These words are from a brief but memorable conversation the journalist Ron Suskind had with Karl Rove, the chief political adviser and Machiavellian ‘teacher of tricks’ to the Bush dynasty. Rove was senior adviser and Deputy Chief of Staff during the George W Bush administration, as well as heading the Offices of Political Affairs, Public Liaison, and Strategic Initiatives. The public knew him jocularly as ‘Bush’s Brain’.
Rove had a way with words, and these particular ones were spoken in a low-key aside, not exactly an unguarded moment but one which acknowledges — in carefully chosen words — what both parties to the conversation know.
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality.’
I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism.
He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. (Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush, The New York Times Magazine)
Suskind published his article in 2004, leaving the speaker unnamed in the original article but later identifying him as Rove. It’s a revealing little conversation, and we are indebted to Suskind for passing it on. An empire which starts to believe that it creates reality sounds like Ozymandian hubris to me, but perhaps that’s taking Rove too literally. To ‘create reality’, in the political sense, means of course to simulate it, in such a way that a majority of people accept their first impressions as real. The fearful majority can then be used to hound and vilify doubters and ultimately force acquiescence in the deception, intimidating them into believing or pretending to believe, or keeping silent. This is the ‘engineering’ or ‘manufacture of consent’, as Edward Bernays called it — his definition of the role of mass media in a modern democracy.
When we act, we create our own reality.
Or as Baudrillard would say, The simulacrum is true.
Which is both a post-modern paradox and the ultimate example of Orwellian ‘doublethink’. The power to create reality rests on the masses’ conditioning to resist ‘thoughtcrime’, and their inability to perceive contradiction under conditions of fear.
As for his ‘reality-based’ designation, it’s somewhat respectful — a refreshing change at least from being called a ‘conspiracy theorist’, ‘truther’, ‘denier’ ‘antivaxxer’ or whatever. Respectful too in comparison with the way people like us are viewed by our families, colleagues and the general public at large.
And yet, so far has the relationship between map and territory already travelled towards the ‘death of reality’, it is simultaneously a put-down. Under modern conditions, those who stake their beliefs on the reality principle are quaintly irrelevant, failing to understand the true reach of power. You’re not delusional, merely ‘reality-based’.
But that’s not what they’ll say to the world.
People like us, now, falling prey in ever greater numbers to Baudrillard’s ‘false desire’ to know, were predicted and modelled and arrangements were made well in advance. The ‘reality-based community’ is no threat to the Empire. To believe that ‘solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality’ is laughable in the Straussian-Platonic world of the noble, imperial lie. ‘Reality-based’, then, becomes a term of mild contempt.
Rove believed that these enemies of the lie need not be feared, because the lies are so layered and extensive that they create a trap. The ‘conspiracy theorists’ become so fascinated by their judicious study of reality that it incapacitates them. Their conclusions are academic; they make no difference in the world created by the lie. Mesmerised by visions of the abyss, they are baffled as to how knowledge can be translated into political power. The weight of the new reality is enough to induce a defeatist paralysis, and the gazers into the abyss become isolated in a society they cannot affect. No matter how strongly based their knowledge is, their problems of communication, exacerbated by media stratagems and political theatre, makes getting through to the inhabitants of the enchanted land virtually impossible. How do you teach chess to a beginner so absolute that he believes no such game could even exist?
For Rove as for Baudrillard, the concept of ‘reality’ is obsolete; it is a bitter clinging to territory that no longer survives the map, or even precedes it any more.
And that, you should understand, is the desert you will wander in forever, if you succumb to the false desire to know.
“Ours is a problem in which deception has become organized and strong; where truth is poisoned at its source; one in which the skill of the shrewdest brains is devoted to misleading a bewildered people.” [Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Politics, 1913]
And what about a general public which rejects and derides those who ‘believe that solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality’? There has been some discussion, among the reality-based community, about appropriate terms to use for the undiscerning masses. We tend to call them ‘sheep’, or ‘the sheeple’ — those easy to lead, the natural followers, too timid to break ranks and too dumbed-down to be able to articulate a question or notice a contradiction. Or ‘normies’, blinded by their unshakeable normalcy bias. Or ‘NPC’s — Non-Playable Characters , as in computer games, i.e., characters who are not avatars for players but programmed artefacts of the simulation itself. Some think such nomenclature unhelpful, not reflecting the proper attitude of an educator, which is what we should be. Even the ‘awake/asleep’ antithesis is felt by some to be hubristic.
