March 30, 2014

The Bigger Lie


The other night I was watching a wide-ranging interview with Charles Manson filmed back in 1989. At one point, in his own inimitable way, Manson, who is hardly the raving, incoherent, wild-eyed lunatic we’ve been led to believe, began talking about power, control, and bringing the world back into some kind of order. When the interviewer brought up Hitler, Manson noted that Hitler tried to bring order to the world through force, but the job was too much for him and the world overwhelmed him. Instead of force, he said, fear is a much more effective tool. Convince people that if they don’t behave properly they’ll be hurt or killed, and they’ll behave properly. Then (this is twenty-five years ago remember) he added, “Today you can do it with a computer. Just hit a button or two.”

            Somehow that triggered it. For some reason whenever I watch old Manson interviews something, some dumb idea, always gets triggered. So hear me out. This is going somewhere.

            Okay, since the nineties I’ve been railing openly and often about my angry paranoia regarding the nature and scope of public and private surveillance, the loss of privacy, and the death of anonymity. I didn’t care if it was undertaken by one of a dozen intelligence agencies, or some shadow government, or a corporation or a local convenience store or the cops or some chuckleass with a cell phone. It pissed me off, whoever was behind it. I just wanted to be left the fuck alone to mind my own business, right? So I’ve rambled on and on in articles and books and columns about it even when I was fully aware no one gave a damn. And why should they give a damn when I’m a self-admitted paranoid?

            Then along comes Edward Snowden, dig, and he releases thousands of documents proving conclusively the NSA is essentially spying on every last shitheel one of us all the time. Every phone call to your mom, every computer keystroke of every sniveling emailed apology, every web search for professional carpet cleaners in your area is being recorded and registered and stored. In the eyes of a federal intelligence agency with precious little oversight, we have all become suspects. Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly shocked by the revelations, though I was happy to see the documents got the publicity they did (even if few people still seemed to give a damn). Then the shouting and fretting and chest thumping began. Newspaper editors and bloggers pretended to be horrified. Government officials split into two camps, those who considered Snowden a traitor while completely ignoring what was revealed, and those who wanted hearings demanding the NSA stop spying on citizens (or at least on them) quite so much. And the president in the midst of it all blithely responded that it was all for our national security and the spying would continue. So there.

            Overnight it seems we found ourselves living in a world in which everything we did was being monitored by forces who were poised and ready to nab us if we made a misstep, right? So you better mind your Ps and Qs, shape up and fly straight, or you were gonna get it. Think you might get away with something? Just take a look at the news any random night and see how much security camera or cell phone footage is used to identify small-time thieves and street hoods and devious fare beaters. See that? She’s not gonna get away with that pair of shoes, is she? Nossir, not with her picture plastered all over the TV that way. She’s gonna get what’s coming to her, but good. So let it be a lesson to you. Do anything at all wrong, and they’ll have you on record doing it, and you’ll get slammed hard. The big lie behind it all was that the real goal of all this surveillance was to stop, y’know, terrorism or whatever, but if we can pick up a few other filthy nogoodniks along the way, well, that’s just gravy.

            That’s all fine and good and an accepted reality these days. Then in a flash I saw it all, the Bigger Lie, the conspiracy above the conspiracy. It all made such perfectly clear, simple sense. As I was listening to Manson talking about the power of fear it hit me. What if it’s all a big lie? Or at least half or three-quarters a lie? You go into a drug store and see those mirrored security cam bubbles on the ceiling, right? Some of them, yes, contain cameras, but not all of them. That’d be too expensive. So half of those bubbles you see are actually empty, and exist as nothing more than a threat to keep you in line. After all, you can never tell which ones are empty and which ones operational. How lucky do you feel? Is the risk worth it? There doesn’t need to be a camera there for you to believe there is and act accordingly. Tell people they’re being watched, and they’ll believe it.

            The same holds true for those massive NSA databases we’ve heard so much about. They don’t have to exist (or work the way we’ve been told they do) so long as the masses believe they exist. Belief is what matters, and the fear that accompanies it. Wouldn’t be the first time a grand myth has been disseminated to instill a gut paranoia in the herd. So what if the whole NSA story is a hoax? What if Snowden is actually a well-paid federal agent, a straw scapegoat, a willing and eager patsy whose job it is to bang people over the head with the idea they’re being scrutinized at all times? And what if all the hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing among the elected officials is all part of the act, a ruse to drive the point home? Add a few token low-level comparatively penny-ante examples, like security camera footage on the news or red light cameras here and there doling out speeding tickets to prove your point, and you’re well on your way to knocking the unruly masses back in line through the creation of a Super-superego.

            If a plain old Freudian superego can stop an individual in his tracks, fill him with guilt and shame for even thinking bad thoughts, and if it can do this without recourse to any sort of actual physical threat, imagine what a nationwide superego could accomplish. Better still, this Super-superego could be generated with a very small expenditure of energy or cash. Intelligence agencies and town-sized underground databases are expensive, after all, and we’ve got money troubles as it is. It’s so much easier to get people believing the NSA is watching them than it is to actually have the NSA watching them. And with half the annoying little knotheads spying on themselves and each other as it is with those iPhones, why go to the trouble?

            Not to dredge up that hoary old Emperor has No Clothes analogy again, but it seems fitting. Only this time we’re the ones who might be walking around buck naked.

            This is all mere speculation on my part, just another one of those big What Ifs, just the very beginning of an idea (and one, now that I think of it, Orwell toyed with in 1984). But it sure is something to consider, ain’t it? The more I think about it, it seems to make a lot of sense. Now if we could just get those fucking iPhones out of the hands of assholes, I’d likely sleep a lot easier.

            Of course if three balding and humorless men in ill-fitting dark suits show up at my door a day after this is posted, well, um, never mind.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.