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Thursday, December 10, 2009


In a comment yesterday I mentioned Michael Crichton's book State of Fear & in particular the lecture, squeezed into the narrative as a conversation, about how government uses false fear stories to keep us alarmed & hence clamorous to be led to safety. It is chapter Oct 13 - 9.33 of the book which you should certainly read. I have, insofar as practical, edited it down to the basic lecture.


ecology of thought .. And how it has led to a State of Fear

Ten years ago, I began with fashion and slang, the latter being of course a kind of verbal fashion. I wanted to know the determinants of change in fashion and speech. What I quickly found is that there are no identifiable determinants. Fashions change for arbitrary reasons and although there are regularities, cycles, periodicities, and correlations - these are merely descriptive, not explanatory.

I realized that these periodicities and correlations could be regarded as systems in themselves. Or if you will, ecosystems. I tested that hypothesis and found it heuristically valuable. Just as there is an ecology of the natural world, in the forests and mountains and oceans, so too there is an ecology of the man-made world of mental abstractions, ideas, and thought. That is what I have studied.

Within modern culture, ideas constantly rise and fall. For a while everybody believes something, and then, bit by bit, they stop believing it. Eventually, no one can remember the old idea, the way no one can remember the old slang. Ideas are themselves a kind of fad, you see.

Why do ideas fall out of favor, you are wondering? The answer is simply they do. In fashion, as in natural ecology, there are disruptions. Sharp revisions of the established order. A lightning fire burns down a forest. A different species springs up in the charred acreage. Accidental, haphazard, unexpected, abrupt change. That is what the world shows us on every side.

But just as ideas can change abruptly, so, too, can they hang on past their time. Some ideas continue to be embraced by the public long after scientists have abandoned them. Left brain, right brain is a perfect example. In the 1970s, it gains popularity from the work of Sperry at Caltech, who studies a specific group of brain-surgery patients. His findings have no broader meaning beyond these patients. Sperry denies any broader meaning. By 1980, it is clear that the left and right brain notion is just wrong the two sides of the brain do not work separately in a healthy person. But in the popular culture, the concept does not die for another twenty years. People talk about it, believe it, write books about it for decades after scientists have set it aside.

Similarly, in environmental thought, it was widely accepted in 1960 that there is something called the balance of nature. If you just left nature alone it would come into a self-maintaining state of balance. Lovely idea with a long pedigree. The Greeks believed it three thousand years ago, on the basis of nothing. Just seemed nice. However, by 1990, no scientist believes in the balance of nature anymore. The ecologists have all given it up as simply wrong. Untrue. A fantasy. They speak now of dynamic disequilibrium, of multiple equilibrium states. But they now understand that nature is never in balance. Never has been, never will be. On the contrary, nature is always out of balance, and that means that mankind, which was formerly defined as the great disrupter of the natural order, is nothing of the sort. The whole environment is being constantly disrupted all the time anyway.

If you study the media, seeking to find shifts in normative conceptualization, you discover something extremely interesting. We looked at transcripts of news programs of the major networks NBC, ABC, CBS. We also looked at stories in the newspapers of New York, Washington, Miami, Los Angeles, and Seattle. We counted the frequency of certain concepts and terms used by the media. The results were very striking.

There was a major shift in the fall of 1989. Before that time, the media did not make excessive use of terms such as crisis, catastrophe, cataclysm, plague, or disaster. For example, during the 1980s, the word crisis appeared in news reports about as often as the word budget. In addition, prior to 1989, adjectives such as dire, unprecedented, dreaded were not common in television reports or newspaper headlines. But then it all changed.

These terms started to become more and more common. The word catastrophe was used five times more often in 1995 than it was in 1985. Its use doubled again by the year 2000. And the stories changed, too. There was a heightened emphasis on fear, worry, danger, uncertainty, panic.

"Why should it have changed in 1989?"

Ah. A good question. Critical question. In most respects 1989 seemed like a normal year: a Soviet sub sank in Norway; Tiananmen Square in China; the Exxon Valdez; Salmon Rushdie sentenced to death; Jane Fonda, Mike Tyson, and Bruce Springsteen all got divorced; the Episcopal Church hired a female bishop; Poland allowed striking unions; Voyager went to Neptune; a San Francisco earthquake flattened highways; and Russia, the US, France, and England all conducted nuclear tests. A year like any other. But in fact the rise in the use of the term crisis can be located with some precision in the autumn of 1989. And it seemed suspicious that it should coincide so closely with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Which happened on November ninth of that year.

At first we thought the association was spurious. But it wasn't. The Berlin Wall marks the collapse of the Soviet empire. And the end of the Cold War that had lasted for half a century in the West.

I am leading to the notion of social control. To the requirement of every sovereign state to exert control over the behavior of its citizens, to keep them orderly and reasonably docile. To keep them driving on the right side of the road or the left, as the case may be. To keep them paying taxes. And of course we know that social control is best managed through fear.

For fifty years, Western nations had maintained their citizens in a state of perpetual fear. Fear of the other side. Fear of nuclear war. The Communist menace. The Iron Curtain. The Evil Empire. And within the Communist countries, the same in reverse. Fear of us. Then, suddenly, in the fall of 1989, it was all finished. Gone, vanished. Over. The fall of the Berlin Wall created a vacuum of fear. Nature abhors a vacuum. Something had to fill it.

environmental crises took the place of the Cold War

That is what the evidence shows. Of course, now we have radical fundamentalism and post 9/11 terrorism to make us afraid, and those are certainly real reasons for fear, but that is not my point. My point is, there is always a cause for fear. The cause may change over time, but the fear is always with us. Before terrorism we feared the toxic environment. Before that we had the Communist menace. The point is, although the specific cause of our fear may change, we are never without the fear itself. Fear pervades society in all its aspects. Perpetually.

Has it ever occurred to you how astonishing the culture of Western society really is? Industrialized nations provide their citizens with unprecedented safety, health, and comfort. Average life spans increased fifty percent in the last century. Yet modern people live in abject fear. They are afraid of strangers, of disease, of crime, of the environment. They are afraid of the homes they live in, the food they eat, the technology that surrounds them. They are in a particular panic over things they can't even see - germs, chemicals, additives, pollutants. They are timid, nervous, fretful, and depressed. And even more amazingly, they are convinced that the environment of the entire planet is being destroyed around them. Remarkable! Like the belief in witchcraft, it's an extraordinary delusional global fantasy worthy of the Middle Ages. Everything is going to hell, and we must all live in fear.

How has this world view been instilled in everybody? Because although we imagine we live in different nations France, Germany, Japan, the US in fact, we inhabit exactly the same state, the State of Fear. How has that been accomplished?

In the old days citizens of the West believed their nation-states were dominated by something called the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower warned Americans against it in the 1960s, and after two world wars Europeans knew very well what it meant in their own countries. But the military-industrial complex is no longer the primary driver of society. In reality, for the last fifteen years we have been under the control of an entirely new complex, far more powerful and far more pervasive. I call it the politico-legal-media complex. The PLM. And it is dedicated to promoting fear in the population under the guise of promoting safety

Western nations are fabulously safe. Yet people do not feel they are, because of the PLM. And the PLM is powerful and stable, precisely because it unites so many institutions of society. Politicians need fears to control the population. Lawyers need dangers to litigate, and make money. The media need scare stories to capture an audience. Together, these three estates are so compelling that they can go about their business even if the scare is totally groundless. If it has no basis in fact at all. For instance, consider silicon breast implants.

recall that breast implants were claimed to cause cancer and autoimmune diseases. Despite statistical evidence that this was not true, we saw high-profile news stories, high-profile lawsuits, high-profile political hearings. The manufacturer, Dow Corning, was hounded out of the business after paying $3.2 billion, and juries awarded huge cash payments to plaintiffs and their lawyers.

Four years later, definitive epidemiological studies showed beyond a doubt that breast implants did not cause disease. But by then the crisis had already served its purpose, and the PLM had moved on, a ravenous machine seeking new fears, new terrors. This is the way modern society works by the constant creation of fear. And there is no countervailing force. There is no system of checks and balances, no restraint on the perpetual promotion of fear after fear after fear&.

"Because we have freedom of speech, freedom of the press."

That is the classic PLM answer. That's how they stay in business, but think. If it is not all right to falsely shout "Fire!' in a crowded theater, why is it all right to shout "Cancer!' in the pages of The New Yorker? When that statement is not true? We've spent more than twenty-five billion dollars to clear up the phony power-line cancer claim. Twenty-five billion dollars is more than the total GDP of the poorest fifty nations of the world combined. Half the world's population lives on two dollars a day. So that twenty-five billion would be enough to support thirty-four million people for a year. Or we could have helped all the people dying of AIDS in Africa. Or built a Space elevator -Neil Instead, we piss it away on a fantasy published by a magazine whose readers take it very seriously. Trust it. It is a stupendous waste of money. In another world, it would be a criminal waste. One could easily imagine another Nuremberg trial this time for the relentless squandering of Western wealth on trivialities and complete with pictures of the dead babies in Africa and Asia that result.

At the very least, we are talking about a moral outrage. Thus we can expect our religious leaders and our great humanitarian figures to cry out against this waste and the needless deaths around the world that result. But do any religious leaders speak out? No. Quite the contrary, they join the chorus. They promote "What Would Jesus Drive?' As if they have forgotten that what Jesus would drive is the false prophets and fearmongers out of the temple.

We are talking about a situation that is profoundly immoral. It is disgusting, if truth be told. The PLM callously ignores the plight of the poorest and most desperate human beings on our planet in order to keep fat politicians in office, rich news anchors on the air, and conniving lawyers in Mercedes-Benz convertibles. Oh, and university professors in Volvos. Let's not forget them.

The world has changed in the last fifty years. We now live in the knowledge society, the information society, whatever you want to call it. And it has had enormous impact on our universities.

Fifty years ago, if you wanted to lead what was then called "the life of the mind,' meaning to be an intellectual, to live by your wits, you had to work in a university. The society at large had no place for you. A few newspaper reporters, a few magazine journalists could be considered as living by their wits, but that was about it. Universities attracted those who willingly gave up worldly goods to live a cloistered intellectual life, teaching timeless values to the younger generation. Intellectual work was the exclusive province of the university.

But today, whole sectors of society live the life of the mind. Our entire economy is based on intellectual work, now. Thirty-six percent of workers are knowledge workers. That's more than are employed in manufacturing. And when professors decided they would no longer teach young people, but leave that task to their graduate students who knew much less than they did and spoke English poorly the universities were thrown into crisis. What good were they anymore? They had lost their exclusive hold on the life of the mind. They no longer taught the young. Only so many theoretical texts on the semiotics of Foucault could be published in any single year. What was to become of our universities? What relevance did they have in the modern era?

The universities transformed themselves in the 1980s. Formerly bastions of intellectual freedom in a world of Babbittry, formerly the locus of sexual freedom and experimentation, they now became the most restrictive environments in modern society. Because they had a new role to play. They became the creators of new fears for the PLM. Universities today are factories of fear. They invent all the new terrors and all the new social anxieties. All the new restrictive codes. Words you can't say. Thoughts you can't think. They produce a steady stream of new anxieties, dangers, and social terrors to be used by politicians, lawyers, and reporters. Foods that are bad for you. Behaviors that are unacceptable. Can't smoke, can't swear, can't screw, can't think. These institutions have been stood on their heads in a generation. It is really quite extraordinary.

The modern State of Fear could never exist without universities feeding it. There is a peculiar neo-Stalinist mode of thought that is required to support all this, and it can thrive only in a restrictive setting, behind closed doors, without due process. In our society, only universities have created that so far. The notion that these institutions are liberal is a cruel joke. They are fascist to the core.

involution It is the next step in the development of nation-states. Indeed it is already happening. You must see the irony. After all, twenty-five billion dollars and ten years later the same rich elitists who were terrified of power-line cancer are buying magnets to strap to their ankles or put on their mattresses. Imported Japanese magnets are the best, the most expensive in order to enjoy the healthful effects of magnetic fields. The same magnetic fields only now they can't get enough of them. Why don't these people just lie back against a TV screen? Snuggle up to a kitchen appliance? All the things that terrified them before. They even sell magnets in the health magazines! No one remembers even a few years ago! George Orwell.

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