Strakon Lights Up, No. 111

Talking with contemporary cavemen

Or, "just a little family video"


I saw two remarkable things on TV last week. The lesser of the two was the "smoking gun" tape produced by the U.S. Government starring a character identified as Osama Bin Laden with some Mouseketeers in supporting roles. The more remarkable of the two was produced by the Discovery Channel and premiered at the very start of the week, Sunday the 9th.

I was mentally prepared for the Discovery Channel's show. One evening some months ago I lapsed from my usual evening routine — you know, studying Gibbon, listening to the late quartets of Beethoven, meditating on Titian's use of color and perspective — and instead found myself idly channel surfing. (Of all things!) Eventually I came upon a "nature program" on Discovery, and the first thing I saw caused both my remote and my jaw to drop with a thud: airborne reptiles. With a 40-foot wingspan. Natives of Brazil they were, according to the narrator; their name sounded to me like "terra-soar." The footage of the beasts in action included close-ups of their brilliantly colored heads, obviously taken with a telephoto lens: you wouldn't want to venture too close to those babies!

It was all extremely startling, but on the other hand I knew that foreign countries — especially ones in the Third World — are chock-full of unimaginable prodigies: tortillas that bear the face of Jesus, witch-doctors who cause men's family jewels to vanish, floods that carry off 500,000 rice-peasants at a crack, zombies, cannibals, chupacabras ... who knows what all? I remembered that when I worked on the news desk of a paper, we got a wire story every couple of months about the discovery of a hitherto unknown and exotic species of animal in the back end of China or someplace.

I'm a slow-witted type, so it wasn't until the "terra-soars" (terasaurs, actually) started cruising over a procession of lumbering dinosaurs that I finally tumbled to what I was really seeing. As you've figured out by now, the program was "Walking with Dinosaurs," and it was confected with computer-animation techniques, supplemented by animatronics, of a sophistication that I hadn't dreamed existed. At the same time I was being carried back into prehistory, I felt I was being carried forward into the future. In fact, the future had already arrived, and no one had told me.


Having put that simultaneously embarrassing and exhilarating experience under my belt, I was ready, Sunday the 9th, when Discovery premiered its dazzling follow-up series, the three-hour "Walking with Prehistoric Beasts."

I was also mentally prepared a few days later when the Empire premiered its "smoking gun" tape. The folks at Discovery helped get me ready by cluing me in to what is technically possible these days, but I owe part of my readiness to certain habits of mind. They're habits that are open even to molasses-brains like me, and I can only wish that more of my countrymen shared them.

Those who believe in government and its virtues — which category includes almost everyone permitted access to the official mass media — naturally tend to trust government productions and pronouncements. It's a dynamic so strong and overriding that it reduces the media's famous skepticism during the Vietnam-and-Watergate era to a mere blip on the chart. Even then, the media "skeptics" tended to believe everything government authorities said about the miracles accomplished by their domestic depredations: AFDC, Operation Head Start, FDA regulations, environmental "protection," USDA inspections, gun-owner control, rent control, school busing, "affirmative action," the income tax and the kindly tax police, you name it. As long as it didn't have anything to do with killing Commies, or with Richard Nixon, chances are the mediafolk swallowed it.

Once the Commies all turned coat, started running NGOs, and weren't eligible any longer to be killed by the Empire, socialist media types wasted no time in going whole hog and joining their handful of nonsocialist colleagues in the amen corner of imperialism and militarism. This fall that corner has expanded so greatly it's threatening to take over the entire church.

By way of contrast, those of us who don't believe in government and its virtues tend not to believe government productions and pronouncements. Or at least we tend to be skeptical about them, and unlike the socialists we're skeptical genuinely and consistently. Government, so far as we can see, is Force & Fraud, Inc.; just now we're concentrating on the fraud. Trust what the government says? On any subject, foreign or domestic? In wartime, no less? We'd sooner trust a nomad with a bandana, gold tooth, and barrel of used motor oil who offered to pave our driveway.


I won't say the regime's "smoking gun" tape is a thoroughgoing fake. Maybe it's all our rulers and their courtier experts say it is. But here's one thing that is true: from where we sit it's impossible to tell for ourselves. And here is another thing that is true: official, credentialed people are saying some awfully strange things.

