Discover more from Desiring a Better Country
The State as Hero on St George's Day
Britain's "emergency alert" exercise is neatly timed
“Change is not a challenge. It is an ordeal.”
So wrote Andrew Kershaw, president of Ogilvy & Mather, in a 1970 Monday Memo entitled “Technology, not advertising, is the bearer of social change.” Humans, he posited, “are programmed for slow evolutionary change,” at a rate “emotionally acceptable and physically tolerable.” They have a natural urge to imitate, and to institutionalize. They are sanctified by their collective habits. Disruption to all that, through rapid alterations of the social landscape, is indeed an ordeal.
He was writing, of course, at the end of a decade of tumultuous change, and at the beginning of one likely to see much more of it. The explanation for that, he maintained, was technological before it was political or social. And “if technology is the source of change, coercion and imitation are its battalions of enforcement.”
Otherwise put, technology is the true driver of change; politics and propaganda merely support or accelerate it. So don't blame the sexual revolution, for example—the example is his—on advertisers like Ogilvy and others who profit from it. Blame it, if blame it you must, on the pill. But then, of course, watch out. The ordeal of change is upon you and you will not escape.
I won't altogether disagree with that. Indeed, I was arguing something similar the other day to Garnett Genuis, MP, in our discussion of Fifteen Minute Cities. Mr Genuis seemed to think our rights-and-liberty-oriented politics would protect us from the coercive potential in the technology at the FMC core. That technology, I tried to point out, was already changing our politics into something inimical to rights and liberty. Smart cities will only exacerbate the change.
On the other hand, the trio of technology, coercive politics, and propaganda is handled by Kershaw in a fashion that implies a materialist view of culture, with which I will disagree. Political and social change do not follow technology as a caboose follows an engine. Technology makes some changes possible, others likely; but it is we ourselves who decide the changes, or are trained by firms like his to capitulate to them.
Kershaw's approach, as an advertising executive, also smacks of the blame-shifting so aptly characterized in Genesis 3. The man blames the woman, the woman blames the pill the serpent gave her, and the advertiser, who insists we not confuse him with the serpent, is just trying to make a living from his well-crafted lies, don't you know? Ogilvy, by the way, has made quite a good living lately, packaging covid and carbon propaganda for clients of its new owner, WPP. That's “the creative transformation company” that began life somewhat un-creatively as Wire and Plastic Products, plc, manufacturing shopping carts. It is now a world powerhouse that drives change in all three areas. Its current CEO, Mark Read, assuring us that the “new normal” has yet to be defined, adds encouragingly that “creativity has the power to ensure that what comes next is better than what came before.” That’s advertising for you. Of course, it would help if we knew what “better” meant.
Anyway, in an impromptu Monday Memo of my own, I decided to focus on a ten-second ordeal the Brits are to suffer next Sunday: an ordeal that may have some legitimate function (though I can’t think what it would be) as a kind of national fire drill, but almost certainly has a deeper, Pavlovian purpose.
Before I try to explain that purpose, permit me to appeal to an anthropological taxonomy drawn from Rhetoric: Discovery and Change, also published in 1970. The book was authored by Richard Young, Alton Becker, and the remarkable linguist, Kenneth Pike. One reviewer neatly summarizes its taxonomy in terms of
four philosophical strategies reflecting four philosophical images of man: the Aristotelian (man is rational and will respond to logical argument); the Pavlovian (man is conditioned and his reactions can be manipulated); the Freudian (man is subject to emotional responses which he can neither understand nor control); and the Rogerian, named for psychotherapist Carl Rogers (man feels constantly threatened and will react negatively to anything that endangers his self image or his image of the world).
“No one of these four views,” we are told, “is complete in itself;” each requires something of the others to make sense of man and of human behaviour. Quite true. No doubt a similar conviction, if a different motive, underlies Kershaw’s closing remark that, “while we still are in the process of improving the demographic data, our new needs are more and more for psychographic data.”
This taxonomy, I am duty-bound as a theologian to say, is too restrictive. But, of these four, it is Pavlovian man who has come to the fore, in a new and still more malleable version, because his Aristotelian component has been all but eliminated. A corrupt education, if not an education in corruption, has seen to that. Pavlovian man lacks reason. He operates by pure habit, the habits of his herd, and those habits are ingrained in him, not by that glacial cultural evolution referenced by Kershaw, but by the combined forces of the technology, politics, and propaganda through which he is manipulated and controlled.
Which brings us back to the future; that is, to Sunday, which is St George’s day. On that day, the entire nation or assemblage of nations will be less-than-subtly reminded that there be dragons roaming the land, and that the people’s true saviour, the one on horseback with the dragon-slaying lance, is the British state. On that day, too, an experiment will be conducted. A step will be taken to turn yet more Brits into Pavlovian man, man at the beck and call of local or global authorities.
