masses. But the strategy of managed opposition and the manufacture of consent became increasingly difficult with the emergence of the Internet. Even when cable television became widespread and public access channels were hijacked by the occasional oppositional voice, the bandwidth was narrow enough, and those who controlled the stations savvy enough, to effectively relegate to the margins and suppress alternative voices who, in any case, appeared marginal in the face of the engineered mainstream opinion. But the open character of the Internet (a feature not a bug that the ruling class surely regrets) allowed alternative voices and opinions to get around the corporate media filter and reach audiences directly, exposing them to content of which they were unaware.

The corporate state media lost control over the situation and could no longer present “both sides” in a propagandistic way. Both sides—indeed many sides—were now out there is an uncontrolled way. The managed opposition looked fake in light of real opposition. It has become obvious that the trick had been putting up straw men for mainstream journalists and pundits to pummel. And the public was not in the mood of suspend its disbelief. So elites turned to more crude methods of information suppression. The rhetoric of disinformation and misinformation became common parlance. At least they still had the power to “fact check” and surveil the opposition. However, in the new context, the suppression of alternative content by censoring inconvenient facts and opinion and deplatforming dissident voices only functioned to reinforce the growing awareness that corporate state control over information was a means to control the public mind to align mass opinion with the goals of the ruling class. If elites had nothing to hide, if they weren’t afraid of open debate, then why would work so hard to suppress dissident voices? Why would they fear opposition? Because elites have a lot to hide and a lot to fear.

Don’t fret. The relegation of the cathedral* to a building where services are no longer held is a good thing. You’re not supposed to have faith in anybody who tells you what to think and how to think about it anyway. A rational man thinks for himself. And thinking for yourself is knowing that the structure of knowledge production in a capitalist society is controlled by the ruling class—and what is projected by that structure is a worldview that serves the material interests of an elite minority, interests diametrically opposed to those of the working man and woman.

* The term “cathedral” to refer to mass media was first used by Neil Postman in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In that book, Postman critiques the impact of television on American culture and politics, arguing that television, by shifting the consumption of information from a typographic to an electronic mode of transmission, has fundamentally altered the way people communicate and understand the world by producing a culture prioritizing entertainment over information and reducing the public’s capacity to think critically. As Guy Debord argued decades earlier, in this situation, political discourse has been reduced to soundbite and spectacle. (A similar argument was advanced by Wesley Carr, an Anglican priest and former dean of Westminster, who either failed to cite or was unaware of Postman’s work. It was Carr’s contention that the media cathedral performed the same role as the medieval church in organizing hegemonic knowledge.)

Postman was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s early-1930s novel Brave New World, wherein Huxley envisioned a future where people are controlled through distraction and entertainment. Postman sees mass media as analogous to Huxley’s drug “soma,” which kept people subdued by happiness in Huxley’s dystopia.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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