Political dissidence in the who gives a damn times – The story of Niels Harrit

by Vladan Cukvas

Slavoj Žižek once wrote a book titled “Living in the end times”. Although the title of this essay echoes some of the things Žižek identified as end times the essay is not about Žižek or about any of his books. I want to write about political dissidence and about the case of Niels Harrit, which serves illustrative purpose in this regard. The “who gives a damn” times is the setting in which the case of his political dissidence is placed. This setting may be said to be a part of our coming to an end and a few words ought to be said about it.

Political Dissidence

Despite standard definition of the term, the lists of dissidents provided by various sources suggest that the term is elastic enough to embrace different forms of dissent and different fates many dissidents had suffered throughout the history. One thing all these dissent forms and actual dissidents have in common is that the views they defend are not only in opposition to those held by the authorities, but their views, which are typically political ideas, were perceived by those in power as dangerous and potentially disruptive. However, for the past three decades or so, in the time described by many as post-ideological and perhaps even post-political, typical dissidents became the insiders who simply talk openly about government’s secrets. They became known as whistleblowers. A typical whistleblower is a former government employee, with access to classified documents, who at one moment in her life decided to quit doing the job which she no longer believes could be defended on moral grounds and is not afraid to disclose the government’s dirty little secrets. Edward Snowden is perhaps the most famous whistleblower today and the one whose defection wasn’t a matter of espionage, but a matter of personal and moral convictions.

Although engaged in some forms of political activism, whistleblowers are seldom the old style ideologists. They are not seeking fundamental political changes, but rather the restoration of state institutions to what they were originally designed to be, or simply an end to the abuse of the institutions. In any case, their activism is about promoting transparency of governance. Yet, the limited political programs they advocate are not regarded as a genuine political opposition, and they are often treated as traitors and criminals, which is very convenient for those in power.

Some “classical” dissidents, like Noam Chomsky, are outspoken critics of government´s policies and of the distorted and selective history writing done by politically correct scholars. At the same time they advocated certain political ideas. However the story of Noam Chomsky is instructive in one important sense. Despite his political activism, for which he is more famous than for his contribution to linguistics, he, unlike for instance A. Solzhenitsyn or M. Djilas, suffered no personal consequences whatsoever. On contrary, he has had a very successful academic career and some may insist that he should be disqualified as political dissident on this account alone. However, the dilemma whether to count him in reveals how effectively the establishment was able to fight dissent by giving it the credit it deserved on its own merit, while at the same time discounting the alternative views as utopian, personal and biased. In addition these views are being regularly drowned in non-constructive, confusing and pointless political pseudo-debates. They get marginalized and serve rather ornamental purpose for the establishment itself. This is standard tactics deployed by the mainstream media to silence the opponent by letting her speak amidst a noisy crowd. Thus, while some dissent is criminalized and persecuted in the old fashion way, some is silenced in a rather sophisticated way.

One question that comes naturally to mind is, why bother? Well, the fact is that for some time we have been living in a world of immense information flow (the information flood is perhaps better word) and all of this information is intended an audience. Controlling the information and its flow is about controlling the audience. More importantly, it is about influencing what the general population thinks and believes, since that is what eventually constitutes social reality.

Now, perhaps the most ingenious feature of this fight for the minds of people is not about controlling what technically cannot be controlled, namely the information flow. Cherry-picking of “good” and suppression of “bad” information is a strenuous and expensive strategy with limited success. The internet made this clear very quickly. Indeed, the internet was a true party breaker for the groups with privileged access to the media. But it was probably the internet that hinted to the possible solution. Whether designed for the purpose or not, a far more effective method proved to be the flooding of the audience with even more information in order to distract. In the flooding, the information is packed with entertainment of different kinds – reality shows, sport, movies, tv-entertainment, talent shows, etc. – which not only surrounds the informational content, but conveys it too. In this process any recognizable informational form (be it a political idea or anything) is soon lost the sight of. Hence, by carpet-bombing the audience with overabundant content (visual stimulus of different kind) the effect of confusing and duping the audience is effectively achieved. This method is based on a very simple idea that it is easy to get lost in the jungle. The ultimate goal of this strategy is, however, to depoliticize the public sphere, something which Carl Schmitt often pointed in his critique of liberalism. Once depoliticized, the audience becomes irresponsive to the deviant political massage as well.

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