Echoes across time

Editorial by Bruce Wark

illustration Graham Pilsworth

The 9/11 hijackers created a real-life Towering Inferno in midtown Manhattan. But televised images of smoke and fire don’t mean much on their own. All movies, even real-life disaster flicks, need soundtracks to help viewers make sense of them. And for some reason, the hijackers left the sound track to George W. Bush and his White House spin doctors. “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world,” Bush declared. “Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”

Bush’s carefully crafted 9/11 soundtrack flashed instantly around the world, his words amplified by a global communications network that was the stuff of science fiction only a century ago. Who could have imagined our world of TV, satellites, cell phones, internet and iPods in 1906? But on Christmas Eve that year, today’s media world moved a step closer when a bearded Canadian inventor stood before his primitive, asbestos-covered microphone. “This is Reginald Fessenden speaking to you from Brant Rock, Massachusetts.” Hundreds of miles away, radio operators on board the ships of the United Fruit Company marvelled as Fessenden scratched out “O Holy Night” on his violin. The operators were accustomed to hearing bursts of Morse Code—electronic dots and dashes that they painstakingly translated into written words as they decoded messages from the company’s head office. Fessenden had discovered something new—a way of transmitting music and the human voice over radio waves. No wonder then, that part of the inscription on his tomb in Bermuda reads, “By his genius distant lands converse.”

But Fessenden’s invention also gave a powerful megaphone to despots and demagogues. In his best-selling book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan suggested that the spoken word can be “a flower of evil” and that human speech amplified by radio can create “a subliminal echo chamber of magical power.” As McLuhan pointed out, Adolph Hitler was adept at using radio’s magical power. For one thing, he persuaded Germans to fight what turned out to be a disastrous world war of Nazi conquest. “I know that men are won over less by the written than by the spoken word, that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great orators,” Hitler wrote in his autobiographical tome Mein Kampf. “The art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses,” he added. “All effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands.”

Hitler and his Nazis were defeated on World War Two battlefields. But their propaganda methods live on, aided by a vast global communications network. George W. Bush used that network to play on fears of “weapons of mass destruction” in the aftermath of 9/11 as he persuaded Americans to support a disastrous war in Iraq. “Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans—this time armed by Saddam Hussein,” Bush told the US Congress on January 28, 2003. “It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known. We will do everything in our power to make sure that that day never comes.” Seven weeks later, Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. So far, more than half a million people have died in that war, yet the lethal canisters and crates Bush spoke of have never been found.

In 1906 Reginald Fessenden helped create the world-wide echo chamber that Marshall McLuhan later called the Global Village. Instant news, views and entertainment. A world obsessively in touch with itself. But global villagers, beware: Fessenden’s 100-year-old radio magic gave demagogues’ spoken words, their slogans and their lies powerful loudspeakers. The Global Village is also an electronic garden of evil.

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