The U.S. government and corporate media’s reactions to the crimes against humanity last September 11 are giving me, the daughter of Luis Buñuel’s favorite producer– blacklisted George Pepper “Werker”– flashbacks to the Cold War. While, as a child I could only admire the surrealist French film-maker for his swing set and director Dalton Trumbo of the Hollywood Ten for his magic tricks, I’ve absorbed the lessons of their legacies. If I am skeptical of unrestrained authority under the pretext of “national security”– beside the fact that it contradicts the checks and balances allegedly inherent in our triumvirate government structure and Bill of Rights–it is because I saw first-hand how it destroyed thousands of innocent U.S. lives.
Targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist-threat hysteria in the 1950s, thousands of radicals like my father were blacklisted throughout dozens of industries as “potential communists,” which meant their termination or exclusion from their professions. Like so many others, my family fled without passports to Mexico to avoid receiving subpoenas. Were my father to have appeared before the State Committee on Un-American Activities, he would have been asked to confess, as in the Salem witch trials, that he didn’t hold to the same ideology or religion as his accusers, name other like-minded heretics–or face imprisonment.
My parents had to remain in exile so long, I was born and raised in Mexico City. For over a decade the FBI actually did tap our phones, open our mail, tail us, keep ridiculous accounts of our movements alleging that ball games and Sunday breakfasts at our friends’ homes were Party cell meetings. They illegally kidnapped colleagues in Mexico for extradition; seized royalty earnings of directors and writers who, when the blacklist broke, won Oscars and apologies, but no reparations.
That clamp-down on civil rights was justified in the name of wiping out the red threat–decent folks like my parents who believed housing, health care, food and education are human rights, who today would argue along with UN reports that the entire world’s basic needs for education, food, water and medical care can be satisfied by taxing 225 of the largest fortunes less than four percent, and that bridging the gaps in the world’s food and sanitation needs can be solved for just 13 billion dollars a year–the amount people in the U.S. and Europe spend on perfume.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union presumably ended the cold war, but not all the consequences. Today if Hollywood movies mirror Soviet propaganda films in that they’re dreadfully acted, written and directed–never mind insulting to the average intelligence–it’s because the blacklist purged the industry of content and any rendition of reality at odds with the HUAC version of the American dream. Still today, in the public schools, no teacher may receive employment without signing an anti-Communist loyalty oath.
Far more disturbing however, our planners’ reactions to the tragic events which culminated in the destruction of the World Trade Towers in New York City evidence the fact that the basic framework of thinking hasn’t changed since the witch hunts. In a speech reprinted by City Lights entitled “The Global Drift Towards Nuclear War,” Noam Chomsky pointed out that since the Second World War, we’ve experienced “an application of the same essentially invariant geopolitical conceptions to various situations, but the basic framework of thinking hasn’t changed.” According to Chomsky, George Kennan, the Head of the State Department Planning Staff in the late 1940s, acknowledged that the United States had amassed half the world’s wealth and that such unbridled greed bred resentment elsewhere on the planet. The primary purpose of U.S. foreign policy, claimed Kennan, was to “maintain that disparity” at the expense of “vague” and “idealistic” notions such as “human rights, the raising of the living standards and democratization.” At the time, the sole threat to U.S. security were ICBMs and thermonuclear weapons, yet there is no evidence that any efforts to prevent this threat were ever made. Chomsky concludes that this historical record teaches us that questions of security have never been relevant to the arms race; and they still are not significant.
Today, fundamentalist terrorists worldwide from the Taliban to Fallwell-followers and neo-Nazi militia all pose real and disturbing threats to our well-being. However, judging from top defense contracts and airline and insurance company bailouts-with only token pennies for displaced and laid-off workers–it is plausible that our planners are more concerned with funneling our tax dollars to CEOs, than protecting us. Ever since the Second World War helped lift us out of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Chomsky reminds us, the lesson of ‘Keynesianism’ economics taught both U.S. planners and Fascist powers that if a government subsidizes production in the advanced sectors of industry, a capitalist economy can pull itself out of economic straits. The most tempting way for governments to do this is through military spending; the state creates a guaranteed market for high-priced technological production. And the most efficient way to goad tax-payers into footing the bill is to scare the wits out of them. Chomsky elaborates: “You can always frighten them because the ‘monolithic and ruthless conspiracy’ is out there ready to take over the world.”
