“I don’t trust authority. I need to see the details. I need to see the science.” —Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Before getting to the main topic of this blog, I’m hearing once more that I was “radicalized” by Steve Bannon’s War Room, which I started listening to in the winter of 2020 (and have been listening to ever since). Folks who say things like this haven’t taken the time to listen to what I have been saying and writing well before 2020. Just read Freedom and Reason to see where my head is at. Scroll back to 2018 and read my blogs on immigration, left-libertarianism, the false rhetoric of anti-racism, etc. Keep reading through. I’m an open book—the small-d democratic liberalism and populism that animates my politics is plain for all to see. And I am still a Marxist.
I started talking about Bannon publicly in the spring of 2020 because I was only a couple of weeks into listening to his program when I knew the claims that he was a fascist and a racist were propagandistic lies and that his knowledge of international political economy was as sophisticated as the best of the experts on this topic. I ought to know about this, as one of my areas of specialization is international political economy. To put this another way, it wasn’t that he swayed me to some position I did not before hold; I knew he knew what he was talking about. Even for progressives who bother to listen to him at all, his sophistication escape their comprehension. At least most progressives. There are those who know enough to “prebunk” Bannon’s utterances, which is the topic of this blog.
Among the things I have learned working in higher education for some thirty years now is that academics, however capable they are in their intellectual capacities, are a clergy, peddling an ideology, and, as such, are ignoramuses. Ideology makes people stupid because being smart spells the unraveling of the ideology that makes folks dumb. I came around, and continue coming around (most recently on the matter of guns), because I am a dissent clergyman. I’m a heretic. I’m an atheist to the bone. I am because of this capable of being wrong and, therefore, capable of changing my mind. I am my own best opponent.
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Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are two challengers who have emerged (so far) to challenge Joe Biden’s bid for a second term for president. The Democratic National Committee has announced that it will not allow primary debates because the corporate state elite running the Democratic Party know these two things for certain: (1) giving RFK, Jr. a national platform exposes tens of millions of Americans to this compelling figure and his message; (2) RFK, Jr. will destroy Joe Biden in debate. (Marianne Williamson is a crank; she is of no concern to the power elite running the show.)
As for (1), ABC-Disney appears to regret having given RJK, Jr. a platform last night, even issuing disclaimers before and after the interview to explain why they censored key parts of their interview with him. ABC News admitted to editing remarks by the candidate concerning vaccine safety. Why? Because they don’t trust their audience with information about the link of vaccines to autism, etc. RFK, Jr. brings the receipts, and this makes him a dangerous man (this is why Bannon is so dangerous). Linsey Davis warned viewers ahead of the interview that RFK, Jr. peddled misinformation and disinformation about vaccines. At the same time, she used the moment to reinforce the industry narrative about vaccine efficacy and safety. (Good coverage here.)
This is a propaganda tactic known as “prebunking.” The way its advocates explain it, prebunking is the proactive effort to prevent the spread of misinformation and disinformation before it is widely circulated, to kill it in the crib if possible, but manage it otherwise. The premise of the strategy is that it is easier to stop false information from spreading than it is to correct it after it has already gained traction. The goal is to prevent the establishment of assumptions that risk moving thought and belief in an undesirable direction by establishing a framework that builds in assumptions that function to steer the receiver of information towards the desired narrative.
Prebunking involves a variety of strategies: educating people about the tactics used by those who spread misinformation and disinformation; providing accurate and credible information on a topic before false information can take hold; and promoting critical thinking skills that help people identify and evaluate the credibility of information they encounter. Prebunking is a widespread practice used by government, legacy media, and social media platforms. Many of my readers will have experienced prebunking in the form of social media algorithms that flag potentially misleading content or provide fact-checking information alongside posts that contain disputed information.
This is the spin of the pre bunkers. However, prebunking is highly similar to a tactic George Orwell warned readers about in his anti-authoritarian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. He called the tactic “crimestop.” Crimestop is a form of thought control used by the Party in Oceania to suppress dissent and prevent rebellious thoughts from taking root in the minds of the citizens. Crimestop is “the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought.” Crimestop is taught to the citizens of Oceania as a way to avoid committing “thoughtcrimes,” i.e., unapproved thoughts the Party considers subversive. Installed and continually reinforced, crimestop is a mental habit of self-censorship that prevents individuals from fully exploring or considering any idea that goes against the Party’s ideology, i.e., to avoid engaging in “crimethink.”
The Party encourages crimestop through propaganda and by promoting a culture of fear and paranoia, where citizens are taught to distrust their own thoughts and instincts and to seek guidance from the Party on all matters. Through constant disinformation and punishment for disobedience, the Party aims to maintain a population that is obedient and subservient to its authority. What Orwell is conveying in his novel is that crimestop is a feature of totalitarian systems, as oppressive regimes seek to control not only the actions of the subjects of control but also their emotions, thoughts, and beliefs.
Orwell’s dystopian future is quite grim, so really-existing people do not recognize the really-existing world as Oceania. But one should not let that deceive him into thinking that thought-stopping is not a tactic in real-world corporate state arrangements. There are many scholars who have analyzed this. I will focus on one here: Sheldon Wolin and his book Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.
Wolin argues that the United States (and the analysis applies to other western countries, as well) has been transformed into a form of managed democracy that threatens the core principles of popular sovereignty. Managed democracy is characterized by the dominance of large corporations, the marginalization of political dissent, the manipulation of public opinion through propaganda and mass media, and the erosion of civil liberties and individual rights. In this system, the appearance of democracy is maintained through regular elections and the façade of political debate, while the actual power lies with a small elite who control the levers of economic and political power. One sees this is in the social logic of neoliberalism and neoconservatism.
I have blogged extensively about this, but briefly here, in what he describes as “inverted totalitarianism,” Wolin argues that a new form of totalitarianism has emerged that operates in a way that is fundamentally different from the classical forms of totalitarianism seen in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and it is this difference that permits even greater efficacy in controlling the masses. Under these arrangements, a large proportion of the population mistake their control for their freedom, confusing consumerism with citizenship. In inverted totalitarianism, the state’s power is diffused among multiple centers of power, including large corporations, the military-industrial complex, and the legacy and social media. Instead of using overt repression and coercion, this diffuse power operates through the manipulation of public opinion, the manufacture of consent, and the co-optation of political opposition.
Finally, given (2), how can his handlers even allow Biden to debate Trump? In his last speech, Trump looked solid. The President is once more finding his populist voice and exhibiting greater discipline in messaging. To be sure, he still says outrageous things (executing drug dealers is red meat in the extreme), but saying outrageous things wasn’t a problem in 2016 when he crushed Hillary Clinton. Nor was it a problem in 2020 when he received millions more votes than he generated with his 2016 performance.
Biden, on the other hand, has continued to deteriorate. He is a puppet whose master cannot refurbish. Moreover, all the things Biden said was a lie about him and his family in the 2020 debates are now demonstrably true. They can’t allow Trump to reinforce in the public that the Hunter Biden laptop is real. Indeed, Biden is only still president because the deep state and corporate media have systematically obscured the truth about the Biden crime family by waging psychological warfare on the public, and Republicans know they would never obtain a conviction in the Senate if they impeached him. Trump would pursue the debate as a prosecutor with no consequence for not obeying the commands of the judge. It would serve as a grand jury indictment. Yes, Trump is that smart.
The power elite that run the Democratic Party really believes in its ability to manufacture a consensus of reality. Let’s hope they’re wrong about that. Let’s do our part to make them wrong. Let’s hope that we do not yet live in George Orwell’s dystopia nightmare.