News & Politics

The Hand that Rocks the Cradle

Lullabies aren't just for kids. In this "information age," you can have your adult mind rocked to sleep with propaganda.
"It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during (World War I) that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind ...The manipulators of patriotic opinion made use of the mental cliches and the emotional habits of the public to produce mass reactions against the alleged atrocities, the terror and the tyranny of the enemy." -- public relations icon Edward Bernays

My dear kids: You probably won't remember this but back in your diaper years, your mother and I would sometimes rock you to sleep with a lullaby.

But don't think lullabies are just for kids. In this "information age" you can have your adult mind rocked to sleep with propaganda -- the conscious manipulation of information, by word or deed, designed to direct popular support for, or against, various forms of power and privilege. It's the hand that rocks the cradle of mass society.

The debate over the precise nature of propaganda is a long and unresolved one. But right away we can dispense with the common misunderstanding that propaganda is the same thing as making a blatant argument through, say, an opinion column, or that propaganda is used only by tyrannical dictatorships to manipulate and message public opinion.

Three things are not in dispute. 1) propaganda must be based on facts for it to be effective. 2) It's not about changing individual opinions but awakening already-existing emotions that incite, or in some cases prevent, mass action. And 3), all modern societies, especially democracies, use propaganda.

In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman powerfully argue that while dictatorships primarily rely on overt coercive force to gain public support, the ruling elite in democracies primarily rely on propaganda to keep the rabble in line.

Without any real constitutional checks against using violence to coerce action, totalitarian rulers don't really have to worry about what you think. They tell you what to think with a gun to your head. But it's much more difficult to use naked state-sanctioned violence in democracies, which is why "democratic" rulers subject the masses to a mind-numbing amount of propaganda.

Unfortunately, "education," as it's been constructed, is what lays the foundation for people to be propagandized. In fact, the more "education" someone has, the more susceptible they are to propaganda because most schooling is geared toward teaching what to think; not how to think.

As your awareness expands you'll notice that "experts" and political leaders, especially foreign policy "experts," tend to see all non-experts as children who need to be led to their own "best interests." Check out some of President Bush's public speeches and peep how he repeats vague and often vacuous phrases like: there's evil in this world and there's people who want to do harm to America over and over again.

Adult minds respond: 'duh.' A child's mind responds with questions. Indoctrinated minds quiver with fear in search of the blissful safety of the womb.

That's why you have to use your critical thinking skills with even the best sources of information, my darlings. It's not that news organizations (or schools) are filled with dishonest dissemblers. Most reporters (and teachers), like most cops and soldiers, are decent, honest folk just like you.

The problem isn't on the individual level. It's on the institutional level where the parameters of public thought are drawn. For example, the space and time constraints that major news organizations are forced to work under means the value you get from "the news" is in direct proportion to the depth and breadth of historical understanding you bring to it.

So, if you've led a sheltered life and all you've been fed is school-book tales about U.S. policymakers going to war only as a "last resort" and for the noblest of reasons, then you'll eat up that story about Sen. John McCain's visit to Iraq and consider it evidence that the "liberal" media just refuses to report the "good news" and "progress" in Iraq.

But, if you have even a rudimentary understanding of the history of guerrilla war -- A) short of genocide, there is no military answer to guerrilla insurgencies and B) guerrillas fade into their civilian support network when the enemy surges -- you'll see right through the staged nonsense.

McCain shows up in Baghdad's Green Zone, one of the most heavily fortified places on earth, wearing a flak jacket. He takes a brief walk in a popular market surrounded by a hundred or so of the most elite soldiers on earth and then tells reporters (with a straight face) that he's cautiously optimistic about the "surge."

On the flip side, there was that whole news event about Iran capturing British soldiers. The Iranian propaganda machine kicked in: they aired video of the soldiers reading obviously forced apologies.

But the real propaganda value was in showing the world the contrast in the way Iran treats its enemies and the "take-the-gloves-off" Abu Ghraib way, vociferously defended by "the leaders of the free world." Iran released the British soldiers just in time for Easter, as if to say: see, we don't keep our enemies locked up in cages for the indefinite future and we respect their religion unlike some nations we know.

Behind the propaganda, it's Iran's way of sending U.S. and Israeli hawks a don't-get-it-twisted message: Iran is willing and able to project its power in their own backyard and won't just roll over just because Bush and AIPAC says so.

This only scratches the propaganda surface. In my next letter I'd like to discuss with you one particular piece of propaganda -- the essentially unchallenged idea that expert opinion should be followed and public opinion shouldn't be taken too seriously because it's allegedly inconsistent, incoherent, and ignorant. Rock-a-bye, bay-bee...
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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