Furthermore, as long as people are terrified and blindly obedient-regardless of the legitimacy of the sources of these initial emotions–a state of national security acts as a smoke screen to veil unjustified and illegal attacks on civil liberties at home, as well as to obfuscate aggressive policies abroad which, ironically, will only provoke more incidents like the crimes against humanity that claimed more than 3,000 lives in New York. Fear has pushed the Patriot Act through, indefinitely restricting our First and Fourth amendment rights, and on October 2, 2002 343 billion of the dollars that were nowhere to be found for healthcare, homeless shelters, schools or social security, were funneled straight into the pockets of Boeing, General Electric, Lockhead and others. If we are not vigilant, fear will shut down our system of checks and balances, extend the WTO and approve union-busting Fast Track, putting thousands more out of work here at home, at the very least.
Unfortunately, fear is just one of several motivators to adopting positions which the public might have previously found objectionable. Stalin, McCarthy and Hitler all demonstrated the efficacy of massive propaganda campaigns which not only exacerbated fear, but elicited subservience from subjects. Philip G. Zimbardo from Stanford University, Ebbe B. Ebbesen at the University of California, San Diego and Christina Maslach at the University of California, Berkeley list some variables involved in such coercive persuasion, commonly known as brainwashing:
- Isolation from Old Social Support. The usual sources of support are severed. In the initial weeks of the 911 tragedy, media offered no respite from the news, ball games were cancelled, restaurants and movie theaters were empty.
Information Control. The only ideas presented are those contained in the philosophy of the coercive persuasion agent. There is no opportunity to independently assess the validity or seek informative counter-arguments. Any opposition, teach-ins, attempt to criticize factual U.S. foreign policy, past or present, has been termed traitorous and unpatriotic. The only view acceptable is Bush’s Party line. “You’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” After ten days of bombing Afghanistan into oblivion, the United States bought up rights to the commercial satellite which has pictures of the area, so no one can publish them. Clear Channel banned all songs which advocate peace. Pacifica Radio, the largest corporate-free radio network in the U.S., is under constant attack. Instead of the footage of hundreds of civilian casualties and the burning of U.S. pop-tart food rations by civilian Afghanis, our media gives us interviews with missile-envying U.S. generals and sound bites for T.V.-stunted minds. “Effective propaganda must be brought out in the form of slogans… If this principle is sacrificed to the desire to be many-sided, it will dissipate the effectual working of the propaganda, for the people will be unable to digest or retain the material offered them….”–Adolf Hitler.
Cohesive Peer Group. Approval becomes a powerful source of social reward, status and recognition. Skewed poll questions and population samples manufacture consent for Baby Bush’s war policies. The New York and Bay Area protests on October 6 swelling to over ten thousand protestors each were not covered by corporate media. While both major cities may have substantial opposition to the war, most individuals outside them who favor justice instead of vengeance are being led to believe that they’re lone voices.
Illusion of Free Choice. Once the target behavior is self-generated, the new behavior will be maintained in the absence of surveillance or pressure-because it’s one’s own.
Should most readers feel immune to such persuasion, they may recall the infamous study by Stanley Milgram on blind obedience to authority in which the overwhelming majority of subjects continued to deliver, on demand, potentially lethal shocks to an innocent “victim.” According to co-author of Human Information Processing (1977, Academic Press, Inc.) Donald A. Norman at the University of California, San Diego, the results of the Milgram experiment “raise the possibility that human nature, or-more specifically-the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. …If in this study an anonymous experimenter could successfully command adults to subdue a fifty-year-old man, and force on him painful electric shocks against his protests, one can only wonder what government, with its vastly greater authority and prestige, can command of its subjects.” [Milgram, 1965]
As we witness the brutal killings and beatings of innocent Arab-American shop-keepers and gas-station attendants and the relentless bombing of a country in which over seven million face starvation, one need not wonder for long.