Occultists, I have heard, call the rest of us ‘the Unbegun’ or simply ‘the Dead’.
And what about Rove? In public, politicians will of course flatter the masses as ‘the great American people’ or whatever, but behind closed doors? Rove had his own phrase for the public, the people, the electorate who think it is they who put governments in power — he called them ‘the sucker brigades’.
It’s a witty insult, with a kind of poetic economy about it. We are the suckers; another one is born every minute, and must never, ever be given an even break. For so it is written.
But why ‘brigades’? It seems counterintuitive, because too structured, too active… It’s hard to imagine a passive, directionless populace drilling in rigid ranks: Walter Lippmann’s ‘the bewildered herd’ might seem more accurate. But this oxymoronic quality is what makes it such a witty phrase. In two words it perfectly captures the reality: the ease with which the suckers can be induced to give their consent to atrocity, triggered to hate, marched off to kill and die — or simply, as now, to die.
In coining the phrase, Rove was not saying anything new, just putting an old idea in a punchy new form. A hundred years ago, it was already apparent that the new mass media would be consciously used to manage perception, shape attitudes, and fundamentally alter the nature of democracy. The scientific study of the human mind would be key to their effective deployment. Edward Bernays, generally acknowledged as the progenitor of the modern public relations industry, was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and the theory and practice of modern public relations, advertising and propaganda was founded on Freudian psychology.
Bernays argued that the scientific manipulation of public opinion was necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in society. At a time when the mass media consisted merely of radio, newspapers, printed posters and silent movies, he already envisioned – and went on to prove – that these tools could be used to ‘stereotype the public mind’.
National Socialism embraced these ideas and techniques enthusiastically and to world-changing effect. While it may be a figure of speech to say that Goebbels designed his propaganda campaigns with Bernays’ book open on his desk, it is not an exaggeration: the Nazis were deeply impressed by American propaganda, which they believed had won the Great War.
The theme was no less avidly taken up by progressive scholars and theorists in the USA. Journalist and media guru Walter Lippmann explored theories of perception to show how a media system could be used to standardise, control and regiment the group mind. Lippmann was a public relations consultant to the Government and a colleague of Bernays on the Creel Commission, which generated the propaganda to mobilise American public opinion behind entering the First World War, proving that war could be sold in the same way as Coca Cola or Lucky Strikes. He argued that in a properly functioning democracy a specialised class must run things, analysing and executing, making decisions and exerting control through the political, economic and ideological systems. Specialists do the thinking and planning, and ‘manufacture consent’ (Bernays’ phrase, not Chomsky’s) for their plans through the mass media. In his highly readable 1922 book, Public Opinion, Lippmann develops a sophisticated theory of stereotypes as the foundation – and means of control – of human perception.
And so the 20th century became the century of propaganda. The guru of the neoconservative movement, Professor Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, argued that ordinary people are not strong enough to gaze into the abyss, and must therefore be protected from reality by the construction of a ‘system of delusion’. In this he was specifically arguing from Plato: in his vision, the majority of the population are confined to a modern version of the Cave, where the mass media projects a wall of Platonic ‘noble lies’.
In such a system, those who are strong enough to peer into the abyss must be rejected by the mass, and monitored carefully by the system. They must be infiltrated, identified and listed; ultimately, when necessary, they must be rounded up and disappeared. And yet, as reflected by Rove’s distinctive terminology, even then they will be more worthy of respect than the dumb cattle who form orderly queues outside the (j)abbatoir, and march obediently off a cliff and into the very abyss whose existence they have been taught to deny.
