“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” – Noam Chomsky (Manufacturing Consent)
Chomsky cuts to the bone as always. But the forces responsible for ‘strictly limit’ and ‘allow’ have been refining continuously, for forty-plus years, in the crucible of party politics, corporate profiteering, partisan media and societal inertia. The forces part-compete, part-collude but always contrive to evolve, to stay at least one step ahead of the public discourse. If the forces failed to stay ahead of the game, manufacturing consent would fail.
In 2021, at the cutting edge of news, science and sociology, Coronavirus is a multifaceted paradigm. Trust versus mistrust in institutions. Obedience to or rejection of government authority. Confidence in the press. Deference to official science or preference for clinician expertise. Does an individual’s authenticity trump an organization’s legitimacy?
Where’s the truth? What’s more endemic… Is it individual grift from snake-oil sellers and institutional rejects making money from general ignorance? Or corporate-institutional profit incentives weaponizing self-interest (at scale) to capturing Chomsky’s spectrum and gouge the public?
Valid questions in all cases. Apolitical on the page but quickly subsumed into the competing orthodoxy ecosystems. Every new event is winnowed, to shake out acceptable context, then either released back into the public square signposted to feed party political confirmation bias or – if contradictory, challenging, resistant to duopoly framing – marginalized out of sight, discredited out of mind.
But here’s the problem. The engines of orthodox hegemony – including propaganda, police and political power – increasingly deployed in everyday lives to regulate the acceptable spectrum – are well-manned, well-incentivized and comprehensively embedded across all communication channels, institutional finance and mechanisms of government authority.
Not only does this mean only loyal, official gatekeepers of authority ecosystems control the broad spectrum of allowed debate (in a polarized mainstream) but this class of loyalty-vetted servants of oligarchy are uniquely positioned to deploy high-granularity misdirection techniques – flexible, adapting to the details of the day – both to define the popular Overton window in conditioning the public narrative and, most egregiously, to marginalize, discredit and often destroy informed, independent outliers too. Individually. Socially. Professionally. Mercilessly.
One major technique for manufacturing consent – in particular through public passivity – is hypernormalization (see film by Adam Curtis). Hypernormalization is a working evolution on the Russian flurble, pioneered by Wibbleakov and deployed by Putin as standard policy for keeping the non-conformist population perpetually off balance.
In the West, hypernormalization has developed into de facto hyponormalization, delivered on waves of apparent hypernormalization, personalized to the extent it’s possible to select – social media helps.
People who strive to be independent have varying bullshit detectors, variable time they can devote to parsing the waves of bullshit, natural predisposition to not think the worst, lived inexperience of the most egregious corrupted or exploiter institutions, etc.
Guiding us through the bullshit tsunami, parsing out the noise, sorting distraction to focus attention on what matters: this is the job of the journalist. It’s seldom the job they do, but those committed to honest narrator-guide are increasingly valued. Trouble is, the world is large, the audience disparate and the journalist-guide is always having to represent credentials, devote time to linear exposition at the expense of pushing against the bleeding edge.
Matt Taibbi’s impressively even-handed article on ivermectin is a case in point.
David Sirota’s recent discussion with Briahna Joy Gray (Bad Faith podcast) dug down through the hypernormalization misdirection layers, to engage with the reality of the manufactured consent 21st-century style: Democratic Party corporate versus progressive division, just as GOP corporate versus conservative-nationalist division, is very real among the voter base but mere pantomime among the elected; including those elected specifically to represent the progressive or conservative-nationalist voter majority.