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 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.
Unfortunately, "education," as presently designed, 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.
That's why you have to use your critical thinking skills with even the best news sources, my darlings. It's not that news organizations are filled with dishonest dissemblers. Most reporters and editors, 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. 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 the news 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" Guantanamo 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 roll over just because Bush and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 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 writer and a syndicated columnist.
E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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