Lippmann, a little more kindly than Rove, calls the naive public ‘the bewildered herd’. The herd’s role in a democracy is to be spectators, not participating except when they are periodically allowed to vote for one or another member of the specialised or ruling class in an election. The ruling class and its specialised bureaucracy must use the mass media to control public opinion, “so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.” (Public Opinion, 1922)
That is, until it is decided that a bit of raging and trampling serves the interests of the ruling class. When the herd’s power to destroy, distract and escalate division is required, it will be used. If the ‘scientific manipulation of public opinion’ can overcome chaos and conflict in society, it follows that it can be used to unleash the same when required. The lifeblood of the oligarchy, after all, is a Hegelian dialectic of conflict creation and management.
Lippmann mocks the naivety of a public which holds to the absurd belief that an accurate picture of the world can be gained passively and without the slightest effort.
What we have instead can be called, without any exaggeration, a Straussian ‘system of delusion’. Huge industries exist to manipulate public opinion. Governments hire PR companies to create fake ‘news’ reports which are aired by news organisations without attribution, in place of authentic journalism. The Pentagon and NASA have their own film studios. In 2012, President Obama signed a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) abolishing the legal prohibitions barring intelligence agencies from using the same propaganda techniques within its own borders as it does abroad. The media system in the West should properly be viewed as an arm of the intelligence complex. The CIA’s infiltration of both news and fiction media from the 60s onwards was code-named MOCKINGBIRD, and by 1981 CIA Director William Casey was boasting to Ronald Reagan: “We’ll know our disinformation campaign is complete when everything the American public believes is false.” If anyone doubts the collusion between intelligence agencies and media operatives to control the narrative, they should consider the meeting that took place at Clint Murchison’s hotel on 21st November 1963 – the evening before the Kennedy assassination – which included journalists as well as future presidents, mafiosi and CIA officers (as revealed by LBJ’s mistress, Madeleine Duncan Brown).
Awareness of this level of media infiltration and control has been building for a long time now. In an influential essay in 1996, author Alex Constantine wrote:
“It is beginning to dawn on a growing number of armchair ombudsmen that the public print reports news from a parallel universe – one that has never heard of politically-motivated assassinations, CIA-Mafia banking thefts, mind control, death squads or even federal agencies with secret budgets fattened by cocaine sales – a place overrun by lone gunmen, where the CIA and Mafia are usually on their best behavior. In this idyllic land, the most serious infraction an official can commit is a the employment of a domestic servant with (shudder) no residency status.
This unlikely land of enchantment is the creation of MOCKINGBIRD.”
This level of deception and reality-creation involves not only narrative accounts and carefully selected imagery: it also involves events enacted on the stage of reality, combining fiction and reality in varying proportions to realise Marshal McLuhan’s concept of global theatre in an age of satellite technology. McLuhan envisaged communication satellites as enclosing the earth in a man-made environment — or ‘pseudo-environment’, to use Lippmann’s term – within which reality can now be shaped to the technocratic will. In his vision, the communication satellite “ends ‘Nature’ and turns the globe into a repertory theatre to be programmed.” (From Cliché to Archetype, p. 9)
It is sobering to reflect that technologies of mass deception have evolved just as fast as technologies of destruction. Deployed by an infotainment complex in which government, corporations and intelligence agencies can play out their noble lies in dynamic, three-dimensional live dramas, technology has vastly expanded the possibilities of theatrical events to take control of the public discourse. As the panoramic extent of the webs of deception, dissimulation and simulation becomes clear, the observer must begin to see something very much like Jean Baudrillard’s ‘precession of simulacra’; we find ourselves now facing a kind of singularity of simulation, evoked (and invoked) by the Baudrillardian paradox of ‘the death of the real’.
Front-projection gave way to green screen… remote-controlled planes gave way to CGI… crisis actors proliferated… The internet made a whole new range of psychological operations and experiments possible: public opinion could be divided through self-reinforcing social media bubbles, social psychology and cybernetics studied through the propagation of the Kony 2012 campaign, boundaries of credulity tested by the heavy promotion of Flat Earth theory, collective memory called into question through the ‘Mandela Effect’… Truth could be drowned out by disinformation, a hundred wild conspiracy theories disseminated to froth the waters every time some truth escaped. In time, the overloaded public mind could be conditioned to believe that truth itself was obsolete.
