If you follow U.S. cable news and mainstream editorial pages, you’ve probably learned that some arguments don’t have to be answered. They just have to be quoted or paraphrased, with an eye roll, and summarily dismissed.
So you get Keith Olbermann treating suggestions that the federal government might become tyrannical, and have to be disobeyed or resisted, as entertaining lunacy on the same order as David Ickes’ “space lizard” talk. And establishment liberals on CNN give pretty much the same treatment to Noam Chomsky’s views on the corporate nature of American foreign policy.
You see, the critics of federal law enforcement’s tyranny, or of America’s frequently democidal corporate foreign policy, are “extremists.” The unspoken implication is that the way things are represents some sort of mainstream consensus, something that “we as a society agree on,” about the way things ought to be.
If you stop to think about it, the words “extremist” and “moderate” are really meaningless. They classify an assertion about reality based not on its truth value, but on where it lies on the bell curve of public opinion.
But the thing is, the extremists are usually right on the facts. If you don’t know it, it’s only because you’re ignorant.
If you think the anti-government paranoids of right and left are “extremists,” it’s a safe bet you don’t know much of anything at all about the actual historical record of federal law enforcement, the content of legislation like the 1996 Counter-Terrorism Act or USA PATRIOT, or the broad range of “national security” powers claimed by the Executive in the event of martial law proclaimed unilaterally by … wait for it … the Executive.
If you think Noam Chomsky’s a raving anti-American lunatic, it’s a safe bet that you don’t know anything about the role of the U.S. government after WWII in setting up provisional governments staffed by former Axis collaborators, about the things the U.S. government did in Guatemala in 1954 and Jakarta in 1965, about Operation Condor, or about the School of the Americas.
What it comes down to is that the “mainstream consensus” is manufactured — manufactured by the very institutions that depend on it for their survival. One of the most important functions in any society is the cultural apparatus, whose job is to reproduce a population that accepts the system of power as legitimate and as the only natural or inevitable way of doing things. The range of “mainstream” or “moderate” policy proposals, by definition, encompasses only those policies that can be carried out within the existing framework of dominant institutions, by the kinds of people currently running them. Any proposal that requires fundamental changes in the institutional framework or structure of power is, by definition, “extremist.”
You should also bear in mind that the fundamental structure of power itself did not, in fact, come about through a general public consensus in which “we as a society agreed” that things ought to be this way. It came about as a radical change, imposed from above, by the consensus of a small minority of society. The corporate economy that emerged in the Gilded Age was brought about by a tiny minority of plutocrats who exercised unaccountable control of the government. The transformation of the corporate economy into the full-blown managerial state capitalism of the 20th century, likewise, was brought about by a tiny fraction of the population with no real debate in society at large.
American foreign policy throughout the 20th century, right up to the present, has been driven by considerations of these tiny plutocratic and managerial elites. But the average American uncritically accepts a view of the world, absorbed through the media and the publik skools, in which the United States has pursued a foreign policy of promoting “freedom,” “feeds the world,” and has never started a war for sordid reasons of money or power. Far from learning the real nature of the power elite that controls the American corporate state (as described by sociologists C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff), the average American learns that our society is governed by some sort of interest group pluralism, in which government shifts back and forth over time between Democrats and Republicans as the majority consensus changes.
If you’re not an extremist, it’s because the cultural reproduction apparatus is doing its job. As George Carlin put it in his “It’s a Big Club and You Ain’t in It” routine (unfortunately there’s no way to quote it at length and still get this printed on a newspaper op-ed page), the “real owners” of America need a population that’s just smart enough to keep doing their jobs — but too stupid to look at the man behind the curtain.