How so? Well, something that was done regionally in the Spring and Summer of 2021, reinforcing the climate of fear that had been carefully cultivated over the previous year, will now be done at scale: “On Sunday 23 April 2023 at 3pm, there will be a national test of the UK Emergency Alerts service.”
This new service, it has been announced, will “warn you if there’s a danger to life nearby.” It will also reassure you that, “in an emergency, your mobile phone or tablet will receive an alert with advice about how to stay safe.”
Reasons you might get an alert
Emergency alerts will only be sent by
the emergency services
government departments, agencies and public bodies that deal with emergencies
What happens when you get an emergency alert
Your mobile phone or tablet may:
make a loud siren-like sound, even if it’s set on silent
read out the alert
The sound and vibration will last for about 10 seconds. An alert will include a phone number or a link to the GOV.UK website for more information.
You’ll get alerts based on your current location—not where you live or work. You do not need to turn on location services to receive alerts.
What you need to do
When you get an alert, stop what you’re doing and follow the instructions in the alert.
That last bit (italics added) is the crucial bit. It’s the behaviour modification payload.
We had an earful of this in Montreal during the pandemic lockdowns that all are trying their best to forget. Random interventions blared through our radios, televisions, and cell phones, warning us of danger everywhere and of the necessity of obeying government edicts in order to “stay safe.” Only those edicts, like blood on the lintels at Passover, could save us from the avenging angel. Only the government that issued them could stay his deadly hand.
All lies, of course. It was the edicts that threatened us. It was the authorities themselves, having selected “the state of exception as a paradigm of governance” (Agamben), assaulting us. But our conditioning had begun. We would learn to trust the government and media aligned with the government: to call “danger” what they call danger, to call “fact” what they call fact; to call “conspiracy” what they call conspiracy. And whenever the horn should sound, we would stop doing whatever we might happen to be doing of our own free will and start doing instead exactly what we were told to do. We would fall down and worship the image of Authority, at the cue “Emergency!”
Sunday’s exercise, I dare say, is not primarily a test of the technology, which is already known to work. It is rather a data-gathering exercise, including “psychographic” data of a sort. It is also a crucial phase in the conditioning process, a phase in which no emergency, real or imagined, is required.
Next, Pavlov began the conditioning procedure, whereby the clicking metronome was introduced just before he gave food to his dogs. After a number of repeats (trials) of this procedure he presented the metronome on its own. As you might expect, the sound of the clicking metronome on its own now caused an increase in salivation.
Emergencies will again be invented, of course. The metronome will change hands from “public body” to public body and the very sound of it will elicit the desired response. How often will it be trotted out? Uncertainty about that is part of the drill and, for some, part of the thrill. Who will introduce it next, and with what pretext?
One notes, in the list above, that only candidates palatable to the public mind are offered by way of illustration—fire and flood, extreme cold or heat. Crime and terrorism aren’t mentioned; nor are pandemics or pollutants or popular uprisings. But it hardly matters what’s on the list, now that almost everything, including climate change, has been brought under the rubric of Public Health. Public Health, all by itself, is a veritable “emergency” metronome. Anyway, if we are speculating about what comes next, and from where, we may well guess WHO and even guess whom.
A couple of days ago, just before I saw the announcement of Sunday's ordeal, I was giving a paper on St Paul at an event hosted by the local Sulpicians. The paper, as it happened, concluded thus:
“Emergency! Emergency!,” says the town crier. And we, the credulous, give heed. But our Lord says, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” and we give no heed. We pay no attention to the signs of the times.
Clearly one sign of the times is the regressive psychology at work in Pavlovian man, in the citizen who leaves it to the paternalistic or maternalistic state to warn him “if there’s a danger to life nearby” (did they pinch the script from Sir David Attenborough?) or to alert him to advice about “how to stay safe.”
The very safetyism itself bears witness to our loss of nerve, to our longing for a lost innocence, to our quest for a womb of worldly peace and security. But what was it St Paul wrote about all that? “Just when they say, ‘peace and security’, then suddenly destruction comes upon them, as labor pains come upon her who is with child, and they will by no means escape.”
I will not repeat here my advice to the Sulpicians, but my advice to British friends is this: Take no part in this Pavlovian exercise. Disable your devices. Withdraw to a place of holy silence. Pray for those who respond to genuine emergencies. Pray for those who are deceived by faux emergencies. Pray for the redemption of Pavlovian man. And pray that the dragon posing as St George be slain.