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The war of the ants

Back around the time of Brexit, I watched a nature documentary about ants. It was on the BBC. There were two ant colonies—one ant colony was very insular and militaristic (had some military caste of ants, enslaved other insects for food) and the other one was pacifistic and open to other insect life.

The more open-minded ant colony won—in the documentary narrative, anyway.

As I watched it I thought, “This is propaganda—this is just about Brexit; and we’re meant to think that the good open-minded ants who don’t enslave other insects will always win, and not vote for Brexit,” and, of course, I was right. I don’t know the exact facts about these ant colonies and I presume that ant species like that roughly exist—and roughly exist next to each other—but the whole way the documentary had been put together had a clear metacontext to it, if you’re aware of the meta level.

After all, these documentaries are fictional, mainly. When you see the close-up of the kingfisher as he spears a fish and then they cut to a long shot of the kingfisher in the sky those are two separate events apart in time and space, it might not even be the same bird—because you can’t shoot nature in one continuous way like that; and, as the “behind-the-scenes” footage always reveals, they have to wait ages to get even one shot for a sequence (often by luck). Then it’s all stitched together to make a story.

But because it’s presented as a “natural history program” (with David Attenborough, “the high priest”) it’s “the truth”, somehow—your mind starts with the presumption “factual information”, not “entertainment”.

It’s actually as much a fictional presentation edited for excitement (will the baby antelope escape the cheetah?) as any drama series. You just forget because you alway have the buffer “it’s real life” (just like there was a documentary series when I was a child called “the trials of life”—which, if you think about it, is itself a kind of auto-suggestion as to what your life will be “eat other animals, escape being eaten, produce a litter of pups”; but what if man is different to animals in some way? The program indoctrinates you he’s not—it’s all “the Darwinian struggle for survival, the trials of life”, the Killer Whale killing seals on the stony beach).

Conservatives often say, “The BBC is biased, the TV is biased,” and they’re right. But then, in return, liberals do that motion where you rotate your finger round your head in a circle (“He’s crazzeeee, he’s cuckoo, he’s schizo”). The reason is that there is rarely any overt bias in these programs—just like the ant documentary, it’s all at the semiotic level; it’s about the way signs, symbols, and metacontext are used to manipulate people.

“Uncle Peter is coming over this Christmas; he’s so racist and he’s totally schizo, tin-foil hat territory—he says the BBC brainwashes people against Brexit with documentaries about ants…” “What a weirdo!

Rightists often pick up on these themes but lack the vocabulary or the conceptual apparatus to explain what they’ve seen—or they’re just in apoplexy at the manipulation and come across as in some “mad” explosion. So they’re hopping round the living room saying something like “the BBC are at it again—they’re at it again, brainwashing people with stories about ‘peace-loving ants’! There’s no such thing!” (“What is he on about?”).

It’s part of the game also not to understand what the other person said, to deny they said it. “It’s just a program about ants, what’s your problem?”. It’s not the ants. It’s not the ants.

Technically, no BBC program is biased. It’s just that the whole metacontext or semiotic is loaded to the left. However, that semiotic can never be represented in a set of written rules (“each political party shall have a 15-minute right of response…”). You could say it’s to do with the spirit of the thing, if you don’t want to say “semiotics” or “metacontext”.

So although the right says “the BBC is biased” it’s almost impossible to explain how it is—it’s like cream that melts on the tongue. You can’t write a rule against it, and the rules are rarely, if ever, technically broken (“educated criminals work within the law”). Perhaps it’s also because, in current configuration, the left is more “arty”—the kind of person who understands what “semiotics” is will probably be a left-wing person, someone who reads “French theory” (indeed, the whole semiotic field started as an analysis “deconstruction” of popular events, like wrestling, that are implicitly on the right—in a “populist” blue-collar way).

A while ago, I pointed out that programs like Dr. Who, in its original series, have a regular meta-theme where the Doctor will debunk a tribal god and prove it’s really “the computer from a crashed space ship gone mad that primitive people, distant survivors from the crash, think is a god”. And this is often pretty explicit—so that the computer will be called “the sacred heart” (of Christ) and the Doctor will tush-tush his assistant to mention such a thing.

Now, technically, in these stories there is no overt bias. It’s not like crude propaganda where the hero says, “Thank goodness we have science and technology, not primitive Christian religion—otherwise we’d all have died of plague through ignorance” (some early Soviet propaganda is like that, because it was aimed at peasants and had to be very simple to be effective—but also because the Bolsheviks weren’t as clever as Western leftists).

In the West it’s not that blatant—it’s the whole semiotic; and, as noted, the viewer, through introjection, identifies with the characters as they fight and escape the “baddies” and, along the way, happens to pick up their negative attitude when they say “the sacred heart, nonsense—don’t let me hear you say that—it’s the Main Computer Room”. And the same themes are as current in adult programming as children’s programming—though children, who “get into it” more easily than adults, are more vulnerable.

So, yes, Western societies are soaked in this propaganda—even in nominally factual programs about ants (because “the facts”, even scientific facts, have to be interpreted—and can be interpreted and presented in many ways, altered with camera angles and music).

The right sounds schizo because in our societies our media is leftist and it’s filled with these implicit themes and semiotics—but when you try to explain that, especially if you don’t have the conceptual language, you sound mad, “You see, they’re doing it again, they’re doing it again—they’re putting a black guy there, at that angle to make him look superior to the old white guy, who’s meant to be a Brexit voter.” “I have no idea what you mean, Uncle Peter”.


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