manufactured controversy

A question, inspired by this ruckus in Jamie Kenny’s comments. Is the notion of a manufactured controversy analytically useful?

I can see that the ideas of fake consensus, or fear-uncertainty-and-doubt, are useful. But manufactured controversy presumes that someone is manufacturing the controversy. Presumably they are doing this to make a point of some sort, unless they are simply trolling. They want their side of the manufactured controversy to win. Isn’t that, in fact, controversy? The climate-change deniers are full of crap and funded by the coal industry, but they exist.

Arguably, manufactured controversy is a bit of an unspeak concept; if there is no real controversy, therefore there is no real opposition, and my views embody the broad consensus. In some ways, it’s a delegitimiser; in others, a tranquiliser. I don’t need to worry about the opposition – it’s all froth.

  1. dsquared

    I think yes – a “manufactued” controversy is one which depends for its survival on the continued production and broadcast of lies. Frex, the would have been a genuine controversy in American healthcare reform between insurers and Obama, based on the genuine conflict of interests of the form “we want this money”/”we don’t want to give you it” (this controversy was eventually resolved by Obama shifting his position to “well OK then”).

    On the other hand, the “death panels” controversy was totally manufactured – it couldn’t have possibly existed if people told the truth. Because the insurance industry wouldn’t have had much success in its own genuine controversy, it needed to manufacture others.

  2. dsquared

    Well yes but a manufactured controversy is still a real controversy, just as a manufactured teacake is still a teacake. I think it’s a bit Zizekian to say that there’s no difference at all between an organically occurring, spontaneous moral panic and one that’s been created as a deliberate act of policy by someone.

    (Then you have these interesting intermediate cases these days where social networking websites get involved – viz, I’m sure lots of people would have thought that Jan Moir’s column was disgusting, but would it really have got 50,000 complaints to the PCC if it wasn’t being hyped on Twitter?)

    • yorksranter

      I thought you were a Zizekian, Dsquared? Or was it a Zapatista? I know it started with Z.

      • dsquared

        I don’t think anyone’s really a zizekian, least of all SZ. I like his books and particularly like his attack on “authenticity” as an important property, but they and it probably shouldn’t be taken 100% seriously even in literary criticism.

    • ejh

      I’m not at all sure that the teacake is a good example, since teacakes are of necessity manufactured. Of course we can talk of other teacakes, some kind of fantasy teacake, a teacake of the imagination, even an idealised teacake perhaps, but in that event we’re positing something further from authenticity than our original item, not closer to it. Perhaps a manufactured waterfall might be a better comparison?

  3. Cian

    Well there are three things that got entangled in the personality conflict.
    1) Yes there was a controversy, but only in the sense the sky is blue. When 25% of your population have views that the rest of the country think are insane, any policy is going to be controversial in so much as some people will strongly disagree with it. But that doesn’t seem like a terribly useful definition. Obama’s religion is controversial, despite being a non-issue for the vast majority and something that will have no impact on him politically. Its hard to see healthcare as anything special in such an environment.

    2) Public healthcare is, if you look at the polling numbers, one of the least controversial policies in the US. It has had huge support (in the 70s, which when 20-25% of the country are insane wingnuts, is about all you’re going to get for any policy), despite having had little political or media backing. And that actually remained consistent even while support for what Obama was proposing fell away (which again is not terribly surprising, as it didn’t really follow what public opinion seemed to want, while the Democrats proved unable to really sell or even describe their proposals). So there was obviously a huge disjoint between how the media portrayed it, how the Republicans pitched it in congress and what the public actually thought/believed. There was the appearance of a huge controversy, when in fact it was mostly controversial with people for whom anything the Democrats do is by definition controversial (not an exageration), with Republicans trying to gain political capital through obstructing Obama and people with a stake in the status quo.

    3) But my main point was about the media. The whole “controversy” was a simulcra of a controversy. If you watched the US media at all, you saw what the media said people were saying/thinking. It was constantly described as controversial, without much evidence, or context being provided (“this controversial bill passed through X today”), while evidence that countered that was ignored. The rallies were shown, without anyone ever pointing out that the numbers involved were fairly small given the size of the country. The town hall disruptions were shown and taken as being serious, the fact that the numbers involved were mostly a small number of Republican activists was ignored. A narrative was decided. Things that fit it (controversial) were shown, things that didn’t were largely ignored. All the things that seemed to show it was controversial were superficial images (angry Republican congressmen, tea party people, soundbites), but there was very little substance to back this up. Baudrillard would have loved it.

    So what the media did, probably because it made for a more exciting story, was to magnify a relatively small thing and make it seem like a huge thing. So maybe manufactured is the wrong word here. Grotesquely exagerated?

    • yorksranter

      But you don’t have to be popular to be significant as an opposition group. In fact, a republic with a highly counter-majoritarian constitution is guaranteed to create a lot of situations where there is a small, but politically significant, opposition. Come to think of it, that’s what such a constitution is designed to do.

      Also, have you seen Firedoglake or indeed any high traffic US Democratic blogs recently? You wouldn’t have called it a picture of unity or consensus. You might even have taken it for controversy. Also, back in December in Orlando, I even encountered a real live teabagger yelling at one of my colleagues in the hotel bar about the NHS murdering people.

  4. Cian

    If you’d been in the US earlier he would have been yelling about something else, though maybe not to your colleague. The deficit, or earlier still communism (expropriation of the banks for the thingy). In a couple of months it will be whatever Obama is doing then. I know quite a few (my wife’s from the south) and I don’t really think healthcare is the issue for them, its more a proxy for cultural rage/fear/something I don’t quite get.

    The opposition was only significant because you had a weak president and a Democratic party leadership that was afraid of a big, vicious, political fight, hence the obsession with consensus. The irony is..I think the supermajority is a red-herring (its not in the constitution, either). The Republicans called the Democrat’s bluff a couple of times under Bush, can’t see why the Democrats couldn’t do the same.

  5. Surely climate change denial is manufactured controversy, in that it was ginned up (which iirc I read here) by the tobacco companies in the first place as part of their tactic to debase the science behind smoking = cancer, it depends on its continuing existence on the support of a well funded network of wanktanks and while a lot of deniers may be sincere in their beliefs, the spokepersons are professional liars.

    Without this professional support, would climate change be controversial in the sense that it’s frontpage news when small errors are found in the IPCC report?

  6. ejh

    Did the supporters of health care reform actually mobilise at all? I’m not the most in-touch of people at certain times, but I didn’t see much (or indeed anything) in the way of rallies – they all seemed to be the teabaggers. If this was an accurate picture, I think it’s a really bad way to play things. The other side gains confidence from its own rallies and looks like a growing force rather than one hugely outnumbered, and it tends to set the agenda.

  7. Cian O'Connor

    A couple of rallies towards the end and some poorly organised grass roots stuff, but other than that nothing very much. And yes, I’d argue that’s exactly what happened.

    Obama had a huge mailing list of supporters that he could easily have used. He didn’t. The interesting question becomes why. My theory is that Obama comes from the part of the party (DLC/Clintonistas) that are afraid of empowering the mass support as it would take the party leftwards. Or possibly Democrats are just stupid.

    • ejh

      Thing is, I’m not so interested in what Obama did or didn’t do – you can always assume the Deomocrats are playing both sides of the street – as to why the grassroots did so little off their own bat.

  8. ajay

    Nothing has 100% support, so in the loose sense everything is controversial. I think it’s analytically useful to distinguish between policy controversies that have two sides of substantial, sincere support and ones which have one side of numerically small, well-funded and/or insincere support and to call the latter “manufactured”. Martin’s example of tobacco science is a good one here.

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