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Thursday, August 14, 2008
Recently I got the DVD for the Showtime film Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical (see the addendum for more about it) and made an interesting discovery: two of the most influential paranoid fear-mongers of the twentieth century were related to each other. In the special features portion of the DVD, a mini-documentary gave some background on the criminalization of marijuana in the 1930's. It mentioned Harry Anslinger, the notorious bureaucrat who helped to spread nationwide fears of cannabis through lurid propaganda linking the use of weed to savage violence, criminality, and insanity; in essence, Anslinger utilized what scholar Alfred Lindesmith called "the dope fiend mythology."
When I watched the documentary, I learned that Anslinger was the son-in-law of banking magnate Andrew Mellon. That made me think: Anslinger was spreading irrational anti-pot fears throughout the early and mid-twentieth century and another member of the Mellon family, Richard Mellon Scaife, was spreading paranoia during the last part of the twentieth century (Scaife’s mother was Andrew Mellon’s niece). That’s a lot of fear-mongering for one family.
When Bill Clinton became president, Scaife became a proponent of the “Clinton Body Count”—a paranoid urban legend that argued that Bill and Hillary Clinton were responsible for bumping off dozens of political opponents as well as friends who knew too much. This absurd propaganda was spread by Scaife’s paid agents--notably Joseph Farah and Christopher Ruddy--as well as by Roger Ailes who is now the head of Fox News (even though the Clinton Body Count is dismissed now even by the most fervent American wing-nuts, to this day, it is a staple of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program).
Propaganda is the bane of democracy. It does not strive to encourage dialog; it seeks to dominate by appealing to base fears. There’s nothing wrong with appealing to the reptilian brain if a legitimate danger exists. If an out-of-control car is careening toward you, someone who yells, “Get out of the way!” is appealing to your survival instinct but doing it in a rational and humanitarian manner.
The problem is that Anslinger and Scaife used rhetoric that appealed to the fight-or-flight reflex for problems that were either nonexistent (e.g., the Clintons as murderers) or problems that could have been addressed in a thoughtful manner (e.g., while Anslinger was scaring American parents half to death about “the assassin of youth,” New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia commissioned a study that looked at marijuana from a responsible perspective). The Anslingers and the Scaifes of the world want to seal off meaningful discussion before it begins. Their goal is a frightened and acquiescent populace that does not weigh and measure issues in a meaningful way.
Jerry Falwell, who was part of the Clinton Body Count hoax, was a master of appealing to the reptilian brain in his sermons that were broadcast on his The Old Time Gospel Hour television program. The typical Falwell sermon was devoted to a topic such as gays, feminists, secular humanist, or Bill and Hillary Clinton. In the first half of the sermon, Falwell would tell his congregation what a terrible threat to decency, Christianity and the American way of life the given phenomenon posed to them. Falwell then spent the second half of the sermon telling them that he and the GOP were fighting the good fight but they needed help--primary financial help (when Bill Clinton became president, Falwell sold a videotape (for $35) claiming that Clinton was murdering people. Falwell even tacked on infomercial to the end of his Old Time Gospel Hour broadcast in which Falwell interviewed a silhouetted figure claiming to be an "investigative journalist" who claimed to be in fear of his life (Salon reporter Murray Waas found the silhouetted man was the producer of the video who did not fear for his life--quick note: I confronted Sean Hannity about this). Falwell’s goal was a docile, obedient flock. Referring to his congregation, Falwell once quipped, "Christians, like slaves and soldiers, ask no questions." True to form, Falwell knew how to squeeze every last penny out of his scared followers. Falwell is dead but his spirit lives on in the Obama-is-a-Muslim spam e-mail campaigns.
Addendum: Reefer Madness and the two types of Camp. Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical is a musical remake of the camp classic Reefer Madness made in 1936 (watch it here). Susan Sontag, in her essay “Notes on Camp,” distinguished between naïve or unintentional camp and self-conscious, intentional camp. The original Reefer Madness is amusing because of the over-the-top depiction of marijuana use while the remake is pure intentional camp. Sontag believed that "[c]amp which knows itself to be Camp ("camping") is usually less satisfying." I don’t know if this is true for me in this case because I like both films equally.