The Soft Restraints of Ignorance
Aldous Huxley Would Be Proud
British novelist Aldous Huxley was a social critic and futurist, who is best known for penning Brave New World, which, aside from being a nearly 80-year-old science fiction masterpiece, is both an allegory and prophecy for 21st Century western society.
Huxley’s finger was on the pulse of human freedom, and he warned us over 50 years ago that it was fading fast. In 1958, he predicted that when concentrated in the hands of the “Power Elite,” rapidly evolving “mass communication” like television would be a critical tool of social and political conformity. Technology is only the medium, and it is “neither good nor bad,” Huxley wrote, but when in the wrong hands it can be “among the most powerful weapons in the dictator’s armory.” Propaganda, the suppression of the truth, particularly in democratic societies, Huxley argued, would bring upon an age of human enslavement, where instead of yokes and chains, people in celebrated “free” societies like America would be bound by the soft restraints of ignorance, incuriousness, distraction and irrationality.
Oh, if Huxley were alive today! What might he think of Mr. Julian Assange, and of WikiLeaks, as it degrades and humiliates the totalitarian power paradigm Huxley prophesied in Brave New World, and in the last decades of his own life? Huxley died in 1963, thirty years before the advent of the Internet as we know it, and he had no idea that the very key to reversing course would be an entirely new medium, elusive and immune to the controlling tentacles of a frustrated and a suddenly antiquated Power Elite. Indeed, when he wrote Brave New World Revisited in 1958, he had little confidence that the ascending generation was even willing to confront the forces of control in America:
“Does a majority of the people think it worthwhile to take a good deal of trouble in order to halt and, if possible reverse the current drift toward totalitarian control of everything? … That so many of the well fed young television-watchers of the world’s most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent is distressing, but not too surprising.”
But he wasn’t without hope. The teenage cry of “’Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty,’” Huxley wrote, could give way, “under altered circumstances, to the cry of ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’”
If such a revolution takes place, Huxley added, “it will be due in part to the operation of forces over which even the most powerful rulers have very little control, in part to the incompetence of those rulers, their inability to make effective use of the mind-manipulating instruments with which science and technology have supplied.”
How right he was! What we have seen in the last month is a tsunami of reactionary activity from the halls of power on a global scale, with the U.S government at its head, paralyzed, seemingly without creative course, due to the release of heretofore suppressed information. Calls for the shut down of WikiLeaks and for the arrest and imprisonment and assassination of Assange and his “cronies,” have been swift and ubiquitous among the elite.
But these are all primitive reactions to a societal transformation over which, at present time, the establishment has no iron-fisted control. They’ve tried to shut WikiLeaks down, and briefly succeeded for a few hours on Dec. 3, but in turn, the organization responded by popping up on more than 1,800 mirror sites and growing, practically guaranteeing it won’t be interrupted again. The U.S government pressured Visa and MasterCard and Amazon to drop WikiLeaks and when they dutifully complied, WikiLeaks’ supporters responded with boycotts and attacks on the Visa and MasterCard websites, briefly shutting their websites down. Protests are everywhere, online and in the streets.
Huxley wrote it and for three generations since, non-conformists and civil libertarians have warned that Brave New World was upon us. Could it be that WikiLeaks has finally shoved western civilization beyond Huxley’s dystopian clarion call and into a New Brave New World? It would seem we are at a promising crossroads, where Julian Assange might just escape the fate of “John the Savage” who in Huxley’s vision, appeared first as a chance for salvation against the ruthless hegemony, but was then forced into a self-loathing exile, ultimate submission, then death. Assange seems poised to avoid this fate, as he is willing to fight rather than run – and he has help, from lawyers and wealthy backers and like-minded supporters throughout the world. But are they yet a match for today’s Power Elite, with its mindless worker bees, ideological goons, demagogues and parasites, all trying to “kill” Julian Assange?
We know for sure who wants to. Shortly after the last document “dump” (notice how the corporate mainstream media has taken to speaking of it all in terms of a bowel movement), writer David Brooks, the ultimate establishment courtesan, had this to say Dec. 1 (emphasis mine):
“The [New York] Times has thus erected a series of filters between the 250,000 raw documents that WikiLeaks obtained and complete public exposure. The paper has released only a tiny percentage of the cables. Information that might endanger informants has been redacted. Specific cables have been put into context with broader reporting.
“Yet it might be useful to consider one more filter. Consider it the World Order filter. The fact that we live our lives amid order and not chaos is the great achievement of civilization. This order should not be taken for granted.
“This order is tenuously maintained by brave soldiers but also by talkative leaders and diplomats. Every second of every day, leaders and diplomats are engaged in a never-ending conversation. The leaked cables reveal this conversation…
“This fragile international conversation is under threat. It’s under threat from anarchistic vandals like WikiLeaks…
“It should be possible to erect a filter that protects not only lives and operations but also international relationships. … We depend on those human conversations for the limited order we enjoy every day.”
Thank you, Big Brother. Brooks looks and sounds as if he sprang right out of central casting for the role of “President of the Group” in the upcoming Brave New World movie. Sadly, he is not the only one.
In what Huxley wryly called “Utopia,” the Brave New World planet is governed by a series of ten “World Controllers.” There is no violence, rather the society is a well-oiled machine that depends on feverish consumption and the ignorance of the masses, which are happily and vacuously distracted from anything that could remotely inspire passion or dissent. Sound familiar?
On page 47, one Controller, Mustapha Mond, explains the key to modern civilization: “Stability. No civilization without social stability. No Social stability without individual stability. The primal and the ultimate need.” Liberty, he said, was found years before to be “inefficient and miserable … a round peg in a square hole.”