There has been a significant leap forward in technologies of simulation with the advent of Facial Re-enactment Software, enabling ‘real-time face capture and reenactment’. In tandem with voice-cloning technology and sophisticated face-mapping, the image of a real person can be made to appear to speak in an extraordinarily naturalistic form of high-tech ventriloquism. The technique produces a completely realistic and controlled simulation of speech and facial expressions. The Bin Laden videos which were released sporadically throughout the years following 9/11 until his poorly simulated ‘death’ in 2011 were transparent forgeries, using different voices and dialects and some very poor ‘look-alikes’. In the dying months of the Obama administration, it emerged that The Pentagon had paid Bell Pottinger, a British PR firm, to make ‘terrorist’ videos – none of which were very convincing. In the future, as new technologies of simulation come into greater use, global theatre will be much slicker. [Update: in 2023 the US Army announced its intention to use ‘deep fake’ video techniques in its propaganda.]
The potential for reality creation using facial re-enactment software in the future is enormous, from the sabotaging of dissident voices to the creation of completely fictitious terrorist masterminds or political leaders. Strauss’s ‘Gentlemen’, trained to appear like leaders but doing and saying nothing that is not scripted by the ‘Philosophers’ – the permanent or shadow government – just got digitised.
The history of the ‘noble’ or propaganda lie is as long as that of literature or philosophy; we have seen it evolve through the phases of narrative form, from authorial narrative to polyphony and enactment, from epic poetry to high-tech multimedia global theatre. So it’s no wonder that the herd is bewildered. A hundred years of perception management and psychological conditioning has created a population that resembles, intellectually speaking, the shuffling workers of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
I was one of them, until I left my homeland in 2001 and watched two huge towers collapse on live television barely a month later, though it was another six before I had any inkling of the contradictions involved in that event. For a while, I was marching in the sucker brigades like anyone else. Maybe I still am. Plato’s Cave, in its modern manifestation, consists of caves within caves, nested together like Russian dolls.
New verbal amulets are issued from time to time – ‘fake news’, ‘disinformation’, ‘Russian hacking’, ‘climate-denier’; ‘anti-vaxxer’ – new bells hung round the necks of the cattle. Befuddled and bemused, they forget the dots before they can ever think to connect them. By its moral cowardice, the herd vindicates the criminal elite’s contempt for them and justifies the predators’ own twisted ethics. The wilfully blind are no better than the predators who feed on them, goes the logic; they deserve what is coming to them, the moral cowards wilfully ignoring a holocaust of innocents; by their contortions to avoid the truth, they make monsters of themselves.
We are living now in opposed moral universes which are becoming more and more alien to each other. Speaking from my own experience, it has become nearly impossible to communicate anything important across this divide, as one camp obsessively pursues discernible reality and the other runs from it in a state of hysterical denial, clinging to manufactured myths. I find myself standing on a different continent; it becomes difficult to hold any kind of meaningful conversation about the world across this yawning chasm. To them, whether they would say it to my face or not, I am a nutjob, a ‘conspiracy theorist’. I live in an alternative reality. While they, to me, are marching — marching and saluting — in the Sucker Brigades.
Like Truman Burbank, they’re living in an imagined past, a static moment where everything is as it appears to be. While post-modernists might be seduced by clever talk of liminalism and post-truth, al Dajjal, the One-Eyed, the Deceiver, is already here, on every screen, in every pocket, weaving the Matrix around us. Without disciplined critical thinking, mutual criticism and debate, nobody will be gifted the privilege, or curse, perhaps, of escaping an engineered reality.
One thing is clear: if you ain’t conspiracy theorist, you’re marching in the sucker brigades.
You, or my twentieth century self, might object that you’re harder to fool than that. You weren’t born yesterday, you say.
It’s true, you weren’t. You were born today. Without logic, memory or history to defend you, you are adrift in sea of decontextualised events, you are born every minute.