Monday, November 9, 2009

The Consciousness Industry Flexes its Muscles

Two weeks ago, when we were still ramping up to any Congressional vote over health care reform, I wrote the following remark about the impact of the "consciousness industry" on any likely outcome:

Thus, the future of health care will rest not on either the underlying principles of "how doctors think" or even religious convictions of the faithful over the difference between right and wrong but on the power of the "consciousness industry" to bias prevailing opinions based on both reason and faith. If these biases continue to hold sway, then both doctors and their patients will be the losers in any effort towards health care reform.

If this weekend's vote in the House of Representatives, along with the debate leading up to that vote and the post-vote comments from key figures in the Senate, was not enough to establish the impact of that consciousness industry, then we have only to see how Fox demonstrated its mastery of consciousness industry methods on Sunday. For a change the arena was not the usual forum of what Calvin Trillin once called the "Sabbath Day Gasbags." No, if you are going to go for the jugular of electorate consciousness, you have to hit them where things matter the most on Sunday. That is neither the talk show circuit nor the Church; rather, it is the most sacred of American Sunday traditions, professional football.

In this case the target of Fox' consciousness manipulation was not health care but the promotion of our ongoing military adventurism (presumably in defense of our right to manipulate other people's consciousness). Ostensibly as a gesture in honor of Veterans Day, Fox NFL Sunday was broadcast from Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Having received my Bachelor of Science degree from a school without a football team, I have little interest in football as either an athletic or a media event; but I have long been fascinated by the many strategies that Fox invokes in the interest of mucking with people's minds. So I read Neil Genzlinger's account of Fox NFL Sunday for this morning's edition of The New York Times with great interest.

True to his responsibility as a reporter, Genzlinger concentrated on giving an account of his personal experience in front of his television:

The broadcast was full of mutual back scratching, both during the show and in promotional spots during the commercial breaks: Fox and the National Football League trying to establish themselves as the country’s most fervid supporters and thankers of the troops, the military steering the Fox crew to feature segments without an ounce of blood or moral ambiguity.

Each member of the Fox on-air crew — Howie Long, Terry Bradshaw, Michael Strahan, Jimmy Johnson, Jay Glazer and Curt Menefee (who was excellent as the frontman) — wore a uniform commemorating a different branch of the service. Early on there was a segment spotlighting N.F.L. players and employees who have served in the military and relatives of current players and coaches who are serving now.

A military unit led into a commercial break with a marching chant promoting the show and its personalities. (“I wanna hear the news by Jay; his latest scoopage makes my day.”) A promotional spot in which the N.F.L. honored the troops wrapped both football and military images around the words “teamwork, courage, leadership.” In a feature we saw American soldiers advising a village on agriculture, trying to encourage it to be self-sustaining and, presumably, to stay out of the opium business.

And then the lines got even blurrier. In another feature Mr. Bradshaw tried to use a robotic device to pick up a football. Presumably in real life it’s used to poke potential bombs and such. A group of soldiers joined the Fox men on an impromptu field to demonstrate the blitz — the football one, not the military one.

At no time, though, was the show more eerie than when, in the second hour, it turned its attention to Pat Tillman, the N.F.L player who left football to enlist and was killed in Afghanistan in a 2004 friendly fire incident that is still reverberating.

Mr. Menefee introduced the Tillman segment without mentioning how he died, and then the camera shifted to a festive scene inside the Pat Tillman Memorial U.S.O. on the base. Soldiers extolled the computers, phones and other nifty communication gear in the lounge, named for a man whose death was shrouded in miscommunication and cover-up.

Having laid out his evidence, Genzlinger could then confront us with his conclusion:

For two hours the Fox show — though it acknowledged several times that soldiers, not football players, were the real heroes — gave us the illusion that the war and the game were the same. Maybe Tommie Harris of the Chicago Bears had been watching it just before heading onto the field for his 1 o’clock match against Arizona and became confused about which world he’s living in. Within the first 10 minutes he was ejected from the contest for slugging an opposing player.

Those last sentences sealed the deal for me, providing a simple example of the consequences that arise from mistaking illusion for reality.

"Illusion" is the operative word in the way in which Fox runs its consciousness industry. It is one thing to offer dramatic fictions, for which we are willing to suspend disbelief while the story is told, only to return to the "real world" when that story has concluded. It is quite another thing to deliberately engage devices that distort the cognitive apparatus that turns sensation into perception. That is the apparatus responsible for our "sense of reality;" and illusions arise when that apparatus is induced to go out of whack. Ironically, there are times when such illusions may actually have survival value; but we are blessed with a cognitive capacity that can learn that first impressions can be deceiving. We thus have the ability to reflect on our first impressions and sort out illusion from reality.

Ultimately, the consciousness industry succeeds through undermining not only our capacity for reflection but also our will to reflect at all. With any interference from reflection safely out of the way, the industry can shape our opinions and actions to satisfy whatever contract it has made with a particular customer. If that customer is the Pentagon, then one can see why it might be useful to identify war with professional football. If the customer is the health care industry (as opposed to those trying their best to practice health care), then the prevailing illusion seems to be a profit-based capitalism has a higher priority than a healthy life for every American citizen. The playing field may change, but the game will remain the same.

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