Propaganda as Institutional Self-Deception
Of all the nefarious propaganda strategies, the one that irks me the most is the use and abuse of war veterans to justify war. I'm not just talking about the "support our troops" hammer used to pound peace activists, but the parade of retired generals and so-called experts who come on television to legitimate violence. An explosive NY Times article demonstrates how these "experts" are not random observers and many have financial ties to war contractors and benefit financially from the slaughter. Does anyone in the news business have integrity any more?
Ironically, the more the Pentagon PR apparatus uses deception to mask reality, the worse it gets for them because they have no check against delusional policies. As the report demonstrates, rather than acknowledge the flawed war strategy (or that it was wrong to begin wth), Rumsfeld -- the grand wizard of self-deception -- and his aids believed it was the media's misrepresentation of the situation, and not what was happening on the ground, that was causing dissent. We could say that media management has become an institutionalized form of denial that would make coke addicts blush. Sneaking and hiding is funny when it's depicted in a Bud Light commercial, but when it involves life, death and ultimately a threat to the foundation of democracy, then some kind of community intervention is surely required. Trouble is, how do we get these guys into a reality detox center?
Don't forget these are the same policy makers who brought us Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Try to remember that historically people who use torture do so because they have no other way to change reality. Think back to the heretics who said the world was round, or that the Earth orbited the sun. Rather than concede to the simple evidence of nature's laws, it's more convenient to simply torture, imprison or murder those who refute you. That, or give them company stock from your friendly, local military contractor. Regardless, the Pentagon and its pliant media could surely benefit from this geography lesson: Denial ain't a river in Egypt.
I find it strange but not surprising that peace activists who generally predicted the outcome of the war accurately (that occupying Iraq would be difficult and bloody, the invasion would certainly lead to civil war among the divergent populations leading to a wider war in the Middle East as refugees flee the fighting, and, finally, Iraq would be a magnet for extremists wanting to take the fight directly to the US) are generally absent from the debate about war. The fear of being unpatriotic has made news so cowardly that most often what you get is a plug-and-play propaganda device that the Pentagon can play like a "Mighty Wurlitzer" (CIA jargon for psychological operations). It feels too obvious to call this situation pathetic and sad, but unfortunately the net result is more senseless death and unchecked psychosis.
Thankfully, the NY Times is finally doing its job as the fourth estate by presenting a detailed report on how these shenanigans are perpetrated. The multimedia presentation that accompanies the article demonstrates how hybrid newspaper reporting that combines words, video and images can create a very powerful communications tool to counter the kinds of Spic and Span lies that TV news so readily dispenses with. In an ideal world, counter arguments would make their way into larger media discourse, but alas I think larger corporate media are generally immune to arguments that are outside their self-generating reality loop of power. Unless you are having the three martini lunch in downtown DC with the same group of generals, media professionals and contractors, it's hard to get a word in edgewise.
I applaud the NY Times for this courageous reporting, but I also wonder, what took them so long? What will it take to get a bug into the institutional sheets of the broadcast networks to get them to go beyond Fox-inspired gossip journalism as was recently demonstrated by the ABC Pennsylvania debate debacle?
Ultimately, there is no propaganda on Earth that can cover up a war gone badly. Propaganda works best during the build-up to war, and when war is executed successfully in a climate of fear and paranoia. Would the US public have the same critical attitude about the war in Iraq if American soldier were not killed on a daily basis or if the military could control the situation on the ground? Consider the legacy of Granada and Panama. Who among the general populace opposes those actions?
When Siegfried Kracauer was commissioned in 1945 by the US government to survey Nazi newsreels, he concluded that one characteristic that separated fascist and democratic propaganda was a complete disregard for truth. Democracies, he argued, have to tell a "good story" and "refer to the truth even if they defy it." In Germany, on the other hand, "where all powers are actually monopolized by the Nazi rulers and their allies in the sphere of great business, truth has lost any authority of its own; the sole concern is to maintain and extend their monopoly through appropriate propaganda that unhesitatingly confuses truth and untruth to these ends. Thus truth is put in the same position as untruth: it becomes a pure means, it is no longer recognized as truth" -- something to consider, especially in an era when fake news is real, and real news is fake.
Anthropologist and psychologist Gregory Bateson argued that deceptions behind the negotiating of the Treaty of Versailles set World War II in motion. His point is that communications are cybernetic: they exist in a feedback system, and lying always comes back to haunt the liar. There is no running from hypocrisy. After 9-11 the US government had an opportunity to tell a good story, but instead used fear to justify a war with dubious intentions. Over time, propaganda cannot hide murder, torture, or illegality, especially when a global society is increasingly transparent. After all, who could have anticipated that one could view Al Jazeera at a falafel stand in Brooklyn? Or that a vibrant blogosphere is increasingly becoming non-Westernized? These are just a few examples shattering hierarchal notions of the flow of communications and ideas.
Another thing we often forget when discussing propaganda is that it is not simply a situation of the producer inserting information into the minds of innocent subjects. Not only do the receivers of information have agency and an ability to contextualize and form their own opinions, but propaganda makers are also susceptible to their own deceptions. Kracauer's analysis should serve as a cautionary tale that spin for power's sake has a self-destructive logic: nice (or scary) metaphors are no substitute for competence or morality. You can't tell a good story if it's based on fallacy and fantasy. That should only happen in Hollywood. And when it comes to war, no special effects can solve political or social conflict. It requires human intelligence, negotiation, and a commitment to peace. A social structure predicated on war generates perpetual war. It is poisonous.
We as a culture should realize that in a global feedback system, inserting more violence and death into the circuit of civilization is ultimately nihilistic. I have a sense that this is not the definitive path of humanity, and that in the end we'll reject once and for all the deceptions and lies that have driven us towards the brink of oblivion. It remains my belief that education based on the principle of self-empowerment, sustainability and nonviolence is a critical antidote to the situation that confronts us at this historical juncture. Contrary to the Neocon axiom that Empire defines reality, I believe wholeheartedly that it is everyday humans that shape the world, and in the great drama of known history, they have always rejected empires and petty tyrants regardless of the technology and communications systems they deploy.
The good news is that young people are watching less TV. I hope new media completely composts and destroys the "news." Otherwise there will be little else to stop the grand denial, self-deception machine that it has become.