Those of us who wish to exercise effective habits of mind and avoid what I sometimes call "statish" thinking must learn how to listen to experts, especially if they are courtier experts. Some years ago I heard a young courtier historian give a talk on the democratic humanitarian miracles performed by Abraham Lincoln — all American courtiers are naturally crazy for Lincoln — and, in the course of ridiculing the dissident view of Lincoln, the trusty expert said that if Old Abe had been a dictator, he certainly would have cancelled the 1864 elections! That young scholar, in becoming an expert on Lincoln, had come to know, or at least had studied, astronomically more than I had about that particular man. But as a courtier expert serving the interests of the regime, he had at the same time forgotten, or suppressed, much of what he knew about men in general. Including men who would seize, expand, and maintain Power. While reading his thousand books on Abraham Lincoln and the War Between the States, he forgot, or suppressed, his Machiavelli.

During the current Last Good War, courtier experts (assisted by their incurious spokesdrones in the media) are displaying the same characteristically contradictory mixture of intensive special knowledge and extensive general idiocy. It's got to happen: it's the experts' job to accompany their special expertise with a defense of the regime; that is to say, they must combine, however awkwardly, real thinking with "statish" thinking.

Here's one example. According to the official experts, voiceprint analysis shows that the Bin Laden on the "smoking gun" tape has the same voice as the Bin Laden on previous tapes that have come to light. Fair enough, assuming we decide to trust the findings of official experts in the first place. (In passing, I'll note that these particular experts will probably never have to face cross-examination by Bin Laden's lawyer.) But the experts, or their designated spokesdrones, then go on to suggest that the voiceprint match proves that the transcript of the taped conversation is accurate! Now, how can such a conclusion just be assumed to follow, when everyone knows you don't exactly require boffins capable of Discovery Channel wizardry in order to cut and splice a little tape? Hidden under their bright shiny expertise, these experts and their spokesdrones are smuggling a rusty old premise: "As everyone knows, the United States would never ..." It's a premise that you don't need to be an expert to disagree with.

Fox News provided us with a worse example on Sunday the 16th, in an interview with Michael Swetnam, chairman of the Potomac Institute of Policy Studies and co-author of a book on Osama Bin Laden. As Fox's two anchordrones amened and chortled and cheered from the sidelines, Swetnam delivered this astounding intelligence on the "smoking gun" tape: "The fact of the matter is, if we [sic] were going to doctor it, it wouldn't be such a terrible, poor-quality tape." ("We," huh? Who is this guy, again?)

Can this man have believed what he was saying? In the circumstances, which sort of production would have been more credible: a dark, muddy, jittery videotape such as the one we were handed; or an ultra-sharp, ultra-high-fi DVD? When in the interests of verisimilitude the Discovery Channel wanted to make its "virtual" beasts and other objects look as though they were being viewed from a distance it softened and faded their image so they appeared to be separated from us by a mile of thick, misty air. In other words, Discovery "degraded the signal" for effect. They even "shot" a scene of a nocturnal predator at work in the rough-focus, low-fi green of a night-vision scope! Both predator and prey, don't forget, were wholly artificial, though they looked wholly authentic. But maybe Swetnam knows more about such production techniques than the Discovery Channel does.

Questions of verisimilitude aside, the tape's visual muddiness has the virtue — if it is a fake — of obscuring the faces of the participants to some extent. The lead character is recognizable as Bin Laden or as a Bin Laden look-alike, I suppose, but the muddiness would certainly make deceptive lip-syncing a snap if anyone were so inclined. As for the tape's audio muddiness, I somehow suspect that may have come in handy, too. If the thing is a fake, that is.


Now let us assume that the tape is genuine in all respects. What would we have to conclude from that? One of the Foxdrones asked Swetnam whether it was a good move for Bin Laden to make the tape. "I think it was a real mistake, to tell you the truth," he replied, whereupon one of the anchorgoofs chimed in with a helpful "Oooops!" Swetnam continued, "I think that he was very confident that, in that setting, that it was just a little family video, and it would never see the light of day."

Only a couple minutes earlier, Swetnam had been discussing Bin Laden's renowned wiliness — in particular, his purported escape from his purported hide-out at Tora Bora: "To assume that he would wait to be captured is ludicrous." But isn't it equally ludicrous to assume that a fellow who could organize the surprise attacks of 911 could permit a "smoking gun" tape to be made and then left lying about? You ask me, I don't think such a buffoon could organize a surprise birthday party.

Something is wrong with this picture.

December 19, 2001

© 2001 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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