A group of security heavyweights in the US has issued what it labels an “Open Letter from Former Defense, Intelligence, Homeland Security, and Cyber Officials Calling for National Security Review of Congressional Tech Legislation.” These wise custodians of the national interest employ their unimpeachable moral authority to claim that US tech monopolies with names like Google, Amazon and Twitter should be regarded as indispensable pillars of national security. Thanks to their ability to mobilize massive power not only over public communication channels but also over the average citizen’s thought and behavior, these oh so vulnerable monopolies must be protected from interference by legislators or other busybodies seeking to limit the reach of their defensive power.
That power now includes the indispensable capacity to censor and even suppress inconvenient viewpoints in the sacred name of national security. But instead of resorting to direct censorship, which most people in a democracy continue to condemn as a violation of free speech, the technology monopolies use a range of discretionary tools that include deplatforming, demonetizing and much more subtle, indeed arcane algorithmic disappearing techniques. The truth those monopolies defend happens to correlate with whatever the security establishment wants people to think of as the truth.
Implementing this policy requires the kind of Manichean thinking that all authoritarian regimes — but certainly not democracies — traditionally encourage. They insist that theirs is the way of light and that everything else is darkness. No other voice needs to be heard, since allowing it to speak might obscure the light. Good must prevail and evil be suppressed.
Concerning the current conflict in Eastern Europe between Russia and Ukraine, two nations with an impossibly tangled history, our security experts do not hesitate to congratulate the tech monopolies for their brilliant work. “U.S. technology platforms,” they affirm, “have already taken concrete steps to shine a light on Russia’s actions to brutalize Ukraine. Through their efforts, the world knows what is truly happening in cities from Mariupol to Kiev, undistorted by manipulation from Moscow.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Shine a light:
- Traditionally, enable a more thorough and accurate vision of an object or a situation
- In the hands of modern tech media monopolies, direct a laser beam capable of incapacitating the receiver’s vision of reality
The quoted sentences above contain two interesting distortions. The first is of course the Manichean assumption that the narratives the platforms choose not to suppress can be compared to the purity of light passing through a vacuum. Photons, after all, tell no lies. But all media, including social media, invent narratives that select the objects we are allowed to see. Even more significantly, they have the power to suppress the objects we are not allowed to see. Light lands where they choose it to land.
The second is the claim that because of the selections made by the media, “the world knows what is truly happening.” Only people or institutions with authoritarian instincts claim to “know what is truly happening.” And they do so knowing that they have the power to misrepresent the truth. In the era of deep fakes and monopolistic media, even in times of peace, nobody can legitimately claim to know what is “truly” happening. In times of war, propaganda takes over public discourse. Denying that is a patent lie. In times of war, honest citizens seriously curious about the truth should learn to distrust any of the narratives they are invited to consume.
The authors of the letter to Congress make it clear that the current war, which does not officially involve the US, is nevertheless a combat of virtue against vice. “This is a pivotal moment in modern history” they assert. “There is a battle brewing between authoritarianism and democracy, and the former is using all the tools at its disposal, including a broad disinformation campaign and the threat of cyberattacks, to bring about a change in the global order.” Any astute observer might notice that the same sentence would be just as true if we substituted “latter” for “former.” And whether there really is a battle between “authoritarianism” and “democracy” is itself a contestable proposition.
Democracies, and more particularly the United States, have learned to use the idea of war to become increasingly authoritarian in their own methods of government. It is easy to see that, over the past 70 year, the US has been far more enterprising and innovative in creating new tools of authoritarian control than many governments that pay less lip service to democracy.
From its first days in office, the Biden administration has insisted on framing its foreign policy along the lines of a new Cold War. This time the foes are not called capitalism and communism. The battle has been rechristened as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. But nothing prevents authoritarian regimes and democracies to live in peace, without interfering in each other’s affairs. The idea that this is a “battle” is not an innocent metaphor. It serves to justify ever expanding military budgets and a commitment to global military domination.
This group of “former Defense, Intelligence, Homeland Security, and Cyber Officials” who drafted the letter to Congress are by definition not just members of what some now appropriately call the “military-industrial-congressional complex;” they are its principle ideologues. These individuals tend to collaborate either with the notorious Washington think tanks, literally paid by corporate masters to invent policy and ideology that reflects their interests, serve as lobbyists for the defense industry or they work for the mainstream media and are presented as respected voices brought in to instruct Americans on what they should “truly” believe. Alas, the “light” they shine on public affairs resembles not a series of innocent photons but an offensive laser beam intended to blind the public to a reality they desperately want to see hidden from view.
In times of war, democracies traditionally fail at respecting their own democratic values. Could that phenomenon explain why some democracies have a predilection for always being involved in war? Most nations, democratic or not, cannot afford the luxury of permanent war. Only a nation whose money has been accepted as the dominant global reserve currency can allow itself to engage in perennial war.
The history of the United States concerning its relations with the rest of the world throughout the 20th century turns almost exclusively around the theme of financing war. It includes the management of war-related debt and the privileged status of its currency. Hesitating at first to enter World War I, the United States nevertheless began supplying weapons to the Allies. It belatedly joined the fray to ensure the defeat of Germany.
With the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was condemned to paying reparations to the Allies. But the European allies were held accountable for a massive debt to the United States corresponding to its contribution to their victory. The mismanagement of that debt — which could have been forgiven as a means of relieving tensions related to a global depression that began on Wall Street — had the effect of aggravating nationalistic rivalries in Europe. This in turn contributed directly to the outbreak of World War II.
The same story of debt repayments was repeated after World War II, once again brought to a conclusion thanks to the industrial capacity of the United States. The European allies of World War I were still paying off their debt from three decades earlier when they found themselves saddled with new debt. This forced them to abandon their global empires, which they could no longer support and implicitly transfer the wealth those former colonies represented to the nation that, with its stock of gold, had become the world’s creditor. The US dollars became unequivocally the global reserve currency.
For more than two decades, following the Bretton Woods agreement, the US was theoretically obliged to ensure the convertibility of dollars to gold. But the appetite for building a neocolonial military presence across the face of the globe, spawning an endless series of wars and regime change operations, turned the US from the world’s creditor to its principal debtor. To rescue the US economy, President Richard Nixon unilaterally rescinded the convertibility of dollars to gold in 1971. From that point on, the already established status of the dollar as the dominant reserve currency meant that every creditor nation had no choice but to hold US Treasury bonds, effectively transferring the wealth their economies were generating back to the United States.
In more recent times, with the rise of China and what is perceived as the threat of a multipolar world in which wealth may be more equitably created and distributed, the US security apparatus has decided to justify its dominance by calling its global mission a “battle between democracy and authoritarianism.”
They have chosen American tech platforms — private businesses run by narcissistic billionaires specialized in the art of modeling their customers’ behavior and thought — as the privileged vectors of the propaganda required to conduct a mission that reflects their Manichean view of the world. Those struggling monopolies must now be protected at all costs from the potentially irresponsible decisions of elected members of Congress. Whatever they say or publish will be deemed “the truth.” Billionaires understand the importance of such a relationship. Unless, of course, Elon Musk, the richest of the billionaires, having just taken over Twitter, chooses to upset the security experts’ plan.
That, however, seems unlikely. Elon’s personal ideology is quirky, his acts unpredictable, but upsetting security plans simply is not his style.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.