”If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” – Malcolm X
“When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.” – Dresden James
“If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.” – Noam Chomsky
Many people live in a world of comforting illusion. They harbour the impression they are in charge of their democracy; they think the police protect their rights from bad guys; they think the military defends their freedom from foreigners; they do not want to challenge their own ideas; and they are convinced they are thinking for themselves. They are offered these illusions on a silver plate from every corner: governments, corporations, religious leaders and mainstream media. The collective term for the lies we choose to wrap ourselves in—or get caught up in—is propaganda.
The word “propaganda” is a widely used and potentially libelous term, so it requires definition up front. For the purpose of this post, propaganda refers to all lies and misleading images the government, corporations and the media tell you in order to control you. As you can imagine, there is plenty of it out there.
Among people who read non-mainstream newspapers, much has been made of a recent bill working its way through Congress, which Barack will probably threaten to veto again and will sign anyway, making psychological operations, meaning secretive propaganda, legal for use by the government within the US. It should frighten everyone, of course, that what was once used for war on third-world populations is soon going to be the norm for US citizens. But I wonder how much this bill will change what has been the norm for so long.
Because governments take as much of your money as you are willing to put up with, they can afford large “communications” teams. They use them to shape your views on their policies, to make you support their policies for all of their reasons. (Find some examples here.)
But most people realise that the government lies. The real key to understanding how the ideology of statism is disseminated is to listen to intellectuals. Public intellectuals are the ones who come up with the ideas that the people end up taking for granted. Originally, it was the clergy that rationalised the state, and got its share of public revenues in return. Now, the state enlists experts to sell its ideas in the media, and why those experts debate what kind of sanctions or bombs to use against Iran and none of them suggest leaving Iran alone. It pays for public education, giving public-school teachers a stake in the status quo. It subsidises professors to sell its ideas to the best and brightest, which is why few ever teach anarchist philosophy or Austrian economics in school. The apologists for the state are rewarded with jobs, prestige and high positions in the planning of the state. It co-opts the people with the intellectual power in society to spread propaganda.
Propaganda, in its broadest conception, creates what Antonio Gramsci called hegemony. The various elements of society influence our consciousness, but the ruling class has the most influence. Since government requires not simply coercion but also some degree of consent, the ruling class projects an image of what the world is, turning what it wants us to believe into “common sense”. It is common sense that we need to be governed, for instance, and that democracy means the people are in charge. I studied government for years before I realised that it was based on the threat of violence, rather than consent and collective decision making. Hegemony is the pervasive belief in this common sense conception of the world that enables the ruling class to acquire the consent of the governed. The masses accept the morality, customs and rules handed down to them. Only by learning to think beyond the supposed universal truths imposed on their consciousness can the people shatter the illusions and break free of the ruling class.
Consider the national-security narrative we are exposed to over our lifetimes. We are all Americans/British/Chinese/Turkish. When one of us is under attack by foreigners, all of us are under attack. When foreigners attack or threaten to attack us, it is justified to attack them. When attacking them, whatever needs to happen to subdue them is justified. If innocents get killed, that’s the price of it. It is right to take huge amounts of money to build up militaries to enable these things. We are entirely moral in doing all these things, and if you disagree, you hate our country. We take all these things for granted, but why? This and other accepted wisdom is part of the hegemony.
Think of the images associated with this paradigm. Take the photo opportunity. Politicians love going to Afghanistan to get a photo with the troops. It makes their poll numbers rise. Do you think they add that to their calculations when they decide whether or not to prolong the war? But people have been told they are citizens, these are their representatives and their representatives’ visiting soldiers they sent to Afghanistan for a few minutes on their world tour helps those soldiers. As long as they believe all that, the politicians have their mandate for war. A magician will tell you his job is about what the eye sees: illusion, not truth. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Take David Cameron’s posing with protesters in Tahrir Square in February 2011. All people who yearn for freedom were there in spirit with the protesters. What the shiny smiles hid was the fact that David had just come from touring other restive Arab states with a delegation of British arms dealers. But people do not see beyond the photo op, and are led to believe their government supports freedom.
Terrorism is massively overblown. Everyone is a potential terrorist now. We are programmed to be afraid. How does the use of the word “terrorism” affect us? When we are told that the people killed were terrorists, we are given the opportunity to presume the good guys, the soldiers, are killing the bad guys. Our consciences are assuaged, and the killing can continue. The word militant, for instance, really means anyone who was killed by the US military, such as 16-year-old Abdelrahman al Awlaki. Did more than a handful of people speak out against it?
Could they use another word that would give it a different meaning? Why didn’t they use that word? Why do we undergo ‘liberation’ or ‘intervention’ instead of invasion? Why do we kill “militants” instead of people? Does it change how we think about the thing? When detention and torture without trial are labeled “extraordinary rendition”, most people turn away in boredom. The most despicable acts are cloaked in jargon and made mundane. Do not worry about it: we don’t torture men, women or children; only insurgents, terrorists and the Taliban.
Like most subjects related to government, there is a double standard at work with propaganda. Surely a society that believed in basic freedoms would not criminalise speech. It grants us the freedom to be wrong and to lie, as long as we do not violate the non-aggression principle. The government is wrong (as when it said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction). The government lies (as when…well, all the time). It suffers no consequences when caught. Citizens, however, do. Muslims, the new enemy, are targeted in the US all the time for spreading “terrorist propaganda” by speaking out in favour of anti-US-empire terrorism. The US Department of Justice arrested Jubair Ahmad for uploading a video to Youtube that the DOJ considered “material support” for terrorists. He might be locked up indefinitely. The FBI called what he posted propaganda. One wonders how much of what the FBI says is not.
But who is the real terrorist? Anarchists frequently point out the hypocrisy of the state in its justification of everything it does as criminal (and immoral) for everyone else. In the words of Stefan Molyneux,
I can’t go next door and threaten my neighbour with force in order to get him to pay for my child’s education, but the government can through property rights and the educational system. I can’t find some guy in my neighbourhood who’s smoking some herb that I find objectionable, lock him up in some basement and then call myself an armed warrior for justice through the War on Drugs. I can’t print money based on nothing and use it as legitimate currency; the government can. And I can’t create debt that other people have to pay without any choice in the matter. That’s called fraud. But for the government it’s called deficit financing and it goes to future generations. So government, by definition, is that social entity which legalises whatever is criminal for everyone else in the population…. Law is an opinion with a gun.
(Stefan forgot to mention that invasion and occupation are called democracy promotion and nation building, but then he was in an interview, so we can forgive him.)
Yes, words matter. We are flooded with words like “national security”. Those two words have been used to justify everything from aggressive (sorry, “preventive”) war to secret meetings between politicians and lobby groups. The UK government told the world Afghanistan’s Helmand province is vital to British national security, presumably for the same reasons Guam is to that of the US. The term is ambiguous, because it is used for every priority of the ruling class. It is used so often as to be meaningless.
It is used to glorify military service, along with words like “sacrifice”, “duty” and “honour”. Militaries market themselves to the populaces that support them by various channels. The US military has been in bed with Hollywood for decades. The Pentagon provides moviemakers with real aircraft, tanks and soldiers for all manner of movies, in return for a favourable image. It has created an exciting, video game-like perception of what it does, instead of the reality of raining fire on villages in distant parts of the world to kill one person deemed a “high-value target”.
It is not only in security matters that the state lies. It misinforms and distorts the truth at every turn. Take, for instance, how it has skewed employment figures (in this, an election year) by quietly removing 1.2m unemployed people from the list and celebrating it as a win. People can believe the economy is picking up, even though they see no evidence of it, and will vote for the incumbent, even though Barack has made things worse.
But the state is not the only source of propaganda. Any medium that produces disinformation, lies, coverups, or deliberately misleading images and words is propaganda. The media have been lying to us about war for a hundred years. (Lots of examples here.) Look at the way some of the most popular media soften up the language of the war for Afghanistan. While Afghans protested the repeated killing and descration of their friends and family, media like the New York Times said they were protesting the burning of Qurans only. “Armed with rocks, bricks, pistols and wooden sticks, protesters angry over the burning of Korans at the largest American base in Afghanistan this week took to the streets in demonstrations in a half-dozen provinces on Wednesday that left at least seven dead and many more injured.” Not only were the protesters “armed”; as As’ad AbuKhalil observed, “notice that there is no killer in the phrasing.” People reading do not have to blame the killers—perhaps protesting killed the people. They portrayed the protests as irrational acts of outrage, just anger over a book. Glenn Greenwald gives an apt analogy:
[J]ust imagine what would happen if a Muslim army invaded the U.S., violently occupied the country for more than a decade, in the process continuously killing American children and innocent adults, and then, outside of a prison camp it maintained where thousands of Americans were detained for years without charges and tortured, that Muslim army burned American flags — or a stack of bibles — in a garbage dump. Might we see some extremely angry protests breaking out from Americans against them? Would American pundits be denouncing those protesters as blinkered, primitive fanatics?
