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Propaganda as Institutional Self-Deception

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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 New York Times article demonstrates how these "experts" are not random observers; 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 aides believed it was the media's misrepresentation of the situation, and not what was happening on the ground, that was causing the 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 Lite 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 New York 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 the 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 New York Times for doing this courageous reporting, but also wonder, what took you 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 bad. Propaganda works best during the build-up of war, and when war is executed successfully in a climate of fear and paranoia. Would the U.S. public have the same critical attitude about the war in Iraq if American soldiers 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 U.S. 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; for 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 in motion World War II. 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 U.S. 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 compost and destroy the "news." Otherwise there will be little else to stop the grand denial, self-deception machine that it has become.

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About Antonio Lopez

  • Doug Hunter

    Paranoid conspiracy theories, disjointed ‘logic’, and flowery self-worship of your personal beliefs….nice.

    Oh no, I guess the machine has got to me, the situation is worse than you thought, defcon 4, defcon 4, tin foil hat on.

  • Damn, wish I’d had time to write my article on this bit of drivel from the NYT before the head-nodders beat me to it. This piece is almost as bad as Clen Greenwald’s article on the topic over on Salon.

    Let’s consider some hard truth here. There is no actual controversy.

    It’s completely unrealistic to expect people to be knowledgeable about a subject without forming an opinion, and it’s inevitable that those most knowledgeable about a subject are going to be those who have first hand experience in that field. They will therefore obviously be biased by the same experiences which made them experts in the first place.

    The media can put on the air people who have experience and knowledge and biases, or they can put on people who know nothing about the subject and probably still have biases. What they are not going to find is people who are knowledgable and neutral. There’s no such beast.

    When doing its job well the media will present opposing experts with opposing biases, and that’s about the best we can hope for. As always we’re left figuring out the truth for ourselves.


  • Bob

    Thanks for a thought-provoking and valuable article. I agree with much of it.

    One thing: You say, “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.”

    I agree in part, but in the absence of accurate news and diverse news analyses and without a nuanced knowledge of history, how can a people like ours, who cannot (or do not) read, form a context?

    Germany had one of the most highly developed and educated cultures in the world, and yet they still leaped into the arms of Hitler. The Enabling Act passed with 82% of the vote.

    I agree with the import of the Treaty of Versailles, but Kracauer’s contention that an ethical-historical feedback loop brought the Nazis to power fails to recognize the economic catastrophe of the hyper-inflation and the ego-shattering power of the Depression (intensified by the Treaty) and the Germans’ deeply ingrained xenophobic paranoia, persuasively analyzed by R. G. Waite in The Psychopathic God.

    Perhaps most portentous for our times was the Nazis use of cutting edge media technology in many forms to override the masses abilities to “form their own opinions.” Today’s technology dwarfs the Nazis’ ability to manipulate, giving legitimacy to more Orwellian scenarios than the optimistic one you hope for (above).

    One more thing, Kracauer’s notion that the “one characteristic that separated fascist and democratic propaganda was a complete disregard for truth” is simplistic. Great propaganda always contains a high percentage of truth (even Limbaugh). A careful analysis of Der Volkisher Beobachter and Der Stürmer shows this to be so.

    Note, I too am hopeful about the possibilities of new media, and I am not saying all is lost, but we definitely have our work cut out for us as media educators as Big Media is constantly working to extend their oligopoly into new media.

  • For a compelling look at the Treaty of Versailles and its immense consequences down to the present day, DO have a look at my
    fascinating new book — “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today” published by Wiley and available at Amazon.com and most bookstores!

    The author (myself) — executive editor of Forbes.com and a veteran foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News is also available for speeches and lectures!

    David A. Andelman

  • Franco

    For its own biased points it’s a well thought out and a good attempt at logic. However it only focuses on one side of the coin, America. If we are to accept your assertions, answer me this one question.

    On the other side of the coin, how do you apply your theory and deal with an enemy that is completely and fully committed to risking its entire civilian population on the bet it can crush you and get you to convert to their beliefs or you will have to parish from the earth. And most important, the driving fores behind the enemy it is own deep seeded education based self-impowering morality that utterly and in the deepest part of its heart destest everything about you and all in the name of God. An enemy that is activly killing people today all over the world in many ongoing conflicts in which the US is involved on only part of those conflits.

    Have at it, I have to here this.

  • Who is the “enemy”?

  • Franco

    If you have to ask, your victum of your own propaganda self-deception.

  • I ask because you assume we have the same assumptions about how to define the enemy, and I bet we don’t have the same source of information. For example, I believe the so-called Islamo-fascist term is a way to distort the situation. The “enemy” is often compared to Hitler, and the situation to Germany before WWII. This is completely fallacious and false association. Nothing compares. It’s 50 years later, the world is different, the region different, and the “enemy” is not a standing army with an industrial complex. In my story I mention Nazi propaganda not to equate American propaganda with the Germans, but only to point out what happens when your stories distort reality to the point you have difficulty know what is real anymore.

    The whole point of my article is that if your intentions don’t match claims, then you have a serious credibility problem. If you think Iraq is about fighting AlQaida, there never was any evidence to support that claim. Now that we have invaded and displaced millions of people and killed thousands of civilians and destroyed the country’s infrastructure, it has become a fantastic place for the “enemy” to thrive. That was not the case before the war started.

    Anyhow, look back at 1952 when the CIA overthrew a demnocratically elected president in Iran and then installed one of the most brutal dictators of the 20th Century, the Shah. The 1979 Mullah revolution was a consequence of that event. So we then armed Iraq and supplied Saddam with chemical weapons to fight Iran, and so on. We are not innocent by-standers, and the claim that we are supporting democracy is not supported by history (after all, look at many weapons we sell to Saudi Arabia, home of the 9-11 hijackers. If you want to be consistent, invade Saudi Arabia– oh wait, they are good friends of the Bush family, can’t do that). The propaganda technique called the Big Lie means that if you say something over and over again, people start to believe it, like there were WMDs is Iraq. But it doesn’t make it true.

    So do be honest, how am I supposed to respond to a question based on enormous disinformation? I think it will be impossible to ever come to any mutual understanding because we believe in a different set of facts and assumptions.

    Anyhow, you don’t have to believe me. No empire has ever survived occupying Iraq or Afghanistan. People don’t like being told what do to. Probably even you would agree with that.