Learning to Love Big Brother

By Michael I. Niman
ArtVoice (etc.), 11/11/10

In 1949, when George Orwell penned his gloomy futuristic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, about an omnipotent state populated by lifeless workers with an empty but unwavering love for their supreme leader, Big Brother, he couldn’t have foreseen today’s perils. Sure, he got the part about everyone staring into screens right, and even the part about screens staring back at us. And he understood the military propaganda machine of his time and its quest for information dominance as the ultimate weapon of war.

Orwell’s fictitious population, however, only had to deal with militarism, totalitarianism, depression, and a media monopoly that looks like the template for Fox News—all horrific maladies, yes, but historically such regimes have always failed, given time. What Orwell didn’t foresee was an energy industry removing mountaintops in a mad quest to mine the last veins of coal, or pumping a puree of toxic fluids deep beneath watersheds in order to “frack” the last reserves of “clean” natural gas. He didn’t foresee mass species extinctions or deforestation turning the tropics into deserts. He didn’t foresee genetically modified organisms, global warming, or economies suicidally addicted to carbon. Sure, we could survive Big Brother, but not the apocalyptic environmental devastation that a modern day corporate-backed regime would sow.

The unthinkable becomes possible when a propaganda system (think corporate news culture) creates a bandwagon effect—the perception that everyone else is nuts, so why not just go with the flow. We see this in wave elections.

Revolution: sponsored by Wall Street

This year’s winners surfed on a wave of anti-Wall Street sentiment, quietly lubricated by generous campaign donations from Wall Street. Former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove is credited for engineering much of the “populist” anger behind the wave. For example, he ran a political action committee this election season financed by Wall Street hedge fund managers—the same people who leveraged the economy into collapse, then gave themselves record setting “bonuses” after blackmailing the Congress into bailing them out of their mess. Rove channeled $38 million of their largess into campaigns for Republican candidates pledging to further deregulate Wall Street and essentially reinstate the Bush agenda of complete corporate deregulation.

It was a mere two years ago when Bush left office, less popular than Idi Amin. This Bush agenda’s resurgence was made possible by a compliant media monopoly that contextualized this capitulation to the ruling class as some sort of populist uprising against the very people who were choreographing their own election victory. It’s capitulation marketed as liberation. We’re just bit players here. Take my job, my house, and my vote. I’ll still cheer when Big Brother wins, because I voted for him and will get drunk at the tailgate party.

We just witnessed a Wall Street-funded uprising against Wall Street. Now, either all the modern-day robber barons who just enriched themselves to historically unprecedented levels by looting our national wealth found God, so to speak, or the American voters have just been had—yet again. The problem is that bankers never find God. Voters, however, historically vote against what they simultaneously identify as their best interests. So the smart money is on bamboozlement once again.

Fracking Antoine Thompson

Let’s examine this year’s election by going to the bluest of blue states, New York, and look at the too-close-to-call local election that’s got the future balance of power in the State Senate tied up in a recount that will likely play out as an upset victory of Republican challenger Mark Grisanti against the chair of the New York State Senate Environment and Conservation Committee, Antoine Thompson. Thompson upset Halliburton and other key players in the energy industry by letting his friends in the Green Party talk him into standing up against potentially environmentally catastrophic hydrofracking for natural gas, a process that involves pumping a toxic slurry of chemicals deep into the earth in order to push natural gas out of shale deposits.

In recent months, Thompson won a temporary ban on the tainted gas extraction process until, at the least, we learn why people’s tap water in hydrofracked areas of Pennsylvania is catching on fire. Filmmaker Josh Fox, who directed and produced the HBO documentary on hydrofracking, Gasland, says politicians all over the US are watching this race, essentially to see how effective the industry will be in punishing Thompson.

As an incumbent in a corrupting system, Thompson was vulnerable, despite representing a “safe” Democratic district—meaning one where the Democratic Party bosses took their constituents’ votes for granted for far too long. Thompson was vulnerable because all mainstream politicians fund their campaigns with private money, much of which is dirty. Almost all of this cash is turned over to a privately owned media system that holds political information hostage. The candidate that can buy enough media to overwhelm his or her opponent usually wins the election. It’s a pay-to-play game.

The reason why all incumbents, including Thompson, fund their campaigns with what I’d argue is dirty money, is that they only became incumbents by getting elected in the first place, and they only got elected because they bought lots of media time with lots of dirty money. Sure, fringe movements like the Green Party won’t accept corporate cash. And I’d argue that’s the only reason why they’re “fringe.” If you don’t pay, you don’t play.

