Those doubting the effectiveness of the mass propaganda system in America—the vaunted home of the “free press”—would be wise to examine the remarkable shift in public opinion occurring in regards to the reintroduction of American forces into Iraq.
At the beginning of the summer, a time when the propaganda system was fully consumed with demonizing Comrade Putin of Red Russia, only a minority of Americans expressed support in that greatest of American pastimes: the hurling of American bombs at Iraq. Come September, however, and such support has suddenly vaulted to an amazing 71-percent. Even more remarkable, a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 34-percent now favoring the use of ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State—i.e., the threat “beyond anything that we’ve seen.”
What happened? After all, one need only go back mere weeks to witness the power elite openly fretting over just how to overcome American war fatigue. And now, amid ongoing economic and social crises at home, the necessary political space has been opened for the American Congress to approve millions of more dollars in military expenditures in the fight against Islamic rebels without eliciting little more than a whimper of popular protest.
The answer for what has occurred lies in the propaganda system.
In early August, President Obama first announced the use of American air strikes against the Islamic State in northern Iraq “to prevent a potential act of genocide” against the Yazidis, a local minority community. Because, as the “responsibility to protect” doctrine dictates, American military power is all that stands in the way of genocide. That is, “genocide” committed by “bad guys” who just so happen to control important geopolitical nations. Think: Iraq, Serbia, Iraq, Libya, Iraq, etc. As for any genocide committed by a “good guy,” well, the “lone democracy in the Middle East” must be allowed to defend itself from “terrorists.”
But all the tales of the besieged Yazidis being rescued by those great M16 toting humanitarians of the U.S. military didn’t quite suffice to fully move the American public onto a proper war footing. The hangover from the Iraq war (part II) still lingered. Understandable, considering the war launched to prevent a war (“preemptive defense”) blew a three-plus trillion dollar hole in the American coffer, let alone having left thousands of American GIs killed and maimed (in addition to claiming millions more “unworthy” victims in Iraq). So try as they might, the “respectable press” could not sell the prevention of “genocide” as a casus belli to a still war-weary public. The responsibility to protect mantra of the liberal interventionists clearly has its limits.
The time had come, then, for the propaganda system’s trump card. Enter fear.
On August 19, the Islamic State uploaded a video online purporting to show the beheading of American journalist James Foley. Soon thereafter, two more videos surfaced documenting the beheading of American journalist Steven Scotloff and British aid worker David Haines. Such crimes were exactly what the war hawks in Washington needed to bring the American people around. Indeed, for a culture obsessed with the cult of positive thinking, there is always a bright side, even to a beheading.
And yet, the macabre videos of the Islamic State could only lead the American public to abandon their dangerous isolationist tendencies through the labored efforts of the “free press.” And so the skilled propagandists swiftly went to work, with the head-chopping Islamic State presented as the greatest threat facing the nation—American intelligence estimates be damned. And to their credit, the American people were indeed brought along, with nine in ten Americans now holding the Islamic State to be “a serious threat to vital U.S. interests.”
“Vital U.S. interests,” of course, are strictly held to mean the interests of corporate America, which in reality lie in direct opposition to the interests of the majority, even the majority toiling within the belly of the imperial beast. But not so within the propaganda system. Within the echo chamber reverberating with the shrill cries of those warning that the Islamic State is fixing to kill us all, a threat to elite class power is twisted into a threat to the sublime American way of life. That is, a threat to the average Joe and Jane America’s God given right to fire-up the gas-guzzler for the annual pilgrimage down to the Apple store to pay homage to the latest iteration of the iPhone. And so if a band of U.S. Frankenstein monsters roaming Iraq and Syria are threatening that life, a life of blissful consumption built upon the foundation of cheap oil falling firmly under the control of the U.S. and its clients, “something” clearly must be done.
Of course, the cries for “something” to be done are perhaps only outdone in their ominous undertones by those of leaving “all options on the table”; for the “something” that must be done in a fear-ridden America inevitably involves the bombing of a foreign land and people. And in the end, or so it goes, doing something is always better than doing nothing.
One wonders what future historians of the American empire will make of the ease with which American elites have been able to repeatedly soothe the rattled American psyche through the delivery of carefully packaged images of American bombs blowing faceless, pixelated figures to bits. But then again, for the vast majority of Americans, such a digital, distanced reality represents the full extent of their experience with their nation’s favored export.
“The greatest triumph of virtual reality is war,” Sheldon Wolin writes in Democracy Inc.
“War is an action game, played in the living room, or a spectacle on a screen, but, in either case, not actually experienced,” Wolin continues. “Ordinary life goes on uninterruptedly: work, recreation, professional sports, family vacations. After 9/11 terrorism becomes another virtual reality, experienced only through its re-created images, its destructiveness (= wonders) absorbed through the spectacle of the occasional and hapless terrorist put on public display.”
And when war is rendered as little more than a digital spectacle one must oblige in order to keep one’s head (literally, as Senator Lindsay Graham would assert), war-weariness can be overcome with staggering haste. Fear always breeds hostility.
The present public support for the unleashing of yet more imperial barbarism from the single greatest threat to global peace thus represents just the latest evidence of the propaganda system’s enduring triumph.
Ben Schreiner is a writer living in Oregon. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.