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Comment Dated Sep 4, 2006


PROGRAMMED REFLEXES

At the end of 1979, when I quit working for Digital Equipment Corporation and left Massachusetts with a car, a typewriter, two suitcases, and no real idea of where I was heading, I ended up months later in an apartment in Orlando, Florida, across the street from a Holiday Inn. Around lunchtime on the first Saturday after moving in, I wandered across for a drink and to get an idea of the local scene. The girl tending the bar was just setting up. I'd brought a local paper to browse through, and since I was the only customer, I asked if she'd mind turning off the TV. She did so, but as the minutes ticked by her movements behind the bar as she stocked the shelves with bottles and arranged glasses became noticeably more agitated. Finally, she burst out, "I'm sorry but I can't stand it! I have to have it on!" Even though the paying customer had expressed a preference otherwise. I shrugged and said "Okay." Amazing.

I didn't own a televison then, and still don't. In Ireland a yearly license costing 155 euros -- around $180 -- is required for the privilege of being browbeaten into buying junk and having morons advertise their headaches, indigestion, dandruff, and hemorrhoids in one's own living room. I wouldn't want one if the government paid me 155 euros. Cost isn't the issue. The shallowness ("in depth" news coverage means giving a topic an extra 30 seconds), and general pervasiveness of imbecility (most programming is geared to a comprehension level below 5th grade) are only part of the reason. The other part is the blatant manipulation, through imagery, suggestion, and association, of the beliefs and opinions that it is considered desirable for people to hold, and the setting of limits on what they are supposed to think. The way it works can be subtle. Imagine that the range of possible positions on a given question covers a spectrum from 0 to 10. By the constant repetition of casting intelligent, attractive, and socially successful people as advocates for 10, while others with negative connotations are associated with, say, 3, what's approved and disapproved are pretty clearly spelled out and the leaning of public opinion shaped accordingly. But there's more. Defining the visible spectrum as lying between 3 and 10 allows discourse to vary from a minimum to a maximum of approval, but all of it falling within a range that's deemed to be tolerable. By not being represented at all, positions below 3 effectively don't exist, and impermissible thinking is excluded. Similar situations exist in some areas of science, where an illusion of freedom is maintained by open debate of relatively minor details of a theory, so long as the core assumptions are not questioned.

I've received a bit of flak from some quarters since posting my objections to the arrest and imprisonment of historical Revisionists in several European countries, and suggesting that their critics might gain something from making some effort to hear what they are saying before running and howling with the lynch mob. Does there not seem something very suspicious and wrong when a society that claims to uphold the virtues of uncensored debate, academic freedom, and openness of scientific and historical research demonizes and imprisons historians, scholars, journalists, and publishers simply for stating what they believe to be true? When questioning is condemned for no better reason than that it has been deemed impermissible, are we hearing the voice of reason and objectivity that our culture prides itself on, or a conditioned reflex that has been substituted for the capacity of rational thought? If the latter, then by what means and for what purpose?