Posted: 6/2/2002 6:16:00 PM EDT
In Washington, it’s everywhere, like God and mendacity: The DC Bob. As people talk, in fern bars, in eateries, on the sidewalk, an incorrect thought occurs – something that might upset Them. You know who They are: The racial, sexual, religious, and political groups that One Doesn’t Offend, the ideas and policies one mustn’t mention, the simple observations of fact that one may not make. We all know where trouble lies. And we are careful.
The incipient malefactor leans forward. He’s getting closer to his hearers to avoid eavesdroppers. Next he drops his chin and looks furtively over each shoulder in turn to see who might be listening. This is the DC Bob. It is routine. People don’t even notice that they are doing it.
The heretic whispers, “I’m sick of affirmative-action hires. We can’t get anything done in my office….”
The DC Bob. You have to watch what you say in America.
A while back I attended a party of people in government. I didn’t know them. They knew me indirectly from this column. We clutched Heinekens in the kitchen and chewed cheesy stuff on crackers. Pretending we weren’t, we felt each other out to be sure none of us was with the thought police (another ritual in Washington). The conversation came around to the deterioration of American society. The subject is common. In fact, it is close to inevitable.
One fellow finally said approximately, “I don’t get it. We all know what’s going on. Why can’t we even talk about it? This isn’t the Soviet Union.”
Ah, but, yes, actually, it is the Soviet Union. When people have to look over their shoulders before speaking in public places – when they are afraid to utter reasonable criticism of very questionable governmental policies – we’ve reached the suburbs of Moscow. I’m not trying to be cute about this. Ours is very much the same system of social control, but without the truncheons. It’s cleverly done, so that we have no way of revolting and nothing really to revolt against.
Yes, the penalties for political transgression are here lighter than in the USSR, but methods vary little. If you criticized Stalin, you got a bullet in the nape of the neck. Rubber hoses served their soothing purpose, and there were the Gulag and psychiatric committal. We don’t do these things here.
They aren’t necessary. To enforce conformity, the threat need not be extreme, merely adequate. Here, if you say the wrong thing, you lose your job. The years toward retirement vanish. The press savages you. You don’t get tenure or, if you have it, you are shunned by the rest of the faculty.— including those who secretly agree with you but are afraid of the same treatment. This is enough. We don’t need thumbscrews.
Intimidation depends not just on penalties but upon the certainty, or near certainty, of their application. In the Soviet Union, people knew they would lose if they transgressed. They couldn’t run. The police were faster. They couldn’t hide. The police would find them. They couldn’t even die gloriously to make a statement. The government wouldn’t broadcast it. Hopelessness breeds passivity. People may rebel against long odds. They seldom rebel when they can accomplish nothing.
The same is true here. We can’t win – though the penalties are not grisly, and do not always come from the formal government. If we take the wrong position on the wrong subject, the federal EEO apparatus will crush us. The feds know they can and drag a case out for a decade spend us into submission. Institutions – companies, universities -- will force us to apologize and publicly humiliate us. If we go to another university, apply for another job, the word will have gotten around and we won’t be hired.
The fewer the people you can trust, the greater the intimidation. In the Soviet Union, children were encouraged to rat out their parents. Under Stalin, it could be fatal. Things aren’t so bad here. Our kids are only occasionally asked to inform. (“Do your parents have guns?”) But in school, children are steeped unendingly in Appropriate Thought. In communist countries, it was more openly done, being honestly called Marxism-Leninism or Mao Tse Dung Thought. In our schools it’s packaged as immanent self-evident Goodness. The effect is to erect a police wall between parents and children.
Do I exaggerate? Try telling your kid that Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman (whoever she was) were perhaps not the central achievement of Western Civilization, that there is an astronomical lopsidedness by race in commission of crime, or that universal illegitimacy may involve both immorality and irresponsibility. The tad will likely be horrified that you are such a racist. Don’t teachers and the telescreen say so?
And so many parents speak carefully at home, checking to see that the children aren’t listening. As in the Soviet Union, indoctrination is the unspoken purpose of schooling.
Here, as in the USSR, the press -- in particular the ever-whispering screen, half-ignored, babbling like a brook, slowly depositing assumptions, views, unnoticed beliefs -- is the key to social control. Russians knew they were being lied to, but they didn’t know how much. Our telescreens lie more subtly, and thus more effectively. The principle is that if people absorb one lie in two, tell them three. Soon they will believe…enough. That is all it takes.
American journalism isn’t as controlled as that of the Soviet Union, but it is controlled enough. In the media the punishment for deviationist thought is swift and sure. We in the trade know exactly what we can and cannot say. Criticize the wrong things and you will lose your job and be, for practical purposes, blacklisted.
Many journalists of course know what is going on, assuredly including editors of major publications. But, being intimidated, they intimidate. Thus what we know we don’t write, and what we write we don’t believe. Editorialists and columnists argue pointlessly within understood constraints, like ping-pong balls bouncing between two walls. The walls are there. One doesn’t step beyond.
Yet there is more to it. Editors do not control the content of publications. Advertisers do – advertisers and the owners. If you buy important amounts of advertising, you have veto power.
Sometimes the influence is quietly explicit. A major upper-middle-brow magazine once assigned me a story that might have involved criticism of defense contractors. The editor asked me to go easy on McDonnell-Douglas because it advertised. This is not uncommon. But usually writers just know what They don’t want. And they don’t write it. They are afraid.
Looking over our shoulders, dealing cautiously with strangers, doing the DC Bob….
©Fred Reed 2002