Billboard Politics

Wonder why things are going so badly in Iraq, or why President Bush's policies there still maintain a relatively high approval rating back home? A small paragraph, buried in a recent New York Times "News Analysis" can give some insight into both questions.

Discussing the worries of civilians in Baghdad, where missiles are destroying hotels and suicide bombers are killing or wounding hundreds, the Times assured its readers that, "The United States is doing everything it can to fight their fears. All over the city, the occupying authorities have put up large billboards featuring bucolic scenes of date palms arched over a riverbank. Inspirational messages are splashed over the pretty pictures. 'Baghdad is getting better,' says one.'"

This sounds like the most cynical political satire. Iraqis have lived for decades with a constant barrage of optimistic pronouncements from Saddam Hussein's government, even as they lost wars and underwent suffering from an international embargo. They are among the least likely people on earth to believe cheery billboards that are contradicted by the evidence of their own eyes and the experiences of their friends and neighbors. They know propaganda all too well and, far from being comforted, will take it as a sign that the US intends to rule them like any other authoritarian government.

Back home in America, though, optimistic pronouncements are often taken on faith. We do not expect outright lies from our leaders, or even from commercial advertising. We trust our press's freedom and basic honesty, even if we sometimes regard it as biased, and there is a general perception that any claim that receives wide coverage has been vetted to the point that "They couldn't print it if it wasn't true."

More to the point, we have become used to the idea that the only way we can get "news" is from the media. People who know that they and their friends are living worse than they did 10 years ago will turn to the papers to see how the economy is doing. People whose neighborhoods are as safe as they were in 1950 are terrified to walk the streets because of all the murders on television. People who scream that their landlord and their boss are twisting them for every penny will nod along with radio personalities who rail against controls on rents and predatory business practices. And people who are besieged by panhandlers and have to step over people sleeping on the street will nonetheless believe that even poor Americans share the highest living standards on earth.

Which is to say, it makes perfect sense for an American government to think that Iraqis will be comforted by billboards saying that everything is swell, even as they hear bombs exploding and see armored troops in their streets. American leaders are not used to a population that knows from long experience that the people giving orders and making optimistic predictions are probably not acting in its best interests.

Is it radical to suggest that the Iraqi skeptics may be right? That their eyes may indeed be more trustworthy than the billboards? Or even that Americans could learn a valuable lesson from their skepticism?

Elijah Wald is the author of "Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerillas."

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