On the way to Dallas for ConDFW, I started reading (listening to, actually) The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The book is a great read if you want a reminder of how we actually shouldn’t be in the slightest bit surprised about all the gross shit that went down surrounding our invasion of Iraq (we’ve been training for it since the 60s, really) or that the free market should never be considered a magical unicorn that farts healing rainbows.
But there’s one particular detail in the book that’s sticking with me. One of the first chapters includes quite a bit of information about the CIA’s MKUltra program, including a conversation that Klein had with one of the program’s victims. You’ll note that I’ve just linked to Wikipedia for this, because that’s a decent enough overview. And if you try to just google MKUltra and go past Wikipedia and Rationalwiki, you will find yourself in deep in the bad parts of crazytown with no idea how you got there.
There are a couple reasons this is still niggling at me and sticking with me. First off, MKUltra was a deeply fucked up, horrifying thing. The government of the United States, through the CIA, basically paid scientists to clinically research torture. And Klein does an excellent job connecting the dots of that basic research to a whole load of incredibly awful, inhumane practices that have happened ever since, up to and including the “enhanced interrogation” (translation: torture) of detainees in recent years. And then there’s this asshole, Donald Ewen Cameron, who was the person who perpetrated torture on the woman to whom Klein spoke, including extended sensory deprivation, medically-induced near constant sleep, and electroshock therapy, rendering her incapable of remembering pretty much the first 20 years of her life and putting her in constant pain until this day due to persistent microfracturing in her spine from all of the convulsing she did while being shocked and going through induced insulin seizures.
And then you consider that this man was involved in examining Rudolph Hess during the Nuremberg trials (including testifying that he wasn’t insane) and then somehow went on to torture his patients in an attempt to remove their personalities entirely so he could create better ones for them. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this particular dichotomy.
These details are all fascinating in a horrifying way.
But then there’s the fact that I actually had heard of MKUltra before. Fairly frequently. It actually gets pop culture shout-outs regularly. The first mention I can recall is in the X-Files, but it regularly gets mentioned with two purposes:
- To denote that the person mentioning MKUltra is a serious paranoid conspiracy crackpot who might be on to something nonetheless
- To trot out the fact that the US government apparently paid researchers to get people high on LSD.
Point number one is kind of hard to avoid when a cursory search yields mostly results that involve pop stars and how their behavior is obviously a sign they’ve had the MKUltra treatment done to them. And that then makes you feel weird about even trying to have a serious conversation about this, because I started talking about creepy CIA shit and spontaneously generated my own aluminum foil hat, stop looking at me like that.
And point number two honestly has the effect of reducing the entire thing to a punchline. Up until I learned more about this particular subparagraph of horror in the 10 volume set of Shitty Things America Did in the Last Century, this treatment of MKUltra had me filing it in the same part of my brain as the Stargate Project and research that I parroted dismissive talk about back years ago when I was a Republican (eg: “They spent a hundred thousand dollars and researching how fruit flies have sex! What a waste!”) and didn’t get that basic research is not only a thing, it’s an important thing. The CIA got people high on LSD, what a waste of money, amirite? Except we’re not talking about giving a bunch of college kids a few tabs of acid just to see what happens; we’re talking about doses of LSD and PCP and weird cocktails of uppers and downers administered with the specific purpose of trying to completely destroy someone’s personality and sense of self.
Which isn’t funny in the slightest.
So this bothers me. It bothers me that I just sort of consumed this bit of pop culture presentation without thinking more critically about it. And it also bothers me that something brutal and fucking horrible that the United States government perpetrated on innocent people—in this case innocent people with psychiatric problems who then had those problems made exponentially worse and in many case ceased to be able to function independently afterwards—is basically a dismissive punchline. And I don’t think it’s even something that’s being done willfully; apparently when the ugly facts of MKUltra came to light, the thing the media latched on to most was the line about LSD. So I’d imagine that it’s something writers remembered hearing about without looking into it more deeply, and used it as a throw-away reference, and then the next generation of writers picked it up and it’s just become a meme.
Kind of like that fucking ‘humans only use 10% of their brain’ bullshit that I wish we could just kill with fire but it’s got a life of its own now too just because it’s been repeated so many times.
This circles back to a weird and uncomfortable place for me, because I’ve gone on record before saying that I don’t think it’s the responsibility of movies/tv/etc to get science right. I’d rather have a good story even if that means bending the rules—though I do also think that it’s goddamn lazy writing when people just can’t be arsed to even check. Particularly when hewing closer to the facts would actually make for a more interesting conceptual framework than the lazy bullshit you pulled out of your ass, which happens often. And I still do hold to my position that if we’re looking to the movies to be educational vehicles, we’re fucked anyway because we’ve failed our schools and therefore the kids in them so badly.
But on the other hand now, this is a place where I got skunked by something that wasn’t quite true and didn’t take it upon myself to look any deeper. Which is mostly on me, but also feels like a failure of writing. It does show the power of pop culture to shape perception in very subtle ways, and makes me wonder what else I’m missing the gross (perhaps literally) detail on because it just doesn’t even seem that important when it comes up.
And it also does feel like an educational failure. Not that I think all children should have to specifically learn about MKULtra and Donald Ewen Cameron (gosh, want to make sure kids will never want to trust a psychologist again ever?), but this is one more little, tinkling horror in the giant black bag full of pustule-laden zombie demon clowns that is modern American history. I don’t know how it is currently, but we spent plenty of time learning how shitty the US government was to the Native Americans (very important) and then sort of… glossed over the rest with a sense of well yes, the civil rights movement happened and now black people can vote and isn’t that awesome, and there was the Cold War and things got a bit grim and the Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t really a thing to be proud of but it’s all better now, right? Go America!
When in fact, the more I learn about recent history the more I’m horribly, horribly unsurprised about everything that’s gone down since 2001.
I don’t really have a good answer for any of this. I’m still thinking it through. I mostly just want to register how very disturbed I feel about… everything, right now. If nothing else, this is a harsh reminder about the importance of not only what you say, but how you say it. And at the least I’m going to try to take this as a lesson to be more mindful about knowledge I’ve picked up as a meme rather than via research, and just take the time to at least use the damn Google. For all that we have so much knowledge at our fingertips, it’s still frighteningly easy for something to get distorted so out of shape that it doesn’t even seem like it’s worth a second look.