In Thompson’s pool of cash was $8,500 from a downstate casino developer. This is normal in our corrupt system, as evidenced by the fact that Seneca Nation gaming interests donated to Thompson’s opponent—which is technically illegal, unless you don’t recognize the Seneca Nation’s sovereignty, which apparently the Seneca leadership doesn’t. Thompson vowed to return his dirty casino cash while his opponent’s supporters kept theirs, spending it to get the word out about Thompson’s dirty money. The local media propagated the Thompson story while giving a free ride to the hypocrisy of his casino-funded opposition.

Thompson’s other major crime, according to robocalls out of Los Angeles, and later, the local Buffalo media, was that his annual activity report, something journalists and open government activists demand, was much larger than most. Comparing Thompson’s legislative accomplishments to those of his more lethargic peers would explain this disparity. Instead we got a public relations blitz accusing Thompson of publishing a vanity “book” on the taxpayer dime. This rhetorical construction of a “scandal” became legitimized when the local press corps parroted this rhetoric as news, enhancing the attack by attaching the salutation “embattled” before the senator’s name. Missing from local campaign coverage was one of the main reasons why the senator was “embattled”—the hydrofracking issue.


After the election, the Buffalo News’ Donn Esmonde set out to script Thompson’s expected loss as “David’s little brother takes down the giant,” with the “embattled” Thompson playing the giant. Esmonde bolstered this screed with the claim that Thompson’s opponent, Mark Grisanti, spent a relatively insignificant $12,398 against Thompson’s exponentially larger war chest. Esmonde is so certain of this figure that he rounds it to the dollar.

In reality, we have no idea, thanks to recent court decisions undoing decades worth of election finance reform, how much money was spent to unseat Thompson, and where it came from. What we do know is that much of the anti-Thompson campaign—and I call it that since much of the material just attacked Thompson while never mentioning Grisanti—was operating out of Seattle and Los Angeles. Given recent court decisions, it is difficult to track money that is raised and, to a large degree, spent out of state.

The anti-Thompson cash is part of an unquantifiable loot that was anonymously poured into this election cycle nationally. Republicans in the US Senate filibustered to death a bill that would have forced corporations to make their secretive donations to shady groups, like those West Coast organizations running anti-Thompson phone banks, public. Newly minted members of Congress, including those who identify themselves as representing the supposedly populist “Tea Party,” have vowed to kill any campaign finance reform or disclosure bills. So we have no real idea who pays how much, to who, and for what. The money that we do know about this year, however, has already broken every election spending record ever set.

Esmonde is disingenuous in leading his readers to believe that he was able to nail down all these pools of money and come up with a hard number two days after the election. We do know that $12,398 would barely pay for one district-wide mailing. Thompson’s foes sent out many. Yet Esmonde weaves a good story: David’s little brother beating a big bad Antoine Thompson. Life would be so much easier if I could just drink the same Kool Aid as Donn Esmonde and feel good about us little guys scoring a victory. Most American journalists seem to be doing just this.

How to lose an election

Of course, the Thompson campaign certainly played their part in losing their own election, ultimately packaging the activist senator as just another politician in a year when other politicians were successfully costuming themselves as activists. The Thompson camp responded to the robocalls, TV attack ads, and glossy postal character assassinations by reverting back to the same old political script that keeps most voters home on Election Day. Rather than focus on the senator’s accomplishments, and his work on the hydrofracking issue, the Thompson campaign went postal with their own attack piece accusing Grisanti, an attorney, of being an attorney, and hence defending accused criminals in court. They then mailed this trash to neighborhoods full of attorneys and voters who grew up watching Perry Mason. The Thompson campaign apparently could not find any dirt on Grisanti but decided to go negative anyway, as if guided by muscle memory.

In Thompson’s own former Common Council district, where he usually wins elections by landslides, nearly two-thirds of the registered voters stayed home. Many others never registered. Somehow, despite all the glossy mailings, Thompson’s core constituency abandoned him. In what turned out to be a tight race, this is where he lost. In the end, what made him successful as a politician also finally might have done him in.

The Thompson saga was played out over and over last week across the country, with corporate money coming in to whack troublesome legislators, judges, and prosecutors.

