December 10, 2003
This is Your Brain on Propaganda
By Maureen Farrell
Last January, a group of prominent business leaders bought an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal and, in an open letter to George W. Bush, reacted to the impending war. "The candidate we supported in 2000 promised a more humble nation in our dealings with the world," they wrote. "We gave him our votes and our campaign contributions. That candidate was you. We feel betrayed. We want our money back. We want our country back."
Deeming war "the most extreme action a society can take" which "can only be unleashed after exploring every other road," these traditional conservatives chided Bush on several fronts. "You have not explored all the roads," they continued. "A billion bitter enemies will rise out of this war."
Most prescient were their warnings about postwar Iraq. "Our jaws drop when we read that you may decide we have to occupy Iraq for years, that the next ruler of Iraq may be ... an American general!" they wrote. "Is there anyone who thinks that will work? Your odds of success are infinitesimal! The world wants Saddam Hussein disarmed. But you must find a better way to do it. Why would you lead us into a situation where we are bound to fail?" [AnitaRoddick.com]
This ad was but a blip in a torrent of conservative opposition to the war -- an opposition that the mass media relentlessly painted as the province of the far left fringe. The ad was also one of many sources I sent to an acquaintance, in a rather pointless attempt to convince her that opposition to the war went beyond, as she persistently argued, the distorted rants of socialist Saddam lovers. Nevertheless, she insisted on framing conversations with "liberals think this way" and "Democrats think that way" and before long, I realized that she was clinging to a media-manufactured reality. "To me, a liberated Iraq means another place to visit with my husband when my kids go to camp in the summer," she wrote. "I will spend lots of his money on souvenirs, thus helping their economy."
Itís one thing to have sound disagreements based upon philosophical differences, varied perceptions and alternate interpretations of events, itís another to unquestionably drink in the official story. How do otherwise intelligent people readily buy into such garbage? Is there a sea of vacant-eyed Stepford Citizens out there, just waiting to buy trinkets and knickknacks at the Baghdad Wal-mart? [BuzzFlash.com]
While itís fascinating to mark the propaganda which creates such illusions, itís even more interesting to observe the end result. Following months of White House innuendo and media manipulation, for example, a whopping 70% of all Americans believed that Saddam was tied to Sept. 11, even though no such claims were directly or officially made. And while polls offer stunning proof of the effectiveness of America's sophisticated propaganda techniques, Internet message boards and Web logs provide another glimpse -- and without fail, it seems that the zombies who drone on and on about Truth, Justice and the American Way are those most likely to undermine all three.
Of course, propaganda from both the right and the left serves to advance political aims and agendas and has nothing whatsoever to do with Truth, but in light of recent cries for honor and integrity, and the oft-repeated question, "Where is the outrage?" some right-leaning pundits -- and those who parrot them -- have taken hypocrisy to new heights.
Take for instance, reaction to Paul Krugmanís recent article, "Hacking the Vote" [New York Times] Posted on the Guardian Unlimited Talk (GUT) International message board (hardly a Mecca for far right ideologues), Krugmanís well-documented piece on black box voting irregularities and his assertion that "the credibility of U.S. democracy may be at stake" should have incited concern from patriots everywhere, but instead, invoked a favorite propagandist ploy by inspiring "conspiracy theory" ridicule.
"Yawn," one well-trained citizen responded. "The left just will not let this rest. When Bush wins this next election (and he will because the Dems are out of touch and being cry-babies) then what will the Dems say then? Alien conspiracy maybe?"
Another poster, also unconcerned that democracy might be undermined, parroted the propagandistsí line. "They wouldn't be able to accept that Bush will win through the popular vote. Liberals think that the majority of Americans agree with them."
Finally, a third GUT denizen offered some scrupled sanity. "It's odd, don't you think, that a succession of credible claims that the Diebold machines are faulty can be ignored, just because some of those expressing most concern are perceived to be Democrats. One might have thought that those who yell loudest for good old American values, like democracy, would be most outraged at even the slightest possibility that the proper fair democratic process could be tainted, even if only by negligence rather than malice. I'm not implying partisan motives here at all, I'm just curious why this isn't generating more concern."
