One of the hallmarks of a modern totalitarian government is stagecraft. Leni Riefenstahl made a whole movie dedicated to glorifying a totalitarian government’s meticulously staged extravaganza. As a child in the 1960s and 1970s, I vividly remember footage of marches in the Soviet Union, with soldiers in perfect goosestep order. China and North Korea are also much given to elaborate shows and parades, none of which originate with the people, and all of which are aimed at demonstrating the people’s alleged love for their leaders (and for the latter’s policies).
Would you be surprised to learn that Obama’s White House is carefully inching in that direction? Obama is not doing anything as blatant as mass rallies or inhumanly perfect parades, of course. In a way, he’s doing something much worse, which is co-opting a fundamentally American democratic institution and, without letting people see, turning it into a carefully staged political show.
The latest example of this propaganda impulse is the President’s “townhall” regarding healthcare. Americans think of a townhall as a free exchange between a political leader and “ordinary” people. We’ve learned over the last few years that audience members are more likely than not to be friendly to the candidate or president than not, but we believe that the questions are freely asked and unknown to the politician. Obama’s changing this game and, worse, hiding that fact from the public. His upcoming townhall, during which he plans to “sell” his government-controlled health care plan he will take only pre-scripted questions. This is entirely new and it’s bad — so bad that even Helen Thomas, the liberal doyenne of the White House press corps and the one who never met a Republican she liked, is up in arms.
Obama’s reluctance to expose himself to unscripted moments isn’t surprising, of course. It was when he went off script that he revealed his belief that the federal government’s purpose is to redistribute wealth. And even when he’s not redefining the American dream to bring it closer in line with the Soviet dream, his teleprompter-free moments reveal him to be a man of few words, most of which are “uh.”
Thanks to an outraged press corp and the blogosphere, Americans are now learning about the perversion of the traditional townhall concept. The new administration’s control over content, however, is even worse than staging completely fake question-and-answer sessions with “ordinary” members of the public. In a move that more closely aligns it with North Korea than with North America, the Obama administration is forcing people to listen to his message, whether they want to or not. This is the antithesis of the marketplace of ideas.
I have it on very good authority (an employee at US embassy in a major NATO country) that this year, in order to celebrate America’s (not Obama’s, but America’s) Independence day, all embassies have been ordered to install a big screen TV in a prominent location in order to play an endlessly looped Hillary Clinton speech for the duration of the festivities.
My employee contact notes that, at his particular embassy, people are appalled by this requirement. They see it as “tacky.” I see it as profoundly un-American. Indeed, I can think of only two precedents for this kind of thing. One is found in George Orwell’s 1984. In that book, as you may recall, all party members have in their living quarters TVs that may never go off and that sprout endless party propaganda (not to mention have cameras that watch everyone perpetually).
And lest any readers think to themselves “well, 1984 is just fiction,” think of North Korea’s struggles to ensure that its citizens hear only government-approved propaganda:
Until the mid-1990s, it didn’t make sense to broadcast to North Korea. Authorities since the 1960s had dealt with the “foreign broadcast problem”, which created so much trouble for other communist regimes, by outlawing all radios with free tuning. Radios sold in North Korea had fixed tuning and thus could receive only three or four official channels.
If North Korean citizens purchased a radio in one of the country’s hard-currency shops, which accepted foreign cash and had a wider variety of items, or when overseas, it had to be submitted to police where technicians would “fix” (disable) it, making sure its owners could only listen to ideologically wholesome programs about the deeds of their Dear Leader – Kim Jong-il.
This ban was enforced with remarkable efficiency. It was largely entrusted to the heads of the “people’s groups” or inminban, to which all North Koreans belong. Typically, such group consists of 30 to 50 families living in the same block, and is headed by an official. These low-level officials were required to regularly check all radios in their neighborhoods, making sure that they could not be used to listen to foreign or, more likely, South Korean broadcasts.
The punishment could be harsh. One official said in the 1980s she discovered that a family in the neighborhood under her supervision had a radio that could tune into foreign broadcasts. She duly reported her discovery, and the family was immediately exiled to the countryside.
Ironically, even as that situation has improved slightly in North Korea, Obama’s working on putting it into effect in North America.
I recognize, of course, that an endless loop of Hillary blathering away in the background is not the same as the total content control in either Orwell’s fictional Oceania or Kim Jong Il’s horribly real North Korea. Nevertheless, the impulse is always the same: force people to listen to a government message without the opportunity either to avoid the message or to hear alternatives.
Obama’s impulses are totalitarian in nature. In a fight, although he affects an Olympian detachment, laboring always to position himself in the middle, the straw men he places on either side of himself ensure that his Solomonic cogitations always bring him down on the side of the antidemocratic group, be that Hamas, Chavez, Saudi Arabia, Ahmadinejad, or the American people’s right to tune out from government controlled propaganda. And on the home front, true to these totalitarian impulses, Obama and his team will constantly search for ways to make his the only voice the American people can hear.