In his 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, Huxley explained his concept of velvet totalitarianism:
“’If you want to preserve your power indefinitely, you must get the consent of the ruled,’ he said. Those in power will do this primarily through ‘techniques of propaganda,’ by ‘bypassing the rational side of man and appealing to his subconscious and deeper emotions’ and ‘making him love his slavery.’”
I would submit that Mr. David Brooks loves his slavery, and furthermore, is the perfect “alpha caste” prototype from Brave New World – he uses the good brains God (Ford) gave him to reflexively sustain the status quo, barking and nipping like a loyal lapdog when something or someone threatens it. The same goes for the rest of the so-called journalistic elite who have taken to the Net and on the television to discredit Assange in recent days, either through bald ad hominem or discrediting his work as “not journalism,” or “criminal.” Proto-elite scrambling among the herd of pundits across the mediascape are the worst, feeling they have to be more red-faced and extravagant in their commentary in order to stand out.
Here’s “Democratic strategist” Bob Beckel on Fox Business last week: “We got special forces … Illegally shoot the son of a Bi$%# … this man is an enemy of the United States.” Video here.
One doesn’t know which is more disconcerting – what Beckel said, or how he said it, his prosperous girth leaning over the shiny pundits’ table, talking about the execution of a man as though he were discussing how to get the garbage pails out to the curb before the trucks come in the morning, suggesting simply that he’s obediently playing his part as angry antibody against the viral invader.
“Who gets hurt from this?” he demanded. “The American people.”
Beckel is a party mouthpiece and a courtier, but on some level, working reporters should know better, and more often than not they don’t even attempt to dissect the rhetorical charges against Assange in the expanding court of public opinion. Are all of the documents released by WikiLeaks and published by major newspapers “dangerous” to national security and to the sanctity of U.S relationships to other countries? Most certainly not.
They aren’t even necessarily things we shouldn’t be reading or have some level of access to. Officials and journalists of every ilk spent the better part of this decade bemoaning the “over classification” of government information before, and especially after, 9/11. When pouring over the reams of information for the 9/11 Commission, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, who was chairing the commission said, “Three-quarters of what I read that was classified shouldn’t have been.”
In a House Government Reform hearing in 2004 (.pdf), Leonard J. William, director of the information security oversight office at the National Archives, said, “it is no secret that the government classifies too much information. In my own 30 years of experience in security and counterintelligence matters, I have observed that many senior officials will candidly acknowledge the problem of excessive classification, although oftentimes the observation is made with respect to the activities of agencies other than their own.”
But still reporters and “analysts” mindlessly parrot the government’s line that all of the data “dumped,” by WikiLeaks is a “danger” to the American people. They no longer question whether it is a “danger” to overclassify in the first place.
On page 180 of Brave New World, Mustapha Mond is given a research paper written by a man of the higher “alpha caste.” The paper is deemed heretical and nearly subversive in that it ambitiously attempts to explore the mathematical treatment of “the conception of purpose … the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes.”
“’The author will be kept under supervision,’ the controller scrawls on the top of the page. ‘His transfer to the Marine Biological Station in St. Helena may become necessary.’ A pity, he thought, as he signed his name. It was a masterly piece of work. But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose – well you didn’t know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes – make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not maintenance of well-being but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true, but not in the present circumstance, admissible.”
Are we so conditioned that we cannot see that American citizens have been effectively rendered inadmissible, if not inconvenient, to their own government? That many of us, the so-called “free” press included, will systematically work – unwittingly or otherwise – to maintain this status quo, which insists the government keep the masses ignorant for a higher purpose, for “security” and the “public good?” It must be working – a recent Pew Poll indicates that no less than 60 percent of Americans think WikiLeaks “harms the public interest.”
Huxley knew “public interest” or the “sovereign good” was no more than code for “stability,” which is threatened when information is shared freely with the people. In reaction to World War II-era politics in Britain, Huxley said:
“Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth. By simply not mentioning certain subjects, by lowering what Mr. Churchill calls an ‘iron curtain’ between the masses and such facts or arguments as the local political bosses regard as undesirable, totalitarian propagandists have influenced opinion much more effectively than they could have done by the most eloquent denunciation, the most compelling of logical rebuttals.”
To the power structure, the alternative is loss of control. The alternative, or so they say, is anarchy.
That is why the elite is so comfortable calling Julian Assange an “anarchist,” whether they know what it means or not. The New York Times on Sunday referred to Assange’s “core anarchism.” A New York Daily News editorial calls Assange the personification of “cyber-anarchy” and “internet intifada” in the same breath. But Huxley was right – the establishment is throwing a Grade A tantrum because it’s finally been stumped by technology it cannot manipulate for its own means. Assange may yet be punished in the most draconian of ways, but WikiLeaks and its offshoots will likely go on unabated into uncharted territories. Reports indicate that more than 90 percent of the WikiLeaks documents have yet to be published. David Brooks had better watch out – his “world order” is about to get rocked.
As for Aldous Huxley, he bore even physical similarities to Mr. Assange. He was tall and lanky, perhaps too bookish and erudite for some. But I am sure he did not draw the same attacks as his 21st century compatriot, who one tormented writer once said “looks every inch the amoral, uber-nerd villain, icily detached from the real world of moral choices in which the rest of us saps live.” Another wrote Assange is only called “brave” and “heroic” in “the fetid swamps of the blogosphere.”
I think if Huxley were alive today he would introduce himself as one of the Fetid Swamp’s proudest denizens. In fact, I think we can draw confidence from the shared, cross-generational struggle, and from Huxley’s own clarity of purpose, given to us in the echo of his own words, a seeming lifetime ago:
“Some of us still believe that, without freedom human beings cannot become fully human and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long….
“It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine.