The Noise: A Review

Basketball, Parasites, and Military Recruitment

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Stephen Curry at West Point.

In April 2013, the US Army’s Office of the Chief of Public Affairs wrote in a weekly report that it intended to “attract larger roles with…sports entertainment networks for future Army-related stories.”

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In October 2014, The Players’ Tribune was launched. It publishes “impactful and powerful long- and short-form stories,” written by athletes and their ghostwriters. Its “Content and Business Advisor” is Gary Hoenig, former editorial director of ESPN Publishing and a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine. ESPN is owned by two fascist media empires.

Yesterday, American chauvinist Stephen Curry published a story about his affection and admiration for the murderous agents of US imperialism. “One of the beliefs that I hold most dear,” he declares, “is how proud I am to be an American — and how incredibly thankful I am for our troops.” How nice.

“But if there’s anything I’ve learned this year,” Curry continues, “it’s that all of that noise we keep hearing — it’s not an accident.” I agree. As distinguished member of the US Army’s Psychological Operations regiment Michael W. Stein remarked in 2012, what we read in newspaper articles and see on television is not “mere entertainment or opinion; all these things are done for a purpose.”

Sport is all about teamwork, and Curry’s article builds on the efforts of Colin Kaepernick, who successfully burrowed his way into the growing unrest concerning a real, existing problem (racist policing in America) and—like a liver fluke controlling an ant—redirected this outrage, diluting the public discourse by deemphasising the barbarity of American capitalism (which is at the root of racist policing), and instead making a complete spectacle of himself by bending over in reverence for the US military. Curry announces the purpose of this prolonged psyop openly: “this conversation we’ve started to have in the world of sports … whether it’s been Colin kneeling, or entire NFL teams finding their own ways to show unity, or me saying that I didn’t want to go to the White House — it’s the opposite of disrespectful to [US troops].”

The only thing missing from Curry’s story is a link to the US Army’s career website.

Golden State Warriors visit Pentagon, Arlington Cemetery

 

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False Jersey Ops (Part 3): A Late Whistle

Basketball, Reality Programming, and Programming Reality

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We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do[1].

The 2017–18 NBA season has been underway for a couple of weeks now, and keen-eyed observers will likely have noticed a few interesting things about the new uniforms that have been introduced league-wide. Aside from the obvious fact that they are all hideous and ill-fitting[2], a handful of teams have struck jersey sponsorship deals and now boast garish corporate logos just above their player’s hearts.

Starting this season, Orlando Magic players will wear Disney logos on their jerseys. This is no great surprise; Disney World is located in Greater Orlando, and the team name is an obvious allusion to Disney’s “Magic Kingdom.” Less well-known is the fact that Disney owns ABC and ESPN, which, between them, broadcast the majority of nationally televised NBA games.

Why is this interesting? Described by David Kunzle as “arguably, the [twentieth] century’s most important figure in bourgeois popular culture,” and a man who “has done more than any single person to disseminate around the world certain myths upon which that culture has thrived,” Walt Disney was, of course, a fascist[3] and an anti-communist FBI snitch. Henry Giroux sums up Disney’s mission:

There are few cultural icons in the United States that can match the signifying power of the Disney Company. Relentless in its efforts to…send into the community an endless stream of representations and commodities that conjure up a nostalgic view of the United States as the “magic kingdom,” the Disney Company has become synonymous with a notion of innocence that aggressively rewrites the historical and collective identity of the American past.

While Disney owns ABC outright, it shares ESPN with the Hearst Corporation (which owns 20%). Its founder, William Randolph Hearst, was (surprise!) a zealous fascist responsible for publishing all manner of pro-Nazi and anti-communist propaganda in the United States. As we explored in last month’s instalment, the NBA, like other American sports leagues (and like Disney), is quite keen to team up with the fascist US military in order to produce fascist propaganda of various kinds. I mention this at the outset because I think it’s worth bearing in mind that much of the NBA entertainment we view is curated and framed by fascist media empires intent on promoting fascist messages. I do think this is noteworthy, and not a coincidence or an irrelevance. As Michael Parenti observes, “even a sector of the entertainment media such as sports reportage, which has no narrative line, can be permeated with anticommunist, militaristic, and chauvinistic imagery.” Major American media of all kinds have historically been very receptive to fascism, and I really don’t see any indication that this state of affairs has changed.

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Disney has patented—”sewn up all the rights on”—tomorrow as well as today. For, in the jargon of the media, “he has made tomorrow come true today,” and “enables one to actually experience the future.” His future has now taken shape in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida; an amusement park which covers an area of once virgin land twice the size of Manhattan … With its own laws, it is a state within a state. It boasts of the fifth largest submarine fleet in the world[4].

But enough about Disney (for now); it’s Halloween, and we’re going to take a look at some spooks. Ten years ago, the NBA found itself in the midst of a gambling scandal. Referee Tim Donaghy appeared to have been busted by the FBI for betting on—and fixing—a number of games, and was ultimately sentenced to 15 months in prison on July 29, 2008 as a result of misconduct during his final two seasons. Shortly before his sentencing, however, Donaghy attempted to blow the whistle (ha…) on the NBA itself, alleging that the league regularly fixed games in order to sell more tickets and boost television ratings, and that all of its referees were in on the scam. Donaghy would go on to write a book, and, after serving his sentence, establish a niche for himself on the periphery of NBA-related media, giving interviews and fuelling ever more speculation about the latest in referee skulduggery.

In summary, a rogue official caused a considerable stir by deciding to leak information concerning unscrupulous institutional practices (about which everybody already knew), and, following his “revelations,” nothing whatsoever appears to have changed (the NBA, in case you’re wondering, is indeed fixed). This should have a familiar ring to it.

Donaghy’s narrative arc matches that of Edward Snowden, a man who is almost certainly not what he says he is. I don’t intend to devote much space here to the Snowden psyop theory—this work has already been done by other more capable people who were on the ball as the saga unfolded, so if you’re unfamiliar and are curious (or sceptical), I recommend you click these links. Briefly, there is a compelling argument to be made that Snowden’s exhaustively promoted and image-laden whistleblowing caper was a limited hangout. Indeed, now that surveillance is more pervasive, invasive, and normalised than ever, Snowden has declared his mission accomplished.

Whether or not we ever get to the bottom of who Snowden really is, whether he is still working for the CIA, etc., we can learn quite a bit from the entertainment media by which he is presented to us. Most people have come to know Edward Snowden through slick, well-produced documentaries, Vice Interviews, Hollywood films, and, famously, the fascist platform that is Twitter[5].

Oliver Stone’s Snowden (2016) helpfully provides audiences with the official version of events in one neat, entertaining package. The film affords Snowden yet another opportunity to tell his tale, framed and lit just right, adding another layer of fiction to the already fictional Citizenfour (2014), and supplanting whatever real images and fragments might remain in viewers’ minds with dramatic re-enactments of dramatic re-enactments[6].

The film quite explicitly lays out Snowden’s mission to preserve America’s spying apparatus and protect ruling class interests: “Look, I had access to the entire intelligence community, so if I had wanted to harm the US, you could shut down the entire surveillance system in an afternoon. But that was never my intention.” The blurring of reality and fiction reaches its climax at the end of the film when the real Ed Snowden replaces Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the screen and delivers his concluding remarks: “I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow, because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.” Mission accomplished. Unfortunately, the rest of us do still have to worry about what happens tomorrow.

In addition to tying up loose ends by retroactively providing sanitised, official narratives for otherwise confusing or controversial episodes in history, Hollywood films can be utilised to alter public perceptions in advance of major events. Edward Snowden, for instance, may have been “predicted” by Enemy of the State (1998). One of the most famous examples of “predictive programming” is Disney’s Pearl Harbor (2001).

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Agent Affleck and his handler Jennifer Garner enjoy a fascist spectacle[7].

Produced with the assistance of the Pentagon, and starring CIA agent Ben Affleck, Pearl Harbor appeared in cinemas in May 2001, less than four months before 9/11. In the immediate aftermath, every politician, pundit, and academic drew the seemingly natural comparison between the two events. As Noha Mellor writes,

a study about American and British coverage of 9/11 attacks found that newspapers frequently resorted to history to draw on comparison and analogies with previous events, such as those from World War II. Historical context here helps journalists interpret this event while tapping a collective memory. It was particularly the memory of Pearl Harbor that was commonly used in British and American newspapers to link 9/11 to the past. As Brennen and Duffy (2003: 3) observe: “journalists and citizens struggled to find a way to frame the disaster socially and historically. ‘it’s another Pearl Harbor’ was a frequent comment uttered by pundits and politicians alike.”

But were commentators really drawing from “history” and “the memory of Pearl Harbor”? Where did this “memory” come from? More accurately, they were tapping a collective memory of representations of Pearl Harbor in popular culture. Mellor continues:

Moreover, the images showing the gradual collapse of the towers lend resonance to the images of Hollywood action movies, as shown in the American coverage (Nacos 2003: 25). In a comment on this resemblance to fiction, the American novelist John Updike said that “the destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers had the false intimacy of television, on a day of perfect perception” (quoted in Nacos 2003: 26) … Each of the Arab newspapers examined here picked up on these blurring boundaries between fact and fiction in this unprecedented event, seemingly indicative of Hollywood entertainment, in order to stress the public disbelief.

That the actual events of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were nothing alike doesn’t matter. The fictional Pearl Harbor is more real to Americans than any first-hand account. When PNAC signatories suggested in 2000 that “a new Pearl Harbor” would be a useful catalyst for “rebuilding America’s defences,” we can read this literally as a desire for a Michael Bay dramatisation, because it was this false memory of Pearl Harbor—Disney’s signature “innocence that aggressively rewrites the historical and collective identity of the American past”—which helped to prime Americans for the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

As Geoffrey M. White explains, a preoccupation with historical trivia obscured for many critics the utility that Pearl Harbor had as war propaganda:

Over the years, Hollywood and the U.S. military have formed innumerable partnerships in the production of war films—partnerships that can, potentially, raise questions about the image-making power of the military-corporate complex and its stake in producing inspiring stories for purposes of profit, public relations, and recruitment. These sensitivities provide yet another rationale for attention to matters of “accuracy,” to telling the story “the way it was,” as attested by military historians and veterans. Yet, raising questions of historical accuracy has the ironic effect of deflecting the viewer’s gaze from such questions of politics and purpose to concern with specific details and inaccuracies. With attention focused narrowly on the truth of details in a given text, larger issues of context never arise.

Similarly, a narrow focus on the particular details of this or that leaked document may deflect the viewer’s gaze from more pertinent questions concerning Edward Snowden’s identity (CIA agent) and agenda (promoting American imperialism). This applies equally to the Donaghy case: the result of the Tim Donaghy scandal has been to attract considerable attention to the sanctioned conspiracy (the NBA is fixed), while deflecting the viewer’s gaze from some of the NBA’s more nefarious activities. There are, for example, documentaries about the refereeing in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, but very little is said about the friendly and lucrative relationship between the NBA and the US Army[8].

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What is real, then, is what can be (like the signifier) perfectly programmed, controlled, and reproduced each and every time from a preexisting symbolic model or “simulation.” There is thus no “reality” or Real in the Lacanian sense; what is real refers back each and every time not to something, but to a model, a program, a simulated hyperreal[9].

As well as investing in Hollywood productions and sporting events, the Pentagon is very interested in reality television, as a glance through its Entertainment Liaison Office reports will reveal. This interest is shared by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who considers NBA basketball “the ultimate reality programming[10].” As with other forms of popular entertainment, it is unwise to dismiss reality television as meaningless or unworthy of our attention. On the contrary, as David R. Dreyer explains:

Reality television programming has become a pervasive part of popular culture. Although such programming may seem to be mindless entertainment, it can serve as a tool to introduce political lessons … An analysis reveals that contestants often behave strategically when forming alliances and voting, in ways that are similar to the strategic behavior of nation-states and individuals residing in democracies, respectively.

Are the NBA and the Pentagon using reality television formats to promote fascism? “There is,” writes Karen D. Austin, “no reason to suspect that the producers of American Idol, Survivor, and all of the other new reality shows are driven by any ideological agenda larger or more comprehensive than making money.” Yes, exactly! But the ideological agenda of making money at any cost—of capitalism—is vile and poisonous, and if government agencies can use films as psychological weapons, of course they are doing the same with reality television shows. The NBA already has a popular reality television series underway, and with ESPN ranking college basketball players by their reality television potential, we can expect to see many more such shows in the future.

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In his typically provocative way, Baudrillard claims that in industrialized societies capital has attained such sophistication in the manipulation of popular consciousness through the interdefinition and the constructed character of contemporary media products (both news and entertainment) that it no longer needs to substantiate its claims in real terms to the public. He describes this situation by positing what he calls the “precession of simulacra” which generates what he calls “the hyperreal.” The hyperreal is that realm of appearances which are “dishonest” not merely in failing to faithfully copy their originals in structural terms but in failing to copy at all. In other words, this is the realm of simulacra that functions in the absence of corresponding real things which could serve as models for pretended likenesses represented by simulacra. Baudrillard’s view is that the public is now used to authentications of simulacra by other simulacra[11].

It is interesting to note the similarities between the activities of Colin Kaepernick, Tim Donaghy, Edward Snowden, Ben Affleck, Bana Alabed, etc. As Adorno and Horkheimer wrote of the culture industry,

Not only are the hit songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but the specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears to change. The details are interchangeable. The short interval sequence which was effective in a hit song, the hero’s momentary fall from grace (which he accepts as good sport), the rough treatment which the beloved gets from the male star, the latter’s rugged defiance of the spoilt heiress, are, like all the other details, ready-made clichés to be slotted in anywhere; they never do anything more than fulfil the purpose allotted them in the overall plan.

I think it is useful to view what is known as “predictive programming” from this angle. Rather than creating in advance media which “predict” specific events and prescribe the ways in which audiences are to conceive of such events, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the same stale but effective narratives are constantly being acted out (on film sets, on football fields and basketball courts, on Twitter, in “real life”) by actors (willing or unwitting as the case may be), in order that “history’s actors” may always have new realities at their disposal.

As always, thank you for reading, and death to the United States of America.

[1] A senior advisor to George W. Bush, speaking in 2002, and cited by Ron Suskind in the New York Times, October 17, 2004.

[2] I am convinced that the drab and displeasing colours of more recent NBA uniforms are a form of psychological warfare, but this is a topic for another time.

[3] To get a sense of “the iron fist beneath the Mouse’s glove,” do take a look at How to Read Donald Duck, an exploration by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart of the ways in which the images and stories found within Disney comics—and disseminated around the globe—naturalise capitalism and imperialism.

[4] From the introduction of How to Read Donald Duck.

[5] Predictably, Snowden’s Twitter activity includes (but is not limited to): chauvinistic American exceptionalism; promoting “regime change” in Syria; equating communists with fascists.

[6] I re-watched Citizenfour while writing this, and during the scene in which Glen Greenwald initially begins to interrogate Snowden, I expected Laura Poitras to interrupt him and suggest that “we just start with your name.” A “real” scene from this documentary had been replaced in my memory by a scene from Oliver Stone’s film. These tricks work.

[7] Speaking of basketball and hyperreality, Ben Affleck was once interviewed for ESPN and recounted a story in which he was playing basketball and leapt “like six feet off the ground” to block a layup attempt by Matt Damon. Asked when this had occurred, Affleck responded, “I’m not sure that actually took place. I think it might have been an implanted memory.”

[8] A relationship that the US Army is eager to take to the next level. You can sense their frustration with the “limited messaging impact” of having troops parade about before a Clippers game, and they write elsewhere in their ELO reports that they want to “attract larger roles with…sports entertainment networks for future Army-related stories.”

[9] Anthony Kubiak, Disappearance as History: The Stages of Terror.

[10] The ambiguity of this statement is interesting—is he talking about the reality television format, or about programming (an audience’s perception of) reality?

[11] Thomas Heyd, The Real and the Hyperreal: Dance and Simulacra.

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False Jersey Ops (Part 2): Kaepitalism

Basketball, T-Shirt Praxis, and Crafted Storytelling

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Major sports are now transmitted by satellite to global audiences. The commercial messages accompanying the broadcast, ringing the stadia, and often worn on the uniforms of the athletes constitute a concerted assault of corporate marketing values on global consciousness. The envelopment of professional and amateur sports for transnational corporate marketing objectives and ideological pacification and control is not a patented American practice, limited exclusively to U.S. companies. It is, however, carried to its fullest development in the United States[1].

It’s that time of year again. American football players (along with other assorted sportspeople and posturing opportunists) are performing revolutionary acts at an unprecedented rate! Standing shoulder to shoulder with ruling class millionaires, arms linked in heart-warming unity, professional athletes are once more using their platforms to bring people together and make a difference.

The major organisations now jostle for the title of “most socially conscious professional sports league,” and, smelling opportunity, Adam Silver has descended like a gangly, besuited vulture, offering in an open letter to help his players “figure out the most meaningful way to make [a] difference[2]” (it’s wearing t-shirts and linking arms, in case you were wondering).

Like all sports leagues, the NBA—as its players and commissioners never tire of reminding us—is a business. “In the United States,” Herbert I. Schiller wrote, “practically no sports activity remains outside the interest and sponsorship of the big national advertisers”—and these include government agencies. Teams are owned by the very richest of the rich, and unthinkable sums of money are spent on advertisements of various sorts, from regular TV commercials, to branding, to Department of Defence propaganda, to God knows what else. With this in mind, we ought to consider the question of what, aside from jerseys and t-shirts, we are being sold. So, let’s investigate.

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Just a normal basketball game in a not-fascist country.

From the very beginning of this tiresome saga, Colin Kaepernick proved himself to be a faithful and unashamed propagandist for the US armed forces, and for American exceptionalism in general. When asked to clarify his thoughts on the military in August last year, Kaepernick made the following remarks:

I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone … [Kneeling during the national anthem is] a freedom that men and woman that have fought for this country have given me this opportunity by contributions they have made … I know a lot of people’s initial reactions thought it was bashing the military, which it wasn’t. That wasn’t my intention at all[3].

Kaepernick’s former teammate and fellow grovelling kneeler Eric Reid reemphasised the pair’s reverence for murderous American soldiers in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, explaining that he “wanted to be as respectful as possible,” and that they “chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture.” He continues:

It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.

The pro-empire orientation of Kaepernick and his copycats has always left room for cross-pollination with other ongoing psyops and enabled the US military to boost its image in ways other than the crude displays that are typically associated with American sports (mindless flag reverence[4] and tasteless pageantry, recruitment ads, collaborative PR performances, and so forth). Thanks to Kaepernick’s “socially conscious” credentials, bloodthirsty imperial soldiers can, by association, now posit themselves as sympathetic characters who share our concerns, and even as revolutionaries! They’re cool and subversive, and we kneel with them!

The prophet Mani recognised the power of images in spreading propaganda way back in the third century CE, and the best propagandists today are well aware of this utility. Kaepernick’s CIA-endorsed “protest” may be short on theory and on focus (“there’s a lot of things that need to change, a lot of different issues that need to be addressed … it’s really hard to lock down one specific thing that needs to change currently”), but it produces endless iconic and inspirational imagery! Look at the images! Wear them on a t-shirt. Are you not empowered?

By clearly emphasising this supposed distinction between US police (who are temporarily bad and racist) and US soldiers (who are eternally good and noble), Kaepernick promotes a myopic understanding of contemporary America, according to which racist policing is not an intended and inevitable outcome of capitalism, but rather an alarming deviation from an otherwise presumed American exceptionalism, a problem which can be treated and dealt with in isolation through kneeling and t-shirt wearing, “raising awareness” and “having conversations.” But as David Gilbert observed in 2001,

there is a complete correlation over the past twenty years between the greatest ever recorded shift of wealth from the poor to the rich and our skyrocketing prison population. The dual needs of containment and scapegoating are clearly expressed in the racial character of American justice.

Kaepernick’s belief that American cops can be reformed or “held to account” without really understanding in the first place why they consistently exhibit racist behaviour amounts, in other words, to a liberal complaint (as opposed to a radical analysis). American police do not intend to serve and protect the working class, and it is crucial to do away with any belief in a community of interests—and thus any chance of productive dialogue—between cops and the people they brutalise, imprison, and execute. You cannot condemn American cops without also condemning American capitalism.

But Kaepernick does more than just pose and sell t-shirts—he’s an activist. Eric Reid vouches for him, pointing out in his op-ed that Kaepernick is “a man who helped to orchestrate a commercial planeful of food and supplies for famine-stricken Somalia.” Kaepernick and the “Love Army” (a subliminal command as well as a name?) did indeed deliver 60 tonnes of food to hungry Somalis this year, and that’s all very nice. But why does Somalia suffer such terrible famines? Kaepernick doesn’t say. But I’m going to tell you!

“These people, they have no food.”

Somalia is a victim of (you guessed it) US imperialism (or, as Kaepernick calls it, “politics”). The very soldiers whose deeds Kaepernick and his cop friends love to celebrate have murdered dozens of Somalis this year alone by the most conservative estimates. Thousands of Somalis have been killed (and hundreds of thousands displaced) by US invaders since 2007 in a rarely-publicised war that has been going on for decades. Famines have occurred with ever-increasing frequency and severity since the United States instigated this war, and this is no coincidence:

A country that has been deprived of any civil peace and stable government by the repeated meddling of imperialism over a period of decades, a country whose economy has been destroyed by IMF loan sharks, a country whose fishing industry has been wiped out by giant factory ships deployed by monopoly capitalist poachers, and whose fishermen have been transformed into pirates, is not well-equipped to deal with the consequences of major drought.  Whilst the drought is, in some measure, a natural phenomenon, the famine is entirely man-made: the consequence of the decades of imperialist meddling which have effectively sabotaged any hope of peace and order for the Somalis.

To borrow Kaepernick’s own words, there’s “a social responsibility that we have to be educated on these things and talk about these things,” and “when you have the knowledge of those things you can make an educated decision on what you really feel and what you really stand for.”

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During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes have visited relentless persecution on them and received their teaching with the most savage hostility, the most furious hatred, the most ruthless campaign of lies and slanders. After their death, attempts are made to turn them into harmless icons, canonise them, and surround their names with a certain halo for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping them, while at the same time emasculating and vulgarising the real essence of their revolutionary theories and blunting their revolutionary edge[5].

Colin Kaepernick is often credited with raising awareness and starting a conversation, but this is giving him too much credit. He is more than happy to strut about in t-shirts branded with images of revolutionary figures (Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Fidel Castro[6]), but when it comes to discussing the topics with which these great leaders spent their lives grappling, Kaepernick has nothing to say. His t-shirt praxis is offensive not just because it is dishonest, but because it contributes to the debasement of powerful revolutionary icons and ideas. The late poet Amiri Baraka once prophesised that Malcolm X’s face would appear on a t-shirt worn by Colin Kaepernick:

There is, of course, the syndrome Lenin spoke about when he said that once opponents of the bourgeoisie are dead the rulers transform these class enemies into ciphers or agreeable sycophants of Imperialism (however “askew” they might have “seemed” in life) who are now “rehabilitated” all the way into being represented as the very opposite ideologically of what they actually were in life.

In particular, Kaepernick seems intent on “rehabilitating” the Black Panther Party, whose 10 point programme he has caricatured and had printed on t-shirts. The original Panther Programme was a substantial list of demands, while Kaepernick’s “10 inspirational sentences” have the air of a friendly cop reading you your rights: “you have the right to be brilliant; you have the right to be courageous”—fuck off. Black Panthers, evidently, can be “radically audacious” backup dancers sharing a stage with Coldplay; they can be obsequious grovelers; and they can be Marvel super heroes. They cannot, however, be revolutionaries.

But enough about Kaepernick. He’s old news, and his feckless demonstrations were on the verge of disappearing down the memory hole until former NBA cameraman and current US President Donald Trump gave this dying story a much-needed shot in the arm. Trump’s remarks have provoked a renewed frenzy of insipid jingoism from athletes and pundits alike. The problem with Trump, you see, is that he’s not a patriot. His presence disgraces the White House, which until last year was a monument to freedom, universally respected and beloved.

2012 Hoop For Troops Nathan

“We know this is the greatest country in the world. It’s the land of the free[7].”

Trump, like racist police brutality, is un-American, and bending over in order to revere the US military is not only the best way to protest these things, it’s the American way. Stephen Curry is a real American. So is Bill Russell. Are you?

Cops and soldiers are now joining in these pathetic displays to demonstrate their commitment to American Values, but this is not evidence that Kaepernick’s “protest” has been “ruined” or subverted by opportunists. “Empty platitudes and gestures aimed at pleasing and comforting everyone” were all there ever was to this brain-dissolving spectacle. The whole thing is, I think, an elaborate recruitment ad for the US military (a more ambitious and interactive advert than we’re used to seeing, but an advert nonetheless). Today, the whole world is an advert. Advertising is no longer about straightforward product placement, brand sponsorship, and commercial breaks; advertising today consists of “compelling narratives” and “crafted storytelling” directed at “highly valuable and engaged audiences.” The BBC smuggles ever more subtle and sophisticated advertising into its news broadcasts, boasting of its ability to “deliver content solutions built on compelling narratives that engage audiences across the globe.”

“Welcome to the science of engagement.”

With the DoD throwing millions of dollars at professional sports leagues, it’s not at all wild to suspect that something a little more creative than a bit of flag waving is taking place. All it takes is “matching the content strategy of brands [i.e. the DoD] to issues [i.e. #BlackLivesMatter], motivating audiences anywhere on the planet.” We’re not only being sold products, we’re being sold wars, and we’re being sold a belief in capitalism itself.

Inevitably, Kaepernick will sign with some NFL team or other, and this will be hailed as a great victory for America. Like Chelsea Manning, who was banished and then forgiven, Colin Kaepernick will be welcomed back into the fold and celebrated for his courageous struggle. Kaepernick may mobilise people, but he will never organise them[8]. Instead we will learn an important lesson: that change comes from the top down, led by millionaire capitalists performing gestures on the stage, and not from the bottom up by the likes of you and I. Mission accomplished!

As Gaddafi wrote, “[t]hose who make their own life do not need to see how life takes its course through watching the actors on stage or other theatres.” We should always remain critical when observing media-appointed spokespeople and celebrity revolutionaries, especially those that appropriate and pervert the images and teachings of real anti-imperialist heroes. There have been principled and admirable athletes and entertainers, and they deserve to be taken seriously, but they tend to receive quite different treatment to that enjoyed by Kaepernick. Tupak Shakur, for example, was a black radical, and for that he was assassinated by the FBI. By contrast, Colin Kaepernick receives words of solidarity from the former Director of the CIA.

Thank you for reading, and death to the USA.

[1] Paraphrased from Herbert I. Schiller’s essay Not Yet the Post-Imperialist Era.

[2] Amusingly, this letter was initially reported as “encouraging players to speak out on social issues and not be afraid like NFL players,” but in a subsequent memo the league has made it clear that all players had better stand up straight during anthem performances.

[3] If you think he’s being cautious and is simply worried that by condemning the NFL’s military sponsors he runs the risk of losing his job or endorsement revenue, consider his own remarks from this same interview: “Those are things I’m prepared to handle … I can live with that at the end of the day.” He no longer has an NFL job to lose, anyway. He’s free to set the record straight whenever he likes.

[4] James Johnson: “Without the military there would be no freedom to even play basketball.” What?

[5] Lenin, State and Revolution.

[6] None of these three had a high opinion of the US military, in case you were unsure.

[7] LeBron actually said this.

[8] Kaepernick doesn’t need your help: “This isn’t something I’m going to ask other people to put their necks out for what I’m doing. If they agree with me and feel strongly about it then by all means I hope they stand with me. But I’m not going to go and try to recruit people and be like ‘Hey, come do this with me’ because I know the consequences that come with that and they need to make that decision for themselves.”

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False Jersey Ops (Part 1): Critical Beatdown

Basketball, Anti-Communism, and Conspiracy Theory

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In a word, compared with the splendid promises of the philosophers, the social and political institutions born of the “triumph of reason” were bitterly disappointing caricatures. All that was wanting was the men to formulate this disappointment, and they came with the turn of the century[1].

Kyrie Irving has been behaving strangely of late. During an interview last month, Irving expressed his apparent frustration[2] with capitalism (“the fact that you have to pay to play in this world is ridiculous”), and even brought up the taboo subject of class (“there’s a separate class that they’ve put us in because of money”)! However, rather than suggest a viable alternative, much less one in which we can all participate, Irving simply offered some brief remarks about his nebulous, utopian vision of a self-sustaining eco commune within which he and his friends might live pleasant and equitable lives isolated from the outside world.

Well, it may not be perfect, but perhaps we shouldn’t be too critical of well-intentioned celebrities. Surely we should be content that Kyrie Irving is prepared to imagine alternative ways of arranging society, regardless of the petty details. Or should we?

Irving, a notorious troll who just a few months ago made headlines by pretending to believe that the earth is flat, may have an ulterior motive. His peddling of a facile utopian socialism at a time when such a great deal of money and effort is being spent on anti-communist propaganda campaigns warrants suspicion.

During the second half of the twentieth century, secret armies of fascist hooligans were organised and maintained throughout various NATO[3] countries, their purpose to commit acts of terror under the “flag” of communism as part of a strategy of tension. Of course, Irving is not murdering civilians and blaming it on the Communist Party USA (yet); he is merely pretending to be an idiot, and then pretending to be some sort of a socialist in order to encourage the public to associate these two modes of thinking: socialists are clearly imbeciles, and to believe that capitalism is destructive, that there is an exploiting class and an exploited class, is as ludicrous as believing that the earth is flat.

It’s not that I think literally everything is a psyop[4]. I am not being entirely serious here, but I am being sincere. Is Kyrie Irving really engaged in some sort of “false flag” operation? I don’t know. Probably not. It’s quite possible that Irving really is a sensitive fellow with dreams of creating a better society, and that he simply hasn’t had the chance to devote much thought to it yet. I hope that this is the case, and time will tell. Nevertheless, we can be confident that basketball is used for propaganda purposes, that governments throughout the world do indeed carry out psychological operations on social media, and that the US military is very interested in the influence that celebrities exert over their Twitter followers. This being the case, we should regard the political rhetoric of basketball players and other celebrities with a healthy degree of scepticism.

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Chelsea Manning demonstrating the capacity of jokes to reveal the truth.

I started writing this before Chelsea Manning began talking trash about communists, but Manning’s case is actually very relevant here, so it’s just as well she invited the ire of principled Marxist-Leninists with an ill-conceived tweet equating communism and fascism. Unlike Irving, who first established himself as a buffoon and a bad teammate in the eyes of the public before uttering vague anti-capitalist and environmentally conscientious mumblings with the goal of discrediting such attitudes, Manning began by doing something brilliant, establishing her credibility as a dissident and earning the sympathy of a great many well-meaning people. It is since her release, following years of imprisonment and torture, that she has begun to behave very much like a propaganda asset, helpfully explaining to her many fans why Venezuelan socialism is unsustainable, joking about the bumbling and incompetent FBI, and assuring her audience over and over again that “we got this”—that is to say, mission accomplished; the system works; power has been successfully held to account.

For a story with such tremendous implications—beyond the famous collateral murder video and other war crimes committed by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, Manning also leaked documents exposing a variety of additional crimes committed by the US ruling class all over the world—this is a bitterly disappointing conclusion, though a familiar one, as we shall see. Chelsea Manning the celebrity icon, along with (perfectly legitimate) concern over her imprisonment and her future, overshadowed the revelations themselves in media coverage, and the resolution of her personal struggle for some semblance of justice now appears to have drawn the whole saga to a convenient close. Thanks, Obama.

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There are illuminating parallels, I think, between the Manning/WikiLeaks story and the Al Yamamah controversy (a recurring drama in the UK media concerning alleged bribes paid by weapons manufacturer BAe Systems to the Saudi royal family and others in order to secure an arms deal, and a subsequent cover-up). The latter culminated in an apparent resolution with the announcement of a handful of out-of-court penalties. BAe admitted to “corporate misdemeanours” in relation to a Serious Fraud Office inquiry, and to “obstructing investigation” by the US Department of Justice, but not to any bribery. Naturally, the news media and their official sources sought to amplify the penalties imposed on BAe as a means of avoiding accusations of a whitewash and deterring further scrutiny. Here, for example, are the headlines the BBC chose to print the day the settlements were announced:

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This all sounds very serious, except that the incurred fines were worth just 1% of BAe’s annual turnover, and, as Justin Schlosberg explains, the framing of the settlements

demonstrated the apparent efficacy of due process and enabled a line to be drawn between BAe’s past and present. Crucially, it suggested the system en masse had worked: BAe had done wrong, the media had exposed it, the judicial system imposed an appropriate penalty, and the company had reformed its practices as a result.

Yet this is not the worst of it. The bribery allegations may have slipped out of the headlines, but that was never the most important aspect of this story. It is not true that the UK government, in order to profit from arms deals, cynically looks the other way while the naughty Saudi Arabian military destroys Yemen; on the contrary, it is the UK government that specifically wants to destroy Yemen, and that provides material aid to the Saudi Arabian military in order to achieve its genocidal goal. This is not about a few crooked people profiting from arms deals, it is about imperialism. The war is not “Saudi-led,” it is UK-led. It is this story which is obscured by headlines about fines and accountability, not the “corruption” of BAe. But all we can expect to hear from the obsequious pundits[5] of the “left” is that our government is in league with the terrorism-exporting Saudi establishment, and that “we” must stop “supporting” them.

Similarly, the story lost in the shuffle of the Chelsea Manning spectacle is not one of a few rogue soldiers caught murdering civilians and journalists in Baghdad on the 12th of July 2007 and subsequently avoiding punishment despite incontrovertible video evidence, as Cenk Uygur claims (though of course this is not unimportant). Rather, it is that the cables provide yet more proof (as though more were needed) of the true nature of the United States, and the fact that it cannot just be voted away. Its backing of the 2009 coup in Honduras and its engineering of the “Arab Spring” in order to overthrow yet more progressive governments are not isolated crimes; they are systemic, part of a deliberate strategy by which the ruling class uses whatever means are expedient to pursue its interests throughout the world. The big story is that, in spite of Manning’s leaks and the media coverage they received, nothing has changed. We haven’t “got this.”

In addition to emphasising certain aspects of a story over others, one of the ways in which inconvenient news is “contained” by the capitalist media is to deploy accusations of conspiracy theory. “This taboo,” writes Schlosberg, “which operates within journalist and academic circles alike, has some sound basis. It discriminates against conjecture often associated with tabloid sensationalism or internet subcultures that respond to secrecy or uncertainty with unfounded reasoning.” It also has a distinct tendency to discriminate against good investigative journalism and correct analysis.

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Oh, you think entertainment media is used for propaganda purposes? You think there’s some kind of “ruling class”?

When I heard Nietzsche-obsessed Cambridge academic Hugo Drochon compare conspiracy theory with critical theory, I was a little excited. “Conspiracy theory,” Drochon says, “is kind of vulgarised critical theory, but you use many of the same tools, so it’s about debunking the kind of official line and seeing what’s behind it.” Critical theory without all of the impenetrable academic jargon sounds pretty good to me. After all, Gerhard Schweppenhäuser and Frigga Haug define critical theory in their Historisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus (Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism) as an “emancipatory social philosophy” that attempts to “unite in one movement of thought the analysis and critique of forms of practice as well as types of reason and rationality of bourgeois-capitalist societies since the middle of the 19th century until today.” Christian Fuchs makes critical theory sound quite wonderful in his Critical Theory of Communication:

Critical theory questions all thought and practices that justify or uphold domination and exploitation. Marx formulated the categorical imperative of critical theory: it is the ‘categoric imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a degraded, enslaved, neglected, contemptible being’ (Marx 1997, 257–258). Critical theory wants to show that a good life is possible for all and that domination and exploitation alienate humans from achieving such a society. For Marx, the ‘task of philosophy […] is to unmask human self-alienation’ (Marx 1997, 251). In deconstructing alienation, domination and exploitation, critical theory also makes demands for a self-determined, participatory and just democracy. Such a society is not only a grassroots political democracy, but also an economic democracy, in which the producers control the production process and the means and outcomes of production. Critical theory wants to make the world conscious of its own possibilities. The ‘world has long dreamed of something of which it only has to become conscious in order to possess it in actuality’ (Marx 1997, 214).

According to Drochon, it was Bruno Latour who initially made this comparison between critical theory and conspiracy theory, so I read Latour’s essay on the subject. Finally, conspiracy theory is receiving recognition and serious engagement from respected academics, I thought as I opened up the document.

But Latour was not elevating conspiracy theory by comparing it with the “serious” work of academics. Rather, according to Latour, critical theory resembles conspiracy theory to the extent that critical theory is a lot of self-indulgent nonsense: “entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on.”

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stop it tankies chelsea is our woman and you will have NO PART in insulting her
the stasi were repressive as fuck jeeshh
tankies: UGHHH liberal psyops calling all statist communists tankies
also tankies: hey look at all these statists thats us right there lol

Latour, who takes the US government’s account of 9/11 for granted and is deeply disturbed that anybody might question this narrative, considers conspiracy theories “an absurd deformation of our [i.e. academics’] own arguments.” But those who go to university to study critical theory are apparently no better!

Do you see now why it feels so good to be a critical mind? Why critique, this most ambiguous pharmakon, has become such a potent euphoric drug? You are always right! When naïve believers are clinging forcefully to their objects, claiming that they are made to do things because of their gods, their poetry, their cherished objects, you can turn all of those attachments into so many fetishes and humiliate all the believers by showing that it is nothing but their own projection, that you, yes you alone, can see. But as soon as naïve believers are thus inflated by some belief in their own importance, in their own projective capacity, you strike them by a second uppercut and humiliate them again, this time by showing that, whatever they think, their behavior is entirely determined by the action of powerful causalities coming from objective reality they don’t see, but that you, yes you, the never sleeping critic, alone can see. Isn’t this fabulous? Isn’t it really worth going to graduate school to study critique? “Enter here, you poor folks. After arduous years of reading turgid prose, you will be always right, you will never be taken in any more; no one, no matter how powerful, will be able to accuse you of naïveté, that supreme sin, any longer? Better equipped than Zeus himself you rule alone, striking from above with the salvo of antifetishism in one hand and the solid causality of objectivity in the other.” The only loser is the naïve believer, the great unwashed, always caught off balance.

Here Latour employs a familiar tactic, ascribing to conspiracy theorists (and critical theorists) a psychological need that they supposedly fulfil through their delusional theorising. Whether it is the need to be right at all times, as Latour presumes, or a desire to project heroism in a time of cultural malaise, as Noam Chomsky suggests, these smears conveniently sidestep the need to engage with actual arguments and evidence. Yet as Michael Parenti points out, the legitimacy of conspiracy theories must be “decided by an investigation of evidence, not by a priori, unscientific, and patronising presumptions about the public mind.” Chomsky argues that analysis of US institutions and political culture, not of individuals or assassination plots, is the key to understanding history. But as Parenti says, “conspiracy is not something that’s in contradistinction to structural analysis. It is part of it.”

Conspiracies in which institutions, rather than individuals, are implicated make academics very uncomfortable. To return to Justin Schlosberg for a moment, his book attempts to answer the following question: why does the news media consistently fail to hold power to account? This question can be answered in a very straightforward way by reformulating it: why does the capitalist news media consistently fail to hold the ruling class to account? There’s your answer.

Instead, Schlosberg does everything he can to avoid a Marxist analysis by playing with words. “The powerful,” he suggests, “are not a ruling class but rather an elite core of decision-makers—a network that transcends party politics and operates at the nexus between government, industry and military” and which “operates largely informally and ‘off the record’” (i.e. a ruling class). Schlosberg argues that “an essential function of the media in liberal democracies is to legitimate power by holding it to account.” This is correct, provided you wink and make air-quote gestures while saying “holding it to account.” Latour, likewise, takes a dim view of such theories: “Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes—society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism—while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents.” Believing in a capitalist class who pursue their interests is basically like believing in a cabal of shadowy figures who are evil for the sake of it, according to these brilliant minds.

Conspiracy theories concerning Chelsea Manning are not far-fetched but proceed from pretty straightforward facts. Manning, still “on active duty in a special [unpaid] status,” was released from prison for no apparent reason and has since then promoted the anti-communist, fascist-abetting ACLU and relentlessly tweeted Barack Obama campaign slogans, focus-tested platitudes, and State Department propaganda. Maybe she’s just a liberal and all of this is perfectly spontaneous, sure. She doesn’t owe it to anybody to be a communist. But it is not at all unlikely that she is a propaganda asset, and it doesn’t make any sense not to be critical.

Before I go, there is one further way in which news stories are contained, and it is perhaps the most effective of all. That the United States backed the 2009 Honduran coup and orchestrated the “Arab Spring” did not escape the notice of influential publications like the Guardian and the New York Times when they were covering the diplomatic cables leak. But so what? As Parenti explains in Make-Believe Media,

Even when the truth is not totally suppressed and parts of it get out to the public in an occasionally dissident book or film, it no longer seems all that important to a public conditioned to mass-market glitz and glamor. Thus books and films that tell us something of the truth about our history and our social and political life pose only a marginal challenge to the dominant ideology, if even that. They are crowded to the edges of the communication universe by the crush of mainstream offerings. Rather than being completely interdicted, truth is submerged in a sea of irrelevance. Silly amusement, contrived distraction, and endless hype become the foremost means of social control. Preemption is the most effective form of social control. Rather than being politically repressed, people are made apolitical.

