Puppet Master Radio

OR Depraved New World
 
In the 1950's, magic came to prairie township schools in the form of the bookmobile. The presence of this large, customized van outside of my schoolhouse took my breath away. Horizons were close in this isolated rural area. The bookmobile brought books to us and books expanded our horizons.
 
I got pretty close to Robert Heinlein in those days. Known as the "Dean of American Science Fiction", many of his early books were written for young people. He also wrote several books that were lucid in their depiction of worlds that didn't exist, but feasibly could exist. Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land have all reached iconic status and have been embraced by many along a wide range of philosophies. For me, the most memorable was The Puppet Masters.
 
Much Science Fiction - even though it might have an exotic setting, is rooted in the popular culture and the history of the time period during which it is written.  The Puppet Masters was written in 1951, during the Red Scare when Brain Washing was a popular concept. The opening date cited in the book is July 12, 2007.  The subject of the book is an invasion of the earth by mind-controlling parasites, fat slugs who ride between people's shoulder blades and take over their brains and nervous systems. As the invasion spreads, the defenders of the planet logistically track the spreading as areas of red depicted in digital charts in their War Rooms. The allegory of communism is never far from the implied narrative of the story.
 
Puppet Masters was part of what became a genre of the time, along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That genre remains to this day and although the concept of "Brain Washing" is not such the paranoid preoccupation of choice for most it still remains a cautionary paradigm that has been given a twist in the Information Age. 
 
I became aware of the term "Information Age" when I read Ivan Toffler's "The Third Wave". Published in 1980, this book defines a post-industrial phase in society and asserts that it had already begun by the 1960's.  The Toffler Book became sort of a bible to me for a period in my life. Disenchanted with what I saw as the excesses of liberalism - stemming from the best of intentions and spiraling into oppressiveness - I joined the "Republican Revolution" and was pleased to see that one of the Revolutionaries - Newt Gingrich - made frequent mention of the Toffler book. In my mind, the "Third Wave" was an allegory for a post-liberal world of enlightened conservatism. This outlook was about to change.
 
In 1998, I had finished doing some computer work for a local businesswoman who I had known at that time for about 20 years. This lady was born in 1930 in Germany and immigrated to the US with her family in 1946. She grew up under Nazism. As I departed her office, she followed me to my car and we chatted along the way. It was a warm day and I rolled down the window of my car as I got into it and as we continued to visit, I idly turned the ignition key and the radio came on. Rush was on the radio. Her demeanor changed instantly. It was as if a cloud had appeared over her face. She snapped: "That right-wing radio crap is just like the Nazi broadcasts I heard as a young girl. They were on all the time and every where."
 
I gulped, I know my face turned red. I enjoyed Rush Limbaugh at the time. Who could not love that bass line?  I was of the opinion that he broadcast a lot of hyperbole and mixed truth and fiction as was convenient for the context. Yet, I considered him fun. I stammered that the difference was that listeners had a choice of whether or not to listen and also asserted that the general tone of Rush Limbaugh was much like that of liberal firebrands that I listened to when I lived in Berkeley California in the late 60's and early 70's. I do not believe that she thought the less of me for my tastes.
 
Nevertheless, I was prompted to do some research into the nature of Nazi propaganda. Historians of all political persuasion seem to be in more or less agreement that the Third Reich was the first government to fully utilize radio as a propaganda tool. I discovered that books and cinema were used as well.  And, of course one could see that various forms of media were used in many other countries including the US and Britain. And utilized by both governments and "Media Entrepreneurs", many of which employed a polemic, i.e.  hostile, combative, and high biased style. Today, many good Catholics squirm at the mention of Father Coughlin and his anti-semitic broadcasts. My German friend opined that right-wing "talk radio" was as much anti-liberal as Father Coughlin was anti-semitic and I replied that an anti-conservative liberal corollary existed.
 
In my perception, talk radio and the radio propaganda of the Nazis seemed to share a similar implied narrative: "WE versus THEM". "WE the freedom-loving versus THEM - the puppet masters". "WE the lovers of freedom versus THEM - the establishment". "WE the patriots versus THEM - the elite." With the Nazis, "THEM" was the Jews, with right-wing talk radio, "THEM" was the liberals, with left-wing talk radio, "THEM" was the conservatives.
 
Over time, I have come to the opinion that a polemicist infotainment industry has enormous influence political and social discourse in our society.  Although I arrived at this conclusion on my own, these concerns are echoed by a number of speakers and authors of which I have respect. This "Third Wave" or "Information Age" has brought the both possibility of a Democracy of thought and the possibility of a dictatorship of self-enforced brainwashing.
 
In the 1930's, my great grandfather published the "Portland Republican" newspaper. Readers in Portland, North Dakota read his newspaper whether they were Democrats or Republicans or something else. They made up their own minds but it is safe to say that the Democrats were exposed to opinions different from their own and had to deal with them. Similarly, Republicans in other parts of the country had as a single local newspaper a Democratic publication.
 
With multiple 24-hour radio and TV and the Internet today, one does not have to deal with opinions that differ from one's own. One can simply find the outlets that fit one's pre-conceptions and nurse from that particular orifice.  And this could be said to be a form of self-brainwashing. A conservative can listen to Rush Limbaugh in the morning, Glenn Beck in the afternoon and watch Fox News at dinner time. The liberal can go from the Huffington Post to Slate.com, to MSNBC; listen to Ed Schultz and get just a self-righteously furious with the conservatives from Chris Matthew's comments as the conservative does from listening to Rush Limbaugh. And they all mix fact, fiction and opinion without regard for the truth. 
 
One might call these media outlets the modern puppet masters, but here's the difference: These fat slugs are not forcing themselves onto people's shoulder blades. The people are putting these parasites on their backs voluntarily. The upshot of all this is that it seems to me that we have the most ignorant, biased, misinformed and brainwashed electorate in the history of our Republic.  It could be argued that the oft-mentioned widening gaps of opinion about and personal hostilities generated by politics are fueled by such self-enforced biases.  And all this in the "Information Age"! We might as well call it the "Disinformation Age." In an age when information could expand our horizons, it is in fact SHRINKING our horizons.
 

Heinlein was prescient all right, but not in quite the way he anticipated. To paraphrase Pogo: "We have met the Puppet Masters and they is us".