If the fourth chapter of Ideas Have Consequences was difficult to come to terms with and harder to explain, the fifth chapter is one of painful clarity. Once again Weaver’s prescience is astounding, especially when one considers that the Internet did not yet exist when Weaver wrote this book in 1948.
The Great Stereopticon to which Weaver refers is the counterpart of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.1 It is machine for broadcast, rather than observation. The Stereopticon is the synchronized effort of those who have abandoned the pursuit of the ideal to replace it with something to fill the hole. Once realization sets in that there is no longer common ground upon which to build a society – what Weaver calls “primordial synthesis” – there are “profound consequences,” as Weaver alludes to at the close of the previous chapter.
An ancient axiom of politics teaches that a spoiled people invite despotic control. Their failure to maintain internal discipline is followed by some rationalized organization in the service of a single powerful will. In this particular, at least, history, with all her volumes vast, has but one page.
Once society becomes as fragmented as it is becoming now, those who lack a philosophical perspective, the nation’s leaders and supposed intelligentsia, recognizing the danger, seek to repair it, by providing their own common ground. But, lacking insight, seek to do so by the use of force and totalitarian methods to get us all on the same page.
The problem which disintegration places in the lap of practical men, those in charge of states, of institutions, of businesses, is how to persuade to communal activity people who no longer have the same ideas about the most fundamental things . In an age of shared belief, this problem does not exist, for there is a wide area of basic agreement, and dissent is viewed not as a claim to egotistic distinction but as a sort of excommunication. The entire group is conscious of the tendency, which furnishes standards for value judgments. When the goal of life becomes self-realization, however, this vanishes. It vanishes right at that point where the ego asserts its independence; thereafter what reconciliation can there be between authority and individual will? The politicians and businessmen are not interested in saving souls, but they are interested in preserving a minimum of organization, for upon that depend their posts and their incomes. Emphasis WWTFT
If religion is the opiate of the masses, when that narcotic effect is gone, there will be turbulence.
These leaders adopted the liberal’s solution to their problem. That was to let religion go but to replace it with education, which supposedly would exercise the same efficacy. The separation of education from religion, one of the proudest achievements of modernism, is but an extension of the separation of knowledge from metaphysics. And the education thus separated can provide their kind of indoctrination.
But the education of which Weaver speaks goes far beyond the classroom, although today’s Common Core Curriculum fits right in. Weaver’s Stereopticon is the creation of a vast machine to instill new values in the populace. These new values replace the traditional mores like marriage between a man and a woman, family structure, and ‘outmoded’ religious beliefs.
It is the function of this machine to project selected pictures of life in the hope that what is seen will be imitated. All of us of the West who are within the long reach of technology are sitting in the audience. We are told the time to laugh and the time to cry, and signs are not wanting that the audience grows ever more responsive to its cues.
The major networks are following the playbook outlined by Weaver. Not only are product placements embedded into entertainment in an effort to sell more cars, computers, music, etc, to a consumer who must be constantly stimulated, but the narrative of the left has become an increasingly important component as well. How many television shows have you seen which present the homosexual lifestyle as normal and nothing out of the ordinary? One network now has a “green week” to help instill faux virtues in its viewing audience.
Weaver describes the Great Stereopticon as a machine of three parts, the parts that existed in his time: the press, the motion picture, and the radio. Since then, the Internet has been added.
Weaver attacks the press first and laments the notion that because something appears in print it must be assumed to have validity. This, in combination of the “one unvarying answer” that appears almost word for word in different publications, leads one to question the motives of the rulers of the press.
There is much to indicate that modern publication wishes to minimize discussion. Despite many artful pretensions to the contrary, it does not want an exchange of views, save perhaps on academic matters. Instead it encourages men to read in the hope that they will absorb. For one thing there is the technique of display, with its implied evaluations. This does more of the average man’s thinking for him than he suspects. For another thing, there is the stereotyping of whole phrases. These are carefully chosen not to stimulate reflection, but to evoke stoke responses of approbation or disapprobation. Headlines and advertising teem with them, and we seem to approach a point at which failure to make the stock response is regarded as faintly treasonable, like the refusal to salute the flag. … As the modern world is organized, the ordinary reader seems to lose the means of private judgment, and the decay of conversation has about destroyed the practice of dialectic. Consequently, the habit of credulity grows. Emphasis WWTFT
Weaver was writing well before the drumbeats of diversity, religious intolerance (by Christians only), and “the science is settled.” These and other topics are now becoming taboo. Serious conversation can’t be tolerated. Al Gore, the poster boy of the global warming, er climate change religion, has gone so far as to call so-called deniers modern day racists, or most recently, “immoral, unethical, and despicable.” A difference in opinion cannot be tolerated, because after all, “the science is settled.”
For other evidence of this intolerance for dissenting views, one has to look no farther than recent events. When the CEO of Mozilla refused to recant his radical belief that marriage is something between a man and a woman, he was forced to resign. When Ayaan Hirsi Ali had the temerity to suggest that radical Islam might not be quite on board when it comes to women’s rights, protesters accused her of being intolerant of Muslims. After all, they were merely following one of the memes of the left, that Islam is a “religion of peace.”
The press actively promulgates the “stereotyped phrases” both explicitly and implicitly. There is an agreed-upon vocabulary and consensus on what can be reported and what cannot. Certain groups may not be referred to as terrorists, but insurgents, certain facts can’t be reported, such as black on white violence, while others must be emphasized or constructed out of whole cloth, such as the notion of a white-Hispanic. It all depends on the approved narrative.
If the press is actively in the tank, then the entertainment industry is all the more so. But its techniques are more sophisticated and subtle. The great evil perpetrated by the entertainment industry is its persistent and ever-increasing efforts to over-stimulate the masses. This returns to a theme that Weaver talked about in the previous chapter, that of the desensitization of humanity.
Thus the broadcast of chaos comes in a curious monotone. This is the voice of the Hollow Men who can see the toppling walls of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome without enough soul to sense tragedy. It is the tone of those dead to sentiment. But this is as we predicted; the closer man stands to ruin, the duller grows his realization; the annihilation of the spiritual being precedes the destruction of the temple walls. Emphasis WWTFT
Without a sense of the ideal, man has lost the standard by which to measure and understand the deluge of “facts” he is daily presented with. Critical thinking requires effort and context. … there is no law of perfection where there are no standards of measure.
We do not in the final reckoning desire un-interpreted data; it is precisely the interpretation, which holds our interest. But the great fault is that data, as it passes through the machine, takes its significance from a sickly metaphysical dream. The ultimate source of evaluation ceases to be the dream of beauty and truth and becomes that of psychopathia, of fragmentation, of disharmony and non-being. The operators of the Stereopticon by their very selection of matter make horrifying assumptions about reality. For its audience the overarching dome becomes a sort of miasmic cloud, a breeder of strife and degradation and of the subhuman. What person taking the affirmative view of life can deny that the world served up daily by press, movie, and radio is a world of evil and negation? There is iron in our nature sufficient to withstand any fact that is present in the context of affirmation, but we cannot remain unaffected by the continued assertion of cynicism and brutality. Yet these are what the materialists in control of publicity give us. Emphasis WWTFT
In the absence of the ideal, the progressives have substituted temporal satisfaction as the highest good. For man to be happy, he must be comfortable and complacent. “… the goal of life is happiness through comfort.” It is logical if this is all there is.
Happiness is “a state of complacency supposed to ensue when the physical appetites have been well satisfied.”
It is anathema to the consumption driven, titillation-serving operators of the Stereopticon to suggest that there just might be something more to life than satisfaction of the physical appetites. What might happen if man begins to suspect that he is living in a false reality like that depicted in The Matrix? Only this reality is not a physical one, but a metaphysical one upon which his soul depends.
So the machine chugs along,
… insisting upon the dogma of progress, by picturing physical sufficiency as the goal of living, by insulating the mind against thoughts of an immanent reality, the Great Stereopticon keeps the ordinary citizen from perceiving “the vanity of his bookkeeping and the emptiness of his domestic felicities.” …
And here Weaver ties the operation of the Stereopticon in with one of his most powerful themes, that of time and reality. The progressive, Whig view of history is one of an ever-brighter future. The past is to be disdained, forgotten, denigrated and ignored as primitive. We are all so much smarter today, and will be ever more so tomorrow. So, it is our duty to move forward. Consequently the Stereopticon works very hard to ensure that there is no “simultaneous perception of successive events.”
… The successive perception of successive events is empiricism; the simultaneous perception is idealism. Need we go further to account for the current dislike of long memories and account for the hatred of the past?
… The constant stream of sensation, eulogized as lively probation of what the public wants to hear, discourages the pulling together of events from past time into a whole for contemplation. Thus the absence of reflection keeps the individual from being aware of his former selves, and it is highly questionable whether anyone can be a member of a metaphysical community who does not preserve such memory. Upon the presence of the past in the present depends all conduct directed by knowledge.
… The man of culture finds the whole past relevant; the bourgeois and the barbarian find relevant only what has some pressing connection with their appetites.
Weaver was an idealist in the best sense of the word. He saw man as something beyond a physical creature of appetites, limited in time. In many ways, his views are similar to those espoused by E.F. Schumacher in A Guide For The Perplexed. His is a positive and hopeful perspective, not of earthly existence, but of something greater. The bigger picture shows us that this belief gives meaning to the here and now and actually makes societies work. To deny the larger reality is to limit man’s potential and define him as merely a sophisticated animal.
The consequence of focusing on metaphysical truth tends to be true happiness, not mere physical satiation promised by the Stereopticon.
1. “The concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether they are being watched or not. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behavior constantly. The name is also a reference to Panoptes from Greek mythology; he was a giant with a hundred eyes and thus was known to be a very effective watchman. …Bentham himself described the Panopticon as ‘a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.’” Wikipedia