Full disclosure: I accepted the assignment of writing about two recently published books, Trust Us, We're Experts! and Everything You Know Is Wrong, with an arsenal of prejudices fully engaged and awaiting deployment. While by no means a conservative, I've always been one of those moderate, equivocating, "establishment" liberals for whom real liberals reserve their deepest and most heartfelt contempt. The distilled messages of these books--that every so-called opinion we claim to hold as our own has been force-fed to us by shadowy spinmeisters, and that what we think of as official news and conventional wisdom are lies manufactured by a malevolent government conspiracy--just sounded way too much like the breathless declarations spouted by all those Noam Chomsky-lovin' firebrands who make bourgeois sell-outs like me so uncomfortable at dinner parties. I was ready to give both books a gimlet-eyed read, then blithely dismiss them by fixing them securely within the fatuous-paranoiac genre alongside much of Chomsky's oeuvre, Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders and movies like Capricorn One and Three Days of the Condor.
Then I picked up The New York Times--the official organ of pasteurized news for brainwashed pseudo-liberals like me--and learned that the Bush administration had received, via ominously worded memos and CIA briefings, information that might have led it to anticipate a terrorist attack on the order of Sept. 11. After it became clear to administration officials that major news organizations had discovered this story and were about to run with it, Ari Fleischer and Condoleeza Rice, in hastily arranged press conferences, attempted to get ahead of the news by downplaying the significance and reliability of the intelligence they and their colleagues had, for the most part, ignored. This was summarily followed by the spectacle of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and FBI director Robert Mueller issuing tag-team warnings that unspeakable new dangers are imminent, and that any talk of a formal congressional inquiry into possible disconnects between the president and his intelligence agencies is dangerously distracting, politically divisive, and playing right into the terrorists' hands.
As I type these words, hard lefties across the nation are hopping in place, frantically waving their dog-eared copies of Manufacturing Consent and screaming "See?! See?!" at the tops of their lungs as more details emerge. And even moderate, equivocating liberals with little patience for conspiracy theories have to admit that the administration's lack of forthrightness about what it knew and when it knew it--not to mention all this ex post facto, Wag the Dog--style fear-mongering--is making it easier for us to believe that we're being lied to, or at least cynically manipulated, by people who don't trust our ability to "handle the truth," as Jack Nicholson might sneer.
So have I finally seen the light? Naaah. I was co-opted by the establishment a long time ago; the roots of my corruption run deep. Given the choice between believing in a Byzantine X-Files version of world events or a more beneficent one in which honest leaders pursue transparent agendas with my best interests at heart, I'll opt for the latter every time. (Hey, look, I just find it easier to live my life this way.) But now at least I'm a little more willing to let the real-life Fox Mulders have their say. And in these two playfully titled volumes, a number of concerned crusaders make some persuasive arguments for maintaining a healthy skepticism of received wisdom--whether it flows from government officials, TV news anchors, or so-called experts who claim to be objective, scientifically minded analysts and nothing more.
It's these last folks who trouble Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, the authors of Trust Us, We're Experts!, a 2001 book, recently re-released in paperback, about the nefarious marriage between giant public relations firms and the industries that hire them to shape mass opinion. It's probably unfair to characterize Rampton and Stauber as wide-eyed, truth-is-out-there Mulder types. Stauber is the founder and director of the Madison, Wis.--based Center for Media & Democracy, a think tank devoted to the scholarly study of spin; he and Rampton put out the Center's quarterly report, P.R. Watch, which attempts (like the pair's books) to expose the tangled strings and pulleys of the public relations machine, and to educate people on the elegant subterfuge practiced by industries and corporations to seduce and mollify citizens.
Not surprisingly, chemical manufacturers, pharmaceutical makers, tobacco companies and agricultural "innovators" like Monsanto occupy much of the authors' attention. Using a sober, matter-of-fact tone, they show how the techniques employed by industries to get their messages across have evolved over the years into fully fledged alternate realities in which the most tortuous obfuscations are smilingly presented as hard, scientific facts.
Instrumental to this strategy is the "third-party expert," usually a gentle-voiced, reasonable-seeming fellow in a blue suit who can boast an affiliation with a major research university or scientific institute and assure the public that tomatoes injected with fish genes are as safe as they are tasty, or that sludge isn't as bad as it smells, or that tobacco still hasn't been absolutely proven to cause cancer. Rampton and Stauber effectively explode the myth that objective experts actually exist as a class, and they counter that many if not most of them are covertly representing the interests of well-funded combatants in the battle for public opinion fought nightly on network news broadcasts. So thoroughly has corporate money infiltrated the scientific community, they argue, that the very cornerstones of scientific integrity--peer review, publication in academic journals, even basic adherence to the scientific method--have been compromised.
Not only individuals but entire organizations, they note, have been exposed as shams. With horror and fascination we read of chimerical watchdog outfits and Potemkin public interest groups, made up of nonexistent citizens whose letters to the editor and desktop-published newsletters are in fact artful forgeries crafted in the sleek offices of P.R. firms to resemble the nascent stirrings of grassroots movements.
That's the kind of Bizarro-world, major-league deception that really gets Russ Kick excited. Kick is the editor of Everything You Know Is Wrong, an oversized paperback bible of polemic that will surely become for the Pacifica-radio crowd what Our Bodies, Our Selves was to feminists in the 1970s and 1980s. Contributors to this fascinating and irreverent volume include Old Left stalwarts like Paul Krassner (who gives us, in just a few hundred words, the real story behind the Manson murders) and Professor Howard Zinn (who thoughtfully documents the sorely underdocumented Ludlow coal miners' massacre of 1913-1914), sex-positive post-feminists like Tristan Taormino and Wendy McElroy, and even that lovable conservative turncoat with the fabulous Eva Gabor purr, Arianna Huffington. Essay titles range from the alarming ("Call it Off! New Revelations About Waco," "The Bombing of PanAm Flight 103: Case Not Closed") to the totally creepy ("Bovine Bioterrorism and the Perfect Pathogen," "Psychiatric Drugging of Children for Behavioral Control"). There's something for everyone at this jaundiced jamboree.
The great philosophical battle of our era isn't between good and evil, as some would have us believe, but between absolutism and relativism. Usually the battle is waged over morality, but sometimes the absolutists and relativists, feeling a little cocky, actually find themselves arguing over the nature of truth itself. Absolutists typically arm themselves with dogma and natural law; relativists like to fight back with dispassionate science and dialectical materialism. It's a battle that can and will distract you, if you let it, from the truly important questions in life, like where to go for dinner or whether or not to go see Alejandro Escovedo play at the Cat's Cradle. (It's on a weeknight--damn.) Say what you will about it, consensus reality or "establishment" reality or whatever you want to call it at least offers humans a portable, user-friendly cosmology that spares us the time-sucking burden of participating in the quest for truth.
Read these books if you're looking to be bothered. If you're not, I'd recommend going about your business quietly and not drawing too much attention to yourself. Everything's going to be just fine. Honest.