During McCarthyism, the repression was justified by scape-goating “communists;” today it’s “terrorists,” a fluid term presently extending to many groups including Arab-Americans, Muslims and activists. One might wonder why the definition of “terrorist” doesn’t extend to neo-Nazi and other perpetrators at home, whose crimes include brutally dragging an African American to his death by chaining him to a truck, murdering an abortion doctor, threatening anthrax repeatedly at Planned Parenthood facilities and blowing up the Oklahoma Federal Building. In this Orwellian political scenario in which old enemies like Russia become allies and old Taliban business partners become targets, double-think logic means that Euro-American (“white”) U.S. citizens cannot be terrorists (unless they protest or try to shed light on U.S. war crimes or injustices, in which case they are “traitors.”) It is for these so-called “traitors” and “terrorists,” now largely Arab-American and Muslim-American, that Dalton Trumbo’s suppressed statement submitted to the House On Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 must ring true:
“Already the gentlemen of this committee and others of like disposition have produced in this capital city a political atmosphere which is acrid with fear and repression; a community in which anti-Semitism finds safe refuge behind secret tests of loyalty; a city in which no union leader can trust his telephone; a city in which old friends hesitate to recognize one another in public places; a city in which men and women who dissent even slightly from the orthodoxy you seek to impose, speak with confidence only in moving cars and in the open air. You have produced a capital city on the eve of its Reichstag fire. For those who remember German history in the autumn of 1932 there is the smell of smoke in this very room.”
Nazis set the Reichstag building, the seat of the German government, on fire and blamed the act of terrorism on the communists. This aided Adolf Hitler in seizing power and suspending constitutional guarantees of individual liberty with the pretext of protecting the nation from threats to its security by the communists. According to one source, a fringe, deranged arsonist from Holland had been trying for a week to burn government buildings to protest capitalism. Under the direction of Hermann Goering, Nazi storm troopers befriended the arsonist and may have encouraged him to burn the Reichstag on the night of February 27, 1933 after which storm troopers entered the Reichstag cellar through a tunnel connecting the building to Goering’s residence and flooded it with gasoline. Unfortunately, Trumbo’s allusion to the tendency of power to frame its enemies as having carried out crimes which itself has committed and the impending threat of fascism is not a literary hyperbole, nor can it be dismissed as belonging to a time we’ll never again revisit. Fascism, by definition of Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary in 1983, does not have to be as extreme as Hitler’s Nazism. Rather, it is:
“a system of government characterized by rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of the opposition (unions, other, especially leftist, parties, minority groups, etc.), the retention of private ownership of the means of production under centralized governmental control, belligerent nationalism and racism, glorification of war, etc. First instituted in Italy in 1922.”
By 1989 Webster’s and other dictionaries had already disappeared down the memory hole the “corporative government” definition of fascism in which corporations determine the course of government on most issues, though that definition may still be found in foreign language dictionaries and old history books.
For those experiencing increasing difficulty in discerning the difference between the two major Republicrat parties and who don’t suffer sufficient amnesia to forget that Baby Bush was not seated by a majority of the popular vote, but instead maintain that he seized power, the chasm between fascism and U.S. capitalism in the 00s (oh-ohs) may appear as thin as the ozone.
What hope is there? Plenty, if we can muster enough inner resolve and creativity to kick the television and corporate media drug habit and acknowledge that the primary weapon of any terrorist is terror. One of the elements which still distinguishes our system from a fascist regime at the time of this writing is the fact that we are still afforded the freedom to dissent with demonstrations and our published and broadcast words, however marginalized. Chomsky is not alone in suggesting we change the structures at home which perpetuate global and domestic iniquities, as WTO protestors have been attempting. Whether we achieve victory in our own lifetimes, for that matter, at all, is irrelevant. We must mature beyond Baby Bush’s infantile notion of good and evil. It’s not about winning; it’s about taking a moral stand, like the Hollywood Ten and thousands upon thousands who stood up with them throughout the planet, throughout the ages. Regardless of all the sacrifices they were forced to make, my parents and their colleagues believe their political understanding has only enriched their lives. Never have these “un-American traitors” regretted for a minute valuing and protecting as the most sacred miracle imaginable, life–each and every life–nor have they forgotten the power of love capable of creating it.
Born in Mexico City, Margot Pepper is a journalist, author and bilingual educator whose work has been published internationally by the Utne Reader, Counterpunch, Znet, the Monthly Review, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, City Lights, Hampton Brown, and others. Her memoir, Through the Wall (Freedom Voices, 2005), was a finalist nomination for the 2006 American Book Award, www.freedomvoices.org/pepper/index.htm