"Let me take a wild guess here," another offered, "could it be because most right-wingers think there's nothing wrong with cheating, as long as your own side benefits?"
More examples of double standards, malleable principles and mind-boggling propaganda can be found throughout the Net. A recent Howard Kurtz article entitled, "CIA Agent Valerie Plame Goes Undercover In Vanity Fair," for example, [Washington Post] created a blogworld whirlwind. "IíM OFFICIALLY PRONOUNCING THE PLAME SCANDAL BOGUS," Instapundit.comís Glenn Reynolds shouted. "Serious people don't do self-promoting spreads in Vanity Fair where important questions of national security are involved."
Of course, as BuzzFlash recently pointed out, President Bush and his national security team did just that when they posed for celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair in February 2002. As we said in September, "The accompanying article, ĎWar and Destiny,í depicted George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Andrew Card, George Tenet and Colin Powell as capable and courageous leaders who would navigate the tumultuous waters of terrorism and deliver us from evil." [BuzzFlash.com].
Nevertheless, Reynolds decided that only "self-promoters" behave this way, which, it seems, pertains to self-promoters not currently inhabiting the White House. "Not knowing the underlying facts, I have to make my judgment by the behavior of the parties," he wrote. "And judging from that, the scandal is bogus, and Wilson is a self-promoter who can't be trusted. That's my judgment on this matter. Yours, of course, may vary. But if you see Wilson as anything other than a cheesy opportunist, well, then yours really varies." [Instapundit.com]
Of course, if someone in the Clinton White House had outed a CIA agent, howls from GOP operatives would be heard near and far -- and itís guaranteed that Wilson and Plame would be embraced even more fully than Paula Jones and Linda Tripp were. But in the Land of Bizarro Ethics, itís okay to commit a felony, but not to promote a book -- even after the White Houseís actions limit your ability to effectively do your job.
To buy Reynoldsí premise, one would have to believe an act of treason was somehow a carefully crafted promotional ploy. Did Wilson make the whole thing up? Did Bob Novak lie about the "two senior White House officials" who divulged Plameís identity? How on Earth how does this gap between perception and reality occur?
Stepford Citizens, of course, will tell you that the "liberal media" is at fault, and, admittedly, Peggy Noonanís recent televised observations on President Bushís trip to Iraq is a perfect example of how the media shapes perception. As she told Hardballís Chris Matthews:
Now contrast that to the observations she and Matthews shared regarding Hillary Clintonís trip to Iraq:
And so it goes.
Noonan didnít stop there, of course, and in time, propagated the White House line even further. "Iím glad the people of Iraq are going to get what they want, which is freedom, which is what Bush talked about on Thanksgiving Day," she mused. "I think this is going to work." Meanwhile, less than a week later, the New York Times reported, "As the guerilla war against Iraqi insurgents intensifies, American soldiers have begun wrapping entire villages in barbed wire." [New York Times]
Given that reality nearly always differs from the perceptions pundits peddle, itís a wonder more people donít catch onto their propaganda ploys. More than a year ago, the American Prospectís Robert Borosage pointed out why the rightís techniques are especially effective:
That, of course, is how my friend not only came to believe everything her government told her, but lapped up propaganda as if it were pure rhetorical ecstasy. Those who are relatively immune, however, become queasy when we see fellow citizens condoning treasonous behavior and dismissing potential election theft -- especially when itís obvious that the poisonous spirit of the pre-rehab Rush Limbaugh has irreversibly tainted their psyches. "Thatís why Liberals are becoming more and more politically irrelevant outside of California," one GUT poster wrote, indirectly defending the hacking of black box voting machines. "It's not so much that the public has become more conservative, it's the fact that this is the beginning of the backlash. People are sick of their spew."
Does reading this quip make you feel woozy? Good! This is your brain
on propaganda. And the fact that it makes you ill is a very healthy sign.
Maureen Farrell is a writer and media consultant who specializes in helping other writers get television and radio exposure.
© Copyright 2003, Maureen Farrell
otherwise noted, all original