Learning to love Carl, even Palin, is possible

Politicians are seldom truly liked, but they get elected on the belief that they will save us from fates even worse than themselves. New York gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo benefited from this phenomenon as many voters switched to Cuomo as they got to know and fear Carl Paladino—except in the suburbs and exurbs of Buffalo, where Paladino trounced the giant Cuomo.

It would be easy to contextualize Paladino’s Erie County win Esmonde-style, as we serfs standing up against the anointment of a political prince. That would be a soothing fairytale, with the bat-wielding, n-bomb-dropping Paladino playing the role of a benevolent Big Brother. Quite frighteningly, if we in Erie County were left to our own devices, he’d be our governor. And the local media would celebrate the victory. Paladino, however, isn’t our savior. He’s our landlord—literally. Even the local Democrats held their election night victory celebration in one of Carl’s properties.

Buffalo is the third-poorest major American city, suffering from endemic unemployment and a chronically underfunded education system. Yet, Carl Paladino, rather than empathize, proposed putting our impoverished fellow Buffalonians in “Dignity Camps.” This is the dark vision Orwell wrote about. Paladino is a mean-spirited demagogue who in a sane world would be condemned by his community as a terrible embarrassment; instead, while losing by a two-to-one margin in the city of Buffalo, he won the suburbs by a landslide. This is the bandwagon effect whereby insane options appear plausible, because “everyone else” thinks they are. Eventually, as sociologist Walter Benjamin put it, we are spectators entertained by our own destruction. If a Paladino could win in Democratic Erie County, Sarah Palin could be elected president.

Mitch McConnell is our savior

On the national level, it would be soothing to believe that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is my savior, that his battle to roll back our pathetically minute healthcare gains and allow health insurance corporations to once again run completely wild, is my fight as well. Life would be less complicated if only I could believe that Monsanto’s fight against Frankenfood regulations, that BP’s struggle against safety regulations, that Halliburton’s war against mining regulations, and corporate America’s crusade against campaign finance transparency and reform were my struggles as well. If only I could believe that Wall Street is looking out for me, and that the only way to reign in their excesses is to kill their watchdogs. If only I could buy into that failed Reagan-era doctrine of “trickle-down economics,” whereby we keep borrowing and borrowing to fund ever-increasing tax breaks for the ultra-rich—so they could in turn invest their money safely abroad in saner economies.

If only I could believe that three decades of this disastrous experiment had somehow yielded something other than historically unprecedented upward shifts in wealth. If only I could dream that allowing corporations to ruin our environment wouldn’t damn us to having to cope with a ruined environment. If only I could go along with our national political amnesia and think that the same policies that destroyed our economy will now save it. If only I could do these things, then I too could love Big Brother and celebrate this year’s corporate victories.

Let’s look at the numbers both locally and nationally. Maybe it’s not about loving Big Brother at all. Republicans won, for the most part, not because their voter-base grew as their candidates got wackier, but because the Democratic Party’s base shrunk. Yes, the same Democrats who took the House and Senate away from the Republicans and elected Barack Obama president stayed away from the polls in droves. In essence, they boycotted the election. They lost hope. Whatever they voted for in the past, they aren’t acting as if they got it. Their love for Big Brother is a bit more finicky.

The shadow party

Bill Moyers, speaking last week at Boston University (in a lecture published by Truthout), warns that neocon wizard Karl Rove, along with the US Chamber of Commerce and other such corporate lobbying groups, have created a “shadow party.” Moyers explains: “We are in what former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls, ‘the perfect storm that threatens American democracy.’” He goes on to describe this storm as “an unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top; a record amount of secret money, flooding our democracy; and a public becoming increasingly angry and cynical about a government that’s raising its taxes, reducing its services, and unable to get it back to work. We’re losing our democracy to a different system. It’s called plutocracy.”

Whatever it is, be it plutocracy, kleptocracy, oligarchy or just plain feudalism, this train has already left the station. With formerly hopeful voters staying home en masse, the outlook for democracy looks bleak. Ditto for universal healthcare, a living wage, workers’ rights, environmental sanity, civil rights, Social Security, etc. I suppose I could stomach this supposed zeitgeist shift if only I could shut up, watch Fox News, and learn to love Big Brother. If only I could abandon my patriotism and be entertained by our nation’s self-destruction. And if only our damn survival as a species didn’t depend on a perpetual supply of clean air, fresh water and unadulterated food. Absent that ability, I guess our only choice is to go down fighting.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.

ęCopyright 2010

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