Millions of words have already been written about the Charlie Hebdo spectacle. No doubt readers have seen much of the small proportion of this verbiage that was pertinent, informative and insightful. There have been laudable attempts to provide political context, cultural nuance, historical background — and that rarest of unicorns, the voice of reason — amidst the Niagra-level roar of bullshit that engulfed the Hebdo case within minutes of the first tweets about the incident. And of course, it is good that we go on trying to make sense of a reality that is at all times besieged by a bewildering array of powerful forces trying to manipulate our perceptions to suit their agendas.
But from one perspective, these worthwhile efforts to render clarity and meaning from yet another eruption of our era’s madness are beside the point. For from the first collision between human actuality and public awareness, any Terror War event immediately leaves the plane of meaningful discourse and is taken up into the “Cloud of Unknowing” generated by power-seekers on all sides. There it is masticated, atomized and refashioned to buttress any argument or position. It acquires an almost quantum nature, becoming whatever the observer says it is.
There is something more to this than the old-fashioned “spin” which the powerful have been imposing on events since the dawn of human consciousness. This ancient practice still goes on, of course, but there is an extra element in the mix today. And this is the nearly unfathomable hyper-acceleration of power in the modern world. Technology has made possible concentrations and mobilities of power with a scale and reach — and ease of use — that were simply unimaginable before our time. The power of violence, money, surveillance, information and communication — all these have been amplified by several orders of magnitude and set loose in a relentless, cacophonous, thought-obliterating global flow, where they can be used by those who seek to control the will of others and to impose their own. This applies most particularly to states (and organizations that seek some sort of state-like rule) and powerful corporations. But it also applies to other levels: criminal organizations, or smaller, less structured groups, right down to “lone wolf” individuals — terrorists, stalkers, trolls — who now have at their disposal an array of cheap, available means to murder, terrorize, and disrupt the lives of others.
This is not a salvo in the endless, tedious battle about whether technology is “good or bad.” Technology is what it is — and what we make of it. I’m simply noting that the tools available to the violent and the powerful are immensely more effective than they have ever been. Their reach is vastly more extensive and penetrating. And new technology, such as the internet, has brought their power into the very fabric of our daily lives.
All this makes it much easier to drain the reality of an event and repackage it according to the needs of the dominators. Events like the Hebdo killings (and the innumerable, far greater atrocities suffered by the unwhite, the non-European) are fed into the ever-boiling brew of politics, profit and power. Their terrible human reality is not allowed to influence or deflect the remorseless policies — and insatiable appetites — of power. Is Hebdo about free speech, terror, blasphemy, blowback, racism, a war of civilizations, etc.? It doesn’t matter in the end. Hebdo, like all Terror War events, is allowed to have only one effective “meaning,” one message: “We need more power. Give it to us, give it all to us, let nothing restrain us. And we will make you whole, safe, good.”
The vast technological augmentation at hand for dominators makes it possible for them to maintain an unprecedented level of absurdity in their spin, until public discourse no longer make any sense. This is deliberate. As filmmaker Adam Curtis noted recently, effective opposition is enfeebled when there is nothing solid to oppose, only a barrage of absurdities backed up by violence and money. Such as:
Western powers fight Islamic extremism by arming Islamic extremists (like Saudi Arabia) and destroying secular regimes. The West fights for democracy by arming and coddling authoritarians and theocrats. The West urges the overthrow of the Syrian regime, then prosecutes those who go off to overthrow the Syrian regime. Hebdo means we must fiercely uphold the “right to offend” (as David Cameron says), while we put people in jail — or simply murder them, like Anwar al-Awlaki — when their speech offends us. Beggaring and degrading the world to make rich people richer is the only way to prosperity. Taking actions known to increase terrorism — death squads, drone strikes, torture, violent intervention, etc. — is the only way to fight terrorism.
The list goes on an on, an inexhaustible parade of non sequiturs. Leaders no longer even try to make the stories exhibit an outward veneer of consistency or plausibility. The efforts of the Bush gang to manufacture bogus evidence to “justify” their rape of Iraq looks downright quaint these days, next to, say, Obama’s ever-changing, shoulder-shrugging, contradictory “rationales” for turning Libya and Syria into violent, extremist-spawning hellholes. Absurdity — the radical denial of meaning, context, reason and the continuity of consciousness — is the handmaiden of profit and power in our deliberately degraded, deliberately dazed era.
We are all living in a salacious, vicious caricature. JeSuisCharlie!
This is my latest column for the print version of CounterPunch.