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My wife and I entered the Black Hills from the south. It was a perfect time to be there, because all the snow and cold wouldn’t arrive for another day, and the curves of US-16A were clear and empty approaching Mount Rushmore. At night, the white figures of the four presidents are shocking and haunting from a distance. They are much more impressive than seeing them up close, either like seeing them in an innocuous snowglobe or like minatory titans guarding your reentrance to the Midwest.
My bride and I had chosen South Dakota as a honeymoon spot because we knew it was a free state. We had contemplated going to Utah, but the thought of, say, ice-skating in a muzzle was abhorrent to us. Even Wyoming has swallowed the poison; driving through Laramie and Torrington, we saw pro-muzzle billboards with the assurance of “Now, not forever.” But who could believe this? The problem isn’t how long our governments will force us to muzzle, it is that they have usurped the plenary power in the first place.
You see the bookstore owner and baristas in Cheyenne, and you get the sense that these freedom-loving people are under occupation, though they don’t understand exactly by whom. You will find plenty of people there wearing masks, but the spirit is different. A rodeo was in town when we were there and maybe ten percent of the people on the streets of Rapid City were wearing cowboy hats—you have to hope any cowboy wearing a muzzle would’ve at least had his hat knocked off.
We chose one Italian restaurant in Rapid City. Its website made some claims about doing temperature checks before entry. In fact, on its door was written very kindly “If you want your server to wear a mask, let us know.” Absolutely no one was wearing a mask. I saw my waiter’s face the first time in almost a year. After our meal, one of the servers broached my wife at the table, thinking she was an old friend he hadn’t seen in ten years. She wasn’t, and he was soon disabused of his mistake when my wife turned her lovely face up to meet him. He blushed—the first time I had seen a stranger blush in I don’t know how long.
While staying in South Dakota, the woman and I found a copy of Hillaire Belloc’s essay “The Free Press” (it made for good reading on the way to Wall Drug). The essay finds Belloc at his most pugnacious. In broad strokes: The capitalist powers have taken over the organs of the press; their hired lackeys the newspaper editors then control the reins of government by narrowing the bounds of polite conversation and crushing any figure trying to work outside them. The argument is similar to Chomsky’s in “Manufacturing Consent,” though Belloc, writing in 1915, had direct experience of witnessing the creation of large newspapers, a creature of the telegraph and the conglomerate corporation and the genesis of journalists taking their seat as unworthy arbiters of power.
Belloc bemoaned the state of the national press: The main newspapers were all owned by corporations; those newspapers’ editors were the most vulgar and low kind of strivers who nonetheless gained the power to make or break political careers. Those newspapers’ readers were dumbed down and their opinions tamed so that the hard power the editors asserted over politicians would be prodded by a homogeneous mass. The use of the “political scandal” became essential. In that age just before Trump-tweets upended the mechanism of pearl-clutching, this environment was clearly recognizable. Why exactly were John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer, two of the least odious Democrat pols, dismissed from polite society and, say, the Clintons were not?
Though a century old, the essay is still instructive and insightful, though bittersweet as well. Belloc, in 1915, saw reason to believe the power of the mainstream press was cracking. Ideas and words from smaller papers were finding their way into mainstream discourse, and the large papers were suffering such a crisis of legitimacy that no one could really take them seriously. But Belloc did not anticipate the changing media environment. The newspapers may have undergone a comeuppance in Belloc’s time, but big corporations were able to seize radio, newsreels, and all-consuming television in a similar way.
The advent of a professional journalist class, solidified by the totem of “journalistic ethics.” The Brahmins who ascended to the heights of the press during the 20th Century were just as unscrupulous as their Yellow Journalism forebears, but their lack of scruples was hidden under an “afflict the comfortable” ethos, notwithstanding the fact that in the proportion of their talent to their influence, they were the most comfortable people in the world. The Watergate coup could not have been completed without “journalistic ethics” covering for all the immoral and downright illegal actions of the Washington Post, all of which served the purposes of the Deep State against the people’s president, much of which would have been illegal if conducted by the Deep State itself. At least mafiosi have Omerta to keep from bragging about their crimes.
The newspaper, as a medium, is still the centerpiece of mainstream press legitimacy, not because it is a superior medium or even because anyone reads them, but because the modern press apparatus has its roots in them. Even when television was at its height, news anchors took their leads from the big papers. Now that television has been surpassed, legacy papers are still the highest merit as to who deserves the otherwise arbitrary Bluecheck designation. This is a travesty with regards to anything recalling an actually free press. Indeed, anonymous poasters on Twitter and bloggers are much more in line with what the Founding Fathers thought of as the “free press” than the disgusting corporate behemoths which actually control the flow of news.
The Coronadoom has only made things worse. I can’t make a gas or cigarette run without catching the blaring headlines of the Minneapolis Star Tribune: Today’s death count, today’s scapegoating of the Trump administration, tomorrow’s hope for a miracle vaccine. After decades of decay, it is almost as if newspapers are taking themselves serious again.
In the Old Regime, men were ruled by Church and State, the first of which could excommunicate him, the latter of which could kill him. The modern regime is more of a triangle between government, corporations, and the press, the first of which can bankrupt him, the second of which can starve him, the third of which can unperson him by public humiliation or simply by taking out of the basic intercourse, homogeneous and spanning every medium.
If the past year has been good for nothing else, we have been able to see these sides more clearly, and how dependent each is upon the other. The government sets out the baseline rules. The corporations lend them legitimacy, for certainly these private entities would not acquiesce so easily to fiat without good cause. The press smooths the edges of skepticism. Without the mainstream press pushing Coronadoom, there would be room for independent inquiry and discourse with respect to the disease; in turn, people would not so readily accept humiliating regulations imposed by government and corporations. Every side of the triangle is necessary to keep the facade in place.
South Dakota is what it looks like when one of these sides won’t pull its weight. Coronadoom is the next level of totalitarianism. It brings in a mindset that cannot be reconciled with free men, free inquiry, or diversity of thought. You’ll still find folks in Rapid City who wear the muzzles walking the street or serving you coffee, and there are some businesses that put up signs as obnoxious as anything you’d see in Minneapolis (though a lot of these were closed). But Coronadoom is not all-consuming. It is a nuisance and not a way of life. Corporations still try to encourage mask-wearing, but they are friendly recommendations, not the NO MASK NO SERVICE signs those petty tyrants erect wherever the government lets them. There is something wonderful in seeing a Starbucks groveling with its patrons to “Please Wear A Mask,” then seeing no one doing it.
The press is just as aggressive in South Dakota. The corporations are largely the same. But Governor Noem is a friend of her people. Without asinine legislation at their backs, corporations tremble at the thought of discriminating against the feeble, elderly, and strong-willed. I’ve heard some defend, for example, United Airlines tossing toddlers off their packed planes because they are a private corporation.
The history of late-20th Century is the curtailment of private property rights, most pertinently the right to exclude. The global megacorp did not much oppose this because (as Belloc would have noted) corporations do not respect private property. Big corporations are certainly not acting as a reactionary force now. They are rather usurping the role of governments (which at least provide exceptions to mandates) rather than reestablishing ancient rights of property. A conservative reliance on property rights that no longer exist is allowing oppression that the government would be too scared to wield.
It is heartening to see other states opening up. What is still unique about South Dakota is how little the Corona state of mind has infected the people there. Even in North Dakota, which imposed government mask mandates, the atmosphere is different. The Corona state of mind set in only briefly, but it is like moderately going insane. The process of gaining back sense takes time. Baseline sanity has never been lost in South Dakota, as in other places, and this makes all the difference. And it is all the effect of government. Nothwithstanding old Reaganisms, government is now the institution least adverse to right-wing thinking. This may not be determinative, ultimately, in whether based opinions can prevail. But for the time being it can at least provide you a pleasant honeymoon.
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