About four decades or so ago, the economic and military establishment of the US, frightened by the citizenry’s growing tendency to question the underlying presumptions of the nation’s civic discourse, planned a very sophisticated and detailed attack upon what Samuel Huntington, in a 1975 report prepared for the Trilateral Commission, termed “the excess of democracy” in the country.
Like the “Powell Memo”, an action plan prepared by corporate lawyer and future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell for the head of the US Chamber of commerce four years earlier, the report of the famous political scientist from Harvard demonstrated a frank acknowledgement of the essential role played by the press and the expansion of educational opportunities in generating the fast-spreading democratic cancer. And it expressed and a clear desire to neutralize their roles as the godfathers of this dangerous new wave of popular sovereignty.
In the intervening years the establishment has worked day and night, using all available resources to put the recommendations of their two loyal counsellors into practice.
Their strategic counterattack has availed itself of many tactical tools. There is, for example, the practice—refined, not coincidentally, during the Reagan years just following the establishment’s covert declaration of hostilities—of restricting press access to public servants, a practice which turns the journalist into a supplicant, subject like all supplicants to the whims and pressures of their object of desire.
But much more important in the long run has been the widespread and highly purposeful use of what Robert Parry, the recently deceased journalist and unparalleled student of the ways of institutionalized power, called “controversalization”.
Controversialization is the practice of seizing upon an objectively insignificant and allegedly unflattering detail about a person challenging the present order of social power, and encouraging the corporate media (not a difficult thing to do for those with money) to repeat it endlessly until it is widely presumed to be of grave social importance. The goal, as the saying goes, is to “suck the air out of the room”, that is, to deprive the social insurgent of the opportunity to articulate his or her agenda on their own terms in any clear and consistent manner.
If all goes well for the Establishment, the beleaguered insurgent, desperate to put an end to the growing media circus, will cede to his advisors’ advice and offer a public apology for his alleged sin. But this public act of contrition almost never achieves its intended effect. Rather than granting the insurgent a much-desired absolution, it generally serves, in the eyes of the corporate press, as a death certificate for the new leader and his or her political project.
The incredible thing in all this is not so much the Establishment continues to employ this tactic, but that its victims lend themselves to these machinations with such regularity.
The key to combatting this type of media bullying lies in the adoption of two simple but essential mental postures before the Establishment and its media machine.
The first it to refuse to accept the framing of the issue put forth by the leaders of the siege and their many unconscious noise-making servants in the corporate press as universal or, even normative. To engage in discussions (and this includes offering apologies) over issues generated by your powerful detractors for the explicit purpose of destroying you, is to effectively ratify, and demonstrate your conformity with, the existing imbalance of power between you and them.
The second—which requires overcoming the aversion that so many democrats of good faith have to admitting when they are, in fact, in the middle of a pitched battle where the ability to intimidate id fundamental—is to speak freely and without reserve about the generally much more grave record destruction and incivility found behind by the wall of smoke generated by the opponent’s campaign of controversialization.
I may be wrong, but it seems to me that all too few leaders of the movement for Catalan sovereignty fully understand this much-practiced establishment game and the most effective means of neutralizing it.
Of those that do seem to understand it, the name of Mireia Boya (CUP) comes most immediately to mind. And in the international realm, the comportment of Clara Ponsatí’s lawyer, Aamer Anwar has, in this sense, been exemplary.
So, in light of all this, how should the newly elected Catalan President Quim Torras have responded to the “controversy” surrounding his ancient tweets? By saying calmly, something like this: “I’d be delighted address that matter, but only in the context a conversation that begins with a detailed examination of the thinly veiled deaths threats against President Puigdemont issued by PP spokesman Pablo Casado on October 7th, 2017. Are there any other questions?”.