On that note, thanks for reading, and death to America.

[1] Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

[2] He doesn’t want to pay for his clothes and is confused by free-range eggs.

[3] Today, NATO has an accredited international military organisation called the NATO Strategic Communication Center of Excellence. What does it do? In its own words, it is concerned with discovering “new challenges in [the] information environment in the context of robot trolling.”

[4] Well, actually…

[5] “[W]here,” enquires Owen Jones, “are the western demands for Qatar to stop funding international terrorism or being complicit in the rise of jihadi groups? Instead, Britain arms Qatar’s dictatorship, selling it millions of pounds worth of weaponry including “crowd-control ammunition” and missile parts.” Now, it is of course Jones’ job to be a credulous dimwit, but his readers must surely put two and two together eventually.

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Court Fools

Basketball, Drawing-Room Life, and the Function of the Fool

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Witty people are a very important part of modern life, and they are very popular. They replace truth, seriousness and profundity with a quip that makes people laugh. The idea of their spiritual life is the elegant drawing-room, its fatuous and brilliant conversation, its measured applause and the veiled smile of its habitués. They reduce all life to the clever mediocrity of drawing-room life: a lot of words, amiable scepticism, and a light sprinkle of melancholy sentimentalism. The wit has become even more important through the latest incarnation of drawing-room life, namely the offices of the bourgeois newspapers. Here the wit has enlarged the circle of his audience and has made everything a source of humour—politics, war, pain, life and death—thereby winning much applause and earning a pile of money[1].

The 2017 NBA All-Star Game was shit. I’m by no means the first person to make such an observation, but I nevertheless feel that a thorough investigation into the All-Star Game as an institution is warranted, and that its descent into self-parody can tell us something about the destructive potential of jokes.

As the above clip from the 1996 game in San Antonio demonstrates, defence was not always a faux pas at the All-Star Game. The annoyance with which Marv Albert declares Grant Hill’s dunk “too easy” is telling: such lapses were not the norm, and they were certainly not to be encouraged. Steve Jones is even able to joke that some sort of conspiracy exists between Hill and Shawn Kemp, a joke that can only work if the audience knows that these are in fact competitive players, that they are of course taking this game quite seriously. An earlier remark by Jones—“you’re seeing a team from the West not playing much defence, looking to score a lot of points”—likewise indicates that prioritising scoring over defence was simply one of a number of legitimate strategies that a team might adopt, not a prescribed play style.

Much has changed in the 21 intervening years. What was once a wink-wink, unwritten-but-slyly-acknowledged aspect of the All-Star Game has become its raison d’être. While the All-Star Game is still officially a real basketball game, the “you let me have one, and I’ll let you have one” arrangement has been formalised and is now taken for granted by all involved. That an actual basketball game might occur is recognised to be a slim hope by the television announcers (“a game will break out—a real game,” a despondent Marv Albert unconvincingly reassured his audience in 2013). The running gag that the All-Star Game is not really a game at all but simply an excuse to see a lot of cool dunks has been turned on its head; to suggest that the players might expend any effort at all on defence is to elicit laughter today. Thanks to the ceaseless chattering of Marv Albert and his accomplices, both participants and audience have stumbled into a sort of joke-induced hyperreality, unable to apprehend what the All-Star Game really is any more, let alone what it ought to be.

The result of all this is that the NBA’s modern stars are, in the words of Aram Goudsouzian, “boiled down to commercial symbols, icons of the global marketplace.” They do not play exciting basketball; they perform exciting basketball by rote (thereby stripping it of excitement).

Here we see the power of jokes at work. Jokes are not trivial at all; they are deeply serious. Jokes influence reality. They can disarm and make an audience receptive to otherwise unpalatable ideas[2]. Jokes also reveal intent:

A joke can also be an expression of power. There are those who would have us believe that maintaining a detached, sardonic demeanour and joking about very serious contemporary issues is a sophisticated and wise mode of engaging with the world. This sort of approach is often confused with good adversarial journalism. As Tom Mills observed of Jeremy Paxman, his “bumptious posturing” has a great deal more to do with the glib, self-congratulatory Oxbridge debating society culture of which he is a product than with any desire to speak truth to power.

This was a milieu with which Malcolm X became closely acquainted in December 1964. Invited to participate in a debate at the Oxford Union by its president Eric Anthony Abrahams, Malcolm, who took the debate[3] quite seriously,  was subjected to a barrage of smirking, sneering, and hectoring from his unbearably smug opponents (for whom nothing whatsoever was at stake). The event sounded more like a stand-up comedy gig than a serious debate, an audience of cretinous aristocrats-in-training erupting in hoots of laugher after every clever inside joke or humble-brag (a remark about the “great colonial experience” of a Tory peer elicited merry laughter from these contemptuous jackals).

By their serious remarks, the chief antagonists Humphrey Berkeley and Lord Stonham portrayed themselves as very reasonable and progressive people indeed who were of course opposed to any kind of racism or apartheid. It was their humorous remarks that betrayed their true character—their ridiculing Malcolm X for adopting a pseudonym and joking about the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of British politics. During the open forum, a speaker whose identity isn’t clear delivered a sort of horseshoe manifesto, stressing the importance of “justice for the oppressed, and justice for the oppressor too[4]!”

But what is going to happen to the Black Muslims? […]. Will it not mean…that the, er, there would be, perhaps, a black Ku Klux Klan of extremists who, in alleged defence of their liberty, would repeat in reverse the vicious extremes o-o-of white oppressors? […]. Extremes…will not provide a solution, will not provide true liberty or freedom. […]. Moderation is not synonymous with cowardice!

Lebert Bethune, who had accompanied Malcolm to the debate, later remarked that the “flippant, drawing-room comedy manner” of the speakers had angered Malcolm. Are contemporary pundits and podcasters, in their ironic detachment and affected vulgarity, really any better? Who do they think they are, and what are they trying to accomplish? Let us consider the most idealised view of such people, the romantic myth of the court jester:

Later in this same talk, Alan Watts goes on to describe the fool as “an analogue of the Sage[5].” Is it possible that these comedians, from celebrity left clowns to edgy internet ironists, perceive themselves as wise and daring, dispensing enlightenment by bravely subverting social norms and cleverly behaving like credulous imbeciles?[6] Or is it possible that all such people are merely climbers, eagerly peddling ruling class propaganda under the guise of humour while earning a pile of money?

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The prohibited impulse may be tolerated if there is no doubt that the final aim is its elimination—this is the case with jokes or fun, the miserable parody of fulfilment. As a despised and despising characteristic, the mimetic function is enjoyed craftily. Anyone who seeks out “bad” smells, in order to destroy them, may imitate sniffing to his heart’s content, taking unrationalised pleasure in the experience. The civilised man “disinfects” the forbidden impulse by his unconditional identification with the authority which has prohibited it; in this way the action is made acceptable. If he goes beyond the permitted bounds, laughter ensues[7].

It is not the case that all jokes are bad, or that political satire is inherently dangerous. As Lenin said of art and literature, “partisan literature and art will be truly free, because it will further the freedom of millions of people.” By the same token, jokes in the service of communism may further the freedom of millions of people, while jokes which promote imperialism will lead to the immiseration of millions.

Exciting basketball cannot be simulated. Exciting basketball is so precisely because it is spontaneous and unscripted. Any attempt to make a formal obligation of fun and exciting basketball will inevitably produce the sort of facile basketball exhibitionism we have become accustomed to seeing at the All-Star Game. Good basketball is produced through struggle between offensive players and defensive players. Likewise, good jokes are not the product of a practiced and reflexive cynicism; they are the fruit of struggle—class struggle.

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[1] This is a Gramsci quote.

[2] According to Kierkegaard, when an audience does not want to hear a speaker’s message, the speaker needs to communicate in an indirect fashion, and the queen of indirectness is irony. The CIA is adept at utilising humour for its Hollywood propaganda, at using comedy as a Trojan Horse. Often it isn’t very subtle.

[3] The motion for the debate was a statement made by the US right-winger Barry Goldwater when he accepted the Republican nomination for the presidential election: “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Despite Malcolm X’s brilliant and persuasive speech, the motion was defeated 449 to 225. What a surprise!

[4] In other words, are there civil liberties for the fascists? As Stephen Gowans put it,

Moralist positions on human rights are not only beside the point; they’re nonsensical, inasmuch as they assume rights are absolute and that antagonisms between the rights of oppressor classes and nations and the classes and nations they oppress can be mediated. In the real world, it is not possible to build a socialist society if the capitalist class is allowed the freedom to organize to restore its power. It is not possible for a government of national liberation to achieve its country’s independence if it grants political and civil liberties to all, including agents of the oppressor nation who seek to restore that nation’s formerly privileged position.

The battlefield of human rights isn’t one in which the object of Left forces should be the securing of absolute rights for all (for there is no such thing as liberty and democracy for all) but the securing of the rights of oppressed classes and nations at the expense of those of their enemies. The right of the sheep to be free from predation comes at the expense of the wolf’s right to eat the sheep. The question is never whether you’re for human rights or not. The question is always whose rights are you for?

[5] That this myth of the jester as wise and subversive gadfly probably isn’t true doesn’t really matter. Wise fools may not have existed, but the idea that there existed wise fools does exist, and it is pervasive.

[6] I know a stand-up comedian personally, and he is absolutely insufferable. This is definitely how he sees himself.

[7] This one’s Adorno and Horkheimer.

Hercules and the Hydra

Basketball, Myth, and the Symbionese Liberation Army

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From the beginning of English colonial expansion in the early seventeenth century through the metropolitan industrialisation of the early nineteenth, rulers referred to the Hercules-hydra myth to describe the difficulty of imposing order on increasingly global systems of labour. They variously designated dispossessed commoners, transported felons, indentured servants, religious radicals, pirates, urban labourers, soldiers, sailors, and African slaves as the numerous, ever-changing heads of the monster. But the heads, though originally brought into productive combination by their Herculean rulers, soon developed among themselves new forms of cooperation against those rulers, from mutinies and strikes to riots and insurrections and revolution.

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt have noticed the image of the seven-headed snake that sits at the top of the page. It is of course the logo of the SLA, an apparently revolutionary organisation which was briefly active in the Bay Area during the 1970s, and which has since been the subject of a great deal of controversy. I first became aware of the SLA after listening to Third Sight’s Symbionese Liberation Album, and, after tracking down their audio dispatches and hearing of their audacious attempts to distribute free food to the poor and hungry people of California by extorting media baron Randolph Hearst[1], I decided I rather liked them.

It wasn’t until several years later that I stumbled upon rumours and allegations that Donald DeFreeze (the group’s leader) was an informant for the Los Angeles Police Department, and that the SLA was essentially a CIA-orchestrated false flag operation. I find this perfectly plausible, though I will leave it to readers to conduct their own research into the SLA if they’re interested (it’s not really within the scope of this blog post, though it is all quite fascinating). What I intend to focus on below is the question of whether or not the fact that the SLA was almost certainly a fake left-wing revolutionary group whose purpose was to discredit the so-called “New Left” actually matters, and (bear with me) the implications this may have for the 2017 NBA Finals.

SLA album liner notes

After kidnapping Patty Hearst (Randolph’s daughter, then a student at UC Berkeley) from her apartment on 4 February 1974, the SLA released a series of communiques to local media (issued between 12 February and 2 April), which they stipulated were to be broadcast in full, no editing. In hindsight, these tapes may well have been cynical attempts to caricature the kind of language used by the stereotypical white bourgeois “radicals” that UC Berkeley is famous for, and thus were intended to sound ludicrous and off-putting to ordinary, sensible Americans[2].

Yet some of Donald DeFreeze’s speeches were actually surprisingly good. Patty Hearst frequently spoke of “fascist America,” with its “concentration camps” and “fascist pig media.” This is perfectly reasonable language which accurately describes the society in which she lived (and which only becomes more accurate with each passing day). If these were attempts to make a mockery of idealistic young revolutionaries, they were not successful. In fact, the SLA’s message inspired me to read about (real) revolutionary movements around the world and throughout history, and ultimately to become a communist.

The logo of the SLA is reminiscent of the mythical hydra of Lerna, a many-headed monster that Hercules was apparently obliged to kill in exchange for immortality. This is significant because rulers and exploiters have throughout history used this myth to represent the struggle between themselves and the people they seek to oppress. Naturally, the ruling class identified with Hercules, the powerful and heroic individual who overcomes challenges and is rewarded handsomely for his efforts. The role of the hydra was reserved for the exploited, the working class, whom the rulers feared and despised. The hydra, write Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, was regarded as “an antithetical symbol of disorder and resistance, a powerful threat to the building of state, empire, and capitalism.”

Implicit in the hydra myth is the fundamental truth that the working class vastly outnumber the craven capitalist dogs who struggle to contain them, and therefore pose a permanent threat to the capitalist system. When Hercules lopped off one of the hydra’s heads, two new ones grew in its place. Likewise, cut down one revolutionary and you only create more. As Hearst explained in her eulogy to her fallen comrades after they were brutally massacred by the LAPD on live television,

I know that the pigs are proud of themselves; they’ve killed another black leader. […]. But no matter how many leaders are killed, the pig can’t kill their ideals. […]. They live on in the hearts and minds of millions of people in fascist America. […]. The SLA terrifies the pigs, because it calls all oppressed people in this country to arms, to fight in a united front to overthrow this fascist dictatorship. The pigs think that they can deal with a handful of revolutionaries, but they know they can’t defeat the incredible power which the people, once united, represent.

Is it possible that ideological projects which were intended for one thing may be requisitioned, rehabilitated, and redeployed for something entirely different, to take on a life of their own?[3] Consider the example presented by Richard King in Orientalism and Religion of the faux Vedic text which, when originally forged by French Jesuits, was intended to lampoon Indian culture, but, when later read by Voltaire, impressed him with its sophistication! Discourses, concluded King, “cannot be controlled once they have entered the public arena and become subject to contestation, appropriation, and inversion by others.” Of course, this is by no means a new idea. As Roland Barthes[4] wrote,

We know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.

We may well be able to dismiss the author of a text, but can we dismiss the authors of events, of whole systems of ideas? Consider the particular brand of Zen Buddhism that was famously popular in the Bay Area a few years before the SLA emerged. The Zen of the Beat Generation was largely the product of Japanese ultranationalists and bore little resemblance to Zen as it was practiced in Japan. Rather than dismiss it as corrupted and inauthentic, however, I think it is more useful to understand Beat Zen as Californian Buddhism. Religions do change; they are adapted to suit different cultures and periods, and this can happen in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. As far as I’m concerned, Californian Buddhism functions as a religion and is therefore legitimate (though of course it is important to understand it in context).

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks - Game One

The classically educated architects of the Atlantic economy found in Hercules—the mythical hero of the ancients who achieved immortality by performing twelve labours—a symbol of power and order. For inspiration they looked to the Greeks, for whom Hercules was a unifier of the centralised territorial state, and to the Romans, for whom he signified vast imperial ambition. The labours of Hercules symbolised economic development: the clearing of land, the draining of swamps, and the development of agriculture, as well as the domestication of livestock, the establishment of commerce, and the introduction of technology. Rulers placed the image of Hercules on money and seals, in pictures, sculptures and palaces, and on arches of triumph. Among English royalty, William III, George I, and George II’s brother, the “Butcher of Culloden,” all fancied themselves Hercules. John Adams, for his part, proposed in 1776 that “The Judgement of Hercules” be the seal for the new United States of America. The hero represented progress: Giambattista Vico, the philosopher of Naples, used Hercules to develop the stadial theory of history, while Francis Bacon, philosopher and politician, cited him to advance modern science and to suggest that capitalism was very nearly divine.

By arranging for the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers to face one another in the NBA Finals for the third year in a row, Adam Silver was clearly attempting to revive and re-present the Hercules-hydra myth for a contemporary basketball audience. This time around, the hydra was permitted to overpower Hercules. Were LeBron James to have cut down one Finals MVP, another would simply have risen from the bench to take his place! The team of perfect unity and cooperation won against the outmoded brute force of capitalist domination. The Cavaliers could not overcome their own internal contradictions.

Or so the NBA would have us believe!

By signing Kevin Durant in 2016, the Golden State Warriors became the best basketball team that has ever existed. They are incredibly fun to watch, and, I think, even quite likable. As a basketball enjoyer, I love watching teams that rely on isolations get crushed by teams that move the ball, and the 2017 NBA Finals would have taken me in ten years ago.

However, things are not as they are made to appear. In fact, the Warriors are not a hydra but a team of Herculean individuals. The signing of Durant not only represented the further concentration of unimaginable wealth in the hands of the already filthy rich (the Warriors won a record 73 games last season before Durant arrived), but Durant himself did not join the team due to any high-minded basketball ideals. He does not play in a beautifully planned and executed offence because he wants to liberate the NBA from the tyranny of isolation ball. Rather, Durant was bedazzled by the promise of Silicon Valley riches offered to him by his venture capitalist teammates.

Like the SLA, the Golden State Warriors are presented to us as a revolutionary organisation. But just as the SLA were in fact puppets of the CIA, so the Warriors actually represent the ideology of another terrorist organisation—the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley (who “saw the 3-point line as a market inefficiency”). The SLA was indeed revolutionary—their gruesome end, broadcast live on national television, resulted in a revolution in US policing, in the militarisation of American cops. As they watched the murders unfold, fascist police across America were beguiled by the Kevlar vests and incendiary grenades of the SWAT team that had been called in to murder the entire SLA, and subsequently set about arming themselves in a similar vein. Similarly, the revolution the Warriors are ushering in is one of mass surveillance and the tyranny of technology.

So where does all of this leave us? Is it advisable to enjoy watching the Golden State Warriors, or is their very existence a duplicitous scheme to foster within us sympathy for Silicon Valley and its evil plots? Critics of the secularisation thesis, from Émile Durkheim to Rachel Wagener, have pointed out that truth claims by religious authorities and sacred texts in fact mean relatively little to most religious people[5]—what matters is community, tradition, ritual, identity, and so on. Perhaps, then, the truth that Donald DeFreeze and Kevin Durant are agents provocateurs does not matter very much after all so long as alternative ideas, inspirations, and significances can be drawn from their escapades. Viewed this way, they become as much a myth as the Hercules-hydra drama they echo. As Nancy Isenberg writes, the Patty Hearst saga resists one single meaning:

This surfeit of information generated by the SLA, and the overproduction of meaning by the media, suggests why Patty Hearst is perhaps the best of all postmodern subjects. Her story at once registers and resists the desire to find a single meaning. Despite all attempts by journalists, psychiatrists, and jurists to explain her persona through either the tragic story of a female captive/brainwashed victim or the dark comedy of the spoiled rich girl/pseudo revolutionary, her gendered identity cannot be fixed. […]. The Patty Hearst case obliges us to reassess the meaning of identity through a postmodern lens. In a profound way, Hearst’s trial problematizes the meaning of human agency, volition, and the “truthful” representation of facts—cultural categories central to the law and a postmodern critique of bourgeois individualism and “reality.”

Patricia Hearst brandishing a weapon in front of SLA (Symbonese Liberation Army) april 15, 1974

The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the ‘human person’. It is thus logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.

In both instances, the battle between Hercules and the hydra turns out to be an illusion, a theatrical production. Both the Warriors and the Cavaliers are owned by vile plutocrats whose only goal is capital accumulation at the expense of you and I. As for the SLA, it was created by the CIA and destroyed by the LAPD; the SLA saga was essentially a puppet show between two arms of the fascist American state (two heads of the fascist American hydra?). Yet, as Stuart Hall argued, audiences are not passive and stupid, and though a certain message may be encoded within a text, this message can be contested, subverted, rejected.

According to Brad Screiber (an author who investigated the SLA fairly thoroughly), “neither Hearst nor the white radicals who followed DeFreeze realized that he was molded by a CIA officer and allowed to escape, thanks to collusion with the California Department of Corrections.” Screiber claims that Patty Hearst was a “closet radical,” and that most of the SLA’s members were unaware that they were being manipulated and led to their deaths. It is possible that some members of the Golden State Warriors are trapped in a similar predicament, believing naïvely that they are simply members of a basketball team when really their job is to crush any and all resistance to capitalist expansion. I think perhaps we owe it to the idealistic young souls who died in that tragic shootout with the LAPD to rescue what we can from the wreckage of the SLA, just as we owe it to innocent and idealistic basketball players to sometimes simply enjoy a basketball game. I enjoyed watching the Warriors beat the Cavs, and I think Patty Hearst was right about her parents.

The SLA’s rhetoric was imaginative and invigorating, and the principles that they outlined—of racial harmony, of men and women working side by side in a united front against fascist America—are laudable. I like the image and the idea of the hydra, even though the hydra myth was selected by the ruling class because they felt as though it cohered with their worldview, and, moreover, despite the fact that Hercules defeats the hydra in the original myth. I don’t believe in myths. In reality, the hydra (the workers of the world, united) would win every time.

In conclusion, I think I have established beyond any reasonable doubt that the purpose of the 2017 NBA Finals was ultimately to trick the public into thinking that the Warriors’ (i.e. Silicon Valley’s) “disruptive” and “innovative” style represents something different, something in opposition to LeBron James’ (i.e. the real estate mogul’s) more “traditional” Herculean approach to crushing their opponent (i.e. you and I), and as such to foster within us a false sense of security and a trust in the methods, products, and institutions of Silicon Valley.

Regardless of what we each think about the SLA and the Golden State Warriors, there is one thing that I’m confident we can all agree upon:

[1] Incidentally, Hearst Communications Inc., the “fascist media empire” (DeFreeze’s words) established by William Randolph Hearst (Patty’s grandfather), owns 20% of ESPN, and we would be wise not to discount the possibility that they are working to insert fascist messages into their basketball broadcasts right now.

[2] Brad Screiber, who wrote a book about the SLA, believes that these communiques were probably written by Nancy Ling Perry, rather than DeFreeze or Colston Westbrook (the alleged CIA contractor and mastermind behind the SLA), and, moreover, that she was probably quite unaware that the SLA was not what it seemed to be. They may therefore have been written in earnest, making them “authentic.”

[3] Similarly, can one enjoy a Radiohead song knowing that Thom Yorke doesn’t give a shit about Palestinians and appeals to the authority or J. K. Rowling in order to excuse his apathy towards the disgusting violence of Israeli settlers?

[4] The CIA was, incidentally, quite fond of Barthes, promoting his work in the belief that it would lead well-meaning academics into a dead end. They weren’t necessarily right, however. Is it possible that, just as a discarded weapon, which may have been a tool of state repression, can be picked up by a revolutionary and used to murder the agents of capitalism, images, symbols, myths, rhetoric, and theoretical concepts can also be turned against their creators? To be clear, I am not asserting that they can, but it is an interesting and important question to consider.

[5] The secularisation thesis was perhaps most famously advocated by Max Weber, who declared that scientific advances would result in the “disenchantment” of the world. However, in spite of the rise of science and the increasing scrutiny under which religious truth claims are placed, the demise of religion predicted by proponents of the secularisation thesis has yet to occur. Émile Durkheim was more prescient, in my opinion, arguing that although it “seems natural…that religion should progressively fade as science becomes more adept at completing its task,” “insofar as religion is action, insofar as it is a human way of living, science could not possibly take its place.” Religion, according to Durkheim, has ceded one of its original functions to science: that is, its speculative function, its “right to be dogmatic about the nature of things.” Durkheim recognised that “religion clearly cannot play the same role in the future that it has in the past,” but had the foresight to recognise that “it seems called upon to transform itself rather than to disappear.”

Breaking the Press (Part 3): Everything in this Universe is a PSYOP

Basketball, Fascism, and the Limits of Permissible Punditry

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Perhaps you know the story of the investigator who watched the dunk contest for this purpose, and equipped himself with pencil and paper to record, at the moment of awakening, whatever revelation might have been given to him. Fortunately, the expected experience took place, and, for a brief period, the investigator had the vivid conviction of complete comprehension of this universe, of life and death. He regained waking consciousness with the tail-end of the sensation still upon him, grabbed the pencil, and swiftly recorded the essential content of the experience just before it faded. After several minutes, during which his mind returned to its normal state, he looked at what he had written, and there upon the paper was the following immensely profound observation: everything in this universe is a PSYOP.

I’ve been meaning to write about the 2012 dunk contest for a while now. It remains, five years on, one of the most ludicrous and unsettling spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. It is so thoroughly saturated with signs and messages, along with the obligatory US State Department propaganda, that to do it justice would require a book-length write-up (a project I fully intend to pursue). In the meantime, with the UK general election nearing its conclusion, I would like to begin my formal investigation of the 2012 dunk contest by considering what it can tell us about parliamentary democracy.

The 2012 dunk contest was the first to completely dispense with judges (representatives) and implement a kind of direct dunkmocracy in which the audience voted (via text or Twitter) for their favourite performer. Phrases like “America votes” and “America, you decide” were repeated throughout the broadcast (evidently NBA basketball was not yet a #GlobalGame), but was this really a democratic process?

Even setting aside the obvious fact that its opaque electronic voting system was open to abuse, the democracy of the 2012 dunk contest, like the representative democracies of the United States and those of its allies, is illusory. Fans were permitted to vote for whichever dunker they preferred, but could select only from a field of four (horrible, insulting) candidates that they had played no part in nominating. There exists no mechanism which allows the public to select candidates for the dunk contest, to determine how many there will be, or to alter the format of the contest itself (which changes arbitrarily every year).

Thus, in 2012, television viewers watched four obscure and unexciting nobodies stumble about before an almost silent audience as the arena hype man screamed at them that what was taking place was entertaining. The public is well aware that there are other, better dunkers in the NBA than Derrick Williams, but such individuals are almost never invited to participate. On the rare occasions that a superior dunker is permitted to enter the dunk contest, we quickly find that they are curiously unable to perform the very dunks that made them popular in the first place. These populist dunkers invariably find that, in the face of the bright lights and insipid pageantry of the dunk contest, their dunking principles either desert them or are downplayed by the pundits on the sidelines.

This is no coincidence, nor is it the result of nerves; the current dunk contest system, by its very structure, prohibits original dunks. As with conventional parliamentary democracy, participants who are dedicated to progressive dunking are refused entry, and those few that do succeed in gaining admittance do so at the expense of whatever radical dunking ideology they may once have possessed.

Consider Jeremy Corbyn, an ostensibly principled politician who has, throughout his long career, condemned the criminal organisations of NATO and the EU, voted against one imperialist war after another, and campaigned for the UK’s nuclear disarmament. After two years of unrelenting pressure from the Blairite ghouls that dominate the parliamentary Labour Party as well as the craven stenographers of the capitalist press, his party’s manifesto ultimately turned out to be a pro-business, pro-war pile of shit (though, predictably, the usual suspects in the “progressive media” ate it up). Now that Corbyn’s election campaign is underway, Labour is “committed to NATO,” will ensure UK membership of the Single Market (i.e. membership of the capitalist EU in all but name), will continue funding Trident, and will put an extra 10,000 cops on the streets[1].

The challenge for organisers and administrators—whether of dunk contests or elections—is to keep the audience engaged in spite of the necessarily unpopular and uninteresting candidates from which they are expected to choose. This is achieved in two main ways. The first involves the inclusion of candidates so wildly inappropriate that the other contestants seem appealing by comparison: just as the 2012 dunk contest included Chase Buddinger, so elections in the US and Europe increasingly feature openly fascist candidates. How, for example, were French voters recently convinced to elect an investment banker as president? Simply by having him run against a repellent fascist[2].

It is in this way that liberalism and fascism exist in symbiosis: whether voters opt to thwart “the rising tide of right wing extremism” or to reject the liberal values of the bourgeois media, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen both ultimately exist to serve the interests of capital and of empire. No matter who wins, our class enemies always remain in power, yet the election of Macron—a former finance minister who referred to himself as a political “outsider” (a claim unquestioningly accepted by journalists and, as we shall see, even “critical voices” like Noam Chomsky)—was hailed as a victory for “progressive” values.

Which brings us to the second method by which interest and faith in these spectacles is maintained: the pundits. The 2012 dunk contest was narrated by the usual gang (Kevin Harlan, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, and Shaquille O’Neal). Through catchphrases and feigned excitement, their job is to infuse the contest with energy and legitimacy. The fact that it takes a team of five to fill the horrified silence in the arena and give the television audience a sense that something is happening when in fact nothing of interest is taking place says a lot about how boring and irrelevant these contests are to ordinary people.

Likewise, political elections in the United States and Europe would not be complete without an assortment of familiar and trusted journalists and academics whose job it is to mediate these processes for us. The role of these pundits is not to inform, however; it is to lend an air of legitimacy to proceedings, justifying the obviously undemocratic nature of capitalist society, and to help police the boundaries of acceptable discourse. Two of the most famous and highly regarded of these intellectuals-for-hire gave their pronouncements on the UK election earlier this month.

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The problems, the men agreed, fell into three categories. First was the question of ‘communist sympathisers’ and ‘communist agents’ working at the BBC. Second was the possibility that ‘communist inspired speakers’ might be able to put their views across via programmes. The third problem the men discussed was, they agreed, the most difficult. This was the possibility that the BBC itself might become the location of industrial conflict and that the management of the Corporation might in a moment of ‘national crisis’ find itself vulnerable to ‘sabotage’ by BBC engineers.

Up first, Noam Chomsky was interviewed for the BBC’s flagship programme Newsnight by Evan Davis, an animatronic puppet with a PPE degree from Oxford who has published books on such edifying subjects as why the privatisation of public services is actually really good and why you should definitely trust the BBC. To his credit, Chomsky managed—to the visible discomfort of Davis—to slip in a couple of salient remarks about class (there exist “divides on all sorts of things, but a fundamental divide is the class divide”). Yet the bulk of the 22 minute interview was spent parroting Tory Party talking points (he agrees with Davis’ assessment that “there’s a sense of a lack of clarity about quite what [Jeremy Corbyn] stands for,” and claims that Corbyn is “evidently not inspiring the population,” despite all available evidence contradicting such a claim) and slowly muttering other insipid and barely audible clichés (Chomsky does not “go along with those who say that we have incipient fascism[3],” and apparently believes that Emmanuel Macron “came from the outside[4]”).

He is invited to repeat his claim that the Republican Party is “the most dangerous organisation in human history,” but very conveniently elides the innumerable and unforgivable crimes of the Democratic Party, the organisation that he has consistently urged American voters to support. As Michael Parenti recounts:

Under one or another Democratic administration, 120,000 Japanese Americans were torn from their homes and livelihoods and thrown into detention camps; atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with an enormous loss of innocent life; the FBI was given authority to infiltrate political groups; the Smith Act was used to imprison leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and later on leaders of the Communist Party for their political beliefs; detention camps were established to round up political dissidents in the event of a “national emergency”; during the late 1940s and 1950s, eight thousand federal workers were purged from government because of their political associations and views, with thousands more in all walks of life witchhunted out of their careers; the Neutrality Act was used to impose an embargo on the Spanish Republic that worked in favor of Franco’s fascist legions; homicidal counterinsurgency programs were initiated in various Third World countries; and the Vietnam War was pursued and escalated. And for the better part of a century, the Congressional leadership of the Democratic Party protected racial segregation and stymied all anti-lynching and fair employment bills. Yet all these crimes, bringing ruination and death to many, have not moved the liberals, the social democrats, and the “democratic socialist” anticommunists to insist repeatedly that we issue blanket condemnations of either the Democratic Party or the political system that produced it, certainly not with the intolerant fervor that has been directed against existing communism.

Whoops. Of course, Chomsky is perfectly happy to criticise the Democratic Party provided these criticisms do not undermine his audience’s willingness to vote for them again and again and again. He points out in his BBC interview that, despite the campaign rhetoric with which people were swept up in 2008, “there was no hope and there was no change” under the Obama regime. “The Democrats,” he observes, “gave up on the working class forty years ago. The working class is not their constituency. No one in the political system [represents the working class].” Yet despite this apparently damning indictment of American democracy (a representative system in which the majority of people are not represented is obviously not democratic), Chomsky frames this as an internal problem that the Democratic Party must address by itself.

His assessment of the situation in the UK is identical: the Labour Party, like the Democratic Party in the US, “did not represent the working class” through the neoliberal years, and is currently “split between the constituency and the parliamentary party” (in other words, the working class are not represented by their bourgeois representatives in parliament). Despite explaining in plain language that the UK’s political system is fundamentally and necessarily undemocratic, Chomsky simply declares that “the Labour Party has internal problems it has to deal with,” encouraging viewers to internalise the logic of the political spectacle, identify with their oppressors, and understand this lack of representation as a failure of the Labour Party to market itself successfully and not as an inevitable symptom of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. “These are internal problems to these decaying centrist institutions,” he concludes.

I am aware, of course, that Noam Chomsky knows a thing or two about how the media manufactures consent by filtering out critical voices. I think it is fair to argue, however, that if in exchange for being permitted to periodically remind people that class is important Chomsky is obliged to promote the Democratic Party (and by implication America’s sham democracy and aggressive imperialism) and insist that communism is evil and revolution impossible, he is not compromising but collaborating.

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Before becoming a global celebrity, Žižek was the chief ideologist of the anti-communist, pseudo-left, ethnic separatist Liberal Democratic Party of Slovenia, but over the 1990s he transformed himself for the Anglophone market into a vaudeville Communist. This he accomplished by simply declaring himself a “Stalinist” and then proceeding to recycle Hitlerian anti-communist propaganda and vent Hitlerian complaints about liberalism to the already confused audiences of the imperial core university circuit.

A few days after Chomsky’s BBC appearance, Slavoj Žižek was invited to give a similarly enlightening interview for Channel 4 News. Like Chomsky, Žižek appears to have been briefed on the most essential Tory talking points before being allowed on air (Jeremy Corbyn is too “chaotic,” has no chance of winning, no clear vision, and so on and so on). He proceeds to extol the wisdom of inept empire theory (“President Obama, he did many stupid things…”), lament the EU referendum result when in fact it should be celebrated, and, channelling the “erratic Marxism” of Yanis Varoufakis, issue a few of his patented meaningless-but-“provocative” statements[5] (“I’m here a good Marxist—by this I mean…I have a deep admiration for capitalism. Let’s face it, capitalism is a wonder…”).

But the most striking thing about Žižek’s election interview is his obvious and craven policing of the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. “I’m not a Leninist, don’t be afraid,” he remarks early on, before repeating himself later: “we need…a stronger alternative—and don’t be afraid, I’m not talking about some new Leninist party or something.” At no point does he offer any explanation as to why “some new Leninist party or something” would be a bad thing, nor does his interviewer (Cathy Newman, another cardboard Oxford graduate) ask him to elaborate; successful socialist revolutions are simply forbidden territory for these “subversive” academics (unless it is to dismiss them out of hand). Fascism, on the other hand, is apparently a proposition that we must now consider thoroughly, weighing its “merits” as well as its unfortunate drawbacks…

“The left…doesn’t have an answer,” Žižek continues, embracing the impotent and diversionary hand-wringing that has become a defining characteristic of the celebrity left pundit. “We do not yet have the formula of what to do.” That we do in fact have a tried and tested formula of what to do is something that will never be discussed on national television, either in the UK or in the US, and to say this is not to offer some sort of fringe conspiracy theory. I have already written about the American press and its troubling relationship with the CIA, but a similar arrangement exists here in the United Kingdom. Defence of the status quo and a rigid anti-communist stance have been fundamental components of the BBC’s ethos since its creation. In 1933, following a Lunch with the Controller of Programmes, Brigadier Oswald ‘Jasper’ Harker, then head of MI5’s counter-espionage and counter-subversion branch, wrote approvingly of the BBC that its

general line is the one which we ourselves try to follow; that is to say that any political views which look upon the ballot box as the proper solution of their problems are reasonable politics; anything that goes outside the ballot box—such as communism or fascism[6]—is considered to be subversive if not seditious.

As Tom Mills explains in his recent book on the history of the Corporation, the BBC secretly and systematically vetted its staff, rooting out suspected communists and pacifists over a period of fifty years and only abandoning the practice in 1985 after a team of investigative journalists exposed what was happening. Of course, political vetting did not cease (the system was “revised and radically changed”), and senior BBC employees maintain close contact with MI5 and MI6, publishing and broadcasting whatever feckless propaganda is deemed expedient by the state.

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It is sometimes imagined that the ‘death of deference’ in the 1960s, and the impact this had on journalistic culture, led to the combative style of political interviewing exemplified at the BBC by figures like Jeremy Paxman and John Humphreys. While not entirely erroneous, this is something of a misreading. The social change of that era no doubt opened up space for this type of journalism; but the irreverent style stems less from the egalitarian spirit of the 1960s and ‘70s, and more from the bumptious posturing of the public school and Oxbridge debating societies, or the ‘moots’ at which would-be barristers pit their wits against one another.

Since the election was called, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg has been caught passing off a Tory campaign slogan for political analysis and regularly uses her Twitter account to assist the Tories and smear Jeremy Corbyn. Earlier this month, BBC political correspondent Eleanor Garnier, the daughter of Tory MP Edward Garnier, was sent to question Theresa May. You get the idea.

Faced with a critical and restless public increasingly uninclined to take for granted the credibility and authority of establishment journalism (the European Broadcasting Union has found the UK press the least trusted in Europe), the BBC has resorted to the same sort of desperate appeal we’ve seen from other decaying legacy media, casting itself as “the most trusted brand in news” in a recent advert. There is, of course, quite an important distinction between being trusted and being trustworthy, but I imagine the marketing geniuses at the BBC are very proud of themselves for this clever sleight of hand that will no doubt keep the proles fooled.

It’s not just the big transnational newspapers and broadcasters that find themselves edging towards the precipice, either. Regional newspapers across the UK have invented something called “trusted news day,” a perfectly natural event that you’d expect to see in any free society with a robust and healthy press. My own local newspaper, the Hastings Obscurer, recently published a series of very convincing features assuring its readers that it really is a very credible paper interested in facts and truth and things like that.

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It is helpful, in my opinion, to view the election in this context—not as part of a supposed proliferation of “populist” movements in which Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Marine Le Pen are all lumped together and cast as “anti-establishment” (not one of them is), but as part of a battle between the working class and their oppressors. The “unexpected” and “undesirable” results we’ve seen in recent months signify a weakening of the capitalist news media’s hegemony, and this is a welcome development. The Guardian, for example, is currently haemorrhaging money as its readers become increasingly perplexed and frustrated by its hollow claims of conducting “independent, investigative journalism” while simultaneously publishing articles in praise of George Bush and Tony Blair. With any luck a Labour victory will finish it off.

What the 2012 dunk contest sought to do (among other things) was establish in the minds of its audience, through procedural rhetoric, the legitimacy of these sham democracies. Dunk contests, along with other kinds of interactive reality television, reinforce the logic of representative democracies in which voters collectively exercise only a limited control over superficial issues and are prohibited from addressing fundamental problems. The dunk contest will be sponsored by Sprite, whether we like it or not, just as the next prime minister of the United Kingdom will inevitably be sponsored by BAE Systems.

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Thank you for listening.

[1] Obviously, I would be happier with a Labour victory than a Tory victory (the Tories will kill countless people both here and abroad); the point is that we are never presented with an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist choice, and thus are condemned to suffer in one way or another under the current bourgeois dictatorship.

[2] Incidentally, this was the first French election in my lifetime during which I could actually name more than two of the candidates—and this is not because I have recently taken a special interest in French politics. Even here in the UK, it was common for BBC news bulletins to lead with stories about Marine Le Pen, as though she were the most important person in Europe, her election inevitable.

[3] I disagree. Rather than erroneously referring to them as populists, we should call our political leaders what they are: fascists. The Tory Party is indeed a fascist party. They have rendered UKIP, formerly the UK’s burgeoning outsider fascist threat, utterly irrelevant politically by adopting all of its worst policies. The Tories adhere to any definition of fascism you might care to use. Thus, here in the UK, we are faced with precisely the same dilemma as in France: a fascist or a faux-outsider/collaborator.

[4] For all of Žižek’s faults (and there are many), at least he didn’t fall for this one during his Channel 4 interview.

[5] Some more of Žižek’s greatest hits, from The Fragile Absolute, a few pages of which I occasionally read when on the toilet: “…it is multicultural tolerance and permissiveness which induce real boredom”; “Marx’s fundamental mistake was to conclude…that a new, higher social order (Communism) is possible”; “…the critics of Communism were right when they claimed that Marxian Communism is an impossible fantasy”; “…’actually existing Socialism’ failed because it was ultimately a subspecies of capitalism, an ideological attempt to ‘have one’s cake and eat it’, to break out of capitalism while retaining its key ingredient.”

[6] This apparently anti-fascist orientation was never sincere, however (or, if it was, it was quickly abandoned). As Mills writes of the BBC’s arrangements in anticipation for the outbreak of war: “Speakers hostile to fascism were barred from broadcasting and Winston Churchill, who was unusual among his class for his antipathy to Nazism if not fascism per se, complained in 1938 that he had been ‘muzzled by the BBC’ following his last broadcast on German rearmament four years earlier.”