I’d like to offer up and discuss an excerpt from Michael Crichton’s 2004 thriller “State of Fear”. Although a work of fiction, it was widely criticized for its controversial stance on climate change, and with all the noise another -equally important- aspect of the book was unfortunately overlooked: it exposes, criticizes, and condemns the politico-legal-media complex (PLM).
As much as the book offered a different perspective on climate change and its science, the part about the PLM really resonated with me, as it verbalized my own thoughts and feelings on the matter with startling clarity.
It does so through the fictional character of Professor Norman Hoffman, who has a long conversation with the book’s protagonist. I have edited that conversation into a monologue, stripped off the parts that are only relevant to the story, and what emerges is a remarkably astute assessment of today’s media landscape. Some of the references may seem a little dated, it’s from 2004 after all, but none of that invalidates the central argument.
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 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?”
That’s a critical question. In most respects 1989 seemed like a normal year: a Soviet sub sank in Norway; Tiananmen Square in China; the Exxon Valdez; Salman 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 9th 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.
This leads 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.
“Are you saying the 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 the point. The point is, there is always 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 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 delusion- a 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.
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 control of an entirely new complex, far more powerful, and far more pervasive, 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 example, 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.
“Is that because we have freedom of speech, and freedom of press?”
That is the classic PLM answer. That’s how they stay in business. But 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 clean 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 dollars 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. 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 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.
“How’s that? what does this have to do with university professors?”
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 an 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 value 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- when that happened, the universities were thrown into crisis. What good were they anymore? they had lost their exclusive hold on the life of mind. They no longer taught the young. Only so many theoretical texts on the semiotics of Foucault could be published in a single year. What was to become of our universities? What relevance did they have in the modern era?
What happened, is 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 politicans, 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.
And we haven’t talked about 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 in order to enjoy the healthful effects of magnetic fields. The same magnetic fields. They even sell magnets in the health magazines. No one remembers even a few years ago.
Of course, this is a somewhat unsatisfactory ending to the monologue, because the professor and the protagonist are interrupted and the latter has to leave. But I think there is enough here to stand on its own. Michael Crichton of course referenced the source material for his books. Below I’ll include those that pertain to this particular section. Thank you for reading.
The Risk Society and Beyond – Barbara Adam, Ulrich Beck, Jost van Loon – Sage Publications, 2000
Fear, News, and the Construction of Crisis – David L. Altheide – Aldine de Gruyter, 2002
In Athena’s Camp: preparing for conflict in the Information Age – John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt – RAND National Defense Institute, 1997
Darwinizing Culture – Robert Aunger – Oxford University Press, 2000
Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity – Ulrich Beck – Sage, 1992
News: the Politics of Illusion – W. Lance Bennett – Addison-Wesley, 2003
Governing with News: the News Media as a Political Institution – Timothy E. Cook – University of Chicago Press, 1998
Experts in Uncertainty: Opinion and Subjective Probability in Science – Roger M. Cooke – Oxford University Press, 1991
Post-Capitalist Society – Peter F. Drucker – Harper Business, 1993
Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectation – Frank Furedi – Continuum, 2002
The Culture of Fear – Barry Glassner – Basic Books, 1999
Tabloid Culture – Kevin Glynn – Duke University Press, 2000
The Anxieties of Affluence – Daniel Horowitz – University of Massachusetts Press, 2004
Private Truths, Public Lies: the social consequences of preference falsification – Timur Kuran – Harvard University Press, 1995
The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics – Mark Lilla – New York Review of Books, 2001
The Perception of Risk – Paul Slovic – Earthscan, 2000