This is actually the title of an essay by Thomas Merton, written in 1968, the last year of his life, and published only after his death. It was written during the height of the Vietnam War, and it belongs to a whole collection of Merton anti-war writings. As was often the case, in this instance Merton articulated something broader and more deep than just a policy disagreement with the government. Using such resources as Gandhi, Orwell, James Joyce and so many others, he delves into the abuse and degradation of our communication by means of language. This denatured language then becomes an instrument for obfuscating or just plain excusing the atrocities and injustices that we commit. Recall Orwell’s 1984, the slogans, “War is Peace,” “Freedom is slavery,” “Ignorance is strength,” and so on. Recall the sign at the gate of Auschwitz: Arbeit macht Frei, Work makes one free. Maybe it’s not THAT bad in modern America, but it’s pretty close. Merton loved the example of the American military commander who actually said, “In order to save the village, it became necessary to destroy it.” He thought the following pretty much summed up the attitude and the language of those who supported the war:
“The Asian whose future we are about to decide is either a bad guy or a good guy. If he is a bad guy, he obviously has to be killed. If he is a good guy, he is on our side and he ought to be ready to die for freedom. We will provide an opportunity for him to do so: we will kill him to prevent him falling under the tyranny of a demonic enemy.”
Merton of course saw that this war language was only the end-result of a long process of a degradation of language as a bearer of meaning. This took place in advertising, in pop culture, and in political discourse. Decades before folks such as at Adbusters critiqued modern discourse at all levels, Merton had nailed down the vacuity and triviality of pop culture, this vacuity which then colonized all our thinking. In this essay he uses the example of a perfume ad from a magazine, and then comments:
“Now let us turn elsewhere, to the language of advertisement, which at times approaches the mystic and charismatic heights of glossolalia. Here too, utterance is final. No doubt there are insinuations of dialogue, but really there is no dialogue with an advertisement, just as there was no dialogue between the sirens and the crews they lured to disaster on their rocks.[Reference to the Odyssey] There is nothing to do but be hypnotized and drown, unless you have somehow acquired a fortunate case of deafness. But who can guarantee that he is deaf enough? Meanwhile, it is the vocation of the poet–or anti-poet–not to be deaf to such things but to apply his ear intently to their corrupt charms. An example: a perfume advertisement from The New Yorker (September 17, 1966).
I present the poem as it appears on a full page, with a picture of a lady swooning with delight at her own smell–the smell of Arpege. (Note that the word properly signifies a sound–arpeggio. Aware that we are now smelling music, let us be on our guard!)
For the love of Arpege . . .
There’s a new hair spray!
The world’s most adored fragrance
now in a hair spray. But not hair spray
as you know it.
Your hair takes on a shimmer and sheen
that’s wonderfully young.
You seem to spray new life and bounce
right into it. And a coif of Arpege has
one more thing no other hair spray has.
It has Arpege.
One look at this masterpiece and the anti-poet recognizes himself beaten hands down. This is beyond parody. It must stand inviolate in its own victorious rejection of meaning. We must avoid the temptation to dwell on details: interior rhyme, suggestions of an esoteric cult (the use of our product, besides making you young again, is also a kind of gnostic initiation), of magic (our product gives you a hat of smell–a “coif”–it clothes you in an aura of music-radiance perfume). What I want to point out is the logical structure of this sonata: it is a foolproof tautology, locked tight upon itself, impenetrable, unbreakable, irrefutable. It is endowed with a finality so inviolable that it is beyond debate and beyond reason. Faced with the declaration that “Arpege has Arpege,” reason is reduced to silence (I almost said despair). Here again we have an example of speech that is at once totally trivial and totally definitive. It has nothing to do with anything real (although of course the sale of the product is a matter of considerable importance to the manufacturer), but what it says, it says with utter finality.”
One can read the whole Merton essay online here:
Now I am not about to rehash the Vietnam era or launch into a general critique of our culture. It’s just that we have recently had this miserable election, and it was full of the kinds of things that Merton et al. were talking about way back then: not just the usual political lies, but now much more sophisticated “fake news,” sloganeering, myths and images for our consumption that are totally unreal. You see the only thing that has changed since the Vietnam era is the amazing speed and immediacy of all this unreality: cell phones and texting, twitter and social media, etc. The general populace is drugged with mindless entertainment, with pain killers(an epidemic in our country right now–one of the pharmaceutical giants shipped over 750 million pain-killing pills just to West Virginia, a town of just over 390 got 7 million pills alone), with mind-numbing and dumbing education that stifles critical thinking, with narcotics of all kinds. And the whole thing is wrapped up in this package of language that disguises the unreality of it all. “I am a consumer; therefore I am.”
Now I want to emphasize that in many ways this is nothing new in American history. It is actually our history which is more and more focused on the unreal as we move into technological modernity and postmodernity. This is a history that is awash in blood, in genocide, in slavery, etc.; and it’s all covered over by a language of myth, fantasy, not just “fake news” but even “fake history.” We have simply gotten very, very good at producing this fakery and feeding it to the general population. From the “advance of civilization” that was used to justify the annihilation of Native Americans to the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” that was manufactured to justify our invasion of Vietnam to the “weapons of mass destruction” and the “war on terror” that all our leaders signed on to (including Hillary Clinton–but not Bernie Sanders, almost alone in this regard), all our history is loaded with “fakery” and manufactured propaganda. The effectiveness of all this was demonstrated when we invaded Iraq and there was absolutely no war protest at all in this country. All the big media players like the New York Times and the Washington Post joined in the parade toward this destruction. You are being manipulated in ways that you are hardly aware of. So Obama is portrayed as a “progressive,” Clinton as a “protector of children and minorities,” and you are invited to “Make America Great,” etc., etc. You will hear about “free trade” and the “free market,” but there ain’t no such animal in this zoo. The deck is stacked; the game is rigged for the benefit of maybe 1% or so. Financial institutions that are “too big to fail,” etc. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been talking about this, but most of the populace is so drugged out on the toys and games of our culture that they can hardly understand the implications of what they are told.
Chris Hedges, as usual, has written powerfully about this in a recent piece. Its title is “’Fake News’ in America: Homegrown, and Far From New.” Here is the link to the whole piece:
It’s interesting that Hedges was a Pulitzer Prize winning international journalist with the New York Times decades ago when he was forced out because he was reporting on how Israel was treating the Palestinians in graphic detail. So he is one who knows the modern news biz…..and as he says, it is more a business than a service of fact and information. Here is an extended quote from that piece:
“The media landscape in America is dominated by “fake news.” It has been for decades. This fake news does not emanate from the Kremlin. It is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that is skillfully designed and managed by public relations agencies, publicists and communications departments on behalf of individuals, government and corporations to manipulate public opinion. This propaganda industry stages pseudo-events to shape our perception of reality. The public is so awash in these lies, delivered 24 hours a day through electronic devices and print, that viewers and readers can no longer distinguish between truth and fiction.
Donald Trump and the racist-conspiracy theorists, generals and billionaires around him inherited and exploited this condition, just as they have inherited and will exploit the destruction of civil liberties and collapse of democratic institutions. Trump did not create this political, moral and intellectual vacuum. It created him. It created a world where fact is interchangeable with opinion, where celebrities have huge megaphones simply because they are celebrities, where information must be entertaining and where we can all believe what we want to believe regardless of truth. A demagogue like Trump is what you get when you turn culture and the press into burlesque.
Journalists long ago gave up trying to describe an objective world or give a voice to ordinary men and women. They became conditioned to cater to corporate demands. News personalities, who often make millions of dollars a year, became courtiers. They peddle gossip. They promote consumerism and imperialism. They chatter endlessly about polls, strategies, presentation and tactics or play guessing games about upcoming presidential appointments. They fill news holes with trivial, emotionally driven stories that make us feel good about ourselves. They are incapable of genuine reporting. They rely on professional propagandists to frame all discussion and debate……… The 20th century’s cultural and social transformation, E.P. Thompson wrote in his essay “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” has turned out to be much more than the embrace of an economic system or the celebration of patriotism. It is, he pointed out, part of a revolutionary reinterpretation of reality. It marks the ascendancy of mass culture and the destruction of genuine culture and genuine intellectual life.
Richard Sennett, in his book “The Fall of the Public Man,” identified the rise of mass culture as one of the prime forces behind what he termed a new “collective personality … generated by a common fantasy.” And the century’s great propagandists would not only agree but would add that those who can manipulate and shape those fantasies determine the directions taken by the “collective personality.”
This huge internal pressure, hidden from public view, makes the production of good journalism and good scholarship very, very difficult. Those reporters and academics who care about the truth and don’t back down are subjected to subtle and at times overt coercion and often are purged from institutions.”
If you are in the world of religion, don’t think that you are immune from all this or that you are “above all this,” or that this has nothing to do with you. In fact religion produces its own linguistic obfuscations galore, and certainly Christian church history has its own mirages and delusions written all over it. All religions have participated, more or less, in the deceptive abuse of language for the purpose of self-aggrandizement and gaining power. Just compare for example, all those religious and spiritual books about the “glories of the Church” with the real history of the Church. No wonder it is understandable that some people have this intuitive aversion to anything religious these days! Consider this example from Church history: the Doctrine of Discovery–this allowed the taking of lands from Native Americans and if they resisted we were allowed to kill them. This was government policy, law and civil practice. But the roots of this injustice lay in religious language, in various papal bulls from the 15th Century that literally allowed “Christian” European nations to enslave, dispossess and/or kill all indigenous peoples in the New World who were not Christians. Several popes have asked forgiveness on behalf of the Church for this incredible moment in history, but not one, not even Pope Francis, has rescinded or rejected any of these papal bulls. Papal language, I guess, is considered sacrosanct, and a pope can never be caught saying something that has to be denied later, no matter how outrageous. If the language is couched in religion, then it seems untouchable. (Something like this occurs among evangelical Christians and their use of the Bible–Biblical language cannot be critiqued.) A more complete treatment of some of this matter can be found in a series of stories done by the National Catholic Reporter: