Controlling the Message

I don’t know whether American/multinational corporations are more powerful than they used to be because I don’t know how one measures such things. I do know that I’ve been struck by how vividly corporate power has been dramatized this year and in recent years.

* the use of “independent contractors” in America’s two wars is unprecedented, something on which a variety of books about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars concur

* the Supreme Court seemed to go out of its way to reaffirm “corporate person-hood,” and the ACLU agreed with it

* with the encouragement of large health-insurance corporations, Republicans and some Democrats in Congress pursued a zero-sum strategy during attempted health-care reform; when alleged health-care reform passed, Republicans fumed, but please note that they never proposed serious alternatives; it is not too much to say they were simply working for their corporate masters to preserve a status quo; the debate was never between two policy-proposals

* what Eisenhower (not a radical) explicitly feared–an unregulated “military-industrial” complex–seemed to reach an apotheosis in the first decade of the 21st century–even if we simply glance at Dick Cheney’s career as it caromed between industry, military, and government (and energy-corporations); at the impervious power of Blackwater; at the Enron events; at corporations’ and banks’ wreckage of a world economy; and now at BP in the Gulf.

With regard to the last one, I was intrigued by BP’s televised message, slickly produced and hypnotically narrated by BP’s reptilian CEO. What the message literally said was, well, “yadda yadda”: look how much we’re doing, we feel your pain, you’re getting very sleepy. What the message figuratively said is that BP controls the message better than President Obama’s people, who are no slouches at messages. While the Feds watch BP control (that is to say, not control) the catastrophe, and while President Obama struggles to win the message-conflict, an easily preventable disaster just keeps getting worse. This collective image of the U.S. government relegated to a spectator, a handmaiden, is one of the most telling I’ve seen in a long time.

What all of this means for rhetoric has been covered pretty well by Murray Edelman in Constructing the Political Spectacle and by Jacques Ellul in Propaganda.


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