In which The Author can see the fnords
Yesterday’s Daily Express (a mid-market UK tabloid ‘news’paper) had the banner headline NEW FEARS OVER UK BABY BOOM.
I happen to know this because the Ancient Mariner (one of Aberdare Library’s cast of unfunny comedy characters) was engrossed in it when I walked in. Unlike me, who reads the paper on his lap (or on the desk), he holds it up in front of him to parade his prejudices to all comers. He’s clearly one of those people who likes to hide behind his daily diet of health scares and racism, rather than face the Real World head-on.
I don’t know the full details, but given that rag’s editorial ideology, it’s almost certain that the baby boom in question isn’t being caused by native-born, English-speaking, white, middle-class Anglicans.
[A digression: There’s a very good reason why I don’t know the full details. I wouldn’t touch the Express, or its nearest rival the Daily Mail, unless I was wearing full biohazard kit. I find their poisonous outpourings to be dangerous enough at thirty yards. I won’t even go near their websites. I know I’m running Linux, but those are two viruses which I don’t want anywhere near my computer.]
Therefore, I could be entirely wrong about the content behind yesterday’s screamer.
I doubt it, though.
In fact, thinking about it again last night, I couldn’t remember the last time the Express or the Mail ran a front page which didn’t include the word ‘fear’. (In the former case, it was probably a headline about Diana, Princess of Wales.)
Four days out of seven, the cause of general panic in Northcliffe House and the Northern & Shell Building will be a deadly disease or other medical condition: cancer, HIV/Aids, diabetes, obesity, Ebola, or (the current front-runner) the Zika virus.
The last time Mother mentioned something she’d ‘read in the paper’ about anti-depressants, I had to interrupt her mid-sentence.
‘What ‘paper’ was that, then?’ I asked. ‘Was it in Nature, PLoS, The Lancet, the BMJ, or JAMA? Or that world-renowned, peer-reviewed scientific journal The Mail on Sunday?’
Call me cynical, but I’ve only ever met two journalists with degrees in science. Neither of them work in what used to be called Fleet Street.
If there’s not a naturally occurring threat presently facing the UK population, there are plenty of man-made ways to make Middle England shit its collective pants: pollution, climate change, GM food, nuclear meltdown, same-sex marriage, designer babies, computer terrorism, the oil running out, suicide bombings …
Alok Jha, the former Guardian
science correspondent who’s now with ITV, has written a book called 50 Ways the World Could End
(Quercus, 2014). It should provide Hugh Whittow and Paul Dacre with enough front page horror stories to last the rest of my lifetime: solar flares, strangelets, black holes, information decay, DNA degradation, asteroid strikes, ice age, pole shift, nanobots, the Artificial Intelligence takeover … (See ‘It’s Not the End of the World
‘ for a wry look at the last apocalypse we were looking forward to.)
The runaway 2016 Top of the Poops (not a typo), and every saloon bar philosopher’s current obsession, is the movement of refugees from civil or cross-border conflicts. We in the ‘civilised’ West are directly or indirectly responsible for starting probably two-thirds of these, remember. (Directly through our membership of NATO, and/or our slavish devotion to US foreign policy since the 1950s. Indirectly, as a legacy of our imperial ambitions, or our belief that we had the right to impose arbitrary boundaries on nomadic peoples after the end of the Great War.)
We’re constantly being told that these poor displaced buggers will ‘engulf’ us, and that we’ll become a minority in ‘our own country’. (Always assuming they haven’t blown us all up first, of course.) That’s the message which pumps out of our televisions and radio sets, and gets splashed over column acres of newsprint every month.
Is it any wonder that, according to a substantial proportion of people in Aberdare, anyone with a non-white face must be either an ‘asylum seeker’ or a ‘potential terrorist’ (or both). That’s the received wisdom of just about every ‘Red Tory’ (i.e. right-wing Labour voter) in the Cynon Valley these days, in fact.
What must they must make of Fatima in my local chippy? She wears a hijab, but looks and sounds eastern European. It must be cognitive dissonance a-go-go for the knuckle-draggers of Trecynon. Maybe they just go for a curry or a kebab instead. After all, it’s obvious they’re not local, isn’t it?
It’s hardly surprising they believe this. Most of them lack the basic skills required to read a quality newspaper like The Times, the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian – all of which are available in the
reference library debating chamber in Aberdare six days a week – or even i. This handy little paper costs justs 40p a day, and offers much better value than the comics it rubs shoulders with in my local Spar. The crossword isn’t too bad, either.
Instead they fall back on the mid-market tabloids (not too many long words or much in the way of informed analysis), or slide even further back down the Reading Tree to The Sun and the Daily Star. Failing that, they just parrot the rolling headlines on BBC News when they’re pontificating in the pub.
A recent opinion poll found that only 16% of UK voters thought they knew enough about the debate to be able to make a choice in June’s In/Out EU referendum. They’re obviously not getting much in the way of information from the media then, are they? Yet this is arguably the single biggest issue facing our country today.
Instead, pretty much all they read or hear are variants on ‘asylum’, ‘refugees’, ‘migrants’, ‘crisis’, ‘swamping’, and other provocative language designed to appeal to the Little Englander mentality of Nigel Farage and his pals.
In Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s cult SF Illuminatus! trilogy, they explain one of the ways in which the secret rulers of the world keep the population in a constant state of low-level anxiety. It’s an extension of the theory explored by Vance Packard in his controversial examination of the advertising industry The Hidden Persuaders. Mr Packard claimed to know the secrets of ‘subliminal messages’ which were concealed in ads (mainly in the cinema) to boost sales of certain products.
Although his work has been roundly criticised since, the two Roberts picked his idea up and ran with it for quite some distance.
In Illuminatus!, the fantasy goes (roughly) like this:
At a very early age, schoolkids are shown the word fnord on the board.
At the same time, their teachers tell them, ‘Don’t see the fnord. If you can’t see it, it won’t eat you.’
Naturally, all newspapers, books, television programmes, advertisements, billboards, radio broadcasts – just about every work in every medium – include the word fnord. Although the grown adults can’t consciously see it because of their early conditioning, their mind still triggers those childhood fears of being eaten by the fnord. Their systems are therefore in a low ‘activation state’ (as the behaviourists called it), and their brains are more amenable to reprogramming.
When the anarchist crew of the Leif Erikson rescue New York cop Saul Goodman from his kidnappers, they set about breaking down his mental conditioning. They know they’ve succeeded when Saul looks up from his newspaper and says happily, ‘I can see the fnords!’
I know it’s SF, and I know it’s a satire, but in essence that’s the sort of thing the papers and broadcasters are doing every day. The papers I’ve singled out surround their particular brand of fascism with populist articles about soap operas, actors and pop singers, and other ‘celebrities’ which largely appeal to a female readership. This guarantees that they make their way into respectable households across the country, and the ideas spread by stealth instead of by overt means. It’s hard to imagine any terrorist group managing to get that sort of ad-supported mass exposure, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year.
Northern & Shell (the owners of the Express and Star, plus their Sunday counterparts, seem to have a particular relationship with Lidl, the German supermarket chain. They sell a limited range of papers and magazines at the checkout; a cursory glance suggests that most of them are published by N&S. I’ll have to make a note of them all one day, when it’s quiet enough that I’m not blocking the aisle, and then look them up in Willings Press Guide to see who the proprietors are.
I’ve certainly never seen a copy of The Guardian or i on sale in Lidl in Aberdare. Maybe they fly off the shelves first thing in the morning, before I have a chance to get there. I don’t know.
But it means that the customers get to choose from a very limited palette of opinion and ideology. They probably aren’t even aware that this narrowcasting is taking place. Less than fifty metres up the road, the old Gadlys Co-op sells the whole range of daily papers. The Pakistani family who run it have had the business for years. But the people behind the checkouts in Lidl are white and British (except Mei, who’s Chinese, and a young Irish lad who recently started there). The people of the Gadlys and Trecynon can get their daily dose of ideology from someone who looks vaguely similar to them. So that’s all right then, isn’t it?
Instead of embracing the global village, as I’ve been doing since before I was consciously aware of it, it seems that the inhabitants of Little Britain (which is even less funny than the BBC’s alleged comedy show of the same title) have retreated into one corner of their wattle-and-daub hut.
Cowering in the darkness, they tell each other stories about the strange people outside the hut. Most of these have been handed down through the generations, or passed on by Chinese Whispers. Very few of the inhabitants have ever been outside the hut, except in organised hunting parties or during raids on neighbouring huts.
A tiny handful have ever spent long enough outside the hut to meet someone who didn’t speak the same language, or who didn’t believe in the same folktales, or who didn’t know the same tribal songs. They keep their experiences to themselves, because they’ll be called ‘mad’, or ‘possessed’, or thrown out of the hut entirely.
And someone, long ago, once met somebody from outside the hut who was so totally fucking amazing that they decided to get married and start a family. Nobody from the hut ever spoke to them again.
Cautionary tales, you know.
The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 1993) defines terrorism thus:
Terrorist principles and practices; the systematic employment of violence and intimidation to coerce a government or community, esp. into acceding to specific political demands; the fact of terrorizing or being terrorized.
Maybe it’s not terrorism we should be worried about, but Fearism. I’ll have a stab at defining it here:
Fearist principles and practices; the systematic and low-key indoctrination of a population into following a pernicious and hate-filled ideology; the control of mass news media by governments in order to perpetuate their ideology; the fact of fearizing or being fearized.
Don’t have nightmares.