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july 2004



by Hans Durrer

It doesn't cease to baffle me that whenever I turn on the news it does not seem to matter at all which channel I choose — they all seem to agree on what is relevant in this world.

We all love freedom, we are told — and often by politicians who are forced to live a tightly regulated life with no freedom at all. Fact is however that we abhor freedom, that we prefer to have none of it.

Isn't freedom supposed to create variety? So how come it creates so much uniformity? 'Cause we're afraid of freedom — for what humans, above all, want is security, says Dostoyevsky's Great Inquisitor.

  Moreover, we human beings want to belong. Which is why the American media stood by its government when it decided to invade Iraq.
  Meanwhile, the New York Times — its opinion-page, however, opposed the invasion — regrets publicly that it agreed with the Bush administration "that Saddam Hussein was concealing a large weapons program that could pose a threat to the United States or its allies" — which, as we all know by now, could hardly have been more wrong — and it also regrets that it "didn't do more to challenge the president's assumptions."
  So how come it didn't? "At the time, we believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding large quantities of chemical and biological weapons because we assumed that he would have behaved differently if he wasn't. If there were no weapons, we thought, Iraq would surely have cooperated fully with weapons inspectors to avoid the pain of years under an international embargo and, in the end, a war that it was certain to loose. That was a reasonable theory, one almost universally accepted in Washington and widely credited by diplomats all around the world. But it was only a theory."
  The mass media do not only serve, they also represent, and are part of, the masses — and these masses are characterised by group thinking. Contrary to what editors usually claim, they are not after the exclusive story that nobody else has, they are after the story that their rival paper has. As James Fenton in "The Fall of Saigon" reported: "In those initial days it was possible to travel outside the city, since no formal orders had been given. Indeed it was possible to do most things you fancied. But once the restrictions were published restricting us to Saigon, life became very dull indeed. The novelty of the street scenes had worn off, and most journalists left at the first opportunity. I, however, had been asked by the Washington Post to maintain its presence in Vietnam until a replacement could be brought in. I allowed the journalists' plane to leave without me, then cabled Washington stating my terms, which were based on the fact that I was the only stringer left working for an American paper. The Post, on receipt of my terms, sacked me. I had thought I had an exclusive story. What I learned was: never get yourself into an exclusive position. If the New York Times had had a man in Saigon, the Post would have taken my terms. Because there were no rivals, and precious few Americans, I had what amounted to an exclusive non-story."
Next The Western world is generally characterised as individualistic — but is it? Take the United States, for example (no America-bashing intended), that many (especially Americans) consider the most individualistic culture on earth: While that might well be so, the fact that the same country is also the birth place of mass-products, and the place where all men (sic!) were created equal, seems to indicate that there is, besides the individualism, at the same time quite a strong notion of playing down individual differences — "We all can be president and we all buy the same products" — to be found. Moreover, that Americans, wherever they go, appear to be easily identified as Americans seems to be more an expression of uniformity than of a distinct individualism. Americans probably don't perceive themselves that way, though.
  In other words, we're much more conformist than we think we are. Take whatever problem, wherever in the world, the modern day solution is always: we need better communication; we have to better explain what we do. This, of course, is not communication, this is propaganda yet it appears that we're all so thoroughly brainwashed that we do not seem to be able to see that. Or maybe we just don't care.
  "The first principle is not to fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool," I remember the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feinman being quoted when asked what the most important thing in doing scientific research was. Since most of us don't do scientific research, we don't need to pay attention, right?
Next In his novel Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig makes the point that we are susceptible to believe just about anything:
-"The law of gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense."
-"And what that means," I say before he can interrupt, "and what that means is that the law of gravity exists nowhere except in people's heads! It's a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people's ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own."
-"Why does everybody believe in the law of gravity then?"
-"Mass hypnosis. In a very orthodox form known as "education""
-"You mean the teacher is hypnotizing the kids into believing the law of gravity?"
-"That's absurd."
-"You've heard of the importance of eye contact in the classroom? Every educationist emphasizes it. No educationist explains it."
  Mass hypnosis then. Not as absurd as one might think. Consider De Tocqueville who in the first half of the nineteenth century wrote: "For 50 years, it has been repeated to the inhabitants of the United States that they form the only religious, enlightened and free people. They see that up to now, democratic institutions have prospered among them; they therefore have an immense opinion of themselves, and they are not far from believing that they form a species apart in the human race."
Next So if we were to believe that mass hypnosis does indeed produce the dominant perception of the world, does that mean that we are condemned to subscribe to the currently dominant mass ideology of the cultural hemisphere that we populate? It is likely, yet not all do.
  Consider Art Spiegelman, for example, who is, according to the Independent "one of the world's most revered graphic artists. Yet when he turned his hand to the burning issues of our day, the US media didn't want to know." Why? This is how Hannah Cleaver reported it: "He began to make notes for a post-September 11 cartoon strip, finally producing sketches in May 2002. You would have expected the US media to sit up and take notice; instead, it slumped in its comfortable chair and closed its eyes. Yes, Spiegelman is a Pulitzer-prizewinning cartoonist; yes, he has a particular genius for describing the human price of fanaticism. Rarely have commentator and theme been so perfectly matched. But in the new "with-us-or-against-us" climate of aggressive US patriotism, his habit of expressing uncomfortable truths was becoming awkward. Once, The New Yorker had been happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with Spiegelman in the face of controversy — notably in the case of his notorious 1993 cover depicting an orthodox Jew passionately kissing a black woman — now he found himself being urged to tone down his work.
  "I found that I was fighting for every picture, and that was really exhausting." Spiegelman realised that his new cartoon stood no chance of being published there; and, by extension, that he was probably working in the wrong place. He finally resigned this February, after ten years, saying that The New Yorker was "marching to the same beat as the New York Times and all the other great American media that don't criticise the government for fear that the administration will take revenge by blocking their access to sources and information." While he will make his own pilgrimage to Ground Zero, Spiegelman will not take part in any ceremonies. "There is nothing like commemorating an event to make people forget it. Commemorations seem to be part of a revisionist memory process. Our heroic mayor; our heroic president ..." He has banned himself from watching television — it makes him too angry."

  • Cleaver, Hannah (2003), "Art Spiegelman — Voice in the wilderness." In: The Independent, September 2003, 11.
  • Fenton, James (1998), "The Fall of Saigon." In: Ian Jack (ed.), The Granta book of reportage. London: Granta Books.
  • Pirsig, Robert M. (1974), Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. London: Bodley Head.
  2004 © Hans Durrer / 2004 © Soundscapes