There is no reason to trust the New York Times or the Washington Post. Their kowtowing to power in the run up to Operation Iraqi Freedom should have put them out of business and led their heads to hang in shame. Both papers issued apologies (here and here)—over a year too late—and no one in the newsrooms suffered any consequences. Why would we pay attention to them at all anymore?
Various estimates of the real death toll of that war have come out in the hundreds of thousands; the number may have reached a million. But mainstream media outlets do not report a million. They report low-end estimates of tens of thousands, sometimes adding the words “at least”. Regardless, people are more affected emotionally when shown a human face and story. Which Iraqi humans did the media choose to profile? The insurgents. All the more reason to dig in one’s heels and keep fighting.
The mainstream media benefit from the status quo and often end up the lapdogs of the powerful. Even when one TV station appears relatively right wing or left wing, that simply means they will defend a different party when it takes power. However, the task before the media is to give us the information we need in order to understand and question power, not to serve it. All corporations receive legal protection and indirect subsidy; in addition, the media that pander best to the powerful get access to top officials for interviews and sources. Media types socialise with government types. Instead of holding them to account through investigative journalism, many of them accept what the government says without question. They also need to fill in blanks due to deadlines, and may embellish or simply quote an official to complete their stories. Those poor people who cannot turn off their televisions are exposed to news that makes them think crime, terrorism and diseases are everywhere. They see one police drama after another, drinking in the image of the heroic cops catching gang leaders and stopping terrorists.
When all these things are taken together, they become our narrative, what we believe without questioning. It does not benefit us to leave this situation unquestioned; it only benefits the ruling class.
A fixation on the news is not conducive to understanding. Most news media focus on what is happening now. What is happening is a consequence of what has happened before. However, it is easy to forget or not know about what happened before. How many Americans understand the causes of any of the wars their rulers start? Or of 9/11? How many understand why Iran might want to build a nuclear weapon? We do not ask “why?” enough.
I have heard both Al Jazeera and Russia Today called propaganda. Perhaps that is because the angles from which they view the news and the people they interview are less commonly found in the more mainstream news outlets. To close one’s mind by calling something propaganda without having considered it is not wise. The reason we can safely call government communications propaganda is that they are consistently proved to be so. Critical thinkers consider various viewpoints. And in contrast to the records of the mainstream US media, the foreigners have more credibility.
Then there is Fox News. Wait. It’s too easy. (You may want to watch Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism for a look at how Fox has erased the line between journalism and propaganda.) Suffice to say, studies indicate Fox News viewers are less well informed than anyone else who watches television. Whatever Fox News says, I object to attacks on Fox from people who believe what they hear on CNN, MSNBC or other corporate news stations. Do you really believe any one of these channels consistently tells the truth? That they do not try to influence your point of view and subtly manipulate you? Why should we trust this source? Do they know what they are talking about? Why would they tell us what they are telling us? Might they have an ulterior motive? Can we speculate what that might be? Why do we only have the choices we are presented with? Why is it only either intervene militarily in Syria or let genocide take place? Why, why, why? We need to consider why they show what they show and what we are missing that they do not show.
When I am asked which news source I think is most reliable, I reply “none”. Take a look at the sources for this blog: they are from a variety of people and media. (However, I sometimes repeat some I perceive to be informed or wise. I must admit, I am more likely to believe Democracy Now than Fox News.) To truly understand a phenomenon is to know it from various perspectives. To understand a news story, it helps to read various accounts and ask ourselves several questions about what we read.
Without having witnessed an event ourselves, we do not know what happened. Every source has its own reasons to manipulate the facts, though probably not all do all the time. The best we can do is listen to varying accounts, consider carefully each one’s possible motives and assume we cannot be sure about any of them. The worst we can do is listen to accounts that do not vary significantly, pretend each source confirms the other and accept the information as given. At a more fundamental level, we need to question the entire hegemony and move away from thinking the world is as we are told